Hosted by The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading
The Open Spaces Society is Britain’s oldest national conservation body, founded in 1865 as the Commons Preservation Society. https://www.oss.org.uk/
The OSS collection at The Museum of English Rural Life includes over 1000 lantern slides from the period 1900 to 1940, and late 19th century legal case material from their campaigns to keep footpaths and access open to commons and other sites of natural beauty. For more information on the collection, go to: https://merl.reading.ac.uk/collections/open-spaces-society/
As 2020-21 OSS Fellow at MERL, Dr Katrina Navickas is working on the contexts and connections of this archive material. These are some of the central themes arising from the images: ● Access to river and waterway towpaths ● Woods and sylviculture – ancient woods and Forestry Commission plantations ● Amenity and natural beauty in landscape preservation ● A North-South divide in preservation priorities? ● Prioritising people or nature in preservation? ● Rural modernism, urbanism and infrastructure
Symposium and call for submissions:
This half-day symposium will explore these themes and sources from the OSS collection. It will offer a range of short talks, discussion, and an opportunity to engage with the images in a ‘find the location’ challenge. It will be of interest to historians, cultural geographers, landscape conservationists, and anyone seeking to know more about the OSS collection. Contributors can draw on a wealth of related material in the MERL Library and Archive.
We are now calling for short papers or creative submissions, especially in response to the themes outlined. The focus is on countryside preservation and access in 20th century Britain, but comparative and international perspectives are also welcome.
There is space for up to 5 papers of 15 minutes each, plus practical and creative workshop sessions on the image collection.
I’m gathering together the main themes of the lantern slides in the OSS collection for the forthcoming exhibition.
The boxes are organised by type of landscape, but this also lends to geographical regions too:
Boxes A and B – mix of North Downs, especially Box Hill and Leith Hill, and Surrey commons
Box C – metropolitan parks and commons, especially Brockwell Park and Peckham Rye
Box D – parks and commons in London continued, mainly commons, especially Wimbledon and Streatham commons and Kenwood/Hampstead
Box E – Burnham Beeches, Hampstead Heath and Kenwood in bulk, mostly of trees
Box F – Rivers, predominantly the Thames, mainly Berkshire, some of the river Avon, Wye, Lea, Dee and then individual pictures of other rivers
Box G – more Hampstead Heath and Wimbledon Common
Box H – Pilgrim’s Way through Hampshire and Kent, including many of Canterbury Cathedral; mostly street scenes and buildings
Box I – Ancient Forests – mainly New Forest and Epping Forest, also Ashdown, Hainault, Savernake and Sherwood
Box J – Examples of obstructions, stiles, fences, signposts, and a few examples of the work of the CFPS in removing obstructions and mass trespass
Box K – random pictures, from old paintings to bridges – not sure there is a theme
Box L – county landscapes from B to Y – examples of type of landscape for each county, though not all counties are represented
Box M – stock types of landscape, village scenes and nature, including some that look posed by actors? Several posed at Castle Combe, Wiltshire and St Mary’s abbey, East Malling, Kent. Also portraits of the leading figures in the preservation movement, including Octavia Hill and Sir Robert Hunter.
Many of the Surrey commons images are of sites that had been preserved, and I suspect the purpose of the slides were to illustrate talks celebrating the work of the Commons and Footpaths Preservation society in their campaigns, showing their main successes. There are many in the ownership or conservatorship of the National Trust or the City of London corporation commons.
These are some of the main themes emerging:
riparian access to the Thames
a changing landscape and the intrusion of the modern
ancient woods and forests
the materiality of obstruction
I’m also compiling a list of archives in other repositories related to the OSS collection at MERL. Here are some of the most relevant so far – if you know of any others for the period 1900-40, do let me know.
In a recent paper for the Changing Landscapes research network, Prof Paul Readman argued that aristocratic landowners have been keen to register definitive footpaths on their estates, not out of benevolent belief in the right to roam, but rather so they can define more easily the routes that people can and more importantly, cannot go. Registering footpaths was therefore a practice of exclusion, as it could be a defensive measure against open access.