A History of Reading, Berkshire

By Tim Lambert

Saxon Reading

Reading began life as a Saxon settlement. Reading was originally called Reada ingas, which means the people of Reada. Reada was a Saxon leader who settled in the area with his tribe in the 6th century. The early settlement was probably in the area of St Marys Butts. (In the Middle Ages this road was called Old Street, so even then it was old). Its position near the two rivers made Reading an ideal place to hold a market (since goods were often transported by water). Reading was well placed to transport goods to and from the Thames Valley and London by a river.

Reading was first mentioned in the year 871 when the Danes captured it. They made a fort east of Reading by erecting a rampart between the Thames and the Kennet. Reading was next mentioned in 1006 when the Danes burnt it. At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Reading had a population of about 600.

Reading in the Middle Ages

The Normans built a wooden castle in Reading. It was later replaced by a stone castle. The king demolished the castle in 1152, fearing it might fall into the hands of his enemies. n also gave land west of the town and the rents from 29 houses in Reading to Battle Abbey in Sussex. The land was later given to Reading Abbey but a lane called Battle Lane existed for centuries and the name lives on in Battle Hospital.

Medieval Reading prospered because it was on the main road between London and the West of England. In those days the journey from London to Bristol and other Western towns took several days and Reading was a convenient place to stay the night. Reading also benefited from the Abbey, which was built by Henry I in 1121-1125. Many pilgrims came to the abbey and spent money in the town. Sometimes the king came and stayed at the abbey. When he did he brought a large number of servants and bodyguards all of whom were likely to spend money in Reading.

Making cloth was the mainstay of the Reading’s economy. Wool from Berkshire flocks was brought to Reading by boat. After the wool was woven it was fulled. That means it was cleaned and thickened by pounding it in a mixture of water and clay. Wooden hammers powered by watermills pounded the wool. There were many fullers in Reading as well as weavers, dyers, and tailors.

There were also many vintners (wine merchants) as the upper class drank wine. There was also a leather industry in the town. Leather was tanned and then it was used to make shoes, hats, bottles, and saddles. Boatbuilding was also an important trade. There were also several goldsmiths in Reading. There were also carpenters, blacksmiths, stonemasons, butchers, bakers, and millers.

Before 1125 the king owned the town of Reading. He took rents from houses and fields. He took tolls from the market and kept the fines from the town court as well as taking other dues. When he built the abbey the king gave the town to the abbot who then took over the king’s rights. The abbot then became ruler of the town. He appointed men called bailiffs to run it on a day-to-day basis. Naturally, this caused some friction with the merchants who wanted to run things themselves.

However, the abbot’s hold on Reading weakened as it grew larger and more prosperous. The merchants gained influence at his expense. By the early 14th century Reading probably had a population of around 1,300. The county jail was moved from Wallingford to Reading in the 14th century, a sign of Reading’s growing importance.

In Reading the merchants were organized into a guild, which looked after their interests. The abbot had the right to appoint the leader of the guild who was called the steward. But from 1301 the merchants insisted on calling him the mayor. The abbot refused to call him a mayor and went on calling him the steward long afterward. But the abbot’s power was waning.

By 1459 the merchants elected 3 of themselves and the Abbot had to choose one of the 3 to be the mayor. There were also officials called constables who were responsible for arresting wrongdoers. Is not known how they were chosen at first but by 1463 they were elected by the merchants.

There were 3 parishes in the town, St Marys, St Giles, and St Laurence’s. In the Middle Ages, each parish had to have butts where all men practiced archery on Sunday. The name of St Marys Butts lives on today. As well as the churches in Reading there was a hospital dedicated to St John the Baptist where monks looked after poor and infirm people. There was also a leper hostel for 12 lepers dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. In the 15th century, a merchant named William Barnes built an almshouse for old and poor people.

Reading in the 16th century

In the early 16th century manufacturing cloth was still the mainstay of Reading’s economy. A writer said ‘The town stands chiefly by clothing’. n In 1538-40 Henry VIII dissolved Reading Abbey, the Grey Friars, and St John the Baptist Hospital. The last Abbot was hanged outside the abbey gates for refusing to recognize Henry as head of the Church of England.

In the Middle Ages, the abbot was Lord of Reading. When the abbey closed the king became Reading’s Lord. But Henry granted the town independence. The merchants were allowed to form a town council and the members were given the right to elect the mayor and other officials. The Grey Friars church was turned into a town hall.

Meanwhile, Reading Abbey became a private house. Henry’s son Edward VI gave it to his uncle the Duke of Somerset. Duke Street is named after him. But after 1546 the abbey stood empty and people plundered it to provide building materials for other buildings in the town.

Although it gained its independence Tudor Reading suffered from the closure of the abbey as there were no more pilgrims. But the town soon recovered. The clothing industry continued to prosper as did leather and other industries. By the mid-16th century, Reading probably had a population of about 2,000. Elizabethan times it was described as ‘the principal town of Berkshire for wealth and beauty’.

But despite the prosperity of the town, it had a large population of poor people. In 1573 William Laud was born in Reading. He joined the church and rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury. He was also a chief adviser to Charles I. However Laud was beheaded following the civil war.

Reading in the 17th century

Reading underwent a major change in the 17th century. For centuries the wool trade had been the main industry. In the 17th century it declined and by the early 18th century was no longer a major industry in the town. A merchant named James Kendrick left money in his will to erect a building where the poor could be employed in making cloth. This building, the Oracle was erected in 1628. However, the experiment was not very successful.

Fortunately, other industries grew up to replace the wool trade. From Elizabethan times there was a pin-making industry. In 1619 the first wire maker was mentioned. Also in the early 17th century, there was a nail-making industry in Reading. There were also gunsmiths in Gun Street, which is named after them. In 1636 the first makers of tobacco pipes were mentioned. From 1640 silk was made in Reading.

Another important industry in Reading was brick making and tile making. In 1636 a writer said Reading was ‘the prime and principal town in this county of Berkshire for fair buildings, large streets, for clothing (manufacture) and other blessings’.

In August 1642 civil war between the king and parliament began. The people of Reading seem to have been divided in their loyalties. At first, Reading was occupied by parliamentary troops but in November a Royalist army approached and the parliamentary troops withdrew without a fight. The King arrived in Reading on 3 November and ordered that fortifications should be built around the town. More than 3,000 troops were stationed in and around Reading, about 2,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry.

Then in April 1643, a parliamentary army laid siege to Reading. They set up cannons south of the town and began to bombard it. But they failed to secure the land north of Reading. This enabled the royalists to send reinforcements and ammunition to the town by boat along the Thames.

Nevertheless, the royalists abandoned Reading as it was too far behind enemy lines to hold. The two sides made terms and the Royalists were allowed to march out of Reading to join their main army elsewhere. From April to September 1643, Reading was in parliamentary hands but when a royalist army approached in September the parliamentarians fled Reading without a fight. Then in May 1644, a parliamentary army approached Reading and the royalist army fled without a fight. Reading remained in parliamentary hands until the end of the war in 1646.

Soldiers with pikes

In 1656 the Blue Coat School for boys opened (it was called that because of the bluecoats the boys wore).

Reading, like other Stuart towns, suffered outbreaks of plague. From 1646 the town council set aside houses where people suffering from the plague could be quarantined. In 1665 when the plague broke out in London they appointed wardens to search ‘suspicious persons and goods coming to the town’ to prevent infected persons from entering Reading. They succeeded. In 1664 Reading gained its first fire engine.

Then in 1688 came the Reading fight. King James II was deposed and fled abroad. Parliament invited the Dutch king to come and replace him. The Dutch king landed on the coast and marched inland to Newbury. However, there were 300 Irish troops loyal to James II stationed in Reading. A rumor began that the Irish troops intended to massacre the town’s inhabitants the following Sunday. The terrified townspeople sent word to the Dutch troops at Newbury, appealing for their help.

The Dutch soldiers approached Reading, hiding behind hedges as they did so. The Irish troops were taken by surprise. A short fight ensued and the Irish soldiers were driven from Reading. (Some townspeople fired guns from windows in their houses to help the Dutch). About 50 Irishmen were killed and about a dozen Dutchmen. The so-called Reading fight was celebrated for more than a hundred years afterward.

Reading in the 18th century

In the early 18th century a writer said ‘the town of Reading contains about n900 houses (which would give it a population of about 4,500), large streets, but ordinary buildings wherein is the greatest market for corn in England. At about the same time another writer said that Reading ‘is very pleasantly situated, is large, but nothing near so famous for clothing as it was formerly and the streets though pretty large are unpaved.’ In 1723 Reading gained its first newspaper the Reading Mercury.

During the 18th century, much of Reading was rebuilt and its buildings became much more elegant. In 1813 a writer said ‘the houses are chiefly of brick, well built and commodious’. A new covered market opened in 1800. The Green School for Girls (so-called because of the colour of its uniforms) opened in 1782.

There were other improvements in 18th century Reading. A body called the Improvement Commissioners was formed to pave the streets and clean them. After 1800 they also lit the streets with oil lamps and after 1819 the main streets were lit by gas. In 1781 High Bridge at the end of London Road was rebuilt.

From 1800 a private company provided piped water to anyone able to pay. In 1810 the Kennet and Avon canal was opened. n By the end of the 18th century the cloth industry in Reading was dead but new industries were growing to replace it. In 1785 Simmonds Brewery opened in Broad Street (brewing became a major industry in the 19th century).

There was also a huge variety of craftsmen in Reading. There were butchers, bakers, and grocers. There were also coopers, cutlers, joiners, carpenters, masons, glaziers, plumbers, and blacksmiths. Other craftsmen were boat builders, bookbinders, clockmakers, and pipe makers. Tanning and brick-making were still important industries in the 18th century. Less important industries in Reading included pin-making, coachbuilding, ribbon-making, rope-making, and printing.

Reading in the 19th century

At the time of the first census in 1801 Reading had a population of just under 10,000. By the standards of the time, it was quite a large town. In the 19th century, new industries grew up. In 1807 John Sutton a corn and seed merchant founded Suttons Seeds. In 1822 Joseph Huntley opened a biscuit bakery. Huntley and Palmer later became an important employer in the town, with more than 5,000 employees. Another large industry was brewing. So Reading became known as the town of three Bs, bulbs, biscuits, and breweries.

Another major Reading industry was iron founding, making such things as agricultural machinery. Brick and tile making remained important but the works now made flower pots as well. Industries benefited from the railway, which linked Reading to London in 1840 and Bristol in 1841. Good communications were a key reason for the prosperity of Reading.

Reading grew rapidly and expanded to the East and West. In 1802 Reading dispensary opened on Chain Street. (Medicines were dispensed to those too poor to afford a doctor). The Royal Berkshire Hospital opened in 1839. The first cemetery opened in 1843. A Public Board of Health was established in 1850. The board dug sewers across the town. They also replaced the slaughterhouses in the town centre with ones by a new cattle market on Great Knollys Street.

There were many other improvements in Victorian Reading. In 1862 Forbury was laid out as a formal garden and new municipal buildings opened in 1876. A public library opened in Reading in 1884. An art school opened in 1860. A science school opened in 1870. In 1882 these two schools merged. Meanwhile, in 1877 Kendrick boys and girls schools opened.

In 1889 the boundaries of Reading were enlarged. Horse-drawn trams began running in Reading in 1879. Electric trams replaced them in 1903. However, buses, in turn, replaced them. The last trams in Reading ran in 1939.

Reading in the 20th century

In 1909 Reading gained its first cinemas. In 1911 the boundaries were extended again to include Caversham and Tilehurst. In 1920 the first council houses were built in Shinfield Road.

Reading University opened in 1926. An aerodrome opened in Woodley in 1931. During the Second World War Reading was considered a ‘safe’ town (one unlikely to be bombed). Therefore many children from London were evacuated to Reading early in the war. But it was not entirely safe. In an air raid on 10 February 1941, 41 people were killed and 153 were injured.

In the 1950s more council houses were built in Reading. One new development was St Michaels estate between Reading and Tilehurst. South of Reading the Whitley estate was extended. Another council estate was built at Emmer Green. The first council flats were built at Southcote in 1959. Many private houses were also built. Broad Street Mall opened in 1971. Also in 1971, Friars Walk shopping centre was built. The M4 opened in 1971.

But there were major changes in industry in Reading. Suttons Seeds closed in 1976. Huntley and Palmers Biscuits closed in 1977. Simonds Brewery moved to a new site on the edge of Reading in the 1970s. On the other hand, some firms moved their headquarters to Reading in the 1970s as rents in London became very expensive.

Reading gained its first commercial radio station in 1976. The same year a new Civic Offices was built. A new Central Library was built in 1985 and a new railway station in 1989. Rivermead Leisure Centre opened in 1988. The Oracle Shopping Centre opened in Reading in 1999.

Reading in the 21st century

In the 21st century Reading is still a flourishing town. A Visitors Centre opened in 2001. In 2023 the population of Reading was 161,000.