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Reading, Berkshire

Historical Description

Reading, the county town of Berks, is an ancient market and assize town, a municipal, county, and parliamentary borough, a poor-law union, and the head of a petty sessional division and county court district. It stands a short distance from the right bank of the Thames, at its junction with the Kennet, 8 miles SW from Henley-on-Thames, 13 SW from Maidenhead, 16 W from Windsor, 16 N from Basingstoke, and 39 by road or 36 by rail (G.W.R.) from London. It has a station on the G.W.R. main line, and is the junction of the Hungerford and Basingstoke branches of the same railway. It is also a terminus of the Staines, Wokingham, and Reading branch of the L. & S.W.R., and a terminus of Reigate branch of the S.E.R. The stations, which are adjacent to each other, are about ten minutes walk from the river at Caversham Bridge, and about five minutes walk from the market-place. There are some wharves on the Kennet, which is navigable to Newbury and Froxfield, and by the Kennet and Avon Canal water communication is opened up with the Severn. There are four bridges over the Kennet, and there is an iron bridge over the Thames, and a bridge for foot passengers at Caversham Weir. The soil beneath the town is chiefly chalk and gravel, and the annual death-rate averages about 18 per 1000.

There is a good supply of water derived from the Kennet, the works being the property of the corporation, and a system of main drainage with an irrigation farm about 2 miles from the borough.

History.-The town is supposed by some to have derived its name from the word rhyd, signifying " a ford," by others from the word redin, signifying " fern." It was known to the ancient Britons as Redyng, to the Saxons as Reding, to the Normans as Redinges, and in Camden's time as Reddynge. It lays claim to high antiquity; was inhabited by the Saxuns before the incursions of the Danes; appears first on record in 868, and is then made the headquarters of Ivor the Dane; had a Saxon fort, on ground afterwards occupied by a mitred Benedictine abbey; was taken by the Danes in 871, after the battle of Englefield; was burnt by the Danes in 1006; had only about twenty-eight houses at Domesday; acquired a great abbey in 1121, and a great new castle a few years afterwards; and, in connection with these two edifices, became the theatre of important national events. Church councils were held in the abbey in 1184, 1214, and 1279; and parliaments were held in it in 1191, 1213, 1241, 1384, 1389, 1440, 1451, 1452, and 1466. Henry I. resided much in the abbey. Stephen was in the castle in 1140; the Empress Maud was in it in the following year; and Henry II. got early possession of it, and soon demolished it. Henry II. was here also in 1163, at a combat between his standard-bearer and another; he was here likewise in 1175, 1177, 1184, 1185, and 1186; and he attended the Parliament in the abbey in 1184, and received the keys of the Holy Sepulchre from the patriarch of Jerusalem, who had journeyed hither in 1183. John was here, to meet the barons, in 1213; and was here again in 1214 and 1216. Henry III. was here in 1226 and 1227; again, to hold Christmas, in 1238; and again, to attend the Parliament, in 1241. Edward I. was here, as prince, in 1244, 1248, 1259, and 1263. Edward III. was here, at a tournament, in 1346; and here again, at the marriage of John of Gaunt to Blanche, in 1359. Richard II. was here in 1384; and again, to meet the barons, in 1389. Henry VI. was here, to attend the Parliaments, in 1440, 1451, and 1452. Henry VII., as prince, was here in 1464; Henry VIII., in 1509, 1526, and 1540; Edward VI., in 1552; Mary, in 1554; Elizabeth, in 1568, 1572, 1575, 1592, 1602, and 1603; James I., in 1612; Charles I., in 1642; Charles II., in 1663; and Anne, as princess, in 1689. The town was garrisoned in 1642 by the troops of the Parliament; was precipitately abandoned by them on the approach of the royal army; was then fortified by the Royalists; sustained a memorable siege in 1643, by the Parliamentarian army under the Earl of Essex, with aid of entrenchments which are still traceable; and surrendered, after ten days, on terms so unfavourable as to bring the royal commander, Sir A. Ashton, to a court-martial. An alarm was raised at the town, in 1688, that the disbanded Irish soldiers of James II. were rioting in spoliation and massacre, and it produced a panic known as " the Irish cry," and commemorated in the ballad of the " Reading Skirmish," which tells how " Five hundred Papishes came there To make a final end Of all the town in time of prayer, But God did them defend." In the end, the Irish soldiers were beaten by those of the Prince of Orange, and the victory is still celebrated in the town by the ringing of bells on 21 Dec.

Among distinguished natives of Reading have been Abbot Hugh de Reading, of the latter part of the 12th century; William of Reading, archbishop of Bordeaux, of the time of Henry III.; Archbishop Laud (1573-1644), the son of a clothier, and born in a house now destroyed in Broad Street; Sir Thomas White, founder of St John's College, and bom in 1553; Lord Chancellor Phipps, who died in 1713; Alderman Sir J. Barnard (1685-1764); Kendrick, who died in 1624; the printer Baker (1742-85); the first Lord Sidmouth (1757-1844); Sir John Soane (1753-1837), son of a bricklayer named Swan; Mr Justice Talfourd, who died in 1854; the mathematician John Blagrave; the astrologer Joseph Blagrave; and the poet Merrick. Cromwell was here in 1644, Fairfax in 1647, and John Bunyan contracted here the disease of which he died.

The Borough.-The corporation of Reading is said to have been originally a guild, and to have been chartered by Edward the Confessor. Charters were also granted by Edward III., Henry VII., Henry VIIL, Elizabeth, Charles I., and Charles II., and the corporation now consists of a high steward, c mayor, 10 aldermen, and 30 town councillors. The borough has a commission of the peace and a separate court of quarter sessions. It was formerly divided into three wards, but is now, under the "Borough Extension Act, 1887," divided into ten-known as the Abbey, Battle, Castle, Church, East, Katesgrove, Minster, Redlands, Victoria, and West wards. Under the provisions of the Local Government Act, 1888, the borough became a county borough for certain purposes. The area of the county borough of Reading is 5878 statute acres; population, 60,054. Reading sent two members to Parliament from the time of Edward I. until the passing of the Redistribution of Seats Act, 1885, when the number was reduced to one. The boundaries of the parliamentary borough are not the same as those of the county borough, the area of the parliamentary borough being 2441 acres, and the population 55,666.

Structure, Public Buildings, &c.-The town occupies the summits, slopes, and vale-skirts of two small eminences; is intersected by branches of the river Kennet, cutting parts of its site into small islands; comprises some spacious and well-built streets; contains many handsome houses, chiefly of red brick, and many good shops; and, in recent years, has undergone much improvement and extension. The Forbury, a large open square on the NE side of the town, fronts the extant gateway of the ancient abbey; occupies the space formerly enclosed by the abbey precinct walls; is now laid out as a pleasure garden, with a fountain and ornamental works; contains, on an elevated position, a Russian gun, presented by the Government; and commands a beautiful view over great part of Oxfordshire. Fragments of the abbey precinct walls still exist, are 8 feet thick, consist chiefly of flint and nibble, and were formerly encased with stone. The old gateway has been carefully restored, and serves as the headquarters of the Royal Berks Volunteers. The ancient castle has completely disappeared, and is now commemorated only by the name of Castle Street. There is also a recreation ground of about 21 acres in the eastern suburb of the town, which was presented to the townspeople by Mr George Palmer during the mayoralty of Mr Daniel Heelas. The Municipal Buildings, which include the Town-hall, Council Chamber, Museum, Free Library, and the Government Schools of Art, face the E end of Friar Street, and date from 1875, though a portion of the old building-renovated in 1780-is still standing. They are of black and red brick, and are in the Gothic style. In addition to the chambers and offices previously mentioned, they contain a large public hall capable of seating 700, which can be hired for concerts. On the walls of the Council Chamber, and in other parts of the buildings, are some curious and interesting portraits, amongst which may be mentioned those of Sir Thomas White, lord mayor of London (1566), Gustavus Adolphus, Queen Elizabeth, Archbishop Laud, Mr John Kendrick-a well-known local benefactor, Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd, Kt., justice of the common pleas, and Mr William Isaac Palmer, celebrated as a philanthropist and advocate of temperance, who contributed £25,000 toward the erection of the buildings. The assize courts and county police station stand in the Forbury, adjacent to the old abbey gateway, and are½n the Italian style. They were erected in 1861, at a cost of more than £20,000. The assizes and sessions are held here, and the county council holds its meetings in the same building. Her Majesty's Prison, which stands on the E side of the abbey ruins, is a castellated building of red brick, erected in 1883, with capacity for 224 prisoners. The Corn Exchange and Market House was built in 1854. The Royal County Theatre, rebuilt and enlarged in 1887, was destroyed by fire in 1894. It has not been rebuilt, shops having been erected on its site, but the Assembly Rooms were converted into a theatre in 1895. There is a Masonic hall in Greyfriars Road. A handsome Liberal cinb was opened in 1895. The Workhouse stands in the Oxford Road, and is a modern building of red brick in the Elizabethan style, with a detached infirmary capable of accommodating 300 inmates. The Cemetery is in the township of Earley, was established in 1842, and has an area of about 10 acres and two mortuary chapels. Reading is the depot of the Regimental district No. 49, 1st (49th Foot) and 2nd (66th Foot) Battalions of the Princess Charlotte of Wales' (Royal Berkshire) Regiment; it is also the headquarters of the Royal Berkshire Militia, which forms the 3rd battalion. The barracks, which have large drill grounds, are situated on the Oxford Road.

Trade, &c.-The town has a head post office, and numerous receiving, telegraph, and money order offices. It has five banks, and it publishes four newspapers. The market days are Monday for fat cattle and Saturday for corn and stock cattle. Fairs for cattle are held on 2 Feb., 1 May, and 25 July, and on 21 Sept. for cheese and cattle. The abattoirs and cattle-market are on the W side of the Caversham Road and close to the railway stations. Reading is the commercial centre of a thriving agricultural district, and it has a good trade in corn, flour, and cattle. It has extensive breweries and maltings, and some iron foundries, agricultural implement, and engineering works. Boats are built at the river side, and there are brick, tile, and pottery works. Other industries are the manufacture of tinware and the making of rope, twine, mats, sacks, brushes, and brooms. The two industries, however, for which the town is famous, not only throughout Great Britain but also throughout large portions of the colonies and foreign countries, are the great biscuit works of Messrs Huntley and Palmer and the seed establishment of Messrs Sutton & Sons. The biscuit factory of Messrs Huntley stands in the King's Road, covers an area of many acres, is the largest factory of the kind in the kingdom, and is fitted throughout with the best modern machinery. It gives continuous employment to over 4000 workpeople. Messrs Sutton have extensive grounds in the neighbourhood of Reading devoted to the growing of flower seeds, and an experimental farm of 50 acres. These form, however, but a small portion of their lands, which, situated in different parts of the kingdom and abroad, extend to 10,000 acres. Their chief place of business is in the market-place, where they employ some 300 clerks and warehousemen. From its position and surroundings Reading enjoys a good reputation as a holiday resort for lovers of the river. Up stream, within easy distance, are the reaches of Mapledurham and Pangbourne, while down stream Sonning and Henley may be readily visited. There are also many pleasant walks and drives in the immediate neighbourhood of the town.

Ecclesiastical Affairs.-The Benedictine abbey, founded by Henry I., stood on an eminence overlooking the Kennet; was endowed with much land and with the privilege of coining; had the rank of a mitred abbey, giving its abbot a seat in Parliament; was the burial-place of Henry I., his queens, the Empress Maud, the eldest son of Henry I., and Reginald, Earl of Cornwall; occupied a walled precinct about lialf a mile in circuit; suffered damage from the artillery of the siege of 1643, and subsequent demolition by the Parliamentarian army; and was afterwards used freely as a quarry for other buildings. Portions of its great hall, of its church, and of its lavatory still remain, but have been so stripped of their exterior stones as to look more like rocks than masonry. The nave of the church measured 215 feet by 92; the transept, 196 feet by 56; the choir, 98 feet by 34; the Lady chapel, 102 feet by 55; and the entire pile was 420 feet long. The chapter-house measured 84 feet by 42, and the refectory 72 feet by 42. The great gateway still stands, was built in 1220-30, is a large circular arch in a massive square tower, and was restored in 1861. A Minorite friary was founded in 1233, and is still represented by walls of its church, with the skeleton of a fine Decorated W window. A Franciscan friary stood on a spot now occupied by a Baptist chapel. A lepers' hospital was founded in 1134 by Abbot Ancherins, and a pilgrims' hospital in 1180 by Abbot Hugh de Reading.

There are three parishes in Reading which are both civil and ecclesiastical-viz., St Giles, St Lawrence, and St Mary-the-Virgin; and there are also the ecclesiastical parishes of Christ Church, Grey Friars, Holy Trinity, and St John-the-Evangelist. The church of St Giles, which stands on the E side of Southampton Street, is an ancient building of flint and stone in mixed styles, and consists of nave, aisles, chancel, and porch, with a battlemented western tower and a slender spire of stone. It sustained much injury from the artillery of the besiegers in 1643, but was restored after the war, and was again restored and enlarged in 1873. Attached to the church of St Giles is that of St Luke's, on the Redlands estate, a building of red brick in the Italian style, which was erected at a cost of about £6000 in 1883. The living of St Giles with St Luke is a vicarage, of the gross value of £517 with residence (though the net value is now-returned as nil), in the gift of the Bishop of Oxford. The church of St Lawrence is situated at the corner of Friar Street, near the market-place, and is a handsome building of flint and stone in the Early English and Perpendicular styles, consisting of chancel, nave, N aisle, with chantry chapel, S porch, and a lofty square tower with turrets. It contains some ancient brasses, many interesting tombs and memorials, and some good stained windows. An ancient sun-dial is on the S side of the church. The living is a vicarage, of the gross value of £200, in the gift of the Bishop of Oxford. The church of St Mary-the-Virgin, which stands. at the end of Minster Street, is said to have been originally built with portions of the abbey ruins, and is an edifice faced with flint and ashlar in chequers, consisting of chancel, nave, S aisle, N transept, S porch, and an embattled western tower surmounted with pinnacles. It has a fine old oak roof, and contains among many other objects of interest an altar-piece-attributed to one of the Caracci, two curious ancient alms-boxes, a Perpendicular font with pyramidal crocketed cover,. some ancient tombs and brasses, the old colours of the 66th (Princess Charlotte of Wales' Royal Berkshire) regiment, and a memorial window to those of its officers and men who fell at the battle of Maiwand, in Afghanistan, 27 July, 1880.-St Saviour's Church, in Coley Street, is attached to St Mary's, and is a building of red brick, erected in 1888, consisting of chancel, nave, side chapel, and western porch. All Saints Church, in Downshire Square, is also attached to St Mary's, and is a building of stone in the Decorated style, consisting" of chancel, nave, aisles, transept, Galilee porch, and bell-turret. The living of St Mary is a rectory, of the net value-of £29, in the gift of the Bishop of Oxford. Christ Church, Whitley, is an ecclesiastical parish, formed out of the parish of St Giles in 1863. The church, which stands at the end of the Kendrick Road, is an edifice of stone in the Early English style, consisting of chancel, nave, N aisle, N transept, and a tower on the NW surmounted by an octagonal spire. The living is a vicarage, of the net value of £230, in th& gift of the Bishop of Oxford. Population of the ecclesiastical parish, 4812. Grey Friars is an ecclesiastical parish which was formed in 1864 out of the parishes of St Mary and St Lawrence. The church was originally built by the Grey Friars on the site granted by the Abbot of Reading. It was afterwards allowed to fall into decay, and it stood roofless for about 200 years, the side aisles being used as cells of the town bridewell. In 1861 it was restored to ecclesiastical purposes, repaired and partly rebuilt by the late-Archdeacon Phelps. It now consists of a wide nave, aisles, and transepts. The living is a vicarage, of the gross value of £83 with residence, in the gift of Trustees. Population of the ecclesiastical parish, 3310. Holy Trinity is an ecclesiastical parish, formed in 1875 out of the parish of St Mary. The church, erected in 1826, is a plain quadrangular structure of brick, with stone front, consisting of nave and chancel only. The living is a vicarage, of the net value of £200, in the gift of the Vicar of St Mary's. Population of the ecclesiastical parish, 6124. St John-the Evangelist's is an ecclesiastical parish which was formed out of St Giles in-1874. The church, rebuilt in 1872-73, is a building of Kentish ragstone, consisting of chancel, nave, aisles, transepts, N porch, and a western tower and spire 150 feet in-height. The church of St Stephen, which is attached to St John-the-Evangelist, is a building of brick in the Early English style, erected in 1866, and consisting of chancel,. nave, aisles, S porch, and bell-turret The living of St John with St Stephen is a vicarage, of the net value of £250, in the gift of Trustees. All the livings are in the diocese of Oxford. There is an Episcopal chapel, dedicated to St Mary, belonging to the Church of England, in Castle Street. A Roman Catholic church (1840) stands near the Forbury Gardens and within the ruins of the abbey, and there are five Baptist, four Congregational, one Presbyterian, two Primitive-Methodist, one Unitarian, and three Wesleyan chapels, a Friends' meeting-house, and a Salvation Army Barracks.

Schools and Charitable Institutions.-The Free Grammar School was founded in 1445 by the Abbot of Beading. It received a charter from Queen Elizabeth, and in the reign of Charles I. it received many benefactions from Archbishop Laud. In 1867 it was reconstituted by Act of Parliament as a first-grade classical and modern school. The present buildings are situated in Redlands, and with the grounds occupy a site of about 13 acres. The buildings include a large hall, fourteen class-rooms, houses for the head master and two assistant masters, a school chapel, a detached sanatorium, a laboratory, a gymnasium, and a swimming bath. There are twenty-two scholarships to be held in the school, and there are two scholarships at St John's College, Oxford, of £100 a year each. The Kendrick Schools, which consist of a middle-class school for boys in Queens Road and a middle-class school for girls in Watlington Street, are endowed with the proceeds of certain charities bequeathed by John and Mary Kendrick in 1624. The Blue-coat School, which occupies Brunswick House, Bath Road, was founded in 1646 by Richard Aldworth, and received several other valuable bequests later. It now affords clothing, food, education, and apprenticeship fees to forty-two boys. The Green School for girls, in Russell Street, was founded in 1779. It has an endowment worth about £200 a year, the vicars of the three parishes of St Giles, St Lawrence, and St Mary being the governors and trustees. There are Government Schools for Science and Art in the municipal buildings, Valpy Street. The Reading University Extension College occupies an ancient building originally known as the " Hospitium," and belonging to Reading Abbey, which was restored and adapted for its present purpose by the corporation at a cost of about £3000, and opened in 1892. Elementary education is provided for by some eighteen schools-Board, British, National, and Roman Catholic. The charities belonging to the town are numerous and valuable, and include an almshouse for thirty-two poor persons with an endowment of about £900 a year, municipal charities amounting to about £3200 a year, and parochial charities worth in the aggregate about £650 a year. The Royal Berkshire Hospital stands in the London Road, and is a large building of stone in the Domestic Classic style, erected in 1839 and greatly enlarged in 1882. It can afford accommodation to about 150 in-patients. There is a Provident Dispensary in Chain Street, which was founded in 1802 and has some considerable endowments.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountyBerkshire 
Poor Law unionReading 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.

Civil Registration

Reading was in Reading Registration District from 1905 to 1974

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Reading from the following:

Land and Property

The Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for Berkshire is available to browse.


Online maps of Reading are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following Berkshire papers online:

Visitations Heraldic

The Visitations of Berkshire 1532, 1566, and 1665-6 is available online.

RegionSouth East
Postal districtRG1
Post TownReading