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Reading's Earliest Years
From Market Town to Railway Town
Nineteenth Century Boom
The Other B's - Beer, Bulbs ... and Bricks
Reading After Huntley & Palmers
 
 
 
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  Themes Homepage > From Market Town to Railway Town
 
The Wider Picture
From Market Town to Railway Town

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The Early Modern Period
During the Middle Ages there was another large and important abbey, in Berkshire, at Abingdon. Reading was in competition with Abingdon for the role of pre-eminent town in the county during much of this period. Newbury was another important urban centre. All three were market towns - local centres where surrounding farmers could bring their produce to sell. They were also manufacturing centres producing goods such as shoes, nails and barrels.
 
The Oracle, 1778
The Oracle, 1778
In the first half of the sixteenth century the steady economic life of the town was disturbed by the dissolution of the Abbey. What Henry I gave to the town, Henry VIII decided to take away. Suddenly the dominating player in the town's economic life was gone.
 
The Abbey building was dismantled and its stonework used to patch up housing in the town - good building stone is rare in the area. The cathedral-sized church was soon gone. The second half of the sixteenth century saw Reading boom as a wool-cloth manufacturing town. Weavers would set up a loom (or possibly two, though they were complicated and expensive machines to buy) in their house and used wool from sheep grazing on the Berkshire Downs to produce a variety of cloths.
 
The cloth-weaving boom continued into the seventeenth century, though it never really flourished after the Civil War. Despite this, Reading was by now well-established as a market centre. It might not grow, but it could rely on a steady stream of local visitors bringing goods to buy and sell. There were also regular sessions of the Crown Court in the town and this helped it retain its administrative significance. View of Corn Market, 1823
View of Corn Market, 1823
 
Mr Shackel, a farmer from Earley, 1832
Mr Shackel, a farmer from Earley, 1832
This situation continued through the eighteenth century. Reading was a middling sort of place - a market and administrative centre. The transformation of River Kennet into a canal linked the town first of all with Newbury(1723) and eventually with Bristol (1810). This enabled heavy goods, from stone to malt, to be carried great distances relatively easily. The town had always been linked by water to London and the carriage of goods to and from the capital had been part of its economic life from the foundation of the Abbey.
 
The Coming of Steam Power
Many of the technological innovations that were to transform the economic life of the country had their origin in the eighteenth century. Richard Arkwright, for example, opened his famous water powered spinning factory in Derbyshire in 1771. James Watt began producing steam engines for use in mines in the 1760s. Watt was based in the Birmingham area and by the late eighteenth century the population of this town had reached 90,000 people. Reading was far from this industrially vibrant area, with a population of about 9,000. Neither did it have raw materials, such as coal or iron, that were important to feed the rapid industrial growth of towns like Birmingham.
Sonning Cut during Construction of Great Western Railway, around 1839
Sonning Cut during Construction of Great Western Railway, around 1839
 
The first hint of the age of steam-power in the Reading area was ominous. In the 1830s there were numerous riots sparked by the threat to the livelihood of agricultural labourers posed by steam-powered threshing machines. Machine breaking and rick burning occurred in many villages around Reading. Many people were arrested, with some transported and one man hung. Soon after this the railway arrived in Reading. The canal link through to Bristol had only been completed in 1810, but completion of the rail link to London in 1840 sealed its fate. The railway, which was a much quicker form of transport, destroyed the economic viability of Britain's canal network. On the 30th March 1840 crowds thronged the mound in the Forbury Gardens to watch the first trains shunt into the new station. It now took a little over an hour to reach London. Just over a year later, in June 1841, the line reached Bristol. The 'Age of Steam' had arrived in Reading.
 
 
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  Themes Homepage > From Market Town to Railway Town
 
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