From Agriculture to Zoology : Special Collections resources in your subject area

Plate from The grammar of ornament by Owen JonesThe University of Reading Special Collections and the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) library and archives hold a wide range of collections with relevance to many different areas of study. This exhibition includes items selected from across the University’s archive and rare book collections to illustrate the broad variety of subject areas covered by the collections.

One case is dedicated to the story of the University itself. We are proud of our long and fascinating history at the University of Reading. Our tradition of academic excellence dates back to the late nineteenth century. Our origins lie in the Schools of Art and Science established in Reading in 1860 and 1870. These became part of an extension college opened in 1892 by Christ Church, Oxford. Three years later the local Palmer family, of the famous biscuit manufacturer Huntley & Palmers, donated the London Road site – and later this building in which MERL and Special Collections are now housed (originally Alfred Palmer’s house), which became the first Hall of Residence for women. We received a Royal Charter in 1926, the only university to do so between the two world wars, and in 1947 we purchased our main Whiteknights campus, the former country estate of the Marquis of Blandford.

The exhibition will be on display at the Special Collections Service from 1 July - 30 September 2013.

List of exhibits

The history of the University of Reading

A descriptive account of the mansion and gardens of White-knights, a seat of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough. By Mrs. Hofland. Illustrated with twenty-three engravings, from pictures taken on the spot by T.C. Hofland. London : Printed for His Grace the Duke of Marlborough, by W. Wilson, [1819]. RESERVE MIDDLE FOLIO--914.2291-HOF  

George Spencer, Marquis of Blandford (later to become the 5th Duke of Marlborough) bought the Whiteknights estate in 1798. Between 1798 and 1819, the estate was the scene of vast extravagance at the Marquis' expense. Splendid gardens and parkland were laid out, complete with the rarest of plants. Although little of this garden remains today, this volume provides a remarkable account of its features and plant collection. By 1819 the duke was bankrupt, and he moved to his family home at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. The estate was sold off and the house was demolished in 1840.

Tamesis. Reading : University of Reading: vol. 25 no. 3 (Summer Term 1927) and vol. 52 no. 1 (Feb 1954). Special Collections open access reference 378.4229

Tamesis started in 1910 and was the successor publication to The students' magazine of University College, Reading. The Summer 1927 issue is perhaps best described as the "battle of the sexes" edition, with less than charitable reflections on both male and female students, as well as a racier "scandal supplement". In addition there the usual verses, hall reports and advertisements: Heelas of Broad Street (now John Lewis) are proud to be "authorised to supply college caps and gowns”. The editor of the February 1954 issue, as well as repeating the oft-stated complaint about a lack of contributions, sets out an impassioned plea on behalf of the journal: “The function of Tamesis is to publish original, creative and critical student writing. It is not a journal of the Letters Faculty alone and is not monopolised by a clique of heavy-lidded pseudo-aesthetes dedicated to a communal study of Saudi-Arabian poetry who dismiss everything not written by themselves as ‘self-conscious and immature’. Naturally we hope that all work submitted will be original, and, no less important, well-considered, for it is rarely that first thoughts put on paper are best.”

Agriculture / Geography

The story of Britain's golden fields. Bootle: Bibby Edible Oils Ltd, [1987]. 19 p. MERL LIBRARY PAMPH BOX--4822

One of the greatest strengths of the MERL library is the pamphlet collection (consisting of over 5000 items), which covers an enormous range of subjects relating to food, farming and the countryside. While there is a natural concentration on the UK (in this case the remarkable expansion of oilseed rape production by the 1980s), there are also holdings on worldwide agriculture. 


Ovid's Metamorphosis englished by G[eorge].S[andys]. London : [Printed by William Stansby], 1626. RESERVE FOLIO--871.2  

The University of Reading rare book collections contain a number of Greek and Roman classics in 17th and 18th century editions by authors such as Homer, Virgil and Horace.

Economics / History

Farming notebook of George Brigham, Windy Hill Farm, Cleveland, Yorkshire 1799-1810. FR YOR 13/1/1 

This notebook contains the day-to-day records of the farm as well as personal notes by the farmer himself. There are also recipes, diagrams, maps and tables of prices, as well as extracts from contemporary publications, including A father’s advice to his son on embarking for India by William Harrison. The notebook tells the everyday story of Brigham’s life and work, showing the human element of the University’s farm and estate records, which are more typically legal, financial or statistical. The farm records of the Museum of English Rural Life, which date back to the fourteenth century, are a major resource for English social and economic history. 


Thoughts on the education of daughters : with reflections on female conduct, in the more important duties of life. By Mary Wollstonecraft. London : Printed for J. Johnson, 1787. STENTON LIBRARY—BE/20

The University of Reading rare book collections contain items relating to the history of education, including 18th and 19th century texts on the education of women.


Manuscript page from an early draft of A Passage to India by E M Forster, with a note of authentication initialled by Forster. Found in the British Council offices in Rome. MS 5118

This is an odd fragment from an influential and celebrated novel, but students of English literature will find substantial archives in the University relating to authors and poets, as well as the vast archives of their publishers, and rich supporting reference material. 

Incomplete typescript letter from William Butler Yeats to Edwin John Ellis. c.1910. MS 293/1/1 ff.23-24.

The poets Yeats and Ellis collaborated to produce a three-volume edition of the works of William Blake in 1893, and the University holds the complete manuscript, as well as correspondence between the two. Yeats's habit of typing his letters does aid legibility, although his handwriting is not impossible to decipher in the original manuscript, especially if read alongside a copy of Blake's works.

History / Politics

Waldorf Astor correspondence: the Cliveden set 1938. MS 1066/670

Waldorf Astor (1879-1952), the second Viscount Astor, was MP for Plymouth and then proprietor of The Observer. The Astors' house at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, was the setting for social gatherings of the political set which included Neville Chamberlain and his supporters during the late 1930s. The University holds large archives of both Waldorf and his American-born wife Nancy, Britain's first female MP.

These documents relate to a proposed response to a pamphlet issued by the Communist Party of Great Britain which suggests that the "Cliveden Set" made various plans to appease Hitler. Astor in particular was accused of backing Fascist policy in The Observer. The rebuttal, which gives a number of reasons for why the government "refuses to range itself on one side or the other of those two opposing forces of communism and fascism", was written by Viscount Astor but not published: the Chairman of the Conservative Party, considered it to be "very defensive in character" and likely to result in a drawn out propaganda campaign. The Astors themselves fought back with a media campaign, but the idea of a "Cliveden Set" secretly influencing policy stuck in the public mind nonetheless.

One of the few collections of political papers held by the University, the Astor archive contains such a wealth of original source material that it has been the subject of a special project to identify resources for undergraduate dissertations in History.

History / Politics / Italian Studies

Anti-Allied and pro-Fascist propaganda postcards from the Republic of Salò Ministero della cultura populare. c.1944. MS 1724

The Republic of Salò, or the ‘Italian Social Republic’, was the puppet regime set up in the north of Italy in September 1943 by Nazi Germany, with the deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini at its head. The small collecton of rare Salò documents held by the University also includes property requisitions, passports, intercepted radio messages from Allied broadcasts, and bulletins issued by the regime’s news agency, the Agenzia Stefani.

The international scope of the University's collections should not be underestimated: holdings include posters for products designed for export to South America, editions of Samuel Beckett's work in more than 20 languages, and letters from British writers sent abroad by the British Council to help international artistic understanding.

History of art

The grammar of ornament, by Owen Jones ; illustrated by examples from various styles of ornament. One hundred and twelve plates. London : Bernard Quaritch, 1868. PRINTING COLLECTION FOLIO--745-JON (see image of plate above)

The University rare book collections contain a number of items relating to the history of art, design and architecture, ranging from illustrated books by Aubrey Beardsley to a 1535 edition of Vitruvius’s De architectura.


Natura breuium : the old tenures. Lyttylton tenures. The new talys. The articles upon the new talys. Diversyte of courtes. Justyce of peace. The chartuary. Court baron. Court of hundrede. Returna breuium. The ordynaunce for takyng of fee in the escheker. And fyrste a table to all these vii bokes. [Sir Anthony Fitzherbert]. [London : prentyd by W. Rastell, 1534]. Written in Law French. RESERVE--347.9-FIT

The University Special Collections contain a number of early law books, as well as publishers’ agreements, early charters and other law documentation in the archive collections.

Management / Law

Letter from C. H. Fowler to Theo. Davis. 22 Jan 1930. TR FOW AD3/2

This letter amply demonstrates how industrial relations have changed during the past 80 years. Not only have Fowler's, the Leeds-based agricultural engineers, responded quickly to the economic downturn by laying off staff, but they also regard Nobel's pension as being entirely within their gift. Their scathing assessment of this employee is not even marked as confidential. The Fowler archive is one of several hundred business archives held by the University: these are not limited to engineering but also include chemical firms, publishers and printers, farms and estates, and local firms Sutton's and Huntley and Palmer. They can be viewed alongside trades union records and political papers.


Philisophiæ naturalis principia mathematica, auctore Isaaco Newtono. Editio tertia aucta & emendata. Londini : Apud Guil. & Joh. Innys, 1726. NEVILLE COLLECTION--531-NEW

This book is one of 200 pre-1851 works from the collection of mathematics books created by Eric Harold Neville (1889-1961), Professor of Mathematics at the University of Reading from 1919 to 1954. 

Medieval history

A charter of Henry II to the Abbey of St. Sauveur-le-Vicomte (Westminster [1155-1158]. MS 1488

This manuscript is complemented by a collection of photocopies of images and transcripts of the Angevin Acta, which form part of a project to collect and publish all the acts of the Angevin Kings of England - Henry I, Richard the Lion-Heart and King John. The University of Reading archives contain other items relevant to the study of medieval history, including examples of 12th and13th century York charters (MS 1148/13/4), the Stenton Coin Collection and a 15th century Book of Hours (MS 2087). 


Illustrated theatre programme for Ninagawa Godot [Waiting for Godot], Ginza Saison Theatre, Tokyo, Japan, 6 Oct – 3 Nov 1994. BECKETT COLLECTION STAGE FILE ENA/1994

The Beckett Collection is the world's largest collection of resources relating to the Irish Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) and, as well as original manuscripts, contains hundreds of original programmes and press cuttings relating to staged productions of his dramatic works. This Japanese company actually put on two productions, one with an all-male cast and one with an all-female cast. 


The use of standardized lettering in street and transport signs. [London : s.n., 1951] GREAT EXHIBITION COLLECTION—10/13

The letter forms and examples illustrated in this booklet were chosen to assist those responsible for directional signposting in connection with the Festival of Britain in order to promote consistency in both style and colour. The recommended lettering, known as Gill Bold Condensed, had been designed by the sculptor and typeface designer Eric Gill. The University holds internationally important collections and archives relating to typography, ranging from the advertising and packaging of the Huntley & Palmers biscuit company to examples of incunabula and fine printing.


Ichthyologie, ou, Histoire naturelle des poissons. En six parties avec 216 planches. Dessinées et enluminées d’après nature, par Marc Éliéser Bloch. Volume 8. Berlin : Chez l’auteur, 1796. COLE—X394

The Cole Library contains around 8,000 volumes of printed books and scientific papers, covering the history of early medicine and zoology in general, and more particularly, comparative anatomy and reproductive physiology, from earliest times to the present day.    

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