Meeting reports

January 2018 – History of Katesgrove by Evelyn Williams

Evelyn has lived in the area for almost twenty years. Evelyn has done much research into the area’s history, particularly its industry, and was a founder member and is a regular contributor to the Whitley Pump the local news website for Katesgrove.

The modern spelling of Katesgrove has several antecedents: Cadeles Grove, Catsgrove, Cattlegrove and Cattell’s Grove. The area developed around the old Reading to Winchester Road (modern Southampton Street) and is today a rich urban pudding of narrow streets lined mostly with Victorian terrace houses, many with ornate polychrome brickwork, and its skyline still dominated by the spire of St.Giles’s Church.

Evelyn showed slides of some of the earliest maps of the area: on the John Speed map of 1611 the most prominent landmark was Katesgrove House. One of its residents, French exile Count Charles Jean d’Hector, participated in the unsuccessful military campaign to restore the monarchy in France after the revolution. The house was sold for £1,000 in 1873 then demolished to make way for Katesgrove School. We were shown an early view of the area the panorama sketched by Samuel Buck in 1734: looking north from Bob’s Mount it depicts men digging the clay used in brick making, also, the river Kennet is clearly visible winding its way through the landscape.

The area attracted a diverse range of industries: in the 1830s the Philbrick family established a tannery in Katesgrove Lane; it processed animal skins for the leather trade; an unpleasant concomitant was the foul smell it produced. Nearby was the Reading Iron Works active from 1818; today some of the cast-iron lamp standards it made survive around Reading. Many brickworks were established in the area; Rose Kiln Lane is a reminder of the trade. Katesgrove’s last brickworks, at Elgar Road, closed in the 1950s.

Until quite recently Katesgrove abounded with public houses: the Tanners’ Arms in Orchard Street, the Red Cow in Crown Street, the Kennet Arms in Pell Street and the Greyhound in Silver Street to name but a few. During 1877, in opposition to the proliferation of ale houses in the area, St.Giles Parish Church opened the Rising Sun Temperance House at Silver Street. For an annual fee members had the use of a library and reading-room, could play billiards and, most important, could partake of non-intoxicating refreshments. Recently, after a long period of neglect, a group of volunteers rescued the building from the blight of vandalism and today it is a thriving arts centre.


February 2018 – History of the Abbey Baptist Church, Reading by members of the congregation

The talk began with a brief history of the Baptists in England.

The Baptist church emerged in the religious reforms which swept through Europe in the sixteenth century in the wake of the proclamations of the German monk Martin Luther. Luther and his followers believed the Roman Catholic Church had become corrupt and its theology debased through the worship of saints and other religious images and which they considered to be forbidden in the Ten Commandments, instead they wanted a form of worship that would focus on the scriptures contained in the Bible.

In about 1640 it is thought that a small group of Baptists, or Anabaptists as they were then known, established their first place of worship in Reading at a rented house in Pigney Lane near Castle Street; they had no minister to lead them and little money to support themselves.

Baptists at this time were still persecuted by the established church and were known in derision as dissenters. The Reading born Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, would dispatch his spies to raid places where dissenters were thought to worship: behind the house in Pigney Lane a wooden bridge was thrown across the Holy Brook to effect a swift escape during a raid.

In 1678 John Rance was elected their first minister and in 1686 they acquired the freehold of a building in Church Street off London Street, it comprised: a meeting house, accommodation for the minister and a burial ground. A notable event in its history occurred in 1688 when shortly before his death the writer and puritan preacher John Bunyan read his penultimate sermon there.

At the start of the eighteenth century the congregation had swelled to 38 gentlemen and 66 ladies, and so a new meeting house was opened at Hosier’s Lane (today’s Hosier Street) on Easter Day 1752 and Thomas Whitewood was its first minister. The lease on this building was due to expire in 1834 so a site for a new church was purchased at King’s Road, Reading in 1832 for £310 and John James Cooper, a local architect, designed the building.

The new church could accommodate over 900 worshippers and benefited from gas lighting, later, a Sunday school was added. At King’s Road the Baptist ministry in Reading would reach its zenith; daughter-churches were established elsewhere in Reading: Wycliffe Church at Cemetery Junction; at Carey Street and the Anderson Memorial at Amhurst Road to name but a few. At Wokingham the Baptist burial ground was established where people could be buried side by side regardless of gender or social status.

Among the King’s Road congregation of note were Edward Phillip Collier the brick manufacturer and Edward Jackson founder of the Jackson’s department store; Jackson would become the first Baptist mayor of Reading. In 1980 the congregation moved to a new building across the Holy Brook and the old church was demolished in 1983. Today the church is shared with Baptists from Ghana, Portugal and Sri Lanka.


March 2018 – Coley and Coley Park: An Historical Introduction by Katie Amos and Mike Cooper (who are the co-authors of a recent book about Coley’s history)

The origin for Coley’s name is Anglo-Saxon it meaning ‘charcoal clearing’. The earliest mention of Coley (written as Colleia) is in the records of Reading Abbey for the year 1130, however, traces of human settlement have been traced back even earlier to the Roman occupation of Britain: Roman coins and Anglo-Saxon pottery were discovered along the Holy Brook.

The early history of Coley is closely bound up with the Vachells; they were the pre-eminent family for over 400 years. John Vachell purchased land there in 1309 and erected a house, Coley Park, on the banks of the Holy Brook. Today, all that remains of the house is the stable block and dovecote, later to become Coley Park Farm, and now converted to housing. Another remnant of their era are the almshouses in Castle Street.

In 1643, during the siege of Reading in the English Civil Wars, substantial defences were erected along the banks of the Holy Brook and at Bath Road; fragments are thought to remain in some of the back gardens around Field Road. The conflagration would result in the destruction of Coley Park; the house was not rebuilt until the early 1800s by John Berkeley Monck at a site on higher ground.

In the nineteenth century chalk mines, brick works, a jam factory and a railway goods yard were among the new industries that would end the dominance of agriculture over the local economy. By the 1880s the population had grown to 4,000 and many were crammed into the slum housing known as ‘courts’; these tottering structures would blight Coley well into the next century.

In the twentieth century urban growth would eclipse that of the previous century; eventually new housing would encircle Coley Park House. In 1955 Reading Borough Council bought most of the parkland around the house for £11,514 and by the late1960s it was mostly built-up. A prominent landmark would be the three blocks of 14 storey flats erected at Wensley Road in 1961; at the time the weekly rent for a three bedroom flat was two pounds, two shillings and two pence.


April 2018 – Simonds family of Reading by Raymond Simonds

Raymonds father, Duncan, was the last family member to be a director at Simonds Brewery. Raymond was born at Pangbourne and completed his formal education at Bradfield College and later forged a career in the hospitality business.

The Simonds family’s connections to Reading and Berkshire can be traced back many centuries through the extensive family tree; its members came from around Britain and Europe. A notable early figure was William Simonds (c1488-1547) who was twice mayor of Windsor in 1529 and 1542. Later, his reputation was ruined when he was found guilty of perjury for the evidence he gave at the trial of four men accused of heresy: they were all found guilty and sentenced to death. Subsequently, they were all posthumously pardoned by King Henry VIII and William died a pauper a few years later.

An eminent figure in the family’s history was William Blackall Simonds (1762-1843) who soon after he married at the age of 22 inherited his father’s small brewing business at Broad Street, Reading. He was ambitious and expanded the business; during the 1790s he established the sprawling brewery at Bridge Street: the site, shrewdly chosen, had access to the many wharves along the River Kennet and included ‘The Bear’ coaching inn which faced Bridge Street a thoroughfare used by stagecoaches. William commissioned the celebrated architect Sir John Soane to design a house for the family within the brewery site.

By the 1830s the brewery was producing 15,000 barrels a year and had 30 pubs around Reading. A major coup was to obtain the contract to supply beer to the Military Academy at Sandhurst. William, never one to keep all his eggs in one basket, later ventured into banking and established, in partnership with his cousins John and Charles, the J & C Simonds Bank with premises at King Street, Reading; the business merged with Barclays Bank in 1913.

The year 1843 saw the birth of George Blackall Simonds: before absorbing himself in the brewing business and eventually becoming the chairman, he had established a successful career as a sculptor. Around Reading he left a rich legacy: the Maiwand War Memorial (the lion on the plinth) at Forbury Gardens, the Queen Victoria statue in Friar Street and the George Palmer statue now at Palmer Park to name but a few.

At the time of the brewery’s merger with Courage Brewery in the 1970s the business was valued at £9,800,000 and owned 1,200 pubs, later the brewery was rebuilt at Worton Grange south of Reading; it closed in 2010. Today, the site at Bridge Street is mostly occupied by the Oracle Shopping Centre: a reminder of the former brewery is commemorated in the information board at Kennet Side erected by the Reading Civic Society in 2009.


May 2018 – The History of Greyfriars Church by Malcolm Summers

The speaker, Malcolm Summers, has been a member of the church since 1981; in 2013 he published a history of the church.

The Franciscan Order of Monks was founded by St.Francis of Assisi in 1209; they were commonly known as the ‘Greyfriars’ because of their grey clothes or habit. The monks were required to live an austere life and go out into the streets to preach, especially to the poor.

The story of Greyfriars Church in Reading goes back more than 700 years to 1233 when King Henry III granted land to the Franciscan Order of Monks so they could build themselves a monastic house. The church was built on a remote site near the River Thames that was surrounded by marshland and floods would be a constant problem.

In 1282 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Peckham, when he learned of the greyfriars’ plight, sent a request to Richard of Burgate, Abbot of Reading Abbey, to grant additional land to the friars nearer the town; in 1285 a new friary church was built at New Street (modern Friar Street) where it stands today.

In 1536 with the closure of monastic houses ordered by King Henry VIII the monks were ejected from their church two years later with little more than the clothes they wore. In 1540 the Crown sold the surrounding land to Richard Stanshawe and the building was rented to the town for use as its guildhall; in 1560, Queen Elizabeth I gifted it to the town.

In the 17th century the building was converted to use as a ‘poor house’ which could accommodate 14 of the town’s ‘deserving poor’. During the siege of Reading in the English Civil Wars of the 1640s it was used as a barracks by Royalist, and later, Parliamentarian soldiers. By the close of the century the building had become the town’s prison known as ‘The Bridewell’: the former nave was used as the exercise yard and the flanking aisles were converted for use as cells.

By the 1840s a new prison had been built along Forbury Road and the Bridewell had become derelict. The vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Reading, the Reverend Richard Whitmarsh Phelps, had the idea of restoring the old building for use as a parish church; he bought it from the Corporation and through a public subscription fund raised over £8,000 towards the re-building.

Work began on the restoration in 1862 under a local architect William Woodman and in December 1863 the Church of Greyfriars was consecrated by the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce. In 2000 the church was re-ordered with the pews removed and the east end re-modelled, the pulpit was re-located to a less prominent position. Today Greyfriars is a lively Anglican church in the Diocese of Oxford.


July 2018 – Outing to Museum for English Rural Life

In July members of the Society visited the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) at Redlands Road, Reading. Our hosts for the evening were Kaye Gough and Caroline Piller both volunteers at the museum.

By the early 1950s the University of Reading’s Department of Agriculture had already gained a reputation for excellence, particularly in research, and a staff member, John Higgs, set out to establish at Reading a museum of the history of the countryside. It would house the national collection of all aspects of farming life. In 1952 the vice-chancellor of the University, J F Wolfenden, made a public appeal for funds and exhibits.

The museum’s first home was at Whiteknights House on the Whiteknights Campus; previously, items were scattered across the university. John Higgs was the first keeper and the first exhibit was a cow bell donated by a student. Important early donations came from the writer H J Massingham; the 1951 Festival of Britain; and Lavinia Dugan Smith; she had used her collection to educate children.

In 1964 the museum moved to purpose-built accommodation on the campus and there it remained until 2004. That year the museum transferred to a former university hall of residence in Redlands Road known as St.Andrew’s Hall; it opened to the public in 2005. It was originally the home of Alfred Palmer of Huntley & Palmers’ Biscuits; he bequeathed it to the university in 1911.

Today the collection comprises material that reflects the changing fortunes of the rural economy, items include: a steam powered threshing machine, horse-drawn wagons, ploughs and modern diesel powered tractors. MERL has a large archive items include: agricultural produce catalogues, farmers’ account books, photographs and letters. The collection includes a number of artworks of particular interest is the Festival of Britain tapestry. At the end of the visit members were invited to view the library: it’s collection of 75,000 books is the nation’s foremost facility for the study of the history of agriculture.


September 2018 – Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders by Angela Buckley 

Angela Buckley is a writer on the subject of crime history . Her previous career was in teaching modern languages. A keen family historian she is the Chair of the Society of Genealogists.

At Reading on the 30th March 1896 a gruesome discovery was made in the river Thames when bargeman Charles Humphreys and a colleague noticed a suspicious object floating in the water near the Clappers Weir footbridge at Caversham Lock. Humphreys managed to fish the object out of the river and on closer inspection it was revealed to be a brown paper parcel tied with string and contained within it was a brick and the body of a baby: the body was wrapped in newspapers and had a cord tied tightly around the neck.

Humphreys left his mate at the Lock with the parcel and ran to the Borough Police Station at the foot of London Street to report what he had discovered. Later, Humphreys returned to the Lock with a police  constable to collect the package and deliver it to the town mortuary.

The mortuary surgeon, Dr. William Maurice, examined the infant, a girl aged between 6 months and a year, and concluded she had died of strangulation. A murder investigation was launched by the police; it was led by Superintendent George Tewsley assisted by DC James Anderson and Sergeant Harry James. After a search, more bodies of babies were found in the river at Caversham.

An important clue was discovered on the parcel paper: it bore the faded stamp of the Midland Railway Company with the date 24-10-’95 Bristol Temple Meads and was addressed to a Mrs. Thomas at Piggott’s Road, Caversham. Detective Constable Anderson took the parcel to Reading Railway Station where a clerk remembered it and knew the recipient’s real name to be Mrs. Dyer who had moved to Kensington Road, Reading.

Dyer’s home was put under observation and enquiries with the neighbours revealed that one had given some string to Dyer on the same day as the child’s body was found. On the 3rd April police arrived at the small terrace house in Kensington Road to arrest Amelia Dyer; a search  was made by officers, they found: string that was identical to that used to tie the package; the same cord that was used to strangle the child; a box that bore traces of having contained a corpse; and letters from parents who had put up their children for adoption by Dyer.

Dyer’s principal source of income was to care for the children of parents forced to give them up for adoption, usually those born out of wedlock; she received a fee of £10. Many of the children in her care were allowed to die of malnutrition, later, she turned to infanticide as a means of disposing of them.

Amelia Dyer was sent for trial at the Old Bailey in London where she was charged with the murders of Helena Fry, Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons; the investigating detectives, after reading the letters found at Kensington Road, concluded that the first body found at Caversham Lock was probably Fry’s; she was the illegitimate daughter of a domestic servant. After the judge’s summing up the jury took just five minutes to reach a verdict of guilty and she was sentenced to death. Amelia Dyer was hanged at Newgate Prison on 10th June 1896.

October 2018 – History of The Forbury by Joy Pibworth

Joy Pibworth is a member of the Society’s committee.

Today, the public open-space opposite St.Laurence’s churchyard in Reading, known as the Forbury Gardens, was in the year 843 the stage for the fierce battle between the Anglo-Saxons, led by King Ethelred and his brother Alfred, and the invading Danish forces who chose it as the vanguard for their invasion of Wessex.

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066 the land became the property of the Crown and was for 418 years within the precincts of the Benedictine Abbey that was founded by King Henry I in 1121. It was the abbey’s outer court and served as a market and meeting place between monks and towns people; ‘The Forbury’ means: ‘the land before the town’.

In 1536, with the dissolution of the monasteries, the abbey site reverted to common land and was used by the town for agricultural fairs and for grazing livestock; the fabric of the building was subjected to much pillaging by the locals. In 1539, the final ignominy was the execution for treason of the last abbot, Hugh Cook Faringdon; it took place opposite the abbey, the spectacle witnessed by the monks and townsfolk.

In 1642 the Forbury would again be the setting for bloodshed. In the siege of Reading, during the English Civil Wars, the occupying Royalist army, commanded by Sir Arthur Aston, turned the town into a fortress: Aston ordered the inhabitants to assist with the construction of the defences. An important bulwark was the mound, a hillock at the centre of the site: this was raised higher and cannon positioned on it. The siege would cause yet more damage to the remaining fabric of the abbey.

During the nineteenth century, with the rapid expansion of Reading, the Forbury was no longer the edge of the town. In 1831 the abbey, then a picturesque ruin, faced a new danger: a building scheme proposed the complete demolition of the ruins; fortunately, the public outrage that ensued caused the Reading Corporation to act: a sum of £500 was raised through subscription and most of the site was saved.

In the 1840s, however, some of the ruins were demolished to make room for St.James’s Roman Catholic Church and a new prison. In 1854, to prevent further encroachment at the site, the Corporation purchased the remaining undeveloped land from the owner, James Joseph Wheble, for £1,200. The principal legacy of this largesse was the creation of a new public park, the Forbury Gardens; it opened on Easter Sunday 1856. The ‘Forbury Lion’ its best known landmark, was erected as the Maiwand War Memorial to commemorate those who died in the Afghan war of the 1880s.

Today, the gardens are a well-used public amenity and a vital green lung in the town centre and, recently, the abbey ruins have undergone further restoration work to ensure their survival. The future use of the former prison, which closed in 2013, is uncertain.

November 2018 – The Architectural History of Caversham: a Personal View by Dr Megan Aldrich

Dr Megan Aldrich began her career at the Victoria & Albert Museum, later, she became an academic director at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London.

For much of its existence the Reading suburb of Caversham was a village in the county of Oxfordshire and quite independent of its larger neighbour; this separateness was reinforced by the physical barriers of the river Thames and surrounding marshland. However, with Reading’s relentless expansion in the late-nineteenth century Caversham was absorbed by Reading in 1911.

In common with many ancient settlements in England, Caversham developed around the parish church: the church, dedicated to St. Peter, can trace its history back to 1162 when it was gifted to Notley Abbey in Buckinghamshire by Walter Giffard, Earl of Buckingham. Today, the church’s appearance is the result of the numerous restoration works of the late nineteenth century, principally, that executed by a local firm of architects, Morris & Stallwood. Some Norman work survives at the south door and in the north aisle.

Opposite the church is Caversham Court Gardens. This was the site of the original rectory erected in the 1450s: it was built around three sides of an inner courtyard; the principal room was the long gallery. After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s it was tenanted by lay people. In the twentieth century the house was bought by Reading Corporation who, in 1933, decided to demolish it. Today, it is a public park.

On higher ground to the east stands Caversham Park. The present house, mostly re-built in the 1850s, is a pleasantly unmemorable neo-Classical design by the London architect Sir Horace Jones for the industrialist William Crawshay. It was the first country house in England built around an iron frame the elevations clad with Bath stone; the colonnaded flanking wings survive from the previous house. In the 1970s a large housing estate, Caversham Park Village, would encroach on the estate’s parkland.

Caversham’s more modest domestic architecture is no less interesting: along Church Road and Surley Row are to be found examples of pre-Georgian timber frame houses. Victorian speculative builders erected many terrace houses today admired for their ornate brickwork; many of the bricks were supplied by Colliers of Reading. A middle-class suburb emerged at Caversham Heights; today, its spacious villas are highly sought after.

Caversham is well represented with non-conformist places of worship; many were designed by Reading’s most eminent architects: Alfred Waterhouse’s Free Baptist Church at Prospect Street to name but one. Among the secular public buildings the library in Church Street is notable: it was designed in 1906 by William Lewton in a florid Art Nouveau style

In the 21st century the latest addition to Caversham’s architectural heritage is the new footbridge across the Thames at Christchurch Meadows.