The History of Reading
Reading began life when Saxons settled in the area and was called originally Reada ingas. The name means ‘the people of Reada’ after the Saxon leader who settled in the area with his tribe in the 6th century. It is thought that this early Saxon village was established in the area of St Marys Butts. The two rivers, the Kennet and the Thames , made it an ideal location for a market as goods were often transported by water in Saxon times.
Reading’s first mention in written history comes from when the Danes invaded it in 871 . The town gets another mention, for the same reasons, this time in 1006 when the Danes one again razed it to the ground. By the time of the Norman census in 1086 , as recorded in the Domesday Book , Reading had a population of just 600 people. The Normans erected a castle in Reading, initially it was constructed in wood but this was later replaced by a stone castle. The castle was demolished in 1152 during the Anarchy, the English civil war of succession, to prevent it being used defensively.
In medieval times cloth making supported Reading’s economy. Wool was brought into Reading from the Berkshire sheep flocks by boat. There were many fullers weavers, dyers, and tailors in Reading to service the trade and the well-heeled cloth merchants themselves were serviced by several wine merchants. A leather industry complimented the cloth making in Reading and the rivers meant that boat building also flourished in the region. Reading boasted several goldsmiths as well as carpenters, blacksmiths, stonemasons, butchers, bakers and millers.
The main road from London to the West, the Great West Road, passed through reading in the Middle Ages. The town prospered from the trade it generated and the many passing travellers looking for a convenient place to stay while en route. The Abbey , which was built by Henry I in 1121-1125, also helped bring economic growth to the area but also dominated it politically and economically. As Reading grew larger and more prosperous, the abbot began to lose his hold over Reading as the merchants gained influence. The moving of the county jail from Wallingford to Reading in the 14th century was a clear sign of Reading's growing importance. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries of 1538-40, Henry VIII closed Reading abbey, the Grey friars and St John the Baptist hospital. The last abbot refused to recognise Henry as the head of the new church and was hanged outside the abbey gates for his stand. Henry granted the town independence allowing the local merchants to form a town council and to elect the mayor and other officials. Grey friars church was turned into a town hall and the abbey itself became a private house. However, from 1546 the abbey stood empty was soon plundered by locals to provide building materials in the town.
After a brief downturn following the closure of the Abbey, Reading recovered to become one of the principle towns of the area in during the Tudor era. In the 17th century the wool and cloth trade in Reading declined sharply and other industries grew up to replace them. Metalworking was established in Reading and from Elizabethan times there was a pin making industry there, while the first wire maker is mentioned in records dating to 1619. The early 17th century also saw nail making arrive in Reading and gunsmiths plied their trade in the aptly named Gun Street. Reading was also an important centre of brick and tile making.
When Civil War broke out in August 1642 between king and parliament the people of Reading suffered from divided loyalties. Reading was initially occupied by parliamentary troops until November 1642 when a Royalist army approached and the parliamentarians withdrew without a fight. The king arrived in Reading in November and ordered that fortifications should be built around the town before, in April 1643, a parliamentary army laid siege to Reading. The royalists eventually abandoned Reading as it was too far behind enemy lines and the two sides made terms allowing the Royalists to march out of Reading to join their main army elsewhere. Reading remained in parliamentary hands until the end of the war in 1646.
Reading suffered from outbreaks of the plague in the 16th and 17th century but, in 1646, infected people were moved into quarantine in houses especially set aside for them. In 1665, when plague broke out in London , the town appointed wardens to search “suspicious persons and goods coming to the town” in a successful attempt to prevent infected persons entering Reading.
In 1688 trouble came to the town in the shape of the Reading fight. King James II had been deposed and fled abroad, meanwhile Parliament had invited the Dutch king to come and replace him. The Dutch king landed on the coast and marched inland to Newbury , not far from the 300 Irish troops loyal to James II that had stationed in Reading.
When a rumour began that the Irish troops were getting ready to massacre the towns’ inhabitants, the people of Reading appealed for the Dutch king’s aid. They did so and the Irish troops were taken by surprise and were quickly driven from Reading. The so-called Reading fight was celebrated for more than a hundred years afterwards.
The town had developed slowly after the Abbey closure and the decline of the cloth trade. Then, during the 18th century, Reading was extensively rebuilt and it began another period of sustained growth. A new covered market was opened in 1800 and there were other improvements in the late 18th century. As in many other English towns, a body called the ‘Improvement Commissioners’ was formed to oversee the paving and cleaning of the streets. After 1800 the streets were lit with oil lamps, these were subsequently replaced in 1819 by gas lighting. In 1781 High Bridge at the end of London Road was rebuilt and from 1800 a private company provided piped water to any of the townsfolk able to pay. The Kennet and Avon canal was opened in 1810.
In 1822 Joseph Huntley opened a biscuit bakery and the firm, later known as Huntley and Palmer, became an important employer in the town with more than 5,000 employees. Industry got a boost from the railway, which linked Reading direct to London in 1840 and to Bristol in 1841. Reading grew rapidly in the 19th century and there were many improvements to Reading at this time. New municipal buildings opened in 1876 and a public library opened in Reading in 1884. The art school was established in 1860 and the science school soon followed, in 1870. Both schools were merged in 1882. Reading University was opened in 1926.
The 1950's saw a big program of council housebuilding in Reading. The first council flats were built at Southcote in 1959. Other new developments included the St Michaels estate between Reading and Tilehurst. South of Reading the Whitley estate was extended and a further council estate was built at Emmer Green. Many private houses were also built during the 20th century as reading aped the urban sprawl of many UK towns and cities.