Stories of the historical development of Reading, Berkshire and our local area emerge throughout our collections.

The object, archive and library collections of The Museum of English Rural Life feature a wealth of content related to our local history. Captivating photographs of our local area, such those of Collier, reveal rural and urban Reading as it was, and how it is now. The development of renowned local businesses, such as Suttons Seeds Ltd, come to life in our archives. Berkshire’s evolving rural landscape can be studied through Farm Records. The MERL holds objects made and used locally, such as those of Lavinia Smith and famous bowl turner, George Lailey. Literature found in The MERL Library details the history of Reading and our local area.

The University of Reading Special Collections holds the archival collection of local biscuit manufacturer Huntley & Palmers, alongside records of prominent local figures such as the first female MP to take her seat Nancy Astor (of Cliveden), and leading Victorian and politician William Henry Smith (of Greenlands). Also held are records of the University’s own history, featuring material relating to academics and the Whiteknights campus. The Special Collections library includes chained libraries from local parishes, such as Didcot, Henley and Abingdon, alongside a collection of books from local independent publishing house Two Rivers Press.


The story of The University of Reading is closely intertwined with the history of the town and its residents. Schools of Art and Science were established in Reading in 1860 and 1870 respectively. In 1882 they merged, moved to Valpy Street in the town centre, and formed a miniature technical college for the men and women of the town. In 1892, the Oxford University Extension movement offered to take over the management of these schools; University College, Reading was born. The London Road site in central Reading was donated in 1904 by the Palmer family of Reading biscuit manufacturers Huntley & Palmers. The University of Reading was created in 1926 when it was awarded a Royal Charter and with it the power to award degrees, the only University to be awarded a charter between the two world wars. Our main campus, Whiteknights, was purchased in 1947 and is the former home of the Marquis of Blandford.

As the University grew, collections were needed to support teaching and research. Books were needed for its library, inspiration for its artists, and samples for its zoologists, botanists, and geologists. Many of these collections were built up by key academics from the University’s history and are still in use today.


Huntley & Palmers

Huntley & Palmers started life in 1822 as a small bakery in Reading. Joseph Huntley, a Quaker schoolmaster from Oxfordshire, established his business on London Road. In 1846, the firm opened a large factory on Kings Road in Reading. By the end of the nineteenth century, the firm, now called Huntley & Palmers, was the largest biscuit business in the world, employed more than 5,000 workers, and was among the forty most important industrial companies in Britain.

Huntley and Palmers cakes and biscuits were a household name, and the distinctive tins, were recognised worldwide. These are now held by Reading Museum. The archives held by Special Collections cover the period 1837-1995 and include financial and general management records, legal papers, business correspondence, promotional material, production records, personnel records and photographs.

Suttons Seeds Ltd

Suttons Seeds Ltd was founded in Reading as Suttons & Son by John Sutton (1777-1863) in 1806. It started off as a corn factor and miller with a small trade in farm seeds. The first office was at 16 King Street, Reading but the firm moved to the Market Place in 1839. Well illustrated catalogues were produced showing Suttons wide range of products. There were several trial grounds including Gulval in Cornwall, Southcote Manor, London Road, Portland Place (up until the First World War) and Slough (until the early 1960’s). These were for testing new varieties of flowers and vegetables. The Market Place site was vacated in the early 1960’s and the company moved to Torquay in 1976.

Records cover the period 1714-1976 and include accounts, administrative and commercial records, legal records of companies and businesses, technical records, publications and advertising, international photographic records, records of shows and exhibitions and social and personal records. The MERL also holds over 100 objects used and made by Suttons, including sacks, signs and seeds.

Dann-Lewis Photographic Studio

The story of the Dann-Lewis photograph studio, which remained a family firm until its closure in the 1940s, began in 1856 when Mrs Dann opened a shop at 35 Broad Street. This almost undoubtedly makes her Reading’s first female professional photographer, and something of a pioneer.  Although portraiture provided much of the early business, engagements also included local scenes and landmarks, pictures of outlying villages, important buildings, developing x-rays for the Hospital and regular visits to the Reading Police Station to photograph new prisoners. Further premises had been acquired at 744 Oxford Road by the late 19th century.

On Mrs Dann’s retirement, the business was taken over by her grand-daughter, who had grown up in the family business. Her marriage to Mr Henry Lewis (noted for his “Magic Lantern Shows”) led to a combination of their names: the business became Dann-Lewis, and is listed as such in the 1903 local directory. By that time the business had moved from Broad Street to London Street. When Henry Lewis died, his son, Walter, ran the business, by then at 27 Argyle Street, until its closure some time after the Second World War.

The collection consists of about 2000 glass plate negative together with a few original prints and documentation.