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Reading in 1841

READING, the county town of Berkshire, situated in the hundred of Reading, but with separate jurisdiction, on the river Kennet, just above its junction with the Thames, 38 miles in a direct line west of St. Paul's, or 42 miles from the General Post-office by Brentford, Hounslow, and Maidenhead.

The first mention of Reading is in the year 871, when it was occupied by the Danes, who had thrown up an intrenchment between the Kennet and the Thames, to defend the tongue of land on which the town stands. They repulsed an attack of the West Saxons, under their king Ethelred and his brother Alfred, but quitted the town towards the close of the year. In A.D. 1006 it was burnt by the Danes, who destroyed an abbey of nuns, on the site of which a new abbey was erected by Henry I, who was buried here. In the civil war of Stephen and Maud, the town and castle changed hands more than once. It is supposed that the Castle was demolished soon after that time. In the following reigns the kings frequently resided at Reading, and parliaments were held here. On the dissolution of the abbey, the buildings were appropriated as a royal palace. In the Civil war of Charles I Reading was made a parliamentary garrison ; but Henry Marten, the governor, with the garrison, fled on the approach of a party of royalist cavalry (November 1642), and the town was garrisoned by the king. In April, 1643, the Parliamentarians, under the Earl of Essex and General Skippon, besieged the town, and took it, after a faint resistance. The Royalists, under Prince Rupert, who had attempted to relieve it, were repulsed, at Caversham Bridge, near the town. Sir Arthur Aston, who had the command of the garrison, was wounded, and Colonel Fielding, who took the command, was condemned to death for the surrender, but pardoned. After the first battle of Newbury (September, 1643), the town was again occupied by the king, who left a garrison under Sir Jacob Astley, but in May, 1644, the Royalists quitted the town, which was finally occupied by the Parliamentarians. Reading suffered severely from being so long a garrison town. In the Revolution of 1688, the troops of James II occupied the town ; a slight skirmish took place here, and the king's forces speedily retired.

The town lies partly between the Kennet and the Thames, partly on the south side of the Kennet ; it comprehends the three following parishes :


Area in Acres

Population in 1831

St. Giles



St. Lawrence



St. Mary






The town altogether is very irregularly laid out. The parish of St. Lawrence, which is on the north-east side of it, occupying the point of land at the junction of the Kennet with Thames, is probably as much covered with buildings as ever it will be, the unoccupied part consisting of low marshy meadows along the bank of the Thames ; it contains the market-place, and two of the best streets in the town for business. The parishes of St. Mary on the west, and St. Giles on the south-east, contain portions of the trading part of the town. A large portion of the poorer classes reside in St. Mary’s. St. Giles contains the residence of most of the gentry and persons of independent fortune. It is the favourite part of the town for building on, and several new streets and squares have been laid out along the London road. The town is well-paved, and lighted with gas, and amply supplied with water from the Kennet. The houses are in general substantial, and built of brick ; but there are some old ones of lath and plaster, with high gables. St. Lawrence's church appears to have been considerably repaired in 1434, but there are some portions of the original structure of Norman character ; it consists of a nave and north aisle, separated from each other by a row of octagonal pillars, supporting five elliptical arches with ogee mouldings, and a chancel. There is a fine tower at the west end, of perpendicular character, and of chequered flint-work ; it has a peal of ten bells. St. Mary's church consists of a nave, south aisle, a small north aisle, and a chancel : it was rebuilt about 1551, chiefly from the materials of the abbey church, then pulled down ; it has a tower of similar character to that of St. Lawrence, but not equal to it. A large part, if not the whole, of the exterior part of the church is of chequered work. St. Giles's contains little that is remarkable. The town-hall is a modern building, over a part of the free-school ; and there is a building termed (for what reason is not known) ‘the oraclo,’ erected by Mr. John Kendrick, a great benefactor to the town, early in the seven teenth century, for the employment of the poor ; the principal gateway, which is the most striking portion, is of mingled Gothic and Grecian architecture. As the river Kennet has a divided channel, there are many bridges ; that over the main stream, in Duke Street, is a handsome stone bridge of one arch, with balustrades. There are some ruins of the abbey, especially one of the gates, and also some interesting remains of the abbey mill.

The trade of the town is considerable. There was anciently a large manufacture of woollen cloth, but it has become extinct. Some silk ribands and galloons are woven, and some floor-cloth and sail-cloth is made. There are iron foundries, breweries, and yards for boat-building. Trade is carried on in corn, seeds, malt, timber, bark, hoops, wool, cheese, and beer. There are markets on Wednesday and Saturday, the latter chiefly for corn ; and four yearly fairs, one a large cheese-fair. The Kennet is navigable to the Thames, and the Kennet and Avon canal affords a water communication with the west of England. The Great Western railway passes the town, and the main road from London to Bath and Bristol runs through it.

Reading claims to be a borough by prescription ; the earliest known charter is of 37 Henry III, A.D. 1253. The corporation, by the Municipal Reform Act, consists of six aldermen and eighteen councillors ; the town is divided into three wards. The spring assizes, and the Epiphany, and occasionally, though rarely of late years, the Michaelmas sessions for the county, are held here ; and there are quarter-sessions for the borough, a court of record for causes not exceeding £10 in amount, and a court leet, holden by the corporation as the lords of the manor. Petty-sessions are held here weekly for the division. There is a small borough gaol, altogether unfit for its purpose ; and a county gaol, of very defective construction, so as to preclude the carrying into effect of many arrangements which the good discipline of the prison requires.

Reading is one of the polling-stations for the county. Two members of parliament are returned by the borough. It has possessed the right of election from 23 Edward I ; it was a scot and lot borough. The number of electors in 1835-6 was 977.

The living of St. Giles is a rectory, of the clear yearly value of £522, with a glebe-house ; that of St. Lawrence is a vicarage, of the clear yearly value of £276, with a glebe-house ; and that of St. Mary a vicarage, of the clear yearly value of £661, with a glebe-house. There is a chapel-of-ease in St. Mary's parish, and there are several dissenting chapels and a Catholic chapel in the town. Reading is in the archdeaconry of Berks, which the Ecclesiastical Commissioners have proposed to transfer from the diocese of Salisbury to that of Oxford.

There were in the borough, in 1833, two infant-schools, with 193 children ; thirty-five day-schools or boarding and day schools, with 720 boys, 406 girls, and 8o children of sex not mentioned ; three day and Sunday schools, with 502 scholars in the week and 651 on Sundays ; and sixteen Sunday schools, with 698 boys and 630 girls. One of the day-schools is a free grammar-school, of which the late Dr. Valpy was for many years master. Several of the other schools are supported, at least in part, by endowments or subscription.

There are a public-library and news-room, called the Reading Institution, a subscription news-room, a small theatre, and baths. There are several almshouses, and a dispensary.


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