The Museum of English Rural Life

This guide was last updated in 2009

The Museum of English Rural Life
http://www.reading.ac.uk/merl

Founded by the University of Reading in 1951, the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) houses objects, archives, photographs, film and books, recording changes in the countryside and the lives of people in farming communities.

The museum’s website is excellent – attractive, easy to use and navigate, with plenty of useful information presented in a visually- stimulating, digestible way. It almost makes up for the paucity of other sites on this research topic.

From the home page, check out the online exhibitions on topics from gypsy life to the depiction of livestock in art. Gloucestershire artist William Simmonds captured local characters, sometimes including snippets of conversation. His picture of Dickey Watts, a former postillion to Queen Victoria, is captioned: “He would say ‘Do what you like with me, but you must not touch my donkey’”.

Most useful for family history purposes is the Internet Farm and Countryside Explorer section (INTERFACE), which gives an introduction to MERL’s collections along different themes. Under “General”, “Country People” looks at the experiences of farmers and farm-workers, craftsmen, women and children over time. Sections are further divided into other topics – costume, home life, unions and friendly associations, for example – and by period, so it’s worth taking a bit of time to explore.

You can also search the museum’s catalogue online to find out if it’s worth a visit. The database covers the main MERL collection (library, photographs, archives and objects) and the Bibliography of British and Irish Rural History. This can be used to discover more about the contents of material held by the library.

 


 

Top Tip: Agricultural labourer – often abbreviated to “Ag lab” on census returns – is a frustratingly unspecific term. For a better idea of the kind of work your ancestor did, investigate local history sources to see which types of agriculture dominated in their area.

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