Berkshire - Encyclopedia

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BERKSHIRE [abbreviated Berks, pronounced Berkshire], a southern county of England, bounded N. by Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, E. by Surrey, S. by Hampshire, W. by Wiltshire, and N.W. for a short distance by Gloucestershire. Its area is 721.9 sq. m. Its entire northern boundary is formed by the river Thames, in the basin of which practically the whole county is included. In the north-west a narrow and broken line of hills,. pierced in the west by the Cole stream, which here forms the county boundary, extends past Faringdon and culminates in a height over 500 ft. at Cumnor Hurst, which, with Wytham Hill, fills a deep northward bend of the Thames, and overlooks the city of Oxford from the west. The range separates the Thames valley from the Vale of White Horse which is traversed by the small river Ock, and bounded on the south by a line of hills known as the White Horse Hills or Berkshire Downs, richly wooded along their base, and rising sharply to bare rounded summits. In White Horse Hill on the western confines of the county a height of 856 ft. is reached. The line of these hills is continued north-eastward by the Chiltern Hills in Oxfordshire, but a division between the two is made by the Thames in a narrow valley or gap at Goring. Southward the Downs are scored with deep narrow valleys, the chief of which are those of the Lambourn and the Pang. The last stream runs eastward directly to the Thames; but the Lambourn and others join the Kennet, which drains a beautiful sylvan valley to the Thames at Reading. Another line of downs closely confines the vale of Kennet on the south from Newbury upwards, and although the greater part of these does not fall within the county, their highest point, Inkpen Beacon (1011 ft.), does so. The Enborne stream, rising here, and flowing parallel to the Kennet until turning north to join it, is for a considerable distance the county boundary. Between Reading and Windsor the Thames makes a northward bend, past Henley and Marlow, in the form of three sides of a square. Within the bend slight hills border the river,. but south of these, and in the Loddon valley south of Reading, the county is low and flat. In the south-east of the county, however, there is a high sandy plateau, forming part of Bagshot Heath, over 400 ft. in elevation, and extending into Surrey. Fir-woods are characteristic of this district, and northward towards the Thames extends the royal park of Windsor, which is magnificently timbered. The proportion to the total area of the county which is under woods is, however, by no means so great as in the adjacent counties of Surrey and Hampshire. There is fine trout-fishing in the Kennet and some of its feeders.

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The dominant feature of the county, the Chiltern and White Horse Hills, owes its form to the Chalk, which spreads from Ashbury and Hungerford on the west to Henley and Maidenhead on the east. In the northern face of the escarpment we find the Lower Chalk with a hard bed, the Totternhoe Stone; on the southern slope lies the Chalk-with-Flints. At Kintbury it is quarried for the manufacture of whiting. At the foot of the Chalk escarpment is the Upper Greensand with a narrow crop towards the west which is broken up into patches eastwards. Looking northward from the Chalk hills, the low-lying ground is occupied successively by the Gault Clay, the Kimmeridge Clay, and finally by the Oxford Clay, which extends beyond the Thames into Oxfordshire. This low-lying tract is relieved by an elevated ridge of Corallian beds, between the Kimmeridge Clay and the Gault. It extends from near Faringdon past Abingdon to Cumnor and Wytham Hill. At Faringdon there are some interesting gravels of Lower Greensand age, full of the fossil remains of sponges. South of the Chalk, the county is occupied by Eocene rocks, mottled clays, well exposed in the brickfields about Reading, and hence called the Reading beds. At Finchampstead, Sunninghill and Ascot, these deposits are overlaid by the more sandy beds of the Bagshot series. Between the two last named formations is a broad outcrop of London Clay. Numerous outliers of Eocene rest on the Chalk beyond the main line of boundary. The Chalk of Inkpen Beacon is brought up to the south side of the Tertiary rocks by a synclinal fold; similarly, an anticline has brought up the small patch of Chalk in Windsor Park. Clay-with-Flints lies in patches and holes on the chalk, and flint gravels occur high up on either side of the 'Thames. Fairly thick beds of peat are found in the alluvium of the Kennet at Newbury.


About seven-ninths of the total area is under cultivation; a large proportion of this being in permanent pasture, as much attention is paid to dairy-farming. Butter and cheese are largely produced, and the making of condensed milk is a branch of the industry. Many sheep are pastured on the Downs, important sheep-markets being held at the small town of East or Market Ilsley; and an excellent breed of pigs is named after the county. The parts about Faringdon are specially noted for them. Oats are the principal grain crop; although a considerable acreage is under wheat. Turnips and swedes are largely cultivated, and apples and cherries are grown. Besides the royal castle of Windsor, fine county seats are especially numerous.

The only manufacturing centre of first importance is Reading, which is principally famous for its biscuit factories. The manufacture of clothing and carpets is carried on at Abingdon; but a woollen industry introduced into the county as early as the Tudor period is long extinct. Engineering works and paper mills are established at various places; and boat-building is carried on at Reading and other riverside stations. There are extensive seed warehouses and testing grounds near Reading; and the Kennet and Windsor ales are in high repute. Whiting is manufactured from chalk at Kintbury on the Kennet.


Communications are provided principally by the Great Western railway, the main line of which crosses the county from east to west by Maidenhead, Reading and Didcot.

A branch line serves the Kennet valley from Reading; and the northern line of the company leaves the main line at Didcot, a branch from it serving Abingdon. The Basingstoke branch runs south from Reading, and lines serve Wallingford from Cholsey, and Faringdon from Uffington. Communication with the south of England is maintained by a joint line of the South Western and South Eastern & Chatham companies terminating at Reading, and there are branches of the Great Western and South Western systems to Windsor. The Lambourn valley light railway runs north-west to Lambourn from Newbury. Wide water-communications are afforded by the Thames, and the Kennet is in part canalized, to form the eastern portion of the Kennet and Avon canal system, connecting with the Bristol Avon above Bath.

Population and Administration

The area of the ancient county is 462,208 acres; with a population in 1891 of 239,138, and in 1901 of 256,509. The area of the administrative county is 462,367 acres. The county contains twenty hundreds. The municipal boroughs are Abingdon (pop. 6480), Maidenhead (12,980), Newbury (11,061), Reading, the county town and a county borough (72,217), Wallingford (2808), Windsor or New Windsor (14,130), Wokingham (3551). Wantage (3766) is an urban district. Among lesser towns may be mentioned Faringdon in the north-west (2900), Hungerford on the Kennet (2906), and Lambourn in the valley of that name (2071), the villages of Bray (2978), Cookham (3874) and Tilehurst (2545), which, like others on the banks of the Thames, have grown into residential towns; and Sandhurst (2386). The county is in the Oxford circuit, and assizes are held at Reading. It has one court of quarter sessions, and is divided into twelve petty sessional divisions. The boroughs of Abingdon, Newbury, Maidenhead, Reading, Wallingford and Windsor have separate commissions of the peace, and Abingdon, Newbury, Reading and Windsor have separate courts of quarter sessions. There are 198 civil parishes. Berkshire forms an archdeaconry in the diocese of Oxford; a small portion, however, falls within the diocese of Salisbury. There are 202 ecclesiastical parishes or districts, wholly or in part within the county. There are three parliamentary divisions, Northern or Abingdon, Southern or Newbury, and Eastern or Wokingham, each returning one member; while the parliamentary borough of Reading returns one member, and parts of the borough of Oxford and Windsor are included in the county. There are several important educational establishments in the county. Radley College near Abingdon, Wellington College near Sandhurst, and Bradfield College, at the village of that name, 8 m. west of Reading, are among the more important modern public schools for boys. Bradfield College was founded in 1850, and is well known for the realistic performances of classical Greek plays presented by the scholars in an open theatre designed for the purpose. Abingdon and Reading schools rank among the lesser public schools. At Reading is a university extension college, and in the south-east of the county is the Sandhurst Royal Military College.


During the Heptarchy Berkshire formed part of the kingdom of Wessex, and interesting relics of Saxon occupation have been discovered in various parts of the county. Of these the most remarkable are the burial grounds at Long Wittenham and Frilford, and there is evidence that the Lambourn valley was occupied in early Saxon times. The cinerary urns found in Berkshire undoubtedly contain the ashes of the Anglians who came south under Penda in the 7th century. The fortification called Cherbury Castle, not far from Denchworth, is said to have been first made up by Canute.

At the time of the Norman invasion Berkshire formed part of the earldom of Harold, and supported him stanchly at the battle of Hastings. This loyalty was punished by very sweeping confiscations, and at the time of the Domesday survey no estates of any importance were in the hands of Englishmen. When Alfred divided the country into shires, this county received the name of Berrocscir, as Asser says, "from the wood of Berroc, where the box-tree grows most plentifully." 1 At the time of the survey it comprised twenty-two hundreds; at the present day there are only twenty, of which eleven retain their ancient names. Many parishes have been transferred from one hundred to another, but the actual boundary of the county is practically unchanged. Part of the parishes of Shilton and Langford formed detached portions of the shire, until included in Oxfordshire in the reign of William IV. Portions of Combe and Shalbourne parishes have also been restored to Hampshire and Wiltshire respectively, while the Wiltshire portion of Hungerford has been transferred to Berkshire. The county was originally included in the see of Winchester, but in A.D. 909 it was removed to the newly-formed see of "Wiltshire," afterwards united with Sherborne. In 1075 the seat of the bishopric was removed to Salisbury, and in 1836 by an order in council Berkshire was transferred to the diocese of Oxford. The archdeaconry is of very early origin and is co-extensive with the county. Formerly it comprised four rural deaneries, but the number has lately been increased to nine. Much of the early history of the county is recorded in the Chronicles of the abbey of Abingdon, which at the time of the survey was second only to the crown in the extent and number of its possessions. The abbot also exercised considerable judicial and administrative powers, and his court was endowed with the privileges of the hundred court and was freed from liability to interference by the sheriff. Berkshire and Oxfordshire had a common sheriff until the reign of Elizabeth, and the shire court was held at Grauntpont. The assizes were formerly held at Reading, 1 The derivation from Bibroci, a British tribe in the time of Caesar, which probably inhabited Surrey or Middlesex, seems philologically impossible.

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