The Open Spaces Society collection at the Museum of English Rural Life
The lockdowns during the 2020-1 pandemic have highlighted the importance of access to open spaces for health and recreation. People’s daily walks or runs in their local areas gave them a new appreciation for even the smallest or seemingly mundane of sites, for their environment, fresh air and tranquillity. The historic role of the Open Spaces Society in campaigning for the preservation of the countryside for all since 1865 is thus even more relevant today.
In 2020-21 I am the Open Spaces Society Fellow at the Museum of English Rural Life, exploring and publicising the archives of the society. I seek to uncover the locations of thousands of images taken in the first few decades of the 20th century as part of their campaigns to preserve open space for all.
location on the 1914 OS 6 inch to the mile map:
The first formal national society for commons preservation was formed in 1865, during a period when local campaigns were afoot to save the last few commons on the edges of the capital and other industrial cities from urban development and enclosure. In 1899 existing preservation societies merged under the title Commons Open Spaces and Footpath Preservation Society, which became the Open Spaces Society in the 1980s. The society promoted important pieces of legislation, including the Commons Acts of 1876 and 1899. Today, its principal task is advising local authorities, Commons committees, voluntary bodies, and the general public on the appropriation of commons and other open spaces. It also scrutinises applications that affect public rights of way.
The OSS Lantern Slides project
The Open Spaces Society collection at MERL contains 19th century legal case papers and over a thousand lantern slides or transparencies of landscapes dating from around 1900-40 related to their campaigns.
The OSS will be making their images available to purchase from their website soon.
Introduction to the collection: https://merl.reading.ac.uk/collections/open-spaces-society/
But the metadata of the images is very thin. Many of the images are just marked with a vague location and most are not dated. So one of the aims of the project is to identify the locations of the images, and map them.
We will need help with this – a great opportunity when you’re on your local lockdown walk to see if you can spot which field or old oak tree is pictured in that image that is only titled ‘North Downs’ or ‘New Forest’.
Here is me, Katrina Navickas, out and about in my local area in November looking for locations in the lantern slides:
Aims of the project
- locate the locations of the Open Spaces Society lantern slides and produce an interactive map
- produce original research on the role of the Open Spaces Society in the early 20th century, discussed at a symposium or workshop
- produce a full database of the images that is linked to catalogues of OSS collections in other repositories, legal case papers, newspaper reports on cases and campaigns etc.
- engage the public with their local landscapes and environment, exploring changes between 1900 and today, and the importance of preserving open spaces for health, leisure and amenity
- exhibit the most interesting or significant images and findings in an exhibition
- What geographic patterns were there in location and types of landscapes?
- What did the early 20th century OSS envisage as landscape and how did they define open space?
- Compared with current photographs and maps, how have those landscapes changed since they were recorded?
What I will produce:
1. a full database of the lantern slides and an interactive map of locations
The first stage will be to compile a database and map the locations of the images in the lantern slide collection.
The collection could then be linked with archives of the OSS at other repositories, including the Parliamentary Archives’ extensive OSS collections, and at Surrey History Centre, which holds more OSS material on Surrey commons disputes that link with the legal case papers at MERL, and other archives.
Here’s a snapshot of the database in progress (lots of missing info!, and my notes such as ‘might be the bird sanctuary?’):
mapping the locations:
Here are some aggregate totals of the types of images (see future blog posts for more detailed analysis):
2. Exhibition of select images, ‘then and now’
3. A symposium on landscapes and the preservation of open spaces in the 20th century
producing original research and publications using the archives
Academics and practicians working on landscape change, cultural geography, environment and history will be invited to discuss the archive material.
New: Here is my blog Post summarising the symposium: https://historyofpublicspace.uk/2021/09/12/open-spaces-society-symposium-for-the-merl-8-september-2021/
Museum of English Rural Life, online symposium, Wednesday 8 September 2021, 2pm-5pm
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. Learn more here: https://collections.reading.ac.uk/collections-overview/themes-and-strengths/landscape-environment-and-rural-life/
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.
To offer a paper or creative response, contact:
Dr Katrina Navickas, email@example.com by 1 July 2021.
Updates will be on the Posts pages of ‘Thoughts in Progress’.
Current roll of honour for locations spotting: Mark Crail, Fabian Hiscock, Helen Read, Catherine Clarke, Rob Telford, Julia Lee