Georgian Berkshire, 1714-1837

Georgian Berkshire, 1714-1837

A Royal County

Berkshire had little reason to be called a royal county during the reign of the first two Georges. Neither of the two kings stayed at Windsor Castle for more than the occasional short visit. A miscellaneous collection of people were allowed to make it their home, and itinerant tradesmen and ladies of doubtful repute sold their wares in the castle wards, and the walls facing the town were scarcely visible because of the double row of houses and shops which filled the ancient ditch. The fabric of the castle gradually fell into disrepair, and by 1775 when George III came to Windsor the royal apartments had become uninhabitable. Queen Charlotte, however, was captivated by a house in Castle Street, which the King bought and had enlarged to accommodate their large family. Windsor now became the royal family’s main residence though they did not move into the castle until 1804, by which time considerable restoration had been achieved under James Wyatt.

Although the Court at Windsor was often dull and tedious, George III himself was interested in so many things. He was fascinated by architecture, and helped plan the restoration of St George’s Chapel. He encouraged and financially helped William Herschel who, after leaving Bath where he had made his great discovery of Uranus, lived at Old Windsor and Datchet before settling in Slough and there built his 40 inch telescope—a wonder of the world in 1789. The King’s interest in agriculture led him to experiment with new methods of farming and under his direction the Flemish and Norfolk systems of crop rotation were tried out on his farms attached to the Great Park—hence their modern names. The Great Park itself was drained and its pasture brought into good condition. His nickname of Farmer George, affectionately bestowed by local people, was well deserved.

George was also known as the Squire of Windsor, for he liked to know the tradesmen of the town, nodding to them as he walked by, and he and his wife and daughters favoured the town shops with their custom. Contemporary cartoonists such as Peter Pinder lampooned them in verse and picture:

Who down at Windsor daily go a-shopping

Their heads, right royal, into houses popping

Their presence, however, brought increased trade into the town and improved the quality and prices of the goods on sale. Charles Knight, bookseller, printer and future proprietor of the Windsor and Eton Express, compared them favourably with the best in the metropolis. No doubt he was biased, but George III’s reign saw an increase in royal patronage in Windsor. In 1782 the organisation of services provided by tradesmen had been put on a more rational basis in the charge of the Lord Chamberlain; it was the beginning of the royal appointment system that we know today. One of the earliest known royal warrant holders in Windsor was Richard Martin of the Castle Inn who became hackney man to the King about 1784. Caley’s Department Store in the High Street, which today supplies household goods to the royal family, is the direct descendant of Mrs M. Caley, dressmaker and milliner to Queen Charlotte.

Towns, Trade, Traffic and Transport

The early 18th century brought increased trade and traffic to all the towns of southern Berkshire through the growth of the coaching and carrying trade and the improved navigability of the Kennet River. Reading had long been an inland port with several wharves along the Kennet, and much of its prosperity stemmed from its trade to and from London. The main wealth of the trade, however, was now based on malting barley to make beer for the ever-growing population of London. By 1760 Berkshire had become the most important area in the country for malting and much of the wheat, barley and wood needed by Londoners came from Berkshire. Much of this was transported along the Thames via the wharves at Reading. In 1708, however, a scheme was proposed to make the river navigable as far as Newbury. Supported by towns and villages of west Berkshire and Wiltshire which expected to benefit from cheaper rates for transport of goods, it was fiercely opposed by the inhabitants of Reading—innkeepers, shopkeepers, watermen, millers and town council members—who feared a loss of custom and market tolls if businesses in the town declined. Despite their opposition the River Kennet Navigation Act was passed in 1715, and the work of canalising the river and building the 20 locks, necessary to overcome the rise of 134 feet, began. Opposition continued. A mob destroyed part of the works in 1720 and even after the navigation was opened verbal abuse and occasional violence made the journey an unpleasant and sometimes difficult operation. On one occasion, Simon Finch, the miller at Sheffield Mill at Theale, prevented barges passing through the nearby lock for eight days, and involved the owners of the mill, Reading Corporation, in a long and expensive dispute.

By 1740 the fuss was over. Reading’s trade had not suffered, the economy was buoyant and road and river transport services steadily increased. New wharves were built at Newbury to serve the barges carrying coal, grocery wares, oil, tobacco and heavy goods, and the town developed a new importance serving the towns and villages of west Berkshire. The coaching trade also benefited Newbury, and in 1752 John Clark began a daily coach service from Newbury to London. The town also still had a textile industry, albeit making shalloon, a material used for linings, rather than the fine woollen cloth of earlier times. By 1740 work had begun on a new town hall.

About 1770 the Navigation Company began to study the possibilities of building a canal to link the Kennet and the Avon Rivers. Nothing came of the first proposals but in 1788 meetings were held at Hungerford to promote the scheme. A pamphlet proclaimed the advantages: cheaper carriage of coal and building materials including Bath stone, and new markets for farm produce. Farmers and estate owners would benefit as much as the towns. At first subscriptions were insufficient, but by 1792 ‘canal mania’ had hit the country and sponsors were anxious to put up the money. Work began in 1794 and the first section between Newbury and Kintbury was opened two years later; the canal was completed in 1810. By 1818 there were more than two hundred boats using the canal, some seventy of them barges each carrying over 60 tons. Newbury had now become an important inland port, but other places also shared in the trade, and wharves were built at Hungerford and Aldermaston.

Meanwhile work had already begun on the Wilts and Berks Canal which linked the Thames at Abingdon with the Kennet and Avon Canal, with branches leading to Wantage, Longcot (for Faringdon), Calne and Chippenham. It took 16 years to construct the fifty or so miles of canal and to build the 42 locks-16 years when the Vale was noisy with the sounds of picks and shovels and the raucous voices of the navvies. The expressed purpose of the project was to bring Somerset coal to the Vale of the White Horse and to take back supplies of corn and timber, but to the north of Abingdon the area was also linked by canal to the industrial Midlands, the potteries, Birmingham and Lancashire via the Oxford and Grand Union Canals.

As elsewhere improved water transport brought increased trade to the towns served by the canals, and in 1817 a new corn market was set up in Wantage. The canals also brought a new class of people to the town—narrow boatmen and itinerant traders of all kinds including gypsies and hawkers. They dealt in cheap china, iron goods, bales of cloth as well as a miscellaneous collection of small items to attract the attention of townsfolk, farmers and villagers. They stored their wares at the wharves and used the town as winter headquarters. Some, as the parish registers testify, settled in Wantage. The impact on this small rural town was overwhelming and they contributed greatly to the growth and overcrowding of the maze of alleys and poor dwellings which lay behind the prosperous shops fronting the market square.

By the early 19th century Berkshire was also served by an intricate network of stage coach, stage waggon and carrier services. Evidence for the changing pattern of public transport during the 18th and early 19th centuries is too patchy to give a full picture, but advertisements and London-based lists of coaches and carriers point to a tremendous increase. At the beginning of the period only two coaches made the journey daily along the main road (A4) to Bath and Bristol, taking two days in the winter and one and a half in the summer. By the 1830s there were at least ten coaches, and the journey took only 11 hours in the fastest vehicles. Coaches travelling to other destinations also passed along the Bath Road, and in a census taken in 1834 there was a daily average of more than sixty coaches passing through Maidenhead. The earliest known coach proprietor in Berkshire was Thomas Baldwin of the Crown Inn in Slough who provided a daily service to Bath and Bristol in 1718. By the end of the century, if not long before, all the towns in the county were served by both stage coaches and waggons and some, like Newbury, Reading, Thatcham and Windsor, had their own companies. In the 18th century many of the stage coaches would appear to have been owned by groups of inn proprietors, but it was a very competitive business, and the subsequent history is one of mergers and failures and the development of specialist stage coach companies.

Inns were an essential link in the communication network, but which ones were used depended on the arrangements made with each stage coach company and the status of the inn. Both could and did change. In 1756 the Bath Old Machines Company advertised their new schedules and inns, naming amongst others the Windmill at Salt Hill. Fifty years later the Windmill had become far too grand to deal with stage coaches; it provided only post horses and postchaises for the gentry and nobility. Horses were changed at the stages, but not all coaches stopped at the same town, and both Colnbrook and Slough might be called the second stage out of London, Maidenhead and Twyford the third, and Reading the fourth. However, even this pattern no doubt changed during the two hundred years of the coaching era, and only one timetable is known to have survived.

Stagecoach routes through Berkshire, 1836

The number of coach services advertised in the London directories Along the Bath and Bristol Road

London to Bath and Bristol 14
London to Newbury 1
London to Reading 2
London to Maidenhead (see below)
London to Slough and Windsor 4
Reading to Bath 1
Reading to Newbury 2

Along the Bath Road to Maidenhead and then to Henley and elsewhere

London to Henley 1
London to Birmingham 1
London to Cheltenham & Gloucester 2
London to Hereford 1
London to Oxford 2
London to Shrewsbury 1
London to Wallingford 1
London to Abingdon & Faringdon 1
London to Stroud via Abingdon & Faringdon 1

Sixty-three daily stage coach services were advertised in the London directories for 1836 as starting, passing through or terminating in Berkshire. From the available sources of information it is difficult, and probably impossible, to reconstruct a complete picture of the routes and stages. However, the table above gives some indication of the pattern of services, though it must be remembered that not all the coaches stop in each of the towns through which they pass. There were, of course, an equal making the return journey.

The number of stage coach services passing through Berkshire towns, 1836

Abingdon 4 Slough 35
Colnbrook 35 Reading 33
Faringdon 3 Wallingford 2
Hungerford 14 Windsor 13
Maidenhead 31 Wokingham 2
Newbury 17

The fastest coaches were the mail coaches which began replacing the postboys on horseback along the main post roads in 1784. The first experimental run took place on 1 August that year and it is almost certain that it changed horses at the Kings Head at Thatcham run by Edward Fromont. Post Office records show that he provided the horses for the middle section of the mail coach route in the 1790s. Within a few years, however, the slowness of his horses had lost him the job, and the mail coaches were probably using the George and Pelican Inn at Speenhamland. The mail coaches delivered the mail bags only to the postal towns. The bags then had to be taken to the town post office and there sorted before the letters could be delivered by mail cart or letter carrier to lesser post offices and receiving houses. Windsor, for example, received its letters by mail carts from Staines and Maidenhead. From 1793 penny post schemes allowed delivery of letters to many smaller villages at an extra cost of a penny. Berkshire had seven post or sub-post towns (eight if one includes Colnbrook), each with a number of receiving houses:

Abingdon 3 Colnbrook 3 Faringdon 1 Maidenhead 6
Newbury 7 Reading 4 Wallingford 3 Windsor 3

Most people, however, still had to collect their letters from the office, be it in village or town, since delivery to every household did not become an accepted right until Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. In the postal towns, such as Reading, Newbury and Windsor, letters were delivered without extra charge to houses within the town boundaries—a situation which inevitably led to disputes as the towns grew, and occupiers of new houses outside the boundaries were charged an extra penny. Post Office archives contain numerous records of such disputes, including the correspondence from Captain Oke of Clarence Road, Windsor, as well as maps showing extensions to the free postal areas of Reading and Newbury.

Mud and Ruts, and the battle of the wheels

The system of road maintenance set up by the Tudor Highway Acts could not cope with the effects of this tremendous increase in traffic. It was the statutory duty of each parish to keep in good repair all the public roads within its boundaries, but it was impossible for parishes with small populations to provide either the manpower or the money to look after main highways used by through traffic. The idea that tolls collected from travellers using the road could be used for road maintenance was tried out on the North Road in Hertfordshire in the 1670s, and then revived in the early 18th century as the need for improved roads became essential. Local landowners and men of influence combined to set up turnpike trusts (sanctioned by local Acts of Parliament) to take over the maintenance of particular stretches of the main roads. The first two Berkshire trusts were formed in George I’s reign; they became responsible for the Bath Road from Maidenhead to Twyford, and Reading westwards to Puntfield near Theale. The last part of the Bath Road through Berkshire to be turnpiked was the stretch immediately east of Reading. This was partly because the terrain was good, but also because of opposition to any road improvements which might jeopardise Reading’s water transport. Crossing the county from east to west, travellers now had to pass through at least seven turnpike gates, paying a toll at each.

The turnpike roads of Berkshire c.1800

Turnpiking a road, however, did not necessarily mean a great improvement to the road surface, since the principles of road maintenance were not yet understood. A description published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1754 perhaps exaggerates, but other contemporary descriptions testify to the inadequacies of the work of the turnpike trusts:

that great road from London to Bath; it errs and blunders in all the forms; its strata of materials were never worth a straw; its surface was never made cycloidal; it hath neither good side ditches, nor foot paths for walkers; no outlets were made for water that stagnates in the body of the road; it was never sufficiently widened, nor were the hedges ever cleared. Of course ’tis the worst public road in Europe, considering what vast sums have been collected from it.

The government passed numerous Acts in an attempt to deal with the problem of the roads, but its efforts were directed at the wheels and weights of the vehicles, not the roads themselves and, although undoubtedly roads did improve during the 18th century, they could and did become impassable at times. It was not until the early 19th century that Thomas Telford and John Louden McAdam put forward their ideas on road construction. McAdam’s techniques not only ensured a good road surface which was improved by the passage of vehicles, but cost less than the old methods. Within a few years trusts all over the country were employing members of the McAdam family and putting the improvements into operation, including at least seven in Berkshire: the Chilton to Andover, the Fyfield to Abingdon, the Fyfield to St Johns Bridge, the Hurley, the Maidenhead, the Newbury, and the Reading Turnpike Trusts. George Botham of the George and Pelican Inn at Speenhamland and Edward Fromont of the Kings Head at Thatcham both testified at a Parliamentary enquiry in 1819 as to the road improvements brought about by McAdam.

The last of the Berkshire turnpike trusts was founded as late as 1832. Unlike most of the earlier trusts, which were mainly responsible for the improvement of already established roads, the Windsor to Twyford trust was concerned at the outset with the construction of a new length of road—the eastern end of the modern B3024 out of Windsor. Most roads, however, were still the responsibility of the parishes, and the post of parish highway surveyor was still served by untrained and unpaid local inhabitants. Aldermaston ratepayers were fined in 1760 for neglect of duty. Statutory labour (that is unpaid labour by householders) had long been replaced by the payment of highway rates, but in many parishes the work of breaking stones and filling potholes, clearing ditches and smoothing out the ruts was done by

the poor of the parish for a minimum wage. It was a way of trying to solve two of the most trying problems confronting parish vestries—maintaining the poor and the roads. As the assistant-overseer to the parish of Windsor explained in 1833 to His Majesty’s Commissioners during their enquiry about the administration of the Poor Laws, ‘We have no labour to give our paupers but work on the roads’. It was a remark echoed by many other parish officers in the county.

Poverty—the growth of pauperism

By the 18th century the tramping poor—the homeless and unemployed, the rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars as they were referred to in so many laws and pamphlets—were no longer a regular sight on the main roads and in the alehouses. The Poor Laws had made it more difficult for people to travel in search of work and to get help from a parish in which they did not have legal settlement. Hundreds of examination and settlement certificates and removal papers survive amongst the Quarter Sessions records and allow us to catch a glimpse of a system at work which encouraged parish officers to take before the local magistrates any newcomer to the village who became, or might become, a charge on the rates, and have him or her and their family removed. Parishes were only responsible for looking after their own poor, and it was the responsibility of the magistrates to examine the paupers and find out where they were legally settled, that is, where they had been born or had been employed for a whole year. Vagrant passes or certificates signed by the county treasurer authorised payment to the constables for the conveying of paupers across the county. A bundle of these passes found amongst the Buckinghamshire Quarter Sessions records gives some idea of the numbers of families involved. During the last three months of 1752, Caesar Willis, the constable at Colnbrook, was required to take by cart, on average 12 times per week, families and individuals to Maidenhead—one step on their journeys to as far afield as Bristol, Wales, Ireland, Gloucester, Herefordshire. It was a harsh and expensive way to deal with the problems of poverty and an unpleasant and onerous task for the magistrates and parish constables.

Not all the poor, who for one reason or another found themselves in difficulties, were so harshly treated. In a few parishes, such as Barkham, a kindly and benevolent parson like the Rev. David Davis (1742-1819) operated a paternalistic relief system, caring as well as he could for the poor of the parish. Long Wittenham parish owned 18 cottages which were let out rent free to poor parishioners, and several other parishes, such as Woodley, Langley, Chalvey, Eton, and Wantage, had poor houses or workhouses where the destitute could find refuge. The Wantage overseers regularly paid out considerable weekly sums, and the accounts show payments for shoes, clothing, medicines, and shaving for the inmates of its workhouse.

Some parish authorities were neither kindly nor conscientious. The autobiography of Charles Knight Jnr. tells of a very mis-organised parish system at Windsor. Most officers, he wrote, were content to remain in ignorance of how the poor rate money was spent, leaving it to the discretion of an assistant overseer of the poor who gave or denied relief to the needy according to their ‘character’: ‘With him squalid filth was a test of destitution’ and ‘whining gratitude’ a measure of the deserving poor. None of the officers, nor the vicar or curates, had any conception of the real living conditions of the 150 or so recipients of weekly relief. At Eton the town inhabitants had to take Eton College to court in order to make the College authorities pay rates on houses they owned in the town, and the overseers could only afford to pay 2s. a week to wives and families of militiamen serving in the army—scarcely enough to pay for a diet of bread. At Reading, according to a contemporary comment, the poor houses were filled to overflowing and the overseer’s door was ‘surrounded from morning to night by miserable objects seeking relief’.

Wages for artisans and tradesmen had risen so that many were able to maintain themselves and their families on what they earned in half a week—leaving something to spend for pleasure or to save. But, as Davis commented in his book, The Case for Labourers in Husbandry, most country labourers in the 1790s could not earn enough in a whole week to maintain their families for more than four or five days. Agricultural wages in Berkshire were amongst the lowest in the country and, as Davis knew from his own experience at Barkham, the day labourer with his ‘utmost exertions could scarcely supply their families with daily bread, and the women spent much time in tacking their tattered and ragged garments together, and there was nothing left over unless the wife and children worked. According to Davis the number of poor receiving relief had tripled since the beginning of the century, and such was the burden on the small number of ratepayers in some parishes that the overseers of the poor were forced to reject many of the claims.

In the last decades of the 18th century conditions went from bad to worse. There were several years of bad harvests, and corn was both scarce and costly. Inflation was severe and rates almost doubled (from 2s. in the £ in 1780 in Barkham to 3s. 6d. in 1800). Labourers’ wages were kept to the minimum, and there were bread riots in Newbury in 1766, at Thatcham in 1800, and Windsor in 1804. Bread became so expensive that in the 1790s Berkshire magistrates circulated the suggestion that every parish should appropriate a few acres for growing potatoes to make potato bread. Taxes imposed on malt in aid of the French War, and the suppression of alehouses made beer a luxury, unobtainable for many. In April 1795 at the Quarter Sessions held at the George and Pelican Inn at Speenhamland, the Berkshire magistrates decided on a scale of relief based on the price of bread and the size of the family. This became known as the Speenhamland System and was adopted by parishes all over the country. Poor rates became a substitute for fair wages—a ‘miserable substitute’ providing ‘little that belly can spare for the back’. It was an ill-conceived system which pauperised the labourers and corrupted their employers. The Rev. Thomas Whately of Cookham (1797-1837), amongst others, was very much against it and strove to help the labourers of his parish to become self-supporting. He reduced the amount of financial help given to unmarried mothers, thus substantially decreasing the number of illegitimate births and the money paid out in relief He also founded a voluntary benevolent fund and a very successful penny-a-week saving scheme.

Conditions worsened in the early decades of the 19th century, affecting shops and businesses as well as the poor. In 1812, according to the London Gazetteer, there was a great increase in the number of bankruptcies. One of these was the tannery at Wantage,’ the largest and most up-to-date in the Kingdom’, according to William Mayor, a government inspector; it was worth more than £8,000 and occupied almost a third of the town. More important, it was the biggest employer of labour in Wantage, and its downfall also brought about the failure of other local firms, such as that of Maurice Blackford, shoemaker, and John House, currier (leatherworker), and the loss of employment for a large number of Wantage labourers and skilled workers. Other Berkshire towns also suffered financial disasters, and deprivation stalked hand-in-hand with the emergence of the modern consumer society.

The County at war—military and militia

England was at war for much of the 18th century, and year after year Parliament passed Acts which allocated funds for a specified number of soldiers, and confirmed the use of inns and alehouses for their quarters. Men were actively encouraged to volunteer and ‘take the King’s shilling’ during the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, at the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756, and for the French (Napoleonic) War at the end of the century. In 1782, the 66th Regiment of Foot, which had been formed at the beginning of the Seven Years War, added the name Berkshire to its name, and became affiliated to the county. In 1792 an immense tented camp was established for a short time near Caesar’s camp in Easthampstead parish, and here some 7,000 soldiers, including the Berkshire regiment, received training and the men took part in the earliest known organised military manoeuvres. The event attracted enormous national interest with regular reports in the newspapers and large crowds of spectators. In the Peninsular War its 2nd Battalion served under Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) with great distinction and earned nine battle honours. Later they were responsible for guarding the deposed Emperor Napoleon on St Helena, and Grenadiers from the 66th were among those that bore his body to the grave.

Quite separate, but equally important were the county militia. They were the county’s home guard and emergency police. Fear of invasion and the importation of Hanoverian troops by George II led to the re-establishment and reform of the militia system in 1757. Recruitment in Berkshire was the responsibility of George Beauclerk, the 3rd Duke of St Albans and Lord Lieutenant of the county. An Act of Parliament dictated the number of men each county was to provide; the quota for Berkshire included 565 rank and file. The provision of horses, arms and men became the statutory duty of every parish, and in July 1757 the Berkshire bands (that is the groups of conscripted men from the parishes) were amongst the first to be embodied under the new regulations. The militia men were chosen by lot and compelled to serve for three years or to provide £10 for a substitute; the parish raised a rate to pay for the required number of men and equipment. When Newbury could not provide six men in 1796, the parish was fined £210 and the money was raised by a rate of 10d. in the pound.

The militia were not a full-time force, but were expected to train for two or three weeks each year and to turn out when called. The full force of 30 sergeants, 20 drummers and 560 rank and file were first called out for duty at Hungerford, Marlborough and Devizes in July 1759 when there was fear of a French invasion. The militia were also called out to quell a bread riot at Newbury in 1766. Two-thirds of the Berkshire militia were called out in 1792 for home defence, and during 1794-1795 they contributed to the defensive cordon along the southern coast. The militia were primarily an infantry force, but there was also a conscripted cavalry militia regiment known as the Berkshire Provisional Cavalry.

In 1793, when France declared war, the government realised that the militia would be inadequate to resist a French invasion, and an Act was passed which permitted the raising of volunteer corps, infantry and cavalry, under the county lord lieutenants. Infantry volunteers were mainly drawn from the ranks of unskilled workers and artisans; cavalry recruits came from farmers’ and tradesmen’s families, and officers were the gentlemen of the county. The first mounted troop to be formed in Berkshire was the Abingdon Independent Cavalry. The second troop, the Woodley Cavalry, was formed in 1798; it was commanded by Captain Henry Addington, Speaker of the House of Commons, who owned Woodley Lodge. By June that year four other mounted troops had been raised at Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford and Maidenhead. The following year the whole of the Berkshire Volunteer Corps, cavalry and infantry, were reviewed by George III at Bulmershe Heath. Two more troops were formed in 1800—the Loyal Windsor Cavalry and the Wargrave Rangers. That year for the first time the yeomanry were used as a police force when the Thatcham Volunteer Cavalry were called out by the local magistrates because some four hundred people had assembled in Thatcham demanding an increase in farm labourers’ wages or cheaper food. They were to be used on eight other occasions during the next fifty years before the county constabulary was formed.

In 1804 several of the troops were formed into the 1st Regiment of the Berkshire Cavalry under the command, of Lt. Col. Charles Dundas of Kintbury, MP for Berkshire, and an attempt was made to regiment the other troops, mainly in the eastern part of the county, but without success. In 1805 George III once again inspected the Berkshire Yeomanry and Infantry corps on Bulmershe Heath. It was a spectacular occasion with over a thousand volunteers from all over Berkshire, some of whom had taken two days to march there, and over twenty-thousand spectators enjoying the colour and noise of marches, manoeuvres and military bands. Patriotic feelings ran high. Charles Knight wrote that the chief business of Windsor life at this date was the volunteer drills and reviews. Thrice-weekly attendance was compulsory for those who had joined the Windsor Corps and there were hours of preparation work before an officer could be properly dressed for the part. In 1828 the volunteer troops were disbanded as one of the government’s measures to reduce public expenditure—but only three years later the officers were asked to re-raise their troops because of the agriculture riots of the previous year. Eventually they became the Royal Berkshire Yeomanry, a regiment which not only served bravely as part of the country’s fighting force, but played an important role in the county’s social life.

The Napoleonic wars lasted over twenty years, and for much of this time there was a fear of invasion, but for most inhabitants the most immediate evidence of the war came in the form of taxes and rates, and the pitiful sight of crippled soldiers returning from the war. Occasionally also the neighbourhood would be filled with regular soldiers or militia when they were quartered in the inns and alehouses. How often this occurred has not been ascertained, but war office records contain bundles of petitions against the practice, including one from Twyford, dated January 1800, in which the victuallers complained that 28 men and 27 horses were quartered in the village, and that in consequence their regular customers had been turned away. The licensees had also been driven to the necessity of hiring stables at their own expense to accommodate the horses.

Between 1808 and 1811 Reading was made the home of a contingent of more than two hundred Danish and Norwegian prisoners of war. These were mainly officers and, being on parole rather than prisoners, they lived in private lodgings and enjoyed the social life of the town. A stone memorial on the wall of St Mary’s Church is a lasting reminder of this event in Reading’s history, but south of Windsor in the Great Park is a rather more beautiful memorial to 18th-century soldiers—Virginia Water. It was created by the Duke of Cumberland, George II’s son, when he was Ranger in the 1750s. He used soldiers disbanded after Culloden, including Hanoverian cadets can be seen Sandhurst also owes its existence to this period. It was founded by General

The Countryside Transformed

Land enclosed in Bray Parish under the 1786 Enclosure Act

On 5 May 1762 a group of Englefield farmers, tenants of the manor and owner occupiers, signed an agreement to suspend their customary ways of farming the Great Field for seven years. This field and the much smaller Puntfield, and the common meadow known as Englefield Mead, were the last remnant of the old open fields left in the parish. Enclosure by agreement had long been practised in the county and was responsible for the disappearance of  fields from many parishes, such as Waltham St Lawrence in 1596/7, Hadley and Cobindon in Lambourn in 1614, Donnington Field in Shaw, and Marcham in 1714. But although the more progressive members of a parish might be in favour of the consolidation of their scattered strips in the open fields and the enclosure of the commons, others were unconvinced or fearful of such change. In such circumstances, if enclosure was to be achieved, it had to be done through a private Act of Parliament. Over a hundred such Acts were passed, each dealing with an individual Berkshire parish, the majority taking place during the French wars when propaganda proclaimed enclosure a patriotic measure.

Sometimes, such as at Bray, there was more than one Act; the earliest dated 1786 only involved common arable fields and a relatively small number of the landowners, while the Act of 1814 dealt with the remainder of the open fields and the several greens and areas of common pasture and involved more than 200 landowners.

Land enclosed in Bray Parish under the 1814 Enclosure Act

There were 131 dissenters against this Act, but they owned insufficient land to prevent the Bill being passed and here, as elsewhere in the county, enclosure wrought a transformation of the landscape. Small fields surrounded by hedgerows with trees replaced the great open fields, the village greens and the large stretches of heath and common. Bulmershe Heath disappeared in 1820 and Mortimer Common in 1804. The Windsor Forest Inclosure Act was passed in 1813, and soon after that the forest legally ceased to exist. The Crown’s forest rights were extinguished at the same time as the usual common rights, and in each parish the Crown was awarded a substantial allotment. Where this land was planted with trees, as in the area to the south west of Windsor, Windsor Forest became a reality in a rather different way with the creation of new woodlands.

The enclosure and re-allotment of the land brought great benefits to many people in Berkshire. Landowners were able to increase the rents for farms whose land was enclosed, and farmers could more easily improve yields by making use of new agricultural machinery and improved strains of seed and animals. Extinguishing the common rights also meant that a landowner could now do as he wished with his own land, including turning it into residential land. Mortimer Common is just one example of a village which came into existence as an indirect result of enclosure.

Most villagers, however, did not own their cottages and so were not entitled to any compensation for their loss of rights to put a cow or goose on the common, or to take turf or wood for fuel. Enclosure also put an end to the time-honoured custom of squatting on the waste land—building a simple house and claiming a small area for a garden. The Windsor Forest Inclosure Commissioners found dozens of such closes, including several on Ascot Heath and at Bearswood. In almost every parish villagers lost much of their independent status.

Enclosure was only one of the many changes taking place during this period of agricultural improvement. New varieties of corn and root vegetables, and improved breeds of livestock were introduced, as well as new farming practices and types of machinery. One of the most remarkable agricultural pioneers, Jethro Tull, was the son of a Berkshire farmer at Basildon. Tull practised his improved methods of sowing seeds and cultivating the land on his farm at Crowmarsh near Wallingford and then on his hill farm in the parish of Shalbourne. He invented a horse-drawn seed drill (rather than sow broadcast), but it was the success of his horse-drawn hoe which led him to publish The New Horse Hoeing Husbandry in 1731 which eventually led to increased and improved yields. The Berkshire pig, a large black-skinned animal, was developed by the farmers of the Wantage and Faringdon area. The Hampshire Down sheep was bred from three breeds including the Berkshire Knott. It was eminently suitable for keeping on the Berkshire downs in sheep folds and being fed on root crops and oilseed cake in fields which would later be used for growing corn. William Humphreys of Oak Ash near Newbury was one of the farmers involved in determining the characteristics of the Hampshire Down breed.

For the farmers and landowners in general these new ideas could mean increased yields, profits and rents but, as in more modern times, improved efficiency did not always also benefit the workers. Increased use of laboursaving machines, especially threshing machines, brought a loss of employment, particularly during the winter months when threshing had been done by hand. Hostility and desperation came to a head in 1830 and much of southern England experienced what has been called the ‘last labourers’ revolt’ or the Swing riots. Captain Swing was the name used on hundreds of threatening letters. In Berkshire, protest started peacefully with several hundreds of workers meeting at Thatcham on 15 November, but on the following day and during the rest of the week the demonstrators visited farms in Bucklebury, Bradfieid, Stanfield Dingley, Beenham, Aldermaston and Brimpton, destroying some thirty threshing machines and burning haystacks and ricks. At Brimpton the men were met by a force of constables, gentry, farmers and labourers, under the command of a justice of the peace, the Rev Cove, and 11 men were arrested. Troubles continued and the next week a company of Grenadier Guards and a detachment of dragoons were sent to Newbury to assist local militia to round up suspected rioters who were taken to Newbury and then to Reading gaol. There were also incidents at Burghfield, Hurst, Ashampstead, Streatley, Yattendon and Basildon. Altogether 138 Berkshire men were tried at the Quarter Sessions Courts at Reading and Abingdon. Of these 59 were acquitted or discharged, 45 transported, and one man—William Winterbourne of Kintbury—was hanged.

The labourers’ protest was uncoordinated and achieved little direct success, but out of it grew the Windsor and Wokingham Forest Associations for the Prosecution of Felons and the Royal South Bucks Agricultural Society (covering the Slough area), which aimed at improving the relationship between the farmers and the workers.

The 18th century brought another great change in the countryside with the growth of the fashion for landscaped gardens and parks. The most celebrated was probably Whiteknights at Earley, which was owned by the Marquis of Blandford (later the fifth Duke of Marlborough) in the early 19th century. The gardens and conservatories contained numerous examples of rare and exotic plants and captured the interest of the royal family.

Other parks which were remodelled during this period include Basildon and Woodley Lodge Mansion which was landscaped by Humphry Repton for Henry Addington, when he owned the property in the late 18th century, and then ‘restored’ by John Louden and renamed Bulmershe Court. Great houses, such as Basildon Park, were rebuilt in the fashionable classical style, but as in earlier centuries the great landowning families did not settle for long in the county, and the history of most of these houses is one of changing owners and tenants.

The Age of Reform

At this period, as for many years earlier, the government of the county was in the hands of the justices of the peace but, unlike most other counties, Berkshire had two, not one, county towns—Abingdon and Reading. The Assize Court and Quarter Sessions Courts met in both towns. The county gaol was at Reading but both had a house of correction (or bridewell) which was used for detaining offenders from various parts of the county as well as from the two towns.

The last quarter of the 18th century saw a considerable increase in the activities of the Quarter Sessions Court, and in particular the improvement of the prisons. This was partly the result of a prison reform movement, though overcrowding and improved security were also important considerations. Reading gaol was enlarged in 1768 and again in 1775, and then rebuilt in 1794; a new bridewell was erected in 1786. Abingdon’s bridewell was rebuilt between 1804 and 1818. With cells for 32 prisoners, courtyards, day rooms for different types of prisoners, a chapel, two infirmaries, a court room and accommodation for the keeper, it was the largest single building operation yet carried out by the Berkshire Quarter Sessions. During the forty years from the early 1780s to the 1820s county expenditure increased nearly five times and, although the upkeep of bridges, the maintenance of militiamen’s families and the passage of vagrants were major costs to the county, during some years as much as a third of the county money was expended on the prisons and associated considerations.

The last two decades before the Victorian period saw the passing of a sheaf of Acts of Parliament which brought far-reaching changes to the counties. The Test and Corporation Acts were repealed in 1828, which meant that no longer would nonconformists be barred from holding municipal offices. Soon after this date William Heelas, a staunch member of the Baptist Church, was elected alderman at Wokingham. The following year the Catholic Emancipation Act removed discrimination against Roman Catholic schools, and within a year Baylis House School had been opened at Slough. An Education Act of 1833 allowed the government for the first time to make grants to schools for improvements to buildings. Until this date education had not been the concern of either national or local government, and it was still mainly in the hands of the churches, charities and private individuals.

The Reform Act of 1832 extended Parliamentary franchise to freeholders and householders of property in the rural areas rated at a moderate value, a measure which gave the vote to ‘middle class’ men on the principle that such men would have the welfare of the community at heart. Annual lists of electors have not survived for Berkshire, but those for the parishes which were once part of Buckinghamshire are still amongst the county records. In the parish of Upton cum Chalvey, which included the villages of Chalvey and Upton as well as the new town of Slough, only about 57 men out of 936—that is six per cent—had a vote in 1851. The property qualification meant that a man who owned property in two or more constituencies had vote in each of them. One such resident of Upton was James Bedborough, master builder whose business premises were in Windsor.

Berkshire was represented by three members of Parliament; in 1832 these were R. Palmer, Philip Pusey and Viscount Barrington. The county was divided into four polling districts, and any elector wishing to vote had to travel to the nearest hustings at Abingdon, Faringdon, Maidenhead, Wokingham, Newbury, Reading, or East Ilsley. There was as yet no secret ballot, and each elector had to register his vote with the official—to the approval or disapproval of the crowd. The four towns of Abingdon, Reading, Wallingford and New Windsor also each sent two members to Parliament. Towns such as Newbury had long since lost this right.

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 abolished the ancient self-perpetuating town corporations and replaced them by elected town councils and gave the vote in local elections to all ratepayers who had lived in the town for three years. In Berkshire the Act applied to Abingdon, Maidenhead, Newbury, New Windsor, Reading, and Wallingford, but Wokingham seems to have been overlooked and its old, self-perpetuating Corporation persisted under its 1612 charter.

The Tithe Act was passed in 1836. Payment of tithes to lay tithe-owners had been a contentious issue for a long time, but improvements in agriculture had aggravated the situation because increased yields meant higher tithe payments. The Act did not abolish tithes, but commuted them to a money rent based on average payments for the previous seven years. In parish after parish meetings were held, the land surveyed and the tithe commissioners did their work. There were some disputes, but not many, and by 1852 the Act had been implemented. In contrast the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, although implemented almost as quickly, stirred up a considerable amount of controversy and brought into being a new type of workhouse which was to be such a feature of Victorian England.