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Did you know

...city families used to pick hops on holiday?

Hop picking holidays allowed city families to earn money. Pickers were paid with tokens, which were used in local shops or exchanged for wages.

Did you know

...Elizabethan mattresses were used for both childbirth and corpses?

Mattresses, plaited from sedges, were made to support a mother during childbirth or a corpse after death. After use it would have been burned.

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...farmers used to sow seeds by fiddle?

Sowing by hand can be slow and inaccurate. Seed drills were developed in the 1800s to sow seeds quickly in a straight line at regular intervals.

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...Lady Eve Balfour (1898-1990) was one of the earliest organic farmers and co-founded the Soil Association?

Women continue to play a key role in this movement, with organic farms employing significantly more women than chemical farming.

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...Suttons Seeds invented the seed packet?

The local Reading firm, founded in 1806, popularised paper packets of seeds for gardeners.

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...villages often used to run their own fire services?

The National Fire Service was only created in 1941.

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Our Country Lives - Latest Blog Posts

Our blog explores the people, places and issues of the historic and contemporary English countryside and rural life, uncovering and exploring our collections, the exciting activity around the MERL and the people we with.

Hidden Stories

The MERL – so much more than simply galleries for people to visit….

The MERL prides itself in being part of the local Reading community beyond the walls of the museum. Recently we have had the opportunity to partner with Age UK Berkshire to take our collections to a whole new audience and we jumped at the chance. The project is supported by Reading Borough Council’s Great Places Scheme, funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England and Historic England. Together we are working to deliver a storytelling project focused on celebrating the life histories of Reading’s older population.

2 men in a Zoom call
Virtual Memory Making with The MERL © YPWD

Age UK research suggests 16% of the over 65s often feel invisible or ignored. Loneliness can happen at all stages of life and often begins when people lose significant relationships or the opportunities to engage in the community. The recent pandemic has shown us just how easily anyone can become isolated. Covid- 19 put pay to many of the activities we had planned but that didn’t stop us; we were determined to keep going inspired by the incredible spirit of the generation whose stories we wanted to capture. Using MERL’s extensive collection of wonderful old photographs, we are putting together a life stories box for Age UK Berkshire clients.

We still have some way to go to collect more stories but it’s hoped in the spring we will be able to share these stories. If you know of anyone who would like to take part, please get in touch, we would love to hear from you. Help us capture Reading’s hidden stories.

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Why do we give each other socks? And other important questions

Written by Nicola Minney.

Socks have long been a staple of Christmas gift giving. Where there’s a Christmas tree, there’s a great pair of socks waiting patiently beneath. Luckily, The MERL collection is filled with socks, which – thankfully – are all still paired.

In time for the festive season, join us to celebrate this unsung yuletide hero, the mighty sock, and acquire knowledge that you can use to knock your family’s socks off as they unwrap their socks this Christmas.

‘Just what I wanted!’

Socks at Christmas are undoubtedly inspired by good old St. Nick, otherwise at St. Nicholas of Myra (270-343AD). He was an early Christian bishop of Greek descent from Myra at the time of the Roman Empire. His life was filled with generosity and bewonderment. He performed so many miracles, he was awarded the frankly awesome nickname of ‘Nicholas the Wonderworker’. And his most notable act of charity continues to inspire our most famous Christmas tradition even today.

The story goes that a devoted man, a father of three girls, faced destitution after losing his wealth. He was unable to provide a dowry for his daughters, and faced ruin, unable to accept asking for help or charity. Which is where St. Nick waltzes in. Under cover of darkness – like any good hero – though probably not in costume – St. Nick appeared with a plan (and a fantastic shot) to spare the man the embarrassment he worried about. The girls were retiring to bed, and had hung their socks over the fire. St. Nick – in a totally normal gesture – chucked three bags of gold through the open window (other sources mention a chimney), managing to land a bag of coins in each. Come morning, the girls were amazed to find their socks filled with cash (like a more wholesome version of No Country for Old Men), and their father’s dowry drama, resolved.

Whilst the image of wonderworking St. Nicholas has dramatically changed to the more commercially recognisable Father Christmas or Santa, the tradition of Christmas stockings has endured. At Christmastime, in most European countries, children would traditionally hang an everyday sock over the fire. By the Victorian era, Christmas stockings were becoming much more elaborate. Rather than gold, children would hope for sweets, toys, and other goodies from Father Christmas. Some people claim that parents are responsible for these gifts, but The MERL knows otherwise. We asked Santa and he confirmed it. We also regularly speak to him via Twitter DMs, and send Christmas cards to the reindeers, who are all absolute units in their own marvellous right.

Socks: an ancient history

Socks have been around for thousands of years, fulfilling both fashion and function, with different trends and styles including this incredibly old pair from Egypt which were supposed to be worn with sandals. Sadly, this trend has been revitalised with many inconsiderate holiday-makers donning thick white socks and sandals with no regard for others trying to enjoy their time away. These socks were created through a technique called naalbinding, which evolved into a form of hand-knitting that we recognise even today.

Fit for a queen?

By the 16th century, sock making had become a fine art. The aristocracy included elaborate socks in their wardrobe, and Queen Elizabeth I herself was the proud owner of a knitted silk pair. In 1574, the Queen passed the ‘Statues of Apparel’, which aimed to regulate the types of clothing worn by different classes in society, and restrict access to certain colours and fabrics on the basis of class and wealth. There have been multiple suggestions as to why these laws were passed, whether it was as an attempt to get the country buying British rather than importing from abroad, to curb wasteful spending on expensive clothes, and – of course – to maintain social order. Not only must socks be paired together, but equally they must matched with social rank. Almost a decade earlier, ‘sock police’ would stand guard at the edge of the City of London and check people were wearing the right socks for their occupation and status. Anyone in contravention of this legal dress code would be fined. For the sole crime of looking a little jazzier.

These stockings are part of a coachman's livery. This livery was used by Mr Harvey Thomas's father, Henry, and was worn between 1896 and 1904 when Henry was coachman to the High Sherif of Berkshire, Mr Arthur Harvey Thursby. The uniform consisting of jacket, waistcoat, trousers, stockings, top hand and accessories. These stockings are made of knitted silk hase with small embroidered design on each side. They also have cream colour. (MERL 92/74/7)
From a coachman’s livery, these were worn by Henry Thomas, coachman to the High Sherif of Berkshire, Mr Arthur Harvey Thursby. The uniform consisted of jacket, waistcoat, trousers, stockings, top hat and accessories. These stockings are made of knitted silk hase with a small embroidered design on each side. A coachman’s livery, or uniform, was made to reflect his master, as no one who was paying for a horse and carriage would want to be driven round by a disheveled coachman. Two uniforms were included as part of a yearly wage, but it would be up to the coachman to keep it looking fresh. (MERL 92/74/7)

While most of the population in the 16th century made their own socks, socks were also a major commodity. So popular had they become that in 1589, a man named William Lee designed a knitting machine, which would produce socks on a scale never seen before. It was said he built this machine so that his girlfriend would spend less time knitting socks and more time with him. Maybe she just wasn’t that into you, William?

William’s sock-based ambitions soon scaled, though his fortunes didn’t. He sent a pair of socks to Queen Elizabeth I in the hopes of securing a patent for his new machine. She refused the first time, as she found the socks to be coarse. The second time, he may have had more success on the quality of the sock, but the Queen still refused the patent, as she feared that his machine would put her people out of work.

However, after rummaging through the drawers of fate for a couple of years, Lee eventually found a sock that matched. He brought his machine to France, where King Henry IV granted a patent almost instantly. The machine design has changed very little since its invention 431 years ago.

This is a ‘Little Wanzer’ lock knit sewing machine made by the Wanzer Sewing Machine Company of Great Portland Street London. It was patented on 16 May and 17 June 1867. The machine has a marble base and is stored in a wooden box along with several steel and brass attachments, including screws and a foot plate. The machine was in the donor’s husband’s family for many years and was in used until 1960. This isn't the same type that Lee invented, but his legacy lives on in every stitch. (MERL 60/133)
This is a ‘Little Wanzer’ lock knit sewing machine made by the Wanzer Sewing Machine Company of Great Portland Street London. It was patented on 16 May and 17 June 1867. The machine has a marble base and is stored in a wooden box along with several steel and brass attachments, including screws and a foot plate. The machine was in the donor’s husband’s family for many years and was in used until 1960. This isn’t the same type that Lee invented, but his legacy lives on in every stitch. (MERL 60/133)

Sock knitting remained the same for centuries. Most people would knit their own socks, which would be made of cotton or wool, and darning (fixing holes) was a necessary skill for all sock wearers.

Socks at war

The biggest sock revolution came in 1938, with the introduction of Nylon in clothing manufacture. Nylon allowed for more flexibility, durability, assorted sizes of sock and a much cheaper production. Throughout the 1930s, Nylon was marketed as almost indestructible and suited the changing fashions of women, despite being double the price of silk, the original fabric for hosiery. During the 1940s, nylon was being manufactured for parachutes and tents for the allied forces during World War Two.

This is a pair of Women's Land Army (W.L.A.) standard issue socks. They belonged to Gwendoline Hayes, who enrolled in the W.L.A. on 13th November 1941 and left in March 1946.
These socks belonged to Gwendoline Hayes, who enrolled in the W.L.A. on 13th November 1941 and left in March 1946. (MERL 2011/45/1-2)

This is a pair of Women’s Land Army (WLA) standard issue socks. They belonged to Gwendoline Hayes, who enrolled in the WLA. on the 13th November 1941 and left in March 1946. Before joining the WLA, she worked in the Reading branch of London Drapery Stores. After enrolling, she undertook market gardening training at Seale Hayne College near Newton Abbott, Devon. She subsequently worked at Winter Hill House in Cookham Dean, near Maidenhead, where she stayed until 1944, leaving after the owner of the house died

The woolen socks feature evidence of darning repairs, which were undertaken by Gwen herself. She and her fellow Land Girls were responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of their own clothing. She thought it likely that she would have put in a request for the requisite materials and would have had to collect them centrally before undertaking the repairs. She noted that the socks were indeed very itchy, especially in the summer months. They were worn year-round, both when out working and at dress occasions. The socks form part of a larger donation to MERL from Gwen Hayes, which also includes a pair of WLA breeches, a WLA woolen jumper, a pair of shoes, an overcoat, dungarees and two agricultural cups.

You can learn more about the Women’s Land Army in our WLA online exhibition from earlier in 2020.

When angels washed their socks by night

From all of us at The MERL, we would like to wish you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, filled with socks  that we anticipate will be far more intricate (and probably less itchy) than many of the specimens featured here. The one positive is that at least in history no one designed socks with the names of the week on, or Minions, but who are we to say what is or isn’t a good (or despicable) sock.

This will be our last blog for the year, so thanks for reading our posts this year. We really appreciate it. If you’re not up to date, we’d really encourage you to go back and read through our earlier posts from the year. There are some real gems, and all extremely rural.

Naming places: how children make the world their own

Written by Dr Jeremy Burchardt, Department of History, University of Reading

Place-name (toponym) research has a long and distinguished tradition in English historical scholarship, associated with the work of luminaries such as Margaret Gelling, Harry Thorpe and the English Place Name Society. Admittedly, there is an even longer tradition of bogus place-name derivations–just the other morning I was reading J.E. Vincent’s Highways and Byways in Berkshire (1906), which strives assiduously to prove that East and West Hendred derive their names from the Celtic ‘Hendref’, meaning ‘a winter house in which the husbandmen house their herds and flocks’, despite the fact that it has a well-attested and far more plausible derivation from the Old English ‘henn’ (a hen) and ‘rith’ (a small stream). Partly no doubt to differentiate itself from the plethora of specious etymologies of this sort, academic place-name research has for decades maintained an austere focus on ‘authentic’, documented place names.

‘East Hendred’, from Vincent’s Highways and Byways in Berkshire

Yet naming is always a matter of social custom and praxis, and one might question how far this distinction between ‘official’ and informal place naming is tenable. In recent years, geographers and historians have become increasingly interested in vernacular place names–the names people actually use to refer to places on a day-to-day basis, as opposed to the names recorded in maps, legal documents and the like. One of the most exciting areas this opens up is children’s place-naming practices, which seem hitherto almost entirely to have escaped scholarly attention. For the 2019/20 academic year (but delayed like so much else by the pandemic) The Museum of English Rural Life kindly awarded me a P.H. Ditchfield Fellowship to investigate this, with a particular focus, as befits The MERL’s remit, on rural toponyms.

Children playing a game in a hay field
Children playing at Julian’s Bower, Lincolnshire. The MERL, University of Reading, Eric Guy Collection

Just like adults, children need names to refer to places that matter to them. Sometimes they use adult toponyms but there are many reasons why they may need, or choose, to invent their own. Firstly, they may simply not know the adult name for a particular place. Secondly, however, different sorts of place interest children than adults, and there may well be no adult names for some of these places. Research by geographers like Roger Hart, Harry Heft and Nicola Rosshas demonstrated that children’s spaces are often minutely differentiated–Ross’s study of children’s journeys to school shows that apparently insignificant features like gaps in hedges, slopes and particular trees and bushes can be invested with meaning for children (Ross, 2007). Thirdly, children’s toponyms sometimes play a defensive role, serving to keep adults out of children-only spaces of the kind that David Sobel has explored in his illuminating study of dens, forts and special places (Sobel, 2002). At the same time, invented toponyms can facilitate play and strengthen friendship group identity through creating a shared frame of reference. There is a very well-known literary example of this –Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, in which the Walker and Blackett children rename islands, hills, streams and promontories to convert a hitherto adult-dominated landscape into their own private play terrain.

Literary toponyms are in general much better known than their real-life counterparts, and there has been some interesting research on this, especially in the context of cartography in children’s fiction (Bird,2014).

Peel Island, Coniston Water, one of the sources of Arthur Ransome’s Wild Cat Island. Photo © David Smith (cc-by-sa/2.0)

It has also been argued, notably by Chris Philo, that in contrast to adults, children relate to space in less instrumental ways in which dreams and reveries play a larger part (Philo, 2003). This is certainly reflected in children’s toponyms in some interesting and surprising ways. The exotic geographical place names of Swallows and Amazons are matched or even exceeding by many real-life examples. Among the invented toponyms reported to me by members of the Andover History and Archaeology Society when I gave a talk there were ‘the Khyber Pass’, ‘Lake Titicaca’, ‘Popocatepetl’ and, rather more prosaically, ‘Cooper’s Dip’ – named after an advertisement for the well-known sheep dip powder that the children had misinterpreted as the name of the hollow where they had been playing!

One of the things that makes researching children’s toponyms so interesting but also so challenging is that this is almost exclusively an oral tradition, although there are occasional haphazard references in memoirs and autobiographies. Hence, in contrast to most areas of historical research, to find out about children’s toponyms we have to generate new data rather than simply study existing archival material. This is one of the main things I hope to achieve through the Ditchfield Fellowship. Thinking back to my own childhood, most of the toponyms I and my friends used were quite simple and descriptive – ‘Green Tin’ for the corrugated-iron fence at the end of our cul-de-sac, and ‘the jungle’ for our overgrown back garden, until we cleared it. Others were a bit more imaginative: ‘the South Pole’ was our name for the hut far out on the common at the end of our road, towards which we set out on ambitious toboggan expeditions when it snowed.

But given that we know so little about children’s toponyms as yet, all examples, however prosaic and literal, are interesting. If you know of any, whether names that you used in your own childhood or that you have come across subsequently, it would be a valuable contribution to my research to let me know by filling in this form. Thank you!


H.S. Bird, Class, Leisure and National Identity in British Children’s Literature, 1918-1950, New York, 2014

Jeremy Burchardt, ‘Far away and close to home: children’s toponyms and imagined geographies, c.1870-c.1950’, Journal of Historical Geography 69 (2020), 68-79

C. Philo, ‘To go back up the side hill’: memories, imaginations and reveries of childhood, Children’s Geographies 1 (2003), 7-23

N.J. Ross, ‘My journey to school …’: foregrounding the meaning of school journeys and children’s engagements and interactions in their everyday localities, Children’s Geographies 5 (2007), 373-91

D. Sobel, Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood, Detroit, 2002

J.E. Vincent, Highways and Byways in Berkshire, London, 1906

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