For the last four years, curators at the Museum of English Rural Life have been busy building their collection, but one important item still eludes them.
The University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) is home to a lot of nostalgic kit. There’s a 1917 International Harvester Titan kerosene tractor. There’s a Fordson Model N, produced in Dagenham in the 1930s. And, of course, there’s the ubiquitous Ferguson Model TE20.
But there is one iconic farm vehicle that the MERL does not have in its collection.
It’s a vehicle that is indelibly linked to 20th century British farming. It’s arguably the single most recognisable rural vehicle of all time, symbolising not only modern farming practice, but the broader cultural impact of the British countryside.
In 1948 the first Land Rover rolled off the production line. Later known as the Series 1, this vehicle saw designer Maurice Wilks draw on his own farming experience to deliver a machine capable of bridging the gap between the traditional farm wagon, tractors such as the TE20, and ordinary road cars. The familiar image of the Land Rover reveals just how successful this design ultimately was.
This was a mode of transport that catered to a country increasingly bisected by A-roads, where rural and urban lives were interwoven more than ever before. It provided a crossover vehicle, the successors of which have become known as ‘Chelsea Tractors’. Perhaps, more importantly, it was an example of robust, reliable farm equipment, whether its doors required securing with baler twine or not. It also had a profound impact on domestic life in the countryside.
I myself grew up on a farm with a Land Rover and, to my eternal irritation, still recall my parents taking advantage of its off-road abilities to drive us to school on snowy days when other rural children got to stay at home. The Land Rover even played a part in the early history of MERL. The museum’s first curator, John Higgs, himself owned a Series 1.
When John Higgs started the collection at MERL he aimed to gather artefacts connected to a way of life he felt was dying out. As a result, 19th century objects dominate, at the expense of things that illustrate life in the countryside from the 1940s onwards, such as large agricultural machinery, mass-produced utilitarian clothing or, indeed, a Land Rover. For example, the museum holds early tractor ploughs and binder twine, but boiler suits and welly boots dating to the immediate post-war period were simply cast aside.
Since 2008, with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, MERL has been actively collecting 20th century artefacts to redress the balance. As this scheme now draws to a close, my thoughts are drawn to the launch of the project in 2008. Back then, Farmers Weekly’s Tim Relf mentioned our search for a Land Rover, noting that we were keen to find one with “a story attached to it – a vehicle with, perhaps, a record of long service, or a funny or sad tale associated with it, or one that was involved in a significant event”.
This search has, sadly, not been fruitful. So, if you have an old Series 1 cluttering up your cart shed please spare a thought for the museum, as we’d be all too happy to add one to our growing archive of rural life. Alternatively, if you have other ideas of things that the museum might look to buy or collect, then please get in touch and let us have your thoughts and suggestions. The museum exists to chart your heritage and we are keen that it does so in consultation with you.
Oh, and if anyone has a pair of wellies that have served them since the 1950s I’d love to hear about them, too.