Reading - Encyclopedia

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READING, a municipal, county and parliamentary borough and the county town of Berkshire, England, 36 m. W. by S. of London by the Great Western railway. Pop. (1901) 72,217. It is an important junction on the Great Western system, and has communication southward by a joint line of the South-Western and South-Eastern and Chatham companies. The Kennet and Avon canal, to Bath and Bristol, and the Thames, afford it extensive connexions by water. It lies in the flat valley of the Thames on the south (right) bank, where the Kennet joins the main river. The population more than doubled in the last thirty years of the 19th century, and the town is of modern appearance. All the ancient churches are much restored and in part rebuilt. Greyfriars church, formerly monastic, was completed early in the 14th century; and after the dissolution of the monasteries served successively as a town hall, a workhouse and a gaol, being restored to its proper use in 1864. St Mary's is said to have been rebuilt in 1551 from the remains of a nunnery founded by lElfthryth in expiation of the murder of her stepson Edward the Martyr. St Lawrence's is a large Perpendicular building, and St Giles's, in various styles, was much damaged during the siege of the town in 1643 by the parliamentary forces, and is almost wholly rebuilt. A Benedictine abbey was founded at Reading in 1121 by Henry I., and became one of the richest in England, with a church among the largest in the country. Its founder was buried here, but his monument was destroyed in the time of Edward VI. The church was the scene of John of Gaunt's marriage to Blanche of Lancaster in 1359. By Henry VIII. the abbey was converted into a royal palace, and was so used until its destruction during the civil wars of the 17th century. Little remains of the foundation; only a gateway and a fragment of the great hall, the meeting-place of several parliaments, are of importance. The greater part of the site is occupied by public gardens.

The educational establishments are important. The site of an ancient hospice of St John is occupied by the University Extension College. It was opened in 1892, is affiliated to Oxford University, and has accommodation for 600 students, of both sexes, giving instruction in every main branch of higher university education, agriculture, &c. The grammar school, founded in 1485, occupies modern buildings and ranks among the lesser public schools. Archbishop Laud was educated here, and became a generous benefactor of the school. There are also a blue-coat school (1656), and other charitable schools of early foundation. The municipal museum, besides an art gallery and other exhibits, includes a fine collection of Romano-British relics from Silchester, the famous site not far distant in Hampshire. Besides the public grounds on the site of the abbey there may be mentioned Prospect Park of 131 acres, purchased by the Corporation, and Palmer Park, presented by a member of the firm of Huntley & Palmer, together with extensive recreation grounds.

The industry for which Reading is chiefly famous is the biscuit manufacture, the principal establishment for which is that of Messrs Huntley & Palmer, employing about 5000 hands. In the town and its vicinity are large seed warehouses and testinggrounds. There are also iron foundries, engineering works and factories for agricultural implements, and manufactures of tin boxes, sauces, velvet and silk, and sacking, together with riverside boat-building yards. Reading gives title to a suffragan bishopric in the diocese of Oxford. The parliamentary borough returns one member. The municipal borough is under a mayor, ro aldermen and 30 councillors. Area, 5876 acres.

Reading (Redinges, Rading, Redding) early became a place of importance. In 871 the Danes encamped here between the Thames and the Kennet, and in 1006 it was burned by Sweyn. It consisted of only thirty houses at the time of the Domesday Survey. There is some reason to think that a fortification existed there before the Conquest, and Stephen probably built a masonry castle which Henry II. destroyed. On the foundation of Reading abbey the town, hitherto demesne of the crown, was granted to the abbey by Henry I. Henceforth, until the ,6th century, the chief feature of its history was the struggle as to rights and privileges. This was carried on between the abbey and the merchant gild which claimed to have existed in the time of the Confessor, and the chief officer of which was from the 15th century styled warder or mayor.

A 16th-century account of the gild merchant shows that many trades were then carried on, but Leland says the town "chiefly stondith by clothing." The story of Thomas Cole, written by Deloney (d. c. 1600) and purporting to refer to the reign of Henry I., indicates that the industry was carried on at an early date. Archbishop Laud was the son of a Reading clothier. By the 17th century the trade was beginning to decline; the bequest of Kendrich "the Phoenix of worthy Benefactors" did little to revive it, and it was greatly injured by the Civil War. In the 18th century the chief trade was in malt. The first town charter is that given by Henry III. (1253) on behalf of the "burgesses in the Gild Merchant," which was confirmed and amplified by succeeding sovereigns. The governing charter until 1835 was that of Charles I. (1639) incorporating the town under the title of the mayor, aldermen and burgesses. Reading returned two members to parliament from 12 9 5 to 1885, when it was deprived of one; until 1832 the Scot-and-Lot franchise was used. The town surrendered to the parliamentary troops, after a siege, in 1643; it was occupied subsequently by the forces of both parties: in 1688 a skirmish took place in the town between some Irish soldiers of James II. and the troops of William of Orange. The market, chiefly held on Saturday, can be traced to the reign of Henry III.; four fairs granted by the charter of 1562 are still held, that on the 25th of July dating originally from a grant of Henry II. to Reading abbey.

See C. Coates, History of Reading (1806); Victoria County History, Berks.

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