History of 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.
In the Middle Ages a medieval Reading prospered because it was on the main road between London and the West of England. Making cloth was the mainstay of Reading’s economy. Wool from Berkshire flocks was brought to Reading by boat. There was also a leather industry in Reading. Before 1125 the King owned the town.
There were 3 parishes in the town, St Mary’s, St Giles and St Laurence’s. In the Middle Ages each parish had to have butts where all men practiced archery on Sunday.
By 1525, Reading was the largest town in Berkshire, and tax returns show that Reading was the 10th largest town in England when measured by taxable wealth.
In 1538-40 Henry VIII closed Reading Abbey, the Greyfriars and St John the Baptist hospital. The last Abbot was hanged outside the Abbey gates for refusing to recognise 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 Greyfriars 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.
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.
Reading, like other Stuart towns, suffered outbreaks of plague. Then in 1688 came the Reading fight. King James II was deposed and fled abroad.
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.
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 were 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, clock makers, and pipe makers. Tanning and brick making were still important industries in the 18th century. Less important industries in Reading included pin making, coach building, ribbon making, rope making and printing.
At the time of the first census in 1801 Reading had a population of just fewer than 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.
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 in 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.
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 1950’s more council houses were built in Reading. One new development was St Michael’s 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. Simmonds brewery moved to a new site on the edge of Reading in the 1970’s. On the other hand some firms moved their headquarters to Reading in the 1970’s as rents in London became very expensive.
Reading gained its first commercial radio station in 1976. The same year a new civic office 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.
John Sykes conceived his business in 2000 and now becomes part of the successful history of Reading as he launched his charity for the people in 2014.