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The historic role of women in the countryside

The historic role of women in the countryside

One of the key contentions of Dr Nicola Verdon's research is that women played a vital role in the many developments in modern farming through the eighteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Her findings, which focus on rural work patterns, family life and gender relations, have been used to inform and contribute to a museum exhibition on women’s work on the land, a leading theatre production, and radio and TV programmes on rural life and labour.

The research

Dr Verdon’s research focuses on inter-related topics linked to the history of the countryside rural labour markets, employment patterns and the farm workforce and rural households and family life. It makes a major contribution to the ‘new’ rural social history, emphasising the complexities of class, gender and region in the countryside in the past. Early research was underpinned by the award of a year-long fellowship from the Museum of English Rural Life, which enabled her to use the museum’s extensive library and archive holdings.

Dr Verdon’s research shows that farm service survived across many areas of southern and midland England well into the 1920s, a ‘survival’ that has implications for broader debates on the nature of the rural workforce and social relations. Thousands of women were still employed as agricultural labourers in the interwar years, arousing conflicting responses from various rural organisations including the National Agricultural Labourers Union, the Women’s Institutes and the Women’s Farm and Garden Association.

Farmers as a group are neglected in history as they have left few written records. Verdon published an article on farm women, domesticity and social change in the 1920s and 1930s using the printed farming press to show the vital economic and social contribution made by farmer's wives in the interwar years. Her attention has recently shifted to exploring the role of women as farmers in their own right through an article on the promotion of farming as a professional career for single, middle-class women between 1890 and 1939 using contemporary journal literature and personal memoir. She has also written a book chapter utilising the memoir of Louisa Cresswell, a remarkable Norfolk widow who farmed 900 acres on the Royal Sandringham estate in the 1860s and 1870s.

Nicola Verdon’s knowledge of this time and the people who lived during it allows the actors, and us, to really understand the situations in which these people lived, thus bringing life to the characters more accurately...this results in a more visceral experience to the audience as the characters are real rather than caricatures.
Associate Director, War Horse

The impact

Dr Verdon has contributed her academic expertise to activities with museums, theatre, and the broadcast media. This has enabled different groups of communities – exhibition audiences, actors, and TV viewers – to engage with, and interpret, various aspects of modern rural history.

In 2011 Dr Verdon was the guest curator of an exhibition at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) entitled 'Land Ladies: Women and Farming in England, 1900-1950'. It was featured in local and national press, including The Times, Radio Berkshire’s Anne Diamond show and the BBC’s Who Do you Think You Are? Magazine. The exhibition attended by 7,900 members of the public. It was accompanied by a public lecture, ‘Business and pleasure: women, work and professionalization of farming as a female career in England, 1900-1950’ by Dr Verdon.

Since 2010, Dr Verdon has worked with New London Theatre’s production of Michael Morpurgo’s ‘War Horse’. Much of the first act of the play is set on a farm in Devon in the early 20th century. She has worked with four successive casts of actors since 2010, conducting day-long workshops on the history of rural England before 1914 with the full cast.

The broadcast media has also drawn upon Dr Verdon’s expert knowledge and she has made substantial contributions to several high-profile radio and TV programmes. On Wartime Farm (BBC2) Verdon helped two programme presenters make silage. The dialogue concentrated on the substantial contribution women made to farm work during the war. As a result of the appearance she was invited to give a public lecture on the history of women’s work on the land at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming and appeared in Heavy Horse magazine on the history of women’s association with working horses on the farm.

On The Restoration Man (Channel 4), which centred on the restoration of a 19th century farm and piggery, Dr Verdon featured as an ‘historical expert’. In this role she guided the presenter through the census returns for the farm between 1851 and 1911, outlining how the farm family household, including living-in farm servants, changed over time.

Dr Verdon was also interviewed on Sunday Supplement (BBC Radio Wales), the flagship weekly politics show for the region, on the history and role of the Agricultural Wages Board. She was able to provide context to the Welsh assembly’s debate on whether to reform the Board after it was axed by the UK government in 2012.

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