From the office: Appreciating our rural ancestors

By Jon Bauckham, 20 October 2016 - 5:58pm

Visiting the Museum of English Rural Life earlier this week gave Jon Bauckham a new-found respect for his countryside-dwelling forebears

Jon Bauckham is Staff Writer at Who Do You Think You Are? MagazineThursday 20 October 2016
Jon Bauckham, staff writer
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Museum of English Rural Life: Gallery 2 – A Year on the Farm
The Museum of English Rural Life, based at the University of Reading, reopened on 19 October following a major redevelopment project (Credit: Jon Bauckham)

When we think of ‘Englishness’, the same things always spring to mind – pretty thatched cottages, cosy pubs and rolling, green hills.

Given the fact that most of us live in towns and cities today, it seems strange that these images prevail. You certainly wouldn’t find a smoky city scene on a chocolate box.

But if anything, this romanticised picture of England reveals the extent to which the countryside has become ingrained in our collective psyche.

Although 80 per cent of residents were recorded as living in urban areas when the 1901 Census was taken, the same percentage of people were occupying rural regions just a century earlier.

In fact, most of us (myself included) only need to skip back a few generations to find an ‘ag lab’ lurking within our family trees. It’s part of our DNA.

This idea that everyone shares a connection to the countryside is precisely the message that is being promoted at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), which reopened to the public on Wednesday following a £3 million revamp.


More than 25,000 artefacts are held within the museum and its store, which is situated on a mezzanine above the main exhibition galleries (Credit: George Pringle)

Boasting thousands of unique artefacts and an array of interactive displays, the free museum – housed at the University of Reading – takes visitors on a fascinating journey into England’s rural past.

While there’s plenty of hand tools, wagons and seed drills to see (plus one massive threshing machine!), it’s certainly not a boring roll call of agricultural equipment.

In fact, it’s some of the least impressive-looking items that tell the most remarkable, human stories.

On one wall hangs a large, woven mattress that barely merits a second glance when you first notice it. But once you learn that it was specifically used for giving birth or laying out the dead – not sleeping – suddenly, the object takes on a whole new dimension.

Later, in another part of the display entitled ‘Harsh Reality’, we discover the tough, hand-to-mouth existence that many countryside families would have experienced.

Accelerated by the replacement of human labour with new agricultural technology, it was this climate that created the rural protest movements of the early-19th century, including the Swing Riots. It was a world away from the mythology we’ve come to associate with the hills and dales.


The museum also takes a look at some of the ways in which the countryside is perceived today. Barbour jackets – traditionally associated with farming – are now often seen as a fashion statement (Credit: George Pringle)

Although an idyllic, countryside existence is something that many city-dwellers crave today, the lives our ancestors led would not always have been quite so pleasant.

Family history is not just about names and dates – it’s about developing an understanding of the context in which people lived. If anything is to elicit a feeling of new-found respect for our farming forebears, it’s a visit to the Museum of English Rural Life. 

 

Learn more about the Museum of English of Rural Life here

Don’t miss our November 2016 issue – in shops from Tuesday 25 October – which features top tips and tricks for tracing your rural ancestors

 

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