Guided Tour of MERL March 2023

Guided Tour of Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) March 2023

The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) is a museum, library and archive dedicated to recording the changing face of farming and the countryside in England. It is run by the University of Reading and is situated near to the centre of Reading on Redlands Road. We were met by Susanna and two volunteer guides Jenny and Kaye who would be with us for the duration of our stay. The main museum building was originally Thorpe House designed for Alfred Palmer of Huntley & Palmers a locally based biscuit manufacturer in 1880. Palmer was an important benefactor to the community and over the years the house was extended and became a woman’s hall of residence. The Museum itself was founded in 1951 and grew out of the university’s long academic connections with agriculture. It has been extended over the years since and it underwent further redevelopment from 20123 – 2016 funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Wellcome Trust and the University.

The Museum houses designated collections of national importance that span the full range of objects, archives, photographs, film and books. It is also the location of the University of Reading’s special collections archive, housing hundreds of collections of rare books, manuscripts, typescripts and other objects of importance. The collections hold over 25,000 objects, almost all of which are on display, and which provide a material record of rural England covering 1750 to the present day. It cares for a collection of livestock portraiture, representations of rural life, agricultural hand tools, ploughs, farm machinery, sewing machines and other equipment. The museum has a specialist library and houses other collections including the library of the Tools and Trades History Society.

We were given an introduction to the Museum and then Jenny and Kaye spoke about the main subject they would be covering “ The Swing Riots”.

The Swing Riots were a widespread uprising in 1830 by agricultural workers in southern and eastern England in protest of agricultural mechanisation and harsh working conditions. It began with the destruction of threshing machines in the Elham Valley area of East Kent in the summer of 1830 and by early December had spread through the whole of southern England and East Anglia.

The first threshing machines were destroyed on 28th August 1830. These were hugely unpopular as they displaced workers and drove down wages. The protesters went from farm to farm threatening farmers, demanding money and food in “payment” before destroying agricultural machinery.

The name “Swing Riots” was derived from Captain Swing, the fictitious name often signed to the threatening letters sent to farmers, magistrates, parsons and others. He was regarded as the mythical figurehead of the movement. (‘Swing’ was apparently a reference to the swinging stick of the flail used in hand threshing.)

The riots causes were a combination of a number of factors:

  1. The availability of labourers after the return to peace after the relative end to wars at the end of the Napoleonic era.
  2. Between 1770 and 1830, about 6 million acres of common land were enclosed and the land was now divided up among the large local landowners, leaving the landless farmworkers solely dependent upon working for their richer neighbours for a cash wage.
  3. The final straw was the introduction of the horse – powered threshing machines which could do the work of many men.

The riots spread throughout the country with sixty percent of the disturbances concentrated in the south (Berkshire 165 incidents, Hampshire 208, Kent 154, Sussex 145, Wiltshire 208); East Anglia had fewer incidents (Cambridge 17, Norfolk 88, Suffolk 40); and the Southwest, the Midlands and the North were only marginally affected.

The landowning class in England felt severely threatened by the riots and responded with harsh punitive measures. Nearly 2,000 protesters were brought to trial in 1830–1831, 252 were sentenced to death (though only 19 were actually hanged), 644 were imprisoned and 481 were transported to penal colonies in Australia. Not all rioters were farm workers since the list of those punished included rural artisans, shoemakers, carpenters, wheelwrights, blacksmiths and cobblers. One of those hanged was reported to have been charged only because he had knocked the hat off the head of a member of the Baring banking family. Many of the protesters who were transported had their sentences remitted in 1835.

The riots were a major influence on the Whig government. They added to the strong social, political and agricultural unrest throughout Britain in the 1830s, encouraging a wider demand for political reform, culminating in the introduction of the Great Reform Act, 1832. The act was the first of several reforms that over the course of a century transformed the British political system from one based on privilege and corruption to one based on universal suffrage and the secret ballot.

After Jenny and Kaye had finished their talk we were shown around the welcome area and the 10 galleries of the museum ( ). Each has a theme and thousands of many fascinating objects are on view, many of which were familiar to many of our members but have long since fallen out of everyday use. There are also a lot of interesting online exhibitions and  a full digital catalogue of all their exhibits available free to the public ( ). We then were left to our own devices for about an hour where we explored the galleries further or had a cup of tea and a cake from the small café. Particularly favourite exhibits were the many varied wooden carts from various parts of the country and the collection of Ladybird children’s books on display . The Ladybird gallery is the only permanent exhibition space in the world dedicated to the iconic Lady Bird books and the museum holds an archive of 20,000 illustrations that were created for them ( ).

One other treasure of the museum is a series of wall hangings created for the 1951 Festival of Britain. The Museum only has space to show one of these at any one time which was a shame.

After completing our visit, we headed to the 4 Horseshoes at Sherfield on Loddon and then home to Andover. Once again thanks to Robert Kemp for making the day possible by driving the minibus.

Posted in Questers Group.