The Site

The agreed site for the memorial is opposite the Crown Courts and adjacent to the south wall of Forbury Gardens in Reading.This is within the area of the Reading Abbey Quarter which is being developed as the heritage centre of the town. This central location attracts a great number of visitors and already contains several other memorials. What follows is a very brief history of the Gardens and some notes on the other memorials and the historic significance of the site.

Forbury Gardens

Forbury Gardens was created at the height of the Victorian public parks movement, on the land between the old abbey and the town. The Gardens were laid out in stages: the formal eastern garden (the ‘Inner Forbury’, opened in 1856) and a grassed western half ‘for athletic and military exercises’ (the ‘Outer Forbury’, opened in 1861) separated by a wall. In 1864 the Borough surveyor, Charles Clacy, laid out a comprehensive plan for the Pleasure Gardens, encompassing both the Forbury and the Dormitory of the Abbey ruins, linked by a tunnel.

The site of Forbury Gardens has a long history as an area of open space, and its historical development is closely linked to the growth of Reading. The earliest evidence of settlement is of Saxon communities adjacent to the site of the Forbury, a Saxon name meaning ‘area in front of the town’ (fore-bury).

Following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the old Abbey site fell into private ownership. For the next 200 years, the Abbey ruins remained dilapidated, and the Forbury was an open space at the edge of the town, used for grazing and general recreation, and as a deposit for rubbish and dead animals. In 1848 a local Board of Health observed that the Forbury was in a ‘disgraceful’ state.

Phased public acquisition of land at the Forbury led to the piecemeal development of the Gardens at the height of the Victorian public parks movement. Today the gardens are a site of historical and archaeological significance, but still perform their original role, providing a space for promenading and relaxation, for admiring horticultural beauty and for public celebrations.

Reading Abbey

The Abbey was founded in 1121 by Henry I. For 400 years it dominated the town, and became one of the most influential establishments in England. The Forbury was incorporated into the outer court of the monastic precinct. This semi-public space provided a meeting place between the Abbey and the town. Forbury Hill was constructed as part of the fortification of the Abbey during the civil war between Matilda and Stephen in 1150. When the Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539, it was the sixth wealthiest in England. Much of it was demolished, and the focus of the town moved away from the Forbury.

Positioned between the Royalist headquarters in Oxford and Parliament in London, Reading suffered occupation by both sides during the Civil War (1642-44). The building of defences involved further destruction of the Abbey, and ditches were constructed across the Forbury. Forbury Hill was used as a gun emplacement.

Memorials in the Gardens

The Maiwand Lion

The Maiwand Lion has become an emblem of Reading. The huge sculpture commemorates the 328 officers and men of the 66th (later the Second Royal Berkshire) Regiment who died in the 2nd Afghan war, mostly at the Battle of Maiwand, on 27 July 1880. The orders to march had been given the night before, and most troops had spent the night packing. They marched the following morning already tired and without breakfast. By 9 am, the heat was intense. Worse, the officers had severely underestimated the strength of the opposing force. The column of some 2,700 troops was facing between twelve and twenty thousand Afghan fighters. Outmanned and outmanoeuvred, the British forces were forced to retreat. After fighting a desperate rearguard action,eleven men of the 66th regiment made a final gallant stand to defend their Colours; but they were lost and as a result British regiments were forbidden to carry their Colours into battle ever again.

The sculptor of the Maiwand Lion was George Blackall Simonds, a member of the Reading brewing family. His most famous work is considered a masterpiece: ‘The Falconer’ was first exhibited at the Vienna International Exhibition of 1873, and several copies were commissioned. The version which stands in Central Park (New York) has contributed most to making the sculptor famous. The Maiwand Lion was commissioned by the Berkshire Memorial Fund, and erected in 1886. The 31-foot lion is one of the world’s largest cast iron statues, taking two years to design and complete. The following year, Simonds sculpted a monumental marble statue of Queen Victoria for her Golden Jubilee, which stands outside Reading Town Hall, and in 1891 a bronze portrait of biscuit manufacturer, industrialist and philanthropist, George Palmer, was made for Broad Street. The latter was moved to Palmer Park in 1930. Simonds created over 200 works in an extraordinary diversity of media and techniques, mastering marble, bronze, plaster, terracotta, cameo, silver, brass, wood and cast iron.

The War Memorial

The Reading War Memorial is outside the Victoria Gates (which commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897). The War Memorial was unveiled in 1932 on the anniversary of the battle of Maiwand to commemorate the Berkshire men killed in the First World War.

The stone column was initially intended as the Berkshire War Memorial rather than being Reading specific. However, the citizens of Reading stumped up their share, but the expectation that the landed gentry in the country areas would do likewise was not to be. The construction languished, semi-funded, for a while and was eventually completed with just Reading money.

The Burma Star

The Burma Star memorial stone is situated in centre of the rose garden at Forbury Gardens. It serves as a memorial to all the local men who lost their lives in the campaign against the Japanese between 1941 and 1945.

The Burma Star memorial is maintained by the Burma Star Association, which seeks to relieve hardship, need or distress amoung those men and women who served in His Majesty's or Armed Forces or in the Nursing Services in the Burma Campaign of the Second Worl War, to promote the comradeship experienced in the bitter fighting in the jungles of Burma, and to set up a welfare organisation so that holders and widows in need can be given assistance. Now dwindling in numbers, the Association has been particularly strong in Reading because of the contribution of the Royal Berkshires in the war and the service the local infantry regiment carried out.

The memorial stone was replaced in 2010, as the original had decayed so severely that it was no longer possible to decipher its inscription.

Henry I Memorial Cross

The Henry I Memorial Cross was unveiled in 1909 to mark the western end of the Abbey church that Henry had founded in 1121.

Significance of the site

Forbury Gardens and the Abbey ruins are of historical and archaeological importance: (i) as the site of the historically influential Reading Abbey, (ii) because of the association of the site with the development and activities of the town, and (iii) as an example of a Victorian park created at the height of the public parks movement.

In the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest, the gardens are Grade II listed.

Structures on and around the site with listed building status are:

• the Abbey Gateway (Grade I);
• the Church of St Laurence (Grade I);
• the Abbey ruins (Grade I);
• the archway connecting Forbury Gardens to the Abbey ruins’ including the retaining walls flanking the path (Grade II*);
• the walls and gatepiers of St Laurence’s graveyard (Grade II);
• the drinking fountain on the south side of St Laurence’s Tower (Grade II);
• twelve tombs in St Laurence’s Churchyard (Grade II);
• the north side of St Laurence’s Churchyard (Grade II);
• the municipal buildings (Grade II);
• Blagrave Street (Grade II);
• the shelter in the northeast corner of Forbury Gardens (Grade II);
• the Henry I Memorial (Grade II);
• the Maiwand Lion Memorial (Grade II); • the wall between Forbury Road and Abbott’s Walk to the west of St James’s Church (Grade II);
• St James’s Church (Grade II);
• St James’s Roman Catholic School (Grade II);
• the main building of Reading Gaol (Grade II);
• No.s 10, 11 and 12 Abbott’s Walk (Grade II); and • the Shire Hall (Grade II).

Most of the site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument (‘Reading Abbey: a Cluniac and Benedictine Monastery and Civil War Earthwork’, no.19019). All modern structures and roads are excluded, although the ground beneath them is included. The Abbey is recognised as an excellent example of a medieval monastic complex, one of few such sites in Berkshire.

The Gardens provide part of the setting for the Market Place Conservation Area. They are surrounded by commercial properties and important civic buildings of architectural interest, many of which are listed (see above). In particular, St Laurence’s Church, visible to the west of the Gardens, dates back to the 12th century, when it was constructed by the Abbey as the local parish church for the residents of Reading, and AW Pugin designed St James’s Catholic Church, which lies on the east boundary of the Gardens.

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