The borough of Reading: Introduction

A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1923.

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'The borough of Reading: Introduction', in A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 3, (London, 1923) pp. 336-342. British History Online [accessed 29 February 2024]


Rading, Reding, Redynges.

Reading is not on a Roman road, but it stands in a favourable position for water-borne traffic, being on the Kennet near to its junction with the Thames. The origin of Reading was probably commercial, but its growth was no doubt fostered by the presence of a religious house which was founded there at an uncertain date, and which was destroyed probably by the Danes in 1006. (fn. 1)

Reading is a Parliamentary borough and the capital of Berkshire, and it is rapidly growing. In 1911 the borough boundaries were enlarged to take in the urban district of Caversham. The town despite its antiquity is neither handsome nor interesting. Some of the ancient streets, such as Minster Street, have recently been widened, and most of the picturesque old houses have disappeared within the last few years, while the newer buildings are undistinguished; the artisan districts, which are at the extreme east and west of the town, are clean and healthy but featureless.

The plan of the older portion of the town of Reading roughly resembles a triangle, with Friar Street for its base on the north. Of the two converging thoroughfares running southwards, which form its sides, the eastern, starting from the Market Place at the east end of Friar Street, is known successively as Duke Street, London Street, and Silver Street; the western as West Street, St. Mary's Butts, Bridge Street, and Southampton Street. At the junction of Friar Street with the Market Place is St. Lawrence's Church, and to the east of it the Forbury Gardens, occupying part of the site of the former abbey. Greyfriars Church stands at the west end of Friar Street, and of the remaining two mediæval churches, St. Mary's stands on the east side of St. Mary's Butts, and St. Giles on the east side of Southampton Street. The triangle of streets thus formed is intersected from east to west by Broad Street, starting from the south end of the Market Place, Minster Street, which is connected by Gun Street with St. Mary's Butts, Mill Lane, Church Street, so named from St. Giles's Church, and Crown Street. Bridges cross the River Kennet, which flows through the town a little to the south of Minster Street, off which, near the river, is the old Yeld or Gild Hall, now inclosed within the engineering works of Messrs. John Wilder and used as a residence. It is a small L-shaped brick building of the early 17th century, much modernized and altered, two stories in height with an attic in the roof. The south wing at one time projected further eastwards, but this projection has been pulled down. A wooden entrance porch is formed in the angle at the meeting of the two arms. The original staircase, a good example of the period, still remains, while entering a room off the landing is a fine Jacobean doorway of the Ionic order. The older windows have oak mullions and transoms, but sash windows have been substituted in many instances. The house has been through many vicissitudes and appears at one time to have been used as a gaol; some fetters found during an alteration are still preserved. The present town hall, which occupies part of the site of the abbey hospitium, was first erected there in 1786, since which time it has been enlarged and extended; the building then put up, a plain brick structure, still survives, though surrounded by the later additions, and is known as the 'small town hall.' On the west side of the Market Place is an interesting half-timber house of the early 17th century, now occupied by the Phœnix Assurance Company. It is of three stories with an attic, the floors being marked externally by moulded cornices. The elevation to the street is symmetrically designed with small attached Doric columns standing on plinths arranged along the ground floor, while the upper floors have two bay windows stopped under the projecting main cornice which runs along the building at the eaves level. The roof is tiled, and the two dormers have hipped roofs of the same material. The mullions to the windows are moulded, and the filling of the timber framing is plastered. Little of architectural interest remains either in Friar Street or Broad Street, the latter of which crosses St. Mary's Butts and joins the main road to Oxford. In King Street, as the continuation of Broad Street south of the Market Place is called, is the 'George,' a refronted half-timber building. On the south side of Hosier Street, which leads out of the west side of St. Mary's Butts, are the remains of Lady Vachell's house, which was erected in the late 16th century, and is now cut up into tenements. On plan the house is a long rectangle, two stories in height, with one in the roof. The walls of the ground stage are of stone and flint, relieved with bands of narrow brick, but they have been much renewed with modern brickwork. The walls of the upper floor are entirely of brick with a string-course at the first floor level, and a crowning cornice, both of the same material. With the exception of a few narrow openings in the north wall, which overlooks the street and has modern buttresses against its lower stage, the fenestration is almost entirely confined to the south wall. On the east is a good chimney stack, and internally some 18th-century fireplaces and panelling remain. The whole structure is, however, in a very bad state of repair and is of no great architectural distinction. In St. Mary's Butts are some refronted houses of the 17th and 18th centuries. On the north side of a small whitewashed cellar under St. Mary's Vicarage, a building of no great age, is a curious piece of irregularly shaped walling built of flat tiles, perhaps Roman, and flint rubble. The surrounding work is of ordinary rubble and common brickwork. The Bath road, known here as Castle Street, leads westward from the south end of the Butts, opposite the point where this thoroughfare is joined by Gun Street. On the south side of Castle Street is an interesting early 17th-century house, now the residence of Mr. Percy W. M. Howse and known as Lynford. It is three stories high, each story slightly overhanging the one below; the top story is partly in the roof. At the east end of the ground floor a cartway runs under the house to a yard at the back. The walls are of half-timber covered externally with rough-cast, and the roof is tiled. The interior has been modernized, but original chimneypieces and panelling remain in several of the rooms, and the staircase, with its turned balusters, ball finials, and moulded strings and handrails, still survives. The window frames are of oak, mullioned and transomed, those to the first floor having projecting sills supported by small carved console brackets. In the centre of the front is a wooden entrance porch. Adjoining Lynford on the east is a gabled three-storied house of the same type and date. On the north side of the road, next to the modern church of St. Mary, is the Sun Inn, a refronted gabled building, probably of the early 17th century. Holy Brook House, on the opposite side of the road a little distance to the westward, is a good brick three-storied house of the 18th century, with a well-designed Doric doorcase. Here also are the modern almshouses erected in 1864 to replace the various older almshouses of the town. The brick and stone bridge carrying Southampton Street over the mill stream by Mill Lane appears to be of the 17th century, though the parapet has been replaced by an elaborate cast-iron railing of the early 19th century. Immediately to the south of the bridge, its north wall facing on the stream, is a good 18thcentury brick house with a moulded cornice of the same material between the first and second floors. On an oval tablet is the date 1734 and the initials W. S. J. On the east side of Southampton Street, adjoining St. Giles's Vicarage, are some brick-faced half-timber outbuildings, now used as independent tenements. On the same side of the road, a little to the south of Crown Street, are the former Harrison almshouses, now known as Almshouse Court. They are contained in a plain brick building with a stone tablet on the wall towards the street, inscribed: 'Founded by Bernard Harrison | 1617 for Eight Women | Rebuilt by the corporation 1816.' Under the date 1816 can be deciphered the figures of the date 1797. Church Street contains some excellent 18th-century brickwork. At the west end, on the north side, is a row of half-timber cottages covered externally with rough-cast, and dating probably from the early years of the 17th century. The western half has been refaced with brick. Some half-timber work also remains in Crown Street. London Street crosses the Kennet by High Bridge, a handsome stone bridge, rebuilt, as recorded by the inscription on the parapet, by the corporation in 1788. The roadway rises considerably, and the stream is spanned by a single elliptical arch with vermiculated vous soirs. On the west side of London Street are two half-timber houses, one at each corner of Church Street, both refronted with brick towards the more important thoroughfare. The London road joins London Street opposite Crown Street.

Yeld Hall, Reading

'Lynford,' Castle Street, Reading

Of the buildings of Reading Abbey founded in 1121 the principal remains above ground are portions of the north and south transepts of the church, with fragments of the lower parts of the piers of the crossing; the greater part of the shell of the chapter-house, which forms, with the south transept, the east range of the cloister and is separated from it by a narrow passage, originally vaulted, perhaps the rearvestry; a fragment of the wall of a large rectangular building, probably the frater, on the south of the original cloister; the west and south walls of the dorter block, adjoining the chapter-house on the south, and separated from it by a small passage; and the four walls of the rere-dorter immediately to the south of the dorter. The inner gatehouse, a little distance to the west of the church, still remains in a comparatively perfect, though much restored, state, and there are considerable remains of the abbey mill, while the dormitory of the hospitium of St. John Baptist yet survives. With these exceptions, only the core of the walls of the buildings above enumerated is left, the facing having been almost entirely torn away.

Reading Abbey. Azure three scallops or.

The precincts must have originally inclosed an area of about 30 acres, the boundary wall extending northwards from the hospitium nearly to the North Forbury Road, thence following the line of the present Forbury Road eastwards and southwards to Blake's Bridge; the River Kennet and the Holy Brook formed the southern boundary of the site as far as the west end of the present Abbey Square, where a wall running northwards completed the circuit of the precincts at a point a little to the east of St. Lawrence's Church, and, turning due westwards for a short distance, met the gateway subsequently known as the Compter, the north wall of which abutted upon the south wall of the nave of St. Lawrence's Church. Of this wall, and of the gate-houses on the north, east and south, nothing is now left above ground; the north wall, however, which was long known as the 'plummery' wall, survived till comparatively recent times; it is shown in a view of the then new county gaol, made in 1844. (fn. 2) In the course of excavations made for building and drainage operations foundations have been found in a line with Blake's Bridge, and along the north side of the Holy Brook, (fn. 3) which sufficiently establish the position of the wall on this side, apart from the evidence of Speed's plan of Reading, where the continuation of the 'plummery' wall southwards to Blake's Bridge, then known as 'Orte's Bridge,' is shown as still existing. The space within the walls was divided into an inner and an outer court by a wall running due west from the north walk of the cloister, the inner or southern court including the secular buildings of the abbey, and communicating with the outer northern court by means of the gate-house still standing. The plan of the ruins made by Sir Henry Englefield in 1779 (fn. 4) shows the foundations of the Lady chapel, east of the quire of the church, the north wall of the refectory, and the west wall of the cloister as still existing in his time. The outlines of the apse, quire, and south transpet, with the bases of pillars could be traced in 1823. (fn. 5) These, with the foundations of the Lady chapel, were destroyed in 1843, when the new gaol was erected. The foundations of a large building were dug out in excavating for the foundations of the new Assize Court; their dimensions were then taken and found to measure 110 ft. by 50 ft., the largest apartment being about 60 ft. by 45 ft. The foundations of the bake-house were discovered in 1860, when additions were being made to the abbey mill, and those of the stables at the south-west of the precincts were partly uncovered about the same time in the course of building operations on the site. Further light is thrown on the original arrangements by the survey made by order of Parliament at the close of the Civil War in 1650. Mention is there made of 'all that capital messuage, mansion-house, et abbeyhouse, called Reading Abbey, consisting of two cellars, two butteries, a hall, a parlour, a dining room, ten chambers, a garret with a large gallery, and other small rooms, with two courtyards and a large gate-house with several rooms adjoining the said house and a small gardine… There is on the east side of the said mansion house, a great old hall, with a very large cellar under the said hall, arched, with some other decayed rooms between the sayd hall and the mansion-house, with the ruins of an old large chappell, a kitchen, and several other rooms.' This statement suggest that the abbot's lodging adjoined the still existing gate-house on the east; the buildings between it and the frater, the 'great old hall' of the survey, forming the west range of the cloister, probably contained the offices and the cellarer's establishment. The site of the present gaol is referred to in the following terms: 'The Fermary garden, a messuage, tenement, malt-house, garden and orchard, so-called; bounded with the River Kennett South, and butting upon the way leading to Forbury from Orte Bridge.' This statement points to the former existence of the infirmary upon the site. The following clauses sufficiently establish the relative positions of the stable and great garden: 'A large barn, formerly a stable, in length 135 ft., in breadth 30 ft., with a great yard and small garden, bounded by the hollow brook (now called the holy brook) South, and the said great garden, North… All that garden or orchard called by the name of the great gardine, one acre … bounded by the said Forbury, North, and said great yard south.'

The church must have originally consisted of an apsidal quire with aisles, an eastern chapel beyond the apse, a central tower, north and south transepts with small eastern chapels, and an aisled nave. So far as can be ascertained from the remains which have from time to time been uncovered, the entire length, inclusive of the eastern or Lady chapel, was 450 ft., and the width with the aisles 95 ft. Each transept was 75 ft. in depth, and from the north wall of the north transept to the south wall of the south transept measured 200 ft. (fn. 6) The whole building, with the exception of the Lady chapel, which was added in 1314, appears to have been of the 12th century, and the secular buildings seem to have been erected at the same period. A fragment of the base of the west pier of the south arcade remains in situ, with the core of the lower portion of the piers of the crossing. At the east end of the former south aisle of the nave is a doorway which originally opened into the east walk of the cloister. From the stones of the west jamb which still remain in position it appears to have been internally of two shafted orders. Both north and south transepts had twin apsidal chapels. The buildings attached to the modern Roman Catholic church of St. James occupy the greater part of the site of the north transept, of which only fragments of the foundations remain, but the south transept walls remain to a considerable height. With the exception of a fragment of fine-jointed ashlar-work at the south end of the west wall, the whole of the facing, as elsewhere, has been torn away, leaving only the flint rubble core. In the apse of the northern chapel two rough openings show the position of former windows, beneath which is a recess formed by the four-centred head and fragments of the panelled jambs of a fireplace, or more probably a tomb, of the early 16th century, found on the site of the gaol. Within it is placed a 13th-century stone coffin. There appear to have been two windows in the west wall, while at the south-east are traces of a stone stair, which must have given access to a room over the vestry, probably the treasury. A 12th-century stone found on the site in 1835, and known as the 'Reading Abbey stone,' is used as the font in the adjoining church of St. James. It consists of a square table or abacus, the sides of which are richly carved with interlacing ornament, supported by the capitals of a central and four angle shafts similarly ornamented and formed out of the same block of stone. The original supporting shafts have disappeared, and have been replaced by modern ones. Its original use is uncertain; it may possibly have been a lectern, in which case a movable desk of wood or metal would probably have been placed upon it. (fn. 7) The vestry itself, which opened out of the transept on the south, was evidently barrel-vaulted, the springers of the vault being clearly visible on the south wall. A round-headed doorway, apparently of three orders, communicated with the cloister. Adjoining the vestry on the south, and completing the east range of the former cloister, was the chapter-house, a large building with an eastern apse measuring 79 ft. by 40 ft. The apse seems to have had five windows, while in the west wall was apparently a central round-headed doorway of three orders, flanked by two slightly smaller openings, with three windows above. A barrel vault appears to have roofed the building, while the position of the stone benches surrounding the walls internally can be distinctly seen. A passage, entered from the cloister by a round-arched doorway, perhaps of three orders, separated the chapterhouse from the dorter block on the south. Here are traces of wall-arcading, with some flint herring-bone facing still in position. Of the dorter block, a large building measuring about 145 ft. by 40 ft., only portions of the west and south walls remain. At the south-west is part of the ashlar jamb and the springing of the segmental ribbed rear arch of an inserted window, probably of the 14th century. In the still standing west wall are several window openings with their dressings torn away. At the south end of the dorter, and separated from it by a narrow passage, are the four walls of the rere-dorter, placed near the River Kennet in a convenient position for drainage. Only a fragment of the south wall of the frater, which formed the south range of the cloister, remains, with a row of cottages built against it. The kitchen, mentioned in the survey of 1650, was apparently at its west end.

Reading Abbey: Remains of Arcading in Passage between Chapter-house and Dorter Block

The inner gate-house dates from the latter half of the 13th century, but the greater part of the external detail was renewed at its restoration by Scott in 1869. There is a central gateway with a large room above, occupying the whole length of the building, with two smaller rooms beneath, one above the other, on each side of the gateway. A stone internal stair at the north-east, largely modern, but apparently occupying its original position, passing partly over the northern entrance arch of the gateway, communicates with the large upper room and with the intermediate floor on this side. On the west a stone external stair on the west side of the gateway is the only means of access to the intermediate floor. The gateway itself measures internally about 21 ft. 8 in. by 19 ft. 3 in., and is entered on the north by a two-centred arch of two moulded orders, with jambs of the same section, an impost being formed by the sill string of the windows of the intermediate floors, which runs round the building at this level. The arch is inclosed by a label with head-stops, above which is a plain gabled canopy. Set back about 4 ft. 10 in. from the north face is an inner semicircular arch, also of two moulded orders, the soffit between the two arches being barrelvaulted. The entrance arch on the south, which has a label and canopy like that on the north, is also semicircular. At the southern angles of the gateway are the springers of vaulting ribs. There is no trace of answering ribs in the opposite angles, and it would appear that the idea of vaulting the space was abandoned soon after the works were begun. The label of the southern arch has grotesque dragon stops, the eastern original, the western restored from fragments. Generally, the stones of the archway are original, though much restored. The ground stage on either side is entered from the interior of the gateway by small original doorways at the south-east and southwest, with plain chamfered two-centred heads, and by restored doorways of similar form, though on a larger and more elaborate scale, in the side bays of the south front. The intermediate floor on the west side is entered from the external stair above referred to by a plain chamfered square-headed doorway. Internally throughout the building the walls are plastered, and no original detail remains, with the exception of the broken jamb of a fireplace in the western apartment of the ground stage. The gatehouse is divided externally into three stages, where not interrupted by the canopied arches of the entrance, by the sill strings of the windows of the upper and intermediate floors, and there are octagonal turrets at the four corners. The north and south elevations are each divided into three bays, and the west elevation into two bays, by intermediate and angle buttresses; the latter carry the two projecting cardinal faces of each corner turret, their other sides being supported by small squinches thrown from buttress to buttress and to the walls. The squinches are repeated on the intermediate buttresses, where, however, they only support large broach-like slopes, the buttress being left free to rise in its original form. The soffits of the squinches are groined, the groins springing from small head corbels, nearly all of which have been renewed. There is no central buttress on the east wall; that on the west is carried above the parapet and serves as a chimney stack. The intermediate floors are lighted by large lancets with elaborately shafted jambs in the side bays of the north and south elevations, and by two smaller and plainer lancets in each end wall. The labels inclosing their heads are formed by the string-course which runs round the building at the squinch level. Light is also obtained from the interior of the gateway by small plain lights. The large lancets on the south side are almost entirely modern; those on the north, however, are mainly original. Up to this level the facing, which has been renewed throughout, is of ashlar; the upper portion of the walls is faced with flint. The large room over the gateway is lighted by cinquefoiled lancets, all restored, four in the north wall, four in the south, and four in each end wall. Their labels are continued as a string-course. A vice in the north-east turret leads from this floor to the leads, which have plain modern parapets carried on corbel tables. Similar parapets crown the turrets, which rise above the roof.

The surviving dormitory of the hospitium of St. John Baptist was entirely remodelled in 1486, when it was transformed into a school. No detail earlier than that period remains, though the walls are probably those of the original building of 1196. In its present state it is a two-storied structure of stone, placed east and west, measuring internally about 83 ft. by 23 ft. 8 in. The interior has been almost entirely modernized, a mezzanine floor having been inserted in the centre of the building. On the north side is an octagonal stair turret of the late 15th century, constructed of brick with stone quoins and dressings, and on the south, nearly opposite, is a square projection containing wood newel stairs of the 17th century, which evidently replace a 15th-century stair, the blocked entrance to which still survives on the upper floor. To the east of this a modern entrance corridor has been added on the ground floor, and openings have been formed in the south wall of the main structure at this end, communicating with it. The present partitions divide this floor into three main divisions. It is lighted on the south by small late 15th-century square-headed windows, much restored, each of two four-centred lights, and placed at some distance above the floor level. In the east wall, communicating with the adjoining house, formerly the vicarage of St. Lawrence's Church, is an original doorway, much renewed, and to the south of it, internally, a small square-headed niche. At the north-east is a small niche with a four-centred head. All these details appear to be of the late 15th century. On the north side all the windows to the west of the stair turret have been enlarged, and there is a modern entrance porch at the north-east. Beneath the sill of the second window from the west are the jambs of a recess broken into by the lowering of the sill. In the east face of the octagonal stair turret is an external entrance doorway with a four-centred head; the stairs, which are of stone and almost entirely renewed, are now entered from the interior. The upper floor, which is open to the roof, appears to have been originally one long apartment, and is lighted on the north and south by windows similar to those lighting the ground floor, and, like them, much restored. At the south-east is a fireplace of original late 15th-century date, with moulded brick jambs and a massive chamfered lintel of oak. In the western angle of the fireplace opening is a small cupboard or pocket with a four-centred head, and immediately above the fire place, on the same side, is a second small cupboard with a rebated door frame of wood still in position. The adjoining vicarage-house to the east of the dormitory appears to have been entirely rebuilt above the foundations in the 17th and 18th centuries. Panelling of both dates remains internally.

Incorporated in the present structure of the Abbey Mills are considerable remains of the east and west walls of the original mill of the abbey. Two fine late 12th-century arches span the Holy Brook. The western arch is two-centred and segmental, and is richly moulded with the cheveron on the east face. The eastern arch is also two-centred, but has only plain chamfers. On the north and south of the main arches are smaller and plainer arched openings with semicircular heads.

Reading has grown very rapidly of late years; a great increase of population took place at the end of the 19th century, when the nearer western suburbs were laid out, but in 1850 it was still a small and pretty town, whose wide streets and open green spaces counteracted many of the evils of defective sanitation. There is now a large artisan population employed by the Great Western Railway and South Eastern and Chatham Railway Companies, by Messrs. Huntley & Palmer, by Messrs. Sutton and by other firms. The picturesque but insanitary courts behind the main streets, which were long the home of the Reading poor, are now gradually disappearing.


  • 1. V.C.H. Berks. ii, 62.
  • 2. Engraved in the Illus. London News, iv, 108.
  • 3. Berks. Arch. and Archit. Soc. Journ. 1880–1, p. 65 et seq.
  • 4. Arch. vi, 61.
  • 5. C. A. Buckler, Notes on Reading Abley (Add. MSS. 36,400).
  • 6. Berks. Arch. and Archit. Soc. Journ. 1880–1, p. 65 et seq.
  • 7. a A late 12th-century lectern of marble, supported in precisely the same manner, but with the desk itself formed out of the upper portion of the stone, exists at Crowle in Worcestershire. See V.C.H. Worcs. iii, 333.