History of Reading

Reading is essentially a post-Roman, Saxon foundation dating back probably to the early 7th Century. The settlement was made between the rivers Kennet and Thames where the gravels made a crossing of both rivers feasible.Thus being on the main route from the west country to London a north-south route which crossed the Thames at this point brought traders by both river and land together.

Time Line

871 - Captured by the Danes
1121 - Abbey founded
1253 - The first Charter
1486c - Reading School
1539 - Abbey dissolved
1560 - Borough charter granted
1643 - Siege of Reading
1785 - Simonds Brewery established
1839 - Royal Berks Hospital opened
1840 - GWR Opened
1841 - Huntley & Palmers founded
1865 - Reading workhouse & Infirmary opened
1875 - New Municipal Buildings
1901 - Reading's first trams
1911 - Exapansion to take in Caversham and Tilehurst
1926 - Reading University opened

Early History
In view of recent historical research into the processes whereby the area made the transition from a Celtic-speaking post-Roman outpost of Calleva to a thriving Saxon-speaking commercial centre, the derivation of the name seems much more likely to have been a corruption of the Celtic Rhydau yn glyn (ie Fords joined together) rather than the suggestion that it was named after a ficticious tribal chieftain called Reada.

In 871 it was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that a major Danish army had come to Reading and the town got its first mention in the history books. It had become a Royal estate belonging to the king. About 130 years later it was noted as a Danish supply base and when Cnut became king in 1017 it was granted to a fellow Dane named Tovi the Proud and later became the base for the Godwins, who, as Earls of Wessex, were the major power behind the throne before the Norman Conquest.

In Domesday it was recorded as belonging to the king again with a part belonging to Battle Abbey. Interestingly Tilehurst doesn't get a mention, presumably because the relevant hideage was attributed to residents of the town, even though their estates were outside the borough.

Reading Abbey
In 1121 Henry I founded Reading Abbey and was buried there. It was the Abbey which was to dominate Reading's affairs for the next 400 years. Its monks were excused tolls and taxes and pensions had to be paid by many local rural churches that had at one time been served by priests based at Reading Minster which had been founded in the 10th century. 1233 saw the Franciscans set up their church (Greyfriars) much against the wishes of the Abbot. St Laurence church was established as a chapel to serve pilgrims and traders visiting the Abbey and its new market.

Being on the two rivers, Reading was in an ideal position to exploit the rapidly developing wool trade on the downlands to its west. This stimulated the formation of several merchant guilds who organised and controlled the various craftsmen so that Reading cloth became a by-word for quality.

The Abbey was dissolved in 1539 and its last Abbot, Hugh Faringdon, was dragged through the town before being hung drawn and quartered at his own gate. Regrettably the Abbey buildings were systematically stripped of stone and left in the ruinous state one sees today.

Early Modern Reading
During Tudor times Reading was very prosperous and spawned a number of benefactors whose influence can still be felt today. Sir Thomas White founded St John's College in Oxford and endowed scholarships at Reading School. One of his earliest scholars was William Laud who became Archbishop of Canterbury and gave money to Reading Corporation to care for the poor. John Kendrick gave the funds for a workhouse for the poor of Reading and founded Kendrick School. John Blagrave was a mathematician who left money to provide a marriage portion for maids, four from Reading and one from Southcote.

The Civil War made its impact on Reading. First garrisoned by Parliament it then became the second largest Royalist stronghold after Oxford. It was besieged by Parliamentary forces in April 1643 and fell into Parliamentary hands. The next few years saw the establishment of several non-conformist churches but it was not until 1689 that they were granted freedom of worship.

The 18th Century brought greatly improved communications by water and land from which Reading profited. It changed from an essentially country town, dependent to a large extent on its agricultural hinterland, to a bustling commercial and industrial centre with thriving newspapers and a focus for the coaching trade, being placed on the main route from London to the major cities of Bath and Bristol. In 1785 William Blackall Simonds established his brewery in Broad Street to become the first (and last) of Reading's three Bs (Brewing, Biscuits and Bulbs)

The 19th Century saw yet another transport system established, first when Brunel built the Great Western Railway to provide direct routes to Birmingham, South Wales and the west country, and then when the South Eastern Railway linked Reading with Dover and the continent.

After the Corporation was reorganised in 1835 a wide variety of public services came into being with healthcare, water supplies, sewage, education and proper paving and lighting. New municipal buildings were erected in 1875 which eventually added a public library and Museum and a concert hall. Statues began to appear and Reading developed a real sense of civic pride. A new tram service opened in 1901, at first horsedrawn but then electrified; they were later replaced by trolley and motor buses.

20th Century Reading
In 1911 Reading expanded its boundaries once more. It had had several minor expansions since Saxon times, but this time it took in Caversham, across the river, and most of Tilehurst gaining an extra 9106 acres and 13,000 residents.

Reading made a major contribution to the First World War. Well over 10,000 of its sons and daughters volunteered to join the army and navy and, from 1918, The Royal Air Force. Its industries made weapons and supplies and many of its citizens provided billets for troops stationed in the area. In the Second World War Reading experienced some bombing although not on the scale of many similar towns.

Since then it has become the home to a wide variety of commercial companies in insurance, banking and information technology. Much of its former industry has disappeared but it is now a thriving shopping centre and the capital of the Thames Valley.

More Links

During the First World War many of Reading's small industrial concerns were used to make weapons and otherwise make significant contributions to the war effort.

CLICK HERE to learn something of their contributions.

Reading hospitals provided support to over 40,000 wounded.

CLICK HERE to learn something of their contributions.

Tim Lambert has assembled a quick history of Reading. To see his website click HERE

If you would like to take a walk around Reading and look at its history through its buildings, then why not visit the Reading Heritage Trails.

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