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Every Object Tells A Story

To a greater or lesser extent every object really does tell a story – often an important and unique one. If nothing else, objects remind us that history is not an abstract and theorized subject but the study of a very real past. In doing so, objects in fact tell many stories.

The objects displayed in my current exhibition, Life on the Land, are used to illustrate rural life in the Doncaster area. They depict key themes in the narrative of rural England, and specifically the agricultural and rural experiences of Doncaster’s rural hinterland.


Objects can also connect us with the people and cultures that made and used them – questions of context and function become important in their interpretation. Frustratingly, for many of the items on display, we simply don’t have extensive provenance – we don’t know who made them or who used them – as a result there are many stories that will never be accessible through these objects. Nevertheless, each and every object on display still has at least one story to tell – and many of them have multiple stories. These stories include their origins and usage, their symbolism of rural life, their survival and their curated status.

IMG_7472.jpgCopyright: Doncaster Museums


For this post, I will focus on one object – an agricultural labourer’s smock – and explore the multiple stories it can unlock. The agricultural labourer’s smock is an iconic image of rural life – as Roy Brigden observed no English rural museum is complete without one. Farm workers wore smocks as an outer garment, to protect their clothes when working and as Sunday best. The gathering and stitching of the fabric to give it shape was called smocking – hence the name smock. Embroidered designs were increasingly added to smocks in the 19th century. Brigden astutely notes that whilst they are often used to represent the ordinary labourer, it is often the more elaborate ones used for special occasions that actual survive. Their emblematic value was evident to contemporaries, with distinctions drawn between the progressive town inhabitant and the country bumpkin attired in smock.

Little is known about the smock displayed in my exhibition – we don’t know who wore it or where they lived. It is however an important part of the museum’s collection – and as such its curatorial story has great value. It was one of the first objects acquired by Doncaster Museum in 1912, purchased for 10 shillings. We can presume the curator recognised the historical value of the object at a time when Doncaster was becoming increasingly urban and industrialised, and clothing such as this was becoming obsolete. In doing so, it highlights both the important role agriculture played in the area and a desire to preserve that rural past – a past that is of course endlessly curated and romanticised. This of course leads to the curatorial decision on my part to exhibit the smock in my exhibition. A different smock is already on regular display as part of a small exhibit on agriculture at Cusworth Hall. The motives for its inclusion were primarily two-fold. Life on the Land is just that – lived experiences of rural life – and as the curator I wanted objects that would connect people with those past lives. The smock, whether always accurately or not, personifies agricultural workers – and as such was able to articulate part of the story the exhibition explores. The curatorial connection was also strong – the decision to collect the item in the first place, one of the first items in the museum collection did inspire me to include it in the exhibition. Visitors to the exhibition will no doubt have their own personal perspectives about the objects on display, whether through lived experience, ancestral connections, or a fascination with the countryside. I would love to hear from you if one of the exhibits unlocked personal stories – or if you have an object connected with life on the land that has stories to tell. Please email or respond to this blog post.


Curating Life on the Land

After all the planning and hard work I am pleased to announce that my exhibition, Life on the Land, is now open to the public.

Life on the Land poster

It has been my first experience into curating, but by no means my only public engagement or even museum work. Previously I have volunteered with, and undertaken research work, for museums, in addition to my extensive community and adult education portfolio. Curating an exhibition brought new challenges though. To all intents a temporary museum exhibition is a static medium. This means that I am communicating with my audience through the exhibits and displays rather than first hand – I cannot offer clarification or expand upon the points on the text panels, aside from the public talks and workshops I will be delivering. They have to stand-alone. Yet, having sought advice, the text panels and object labels have tight word limits. In short, they have to say a lot in not many words, and without oversimplifying the content.

The exhibition’s origins were a confluence of ideas and motivations. Having completed my PhD on contrasting rural communities in the Doncaster District, I had a sound body of research. Whilst aspects of this have been published in journal articles and I am preparing my book manuscript, I wanted to take my research to a wider audience. I favoured the exhibition format as a more visual and tangible method to connect people with my work, and began discussing the idea with my contacts at Doncaster Museums Service. Once we had agreed that the exhibition could take place, the process of taking a PhD thesis and the accompanying research, which didn’t always make the final cut, and transforming it into a museum exhibition unfolded.


I began by identifying the contributing elements that would turn this idea into a reality. The exhibition had to convey both the research and stories I wanted but also draw upon the collections of Doncaster Museums and the local archives. Key themes and stories would explore landownership, agricultural work and workers, housing conditions, and innovation. There would also be a case study of a farming family. These not only embodied my research but were also closely aligned to the museum and archival collections – most of which had not been on public display before.

The next stage was to storyboard the whole exhibition before drafting the text panels. With limited space for text per panel it was crucial that it still conveyed the key ideas. An incredible amount of editing took place, whittling down the text to a more manageable amount. Quotations were used as hooks on each panel to draw the visitor into each theme and entice them to read more. A number of pleasurable hours were spent sifting through the photographic collections at Cusworth Hall, establishing which images related to the text and were visually appealing. This process resulted in some further editing of the text to ensure the fit was as tight as possible. Finally, the objects and documents – these were the real stars of the show and again the text panels and exhibits needed to correspond.


Of course a lot could not go into the exhibition. Too much content was always going to be an issue, but more specifically if there was nothing in the collections to represent it visually or document it then unfortunately a decision had to be made to cut it. This was sometimes frustrating, as so many themes and stories are interlinked, which would leave some visitors wanting to know more. I initially considered using QR codes to continue or expand upon the text panels, but decided instead to issue blog posts throughout the exhibition that will look in more detail at the exhibits but also at some aspects of life on the land omitted from the exhibition. Predominantly the outlet for the majority of this research will be my forthcoming book.

I decided to apply themed branding to the exhibition panels – the product of collaboration with museum staff combining my vision with their expertise. The design of the text panels gives prominence to the quotes, allowing voices from the past to metaphorically speak to the visitor. The backdrop of each panel incorporates a hand-drawn map of a farm that features in the exhibition. The title, Life on the Land, appears italicized and in green print on the different themed panels. The exhibition of course shares its title with Fred Kitchen’s book published in 1941, in which he charted an agricultural year through the characters of a rural community. Similar themes are explored in both the book and the exhibition. The text is complemented by the images and provides context for the artifacts on display.


With only a few days to Life on the Land opening, I spent a day at Cusworth Hall setting up the exhibition. I already had a vision of what would go where, which I mapped out when storyboarding the exhibition. The displays would tell an aspect of the exhibition’s story through objects and documents. The first case would focus on agricultural implements. The scythe, sickle, turnip fork, seed drill and other artefacts were carefully positioned, but three larger items – various forks were just too large for the case. After discussion we agreed that an effective way to display them would be to mount them above the text panels around the room. The second case was home to an agricultural smock and a couple of other items. Documents from Doncaster Archives relating to the home farm at Cusworth Hall were placed in the third case. The fourth and final case was perhaps the trickiest of all. With four shelves subdividing the case, it was intended to explore different themes. A striking feature of this case would be the personal collection of documents belonging to a farming family, whose lives intersected with the Doncaster area from the First World War onwards. Elsewhere in the case, the themes of innovation and trade, the campaign to Repeal the Corn Laws, and representations of the rural featured. A couple of larger items – a butter churn and plough – were located in the bay window of the room; and artworks adorned the walls. To find out more about these exhibits and the stories they tell, look out for the series of blog posts to be issued throughout the summer.


From the moment the visitor enters Cusworth Hall they are connecting with themes of the exhibition as this is the ancestral home of one of the landowners featured in the exhibition, and as such is a perfect backdrop. There is hopefully something for everyone interested in Life on the Land, with exhibits ranging from agricultural implements and items of clothing, to artworks, and books and toys with an agricultural theme designed for children.


I have enjoyed curating Life on the Land immensely, and seeing the exhibition finally come together. The process has given me a greater understanding and appreciation of how much behind the scenes work it takes to create a museum exhibition. It of course would not have been possible without the help of many people, most notably Nicola Fox (Cusworth Hall), Dr Charles Kelham (Doncaster Archives) and the relatives of the Duffin family who have kindly shared their collection. The exhibition runs until the 18 September, and I hope you will have the opportunity to visit. I am very keen to know what people think about the exhibition and for anyone to share their memories and experiences of Life on the Land.


Coming soon:- more posts about objects and stories featured in the exhibition. 

Life on the Land

Doncaster, historically part of the West Riding of Yorkshire and now within South Yorkshire, has over time come to be synonymous with Romans, racing, railways, and coal mining. However, Doncaster was once a vibrant and important agricultural district – a centre for innovation, experimentation and trade. The vestiges of this important trading centre can still be seen in Doncaster’s architecturally notable market buildings.

‘Life on the Land’ is a new exhibition based on my original research, which showcases the area’s rich and varied agricultural past, uncovering the hidden stories of rural Doncaster from landowners to labourers. Items on display come from the unique collections of Doncaster Museums, Doncaster Archives and never seen before private collections. It includes rarely seen agricultural artefacts and iconic images that characterise Doncaster’s rural past. Displayed, for the first time, alongside is a small but important private collection from a local farming family all of which collectively offer new insights into ‘Life on the Land’.

FullSizeRenderElizabeth Stones Rockett, wife of Christopher Duffin (JMC private collection)

‘Life on the Land’ is on display at Cusworth Hall from 11 June 2016 and is free to visit. Cusworth Hall is the perfect backdrop for the exhibition. This 18th century country house was home to the Battie, and later Battie-Wrightson family, who were interested in agricultural matters, had a home farm on the estate and exhibited at local agricultural shows.


To accompany ‘Life on the Land’ I will be delivering a free public talk, giving a ‘Behind the Scenes’ perspective of curating the exhibition on Monday 27th June 2016. A workshop about researching life on the land and discovering more about your agricultural ancestors will run on Tuesday 28th June 2016. For more information please email me at

In addition, throughout the exhibition blog posts will explore the themes of the exhibition and specific objects in more detail.

British Agricultural History Society Spring Conference

The British Agricultural History Society recently hosted its Spring Conference at Wortley Hall, near Sheffield. The event was both academically stimulating and enjoyable, and had been admirably organised by Dr Nicola Verdon.


The venue, Wortley Hall, was the ancestral hall of the Earls of Wharncliffe – the Lords of the Manor of Wortley. The old Wortley Hall fell into decay after the English Civil War, and was rebuilt by the Wortley family in the 18th century – the building that still stands today, with the exception of a few Victorian or later alterations. Despite the long legacy of being the home of wealthy landowners, Wortley Hall became the home of the labour movement in the mid 20th century. During the Second World War, the hall was neglected and in 1949 an advertisement was placed for the short-term lease of the hall. Vin Williams, the prominent leader of the labour movement, was one of few who had a vision for the hall – that it would be owned by the workers and run for the workers benefit, and on the 5th May 1951 it opened as an educational and holiday centred for the trade union, labour and co-operative movement.


The vantage point and location were both particularly striking on the journey to the Wortley and on arrival. The Hall is set in 26 acres of gardens and woodland, with a vista across the surrounding countryside. During the course of the conference there were opportunities to explore the grounds.



The conference programme had to be modified in the wake of David Hey’s death. David had been a former president of the BAHS and was an accomplished historian who published extensively on social and economic history on the one hand, and local and family history on the other. I had met David on a number of occasions, initially as a child as both my parents knew him and my father had worked with him, and then again at the BAHS conferences and through my own work. His work proved an inspiration for some of my own, and he was only too happy to inspire the next generation when invited to speak at an event I organised at Sheffield Hallam University, where he also judged an exhibition of student’s work. The AGM recognised David’s achievements and those present stood for a minute’s silence. An appreciation of David and his work replaced the usual conference field trip that David was scheduled to lead, and included Prof. Henry French discussing David’s work and Prof. Peter Edwards  speaking about Sir Francis Wortley. Peter had been taught and inspired by David Hey, and had initially booked to attend the conference in order to hear David speak and discuss the Wortley family with him. He ensured that he drew themes from David’s own work out as he spoke about his research, and the session ended with reminiscences of David from the audience.

The programme was diverse and varied demonstrating that the field is a vibrant one – but also led to discussions to what constitutes agricultural history. Dr Nick Mansfield gave the opening paper on sites of rural labour, featuring different labour movements including Owenites and Chartists – the approach inspired me to further consider the links between the history of agricultural labour and the landscapes in which activities and events of the countryside unfolded – both within local research case studies and with a view to both updating my third year optional module on political reform and in writing and developing my new third year special subject on rural life in Victorian England. After the evening meal, Prof. Richard Hoyle discussed Robin Hood, the multiplicity of the outlaw, language of the ballads and the importance of the forest. The following day opened with the vitally important new researchers session in which PhD students and early career researchers have the opportunity to present a short paper to the conference. This year Christoph Otte spoke of the challenges of reconstructing the early medieval settlement landscape of Dumfriesshire, whilst Joshua Rhodes discussed the development of agrarian capitalism in England.


An international dimension was brought to the fore with Prof. Sarah Carter‘s paper on British Women Homesteaders, Farmers and Ranchers on the Canadian Prairies, exploring the challenges, longevity and achievements of these women, and the fascination the press had with their lives. The rest of the day included the David Hey appreciation session, explorations of the grounds, and the annual conference dinner, which included a rendition of the folk song ‘A Farmers Boy’ led by Prof. Alun Howkins. On the final day, Dr Jordan Claridge talked about Entrepreneurialization and commercialization in the medieval English dairy industry, 1250-1450 and Dr Paul Warde on ‘Soil, Sustainability, and the Fate of Empires, c.1750-1870’. Finally, we hear a lot about the role of female agricultural workers during the war, but Dr Anne Meredith’s paper rounded of the conference programme with a fascinating insight into the role of women gardeners in the First World War.

To find out more about the BAHS visit


A History of England – Words and Pictures

It was undoubtedly an ambitious task to cover a history of England in a six week WEA class, but by focussing on themes and selecting images and text the recent ‘A History of England – Words and Pictures’ course did indeed achieve this goal. The course included how Roman mosaics reflected changing society and beliefs, the influence of religion in key Anglo Saxon texts, the representation of conflict in the Bayeux Tapestry, issues of democracy through the Magna Carta, vivid agricultural scenes in the Luttrell Psalter, Tudor Portraiture, the turbulent seventeenth century, Pepys’ Diary, Daniel Defoe’s accounts of different places, Victorian innovation and representations of conflict in the twentieth century and emotional responses to the poetry and art of the world wars.

However, it was the collaborative and very much creative endeavours of the group that really made the course. Drawing upon the many inspirations of how words and pictures have been used to record historic events, describe everyday life and campaign for change from throughout the course, students embarked upon a project to document daily life in the twenty-first century.

Here is a selection of their work:-


Ruth showcases her pictorial story of the history of dance through images – dance is an important part of her life and her design was inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry we had looked at in an earlier session.

Pauline reflected on her family history and said “The world has always needed leaders, inventors, entrepreneurs, people of power, but try to imagine life without the ordinary man or woman going about their daily business, working, farming, fighting wars, paying taxes. There would be no goods to trade, not much food, no army to defend the country, no transport no mills or factories, no offices, no schools, teachers or colleges – the list is endless. The unknown, unsung masses are what made the world what it is today, and also put the Great in Great Britain”


Joan explained how she had started a personal discovery of the Halifax area and as she travelled she thought of writing about what she saw but in the end opted for a visual representation of an important hobby – gardening

An extract from a letter to Daniel Defoe by Jonathan:-

“Dear Daniel Defoe,

It is now 290 years since your visit to Halifax in 1725. I enjoyed reading your account of your journey here in ‘A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain’. I thought you would be interested to know something of the changes that have taken place since your visit.

You described your journey here on the main packhorse route from Wakefield as being ‘exceedingly troublesome and dangerous’. The road was ‘so steep, so rugged…sometimes too slippery’ and hardly suitable for carriages. The route was replaced by new turnpike roads in 1741 and 1824. Then in 1841 there was a development you would have found exciting. The Manchester and Leeds Railway Company opened a railway line through the Calder Valley. Naturally, the Rochdale and Halifax Turnpike Trust tried to delay proceedings…in recent years there has been a development that I think you would find even more astonishing. A broad road has been constructed with room for three carriages to travel abreast in each direction. This road crosses the old packhorse route near Hipperholme. Today the carriages are referred to as ‘cars’ and are powered by internal combustion engines using refined oil. They can maintain a speed of 70 mph. The average daily flow of cars on this road is 1000,000 travelling east and 78,000 travelling west!”

The letter continues to describe changes to religion and governance and finally publishing discussing e-books. It concludes “I think it would please you to know that many of your writings are still in print. It is possible to buy an ebook at a cost of £1-6s-6d with your Complete Works (illustrated)”.

My journey to Walsingham by Margaret described it as a “marvellous place of peace and quiet, able to concentrate on important parts of our lives away from every day things we normally do”.


Sue wrote a poem entitled ‘My Favourite Things’

“Give way to drivers – they look miserable

Not a wave to me – am I invisible

Shop assistants – I’m ignored

They just stand chatting looking bored

Litter from cars lands with a bump

Turning our village into a dump

Junk emails – nuisance calls

Cause me to bounce off all four walls

Can’t climb trees can’t play conkers

Health and safety drives me bonkers

Please forgive me I’m only human

Or am I just a grumpy old woman”

Congratulations to everyone who contributed to the ‘A History of England – Words and Pictures’ course – great innovative work.

Pennine Places

Pennine Places

As followers of this blog will be aware, my father, Derek Holland, was a historian and prolific writer. Over the last couple years, with the help of Louise, I have been digitising and publishing his unpublished manuscripts. A particularly personal project he was working on was entitled Pennine Places. It referred to the Pennine communities around Sheffield – such as Penistone, Bolsterstone, Stocksbridge, Deepcar, Oughtibridge and Wharncliffe Side – places he had a particular affinity with due to family connections on my mothers’ side.

IMG_0085 IMG_0084


Derek and Enid Holland on location at Oughtibridge Church and The Flouch Inn



Unlike his other books this manuscript was still a work in process when he suddenly passed away. Carefully crafted pen portraits of the places and landscapes had been drafted, and after accompanying him on many field trips and discussing the project in detail with him he very much wanted it to be a collaborative work, drawing upon my own research interests of rural communities and agriculture. With the successful culmination of my PhD and the Pennine Places manuscript my father left now digitised, thanks to Louise’s efforts, I have begun the editorial process and attendant research for the collaborative elements my father intended including special sections entitled ‘stories from the sources’.

Look out for the latest discoveries on Twitter (@DrSarahHolland #PenninePlaces) and in the meantime remember you can download A Yorkshire Town: The Making of Doncaster; Eastern Delights; and Bawtry and the Idle River Trade for free by following the links below:-

A Yorkshire Town: The Making of Doncaster (PDF) at

A Yorkshire Town: The Making of Doncaster (iBook) via the iBooks store at

Eastern Delights (PDF) at

Eastern Delights (iBook) via the iBooks store at

Bawtry and the Idle River Trade (iBook) via the iBook store at


Behind the Scenes at Doncaster Archives

Having completed my research into the impact of studying local history on mental health and wellbeing during the summer, I have been putting the research into action with a WEA group in Doncaster comprised of students with mental ill health, some who also have learning difficulties this term. So far the course has involved the group taking part in a walk around Doncaster making observations about old buildings and connections with their own lives, a visit to the museum to explore the history of the town through artefacts, a chance to handle and discuss real roman pottery found in the Doncaster area, and a look at old maps and old photos at the local studies library charting the changes that have taken place.

This week, we went behind the scenes at Doncaster Archives. The archivist, Charles Kelham (who recently appeared on BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?) was only too happy to explain what happens at an archives and how the documents are looked after and stored. We had the opportunity to explore the stores, ask questions and look at a wide range of documents. The group particularly enjoyed the old football programmes, photos of the racecourse, an image of Flying Scotsman and a large map showing where bombs dropped in Doncaster during the Second World War. Some members of the group were interested to discover whether or not potential relatives featured in either the record of employees at the railway works in Doncaster or the deaths recorded at the workhouse. Everyone was amazed at the old charters and other documents that were over seven hundred years old.






The group are now looking forward to examining the material they have collected over the past few weeks, including photos, notes, copies of old maps and documents, and putting together an exhibition of their discoveries. To celebrate their hard work and achievements, the group will also take part in a quiz and other fun Doncaster related activities. Local history enables people to connect with their place of residence and make links between the past, present and future. Through observational activities, old photos and documents, discoveries can be made. It encourages people to work together as a group to find out more, and to help and support one another. The research I conducted on history, mental health and wellbeing will be presented at WEA events in the near future and made available to a wider audience – so if you are interested, watch this space or get in touch:
And I would love to hear of other examples of studying local history having a positive impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.