The Victorian Era, 1837-1901
God’s Wonderful Railway
Perhaps more than any other invention it is the railway which symbolises the Victorian period. It altered the pace of life, opened up the country for trade and leisure pursuits, and influenced the lives of both rich and poor in a wide variety of ways. Berkshire was one of the first counties to be affected by the new mode of travel. Proposals for a railway line from London to Bristol were being discussed as early as 1824, and the Great Western Railway Bill received the royal assent in 1835. By 1838 the line was open as far as Maidenhead and three years later Bristol celebrated the completion of the whole line.
Support for the railway had come from many local businessmen and the corporations of such towns as Reading who could envisage the advantages. But there was also considerable opposition. Farmers and landowners, such as Robert Palmer of Sonning, an MP for Berkshire, were on the whole against the schemes, as were the Berkshire Chronicle, and the people with an interest in road, river and canal transport. Maidenhead Corporation opposed the scheme until compensation had been agreed for the loss of bridge tolls. Initially Windsor Corporation had been keenly interested in the railway, but when it became clear that no line would reach the town, the Council became angry and bitterly anti-railway. The strongest opposition, however, came from Eton College which feared that the railway would ‘materially endanger the discipline of the School’. Such was the influence of the College that the Great Western Railway Act included a clause which forbade the building of a railway station within three miles of the College. Accordingly the station which served this stretch of the line was built at Langley, but when the line opened in June 1838 the train stopped at Slough (no more than two miles from Eton) without the benefit of platform or station; Langley Station remained unused for eight years.
The line west of Reading did not follow the route of the Bath Road, but instead swung north, passing through Pangbourne, Goring and Didcot, en route for Bath and Bristol. The Kennet Valley branch line which served Newbury and Hungerford was not constructed until 1847 and stopped at Great Bedwyn just over the county boundary. Two years later the Reigate to Guildford, Wokingham and Reading line was built, and the completion of the GWR branch from Slough to Windsor and the South Western Railway line from Waterloo to Windsor brought an end to some of the ‘most bitter conflicts’ in railway history.
During the next ten years, other lines were built in Berkshire, including the branch lines from Twyford to Henley, Maidenhead to Marlow and High Wycombe, and Reading to Wokingham. But the optimism which prompted so much railway building was not always rewarded, and the lines through Wokingham were never profitable. Later in the century Newbury became a minor railway centre with the construction of lines to Didcot (1882), to Winchester (1885) and to Lambourn (1898), the last line to be built in Berkshire.
The impact of the railways on Victorian Berkshire was revolutionary in many senses of the word. With picks, shovels, horse and cart, and gunpowder, gangs of navvies wrought a considerable change on the landscape – iron roads so level that in the case of the Great Western line it was nicknamed ‘Brunel’s billiard table’, embankments, bridges, new roads, and, most impressive of all, the Sonning cutting which took three years to complete. At its greatest extent, there were railway stations in more than fifty Berkshire villages and towns. Some, like Reading, Windsor and Slough, were a credit to Victorian design and engineering. Reading’s station is the original built for Brunel, but the others were built towards the end of the 19th century. As late as 1892, however, the people of Thatcham were forced to use a wooden station that had been described as ‘ a wooden shanty’, and gave little protection from the weather. Newbury’s station was described by one discontented passenger as an ‘undersized chicken coop’.
If some of the original fears of the landowners were never realised, others certainly were, and several farms and estates suffered a loss of good agricultural land. Slough Farm was separated from many of its fields by the line, and before the end of the century the farm had been lost, the victim of the railway and the expansion of the brick-making industry. So much common land was taken from the parish of Eton for the great sweep of the branch line from Slough to Windsor that the Great Western Railway had to pay compensation to the commoners. Eventually this money was used to provide recreation grounds in Eton town and the village of Eton Wick. In Windsor, on the other hand, the compensation money paid by the South Western Railway Company was used to improve the environs of the castle. Houses which had been built in the castle ditch were bought and demolished and the ancient Little Park was enlarged and renamed the Home Park. The Datchet Bridge was demolished and replaced by two new bridges served by a new road system paid for by the railway company. Within the centre of the town the construction of the Great Western Railway station had meant the demolition of the town gaol and houses in George Street. This was one of the worst streets in the town for vice and appalling living conditions, but no compensation or alternative accommodation was offered at all to those who lost their homes.
The effect of the railway on Berkshire’s towns and villages shows a fascinating diversity. The inhabitants of places such as Newbury, Thatcham, Twyford, Theale and Hungerford, whose main trades had been dependent upon road, or road and water transport, no doubt watched the progress of the railway with unease. They had good reason, for within a few years the long distance coaching and carrying services were ended and many of the coaching inns were either closed or demoted to being merely public houses. The prestigious George and Pelican at Speenhamland, the Crown and the Bear at Reading, and the Castle at Salt Hill were all closed before the end of the 1840s. It now took less than an hour to get from north-west Berkshire to London instead of five hours by stage coach. Long distance stage waggons and carriers also ceased operating and the turnpike companies were soon in financial difficulties. Profits of the Windsor Forest Turnpike declined from £743 in 1844 to £414 in 1850, just one year after the railway line reached Wokingham. By 1870 all the turnpike trusts had been closed and the repair of the roads was neglected.
The railway was also in direct competition with the canals, and the prosperous years for the canal companies were over. From 1847 heavy goods could be transported from Newbury to London or Bristol in a mere three hours, rather than the three days by barge. Not only was carriage by rail very much faster, but it was not beset by long delays in times of drought or intense cold. In the first year after the GWR reached Bristol, the Kennet and Avon Canal receipts from lock tolls fell dramatically from some £51,000 to £41,000. In 1852 the canal was sold to the railway company and thereafter succumbed to the inevitable neglect. The fate of the Wilts and Berks Canal was worse and by 1870 it was little more than a ‘muddy trickle’.
Although the railways brought to an end the long-distance coach and waggon trade, they stimulated the growth of local services—carriers, omnibuses and cabs; which were often centred on the inns now fighting to stay profitable. The Crown Inn at Faringdon advertised daily coaches to and from the station; an omnibus carried commuters between Slough and Wokingham before the latter was connected with the railway. In 1854 there were more than thirty carriers operating in each of the towns of Abingdon, Newbury and Wantage, and 120 were advertised for Reading, travelling to villages all over Berkshire and places as far afield as Abingdon and High Wycombe.
Wantage was also well supplied with carriers, but from 1876 it possessed what no other Berkshire town had—a tramway. Its steam-driven tram cars carried the passengers the two and half miles to connect with the Great Western railway line.
The Victorian period witnessed a dramatic change in urban life and, by 1851, for the first time in history more people in England were living in towns than in the rural areas. This, however, was not true of Berkshire; even at the end of the century it was predominantly a rural county. Being on the railway line did not automatically bring great commercial benefits, and most Berkshire towns remained small country market towns, growing little during the second half of the century. At Hungerford the expected increase in prosperity never arrived, and its population actually declined. Only Reading developed into a busy commercial and manufacturing town, its population far out-stripping that of all the other towns. The dominant factory was that of Huntley and Palmer. It had begun – as a modest biscuit, bakery and confectionery shop, but the move to new premises in 1846 enabled George Palmer to put into operation his ideas for the mechanisation of production. By the 1860s it was the largest biscuit factory in England and its products were being exported to countries as far away as China and Australia. By the end of the century, with the number of employees reaching more than 5,000, it was the biggest employer in the town. Reading also boasted two other firms which became world famous—Sutton & Son, seed merchants, and Simmond’s Brewery, both of which owed much of their success to the advantages of railway transport.
With a population of some 7,000 in 1851, New Windsor was the second largest town in the county (though a small town by national standards), but its population was swollen by the inclusion of over a thousand soldiers in the cavalry and infantry barracks. It had begun to grow in the early 19th century, but the railway did not prove a stimulus to any industry except tourism. Like several other Berkshire towns, such as Abingdon and Wokingham, its only ‘large industry’ was brewing. Abingdon and Newbury were almost the same size as New Windsor, but whereas by the end of the century the population of New Windsor and Newbury had grown considerably, Abingdon’s had scarcely grown at all. River, canal and rail contributed to the economic development of Newbury’s extensive trade in corn and malt. In the mid-19th century there were 26 corn mills within a few miles of Newbury and, with well over two hundred traders, its corn market did more business than Reading’s. Conditions in the open market place and rooms in the nearby inns became impossibly cramped and, after heavy rain in 1852 caused havoc by swamping the open-air dealing, the decision was made to build a corn exchange. The handsome, Italian-style building is still very much a landmark at Newbury.
Of the other towns, none were bigger than large villages by today’s standards, and only Maidenhead grew substantially during the rest of the century. Its population quadrupled from 3,603 to nearly 13,000 in 1901. Its growth was encouraged by the railway which brought Maidenhead within easy reach of London, but allowed it to remain a desirable place to live in rural Berkshire. One of the townsmen who translated this into a possibility for hundreds of newcomers was Benjamin Cail, a surveyor and designer who put forward a plan for improving the town. Together with other local landowners he formed the Maidenhead Improvement Company; in the 1860s they began by buying nine acres of land near the centre of the town. By the end of the century modest villas and elegant houses lined numerous new streets north and south of the High Street, spreading eastwards to the riverside. Here the Orkney Arms and the Riviera developed into fashionable hotels with an international reputation. Maidenhead was now a fashionable resort which attracted ‘excursionists’, playboys and debutantes, and the cream of society, especially during Ascot Week, when Maidenhead had its own parade of boats at Boulter’s Lock.
Towns like Wokingham, Wantage, Lambourn, Hungerford and Faringdon continued to serve the neighbouring parishes, providing shopping facilities and the service of a variety of small businesses and professional firms which were not available in the villages. They were also social and cultural centres, polling centres and the location of the Union workhouses. As at Wokingham there might also be the local excise office, a stamp office and savings bank, and the main post office for the area. The mail now arrived by train, not mail coach, and the introduction of postage stamps in 1840 gradually brought about an increase in the number of letters sent. In 1851 the Post Office also instituted improvements in the delivery to rural areas by the employment of messengers or foot postmen. By 1854 rural messengers at Wallingford were delivering letters to inhabitants in 19 villages; 20 villages were served by messengers from Wantage, seven from Faringdon.
Markets and fairs were still important, and the open areas of the town halls at Windsor, Abingdon, Wallingford and other towns were still used as corn exchanges. Wokingham’s weekly market was ‘thinly attended’ according to Billings Directory of 1854, but, as was the case of many of Berkshire’s small towns, market and fair days were the only times when they were busy Faringdon’s market, held on the first Tuesday of each month, was described as the ‘monthly great market’.
The smallest of all the mid-19th-century towns was Slough. When Victoria came to the throne it was still only a village, albeit an important stage on the Bath Road. The initiative of whoever it was (probably Charles Bonsey) who persuaded the Great Western Railway Company to allow trains to stop at Slough changed that, and within a decade Slough had grown into a small market town. For 13 years it was the railway terminus for Windsor and during that time a magnificent Royal Hotel was built, which Queen Victoria used as a waiting room when she travelled by train. In easy reach of London, Windsor and Eton, Slough was considered a desirable place to live. There was no dominating group of developers as in Maidenhead, and most of the shops and houses were of modest size. But long before the end of the century the town had trebled in size.
In 1847 Bracknell was described in the county directory as ‘a small village … consist[ing] of a long narrow street, inhabited chiefly by shopkeepers’. It did not yet have its own church, but sometime during the second half of the century Bracknell became a town. No one factor seems to have triggered this growth, but the railway came in 1856 and was important in the development of the burgeoning market gardening and brickmaking industries. A cattle and poultry market was established in 1870.
Despite the disparities of prosperity and growth, most of the towns found ways to express their civic pride. Hungerford replaced its 18th-century town hail in 1860s with a fine new building incorporating a corn exchange. At Newbury, as well as its new corn exchange, the Corporation built a new council chamber and magistrates court; the clock tower was completed in 1881. Wantage celebrated its connection with King Alfred by erecting the magnificent marble statue of him which still dominates the Market Place. In 1887 Reading received a tremendous boost to its civic pride when first its boundaries were extended to almost double their former size, and then it was granted county borough status, confirming the independence its citizens had fought for three centuries before, but separating it from the county. This was a strange situation since it was in Reading that the offices of the newly created county council were established the following year.
A plethora of authorities and boundaries
For centuries the only important boundaries to most inhabitants of Berkshire had been those of the parishes, the boroughs and the county itself. Now within a few decades a great number more were created.
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 placed every parish within a Poor Union. There were 12 of these in Berkshire, the smallest being Easthampstead containing only five parishes, the largest Abingdon with 36 parishes. Each Union had its central workhouse, a symbol of the worsening attitude of the authorities to the plight of the poor. The Act set out to ‘remedy the ills of the old system’, in particular to cut the cost of poor relief and to improve the administration. The emphasis was on economy, and the harshness of the régime imposed in the new Union workhouses and the humiliation of wearing a drab uniform were a strong deterrent to people applying for admission until they were forced to do so. According to the Act, relief of any kind was primarily for the old and infirm, orphaned and abandoned children, and the mentally defective; no relief should be given to any able-bodied people living in their own homes. There were terrible workhouses, but it would seem that there was none of the worst kind in Berkshire, and recent research suggests that, although harsh by today’s standards, they were more caring than the law advocated. The master of the Eton Union Workhouse allowed men to go out looking for work—until prevented by the Poor Law Commissioners—and elderly couples to walk together in the yard during periods of recreation. Several, like the Hungerford Union Workhouse, had schools, and all had infirmaries. Relief was also provided to people living at home and in 1840 the Unions were divided into small medical districts. There were four in Easthampstead for example—the Bracknell, Easthampstead, Sandhurst and Winkfield Districts.
The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act had created new Parliamentary boundaries which were not always coterminous with the ordinary borough boundaries. They were enlarged after a report of 1867, and in 1885 the county was divided into three Parliamentary divisions, each represented by one member. By this date only Reading and Windsor were still Parliamentary boroughs. In 1836 the old county was divided into 15 Registration Districts in response to two Acts passed that year which set up the system of the civil registration of births, deaths and marriages, and allowed the Superintendent Registrar to conduct purely civil marriages—a revolutionary concept for many residents. The impact of the change was quickly felt, for it enabled official statistics to be gathered, and non-conformist churches to conduct their own marriages attended only by a registrar.
Petty Session areas were now defined and from 1856, when the Berkshire County Constabulary was formed, the county was divided into police divisions—which were not always the same as the Registration Districts or Poor Law areas. In 1900 old Berkshire had 10 police divisions, looked after by a chief constable, four inspectors, 25 sergeants and 159 constables—the day of the village bobby had arrived. No longer was law and order left in the incapable hands of the unpaid parish constable. Reading and Windsor had their own police forces which replaced the old-style watchmen who had done little more than patrol the streets at night calling out the time and weather.
From 1850 some parts of the county acquired yet another set of boundaries with the formation of Local Boards of Health. These came about as a result of the Victorians’ dawning awareness of the deleterious effects of the unsanitary conditions of the homes of the labouring population which had led to the first Public Health Act of 1848. These were urban measures, but not all towns took advantage of the Act, though according to Edwin Chadwick’s report on the sanitary conditions of the labouring poor ‘there was not a town in Berkshire’ which would not benefit from improvements to the drainage system. Windsor and Reading were singled out for further comment. Reading Corporation had already begun to tackle the problem under a private Act of 1826. A weekly collection of household rubbish had been commenced (the first in the county) and some effort had been made to deal with the almost insurmountable problems of open cesspools, foul privies and contaminated wells, and pigsties and slaughterhouses in close proximity to dwellings and an insufficient supply of clean water. The filthy conditions of the many courts and back streets, however, were witness to the inadequate efforts of the council. Windsor, however, was the ‘worst beyond all comparison’, not just for the crowded insanitary conditions but for the accompanying vice.
Both Reading and New Windsor formed Local Boards of Health in 1850 and within a year had set about installing a proper drainage system, but even at the end of the century slum conditions were a disgrace in Windsor. Other towns also formed Local Health Boards, including Eton in 1850 and Slough in 1863, the areas covered in both instances being much smaller than the parishes. In the case of Eton, only the town was served although the sewage farm and infectious diseases hospital were sited in the village of Eton Wick.
Rural sanitary authorities were not formed until after the second Public Health Act of 1875. According to a royal commission the standard of cottage accommodation in Berkshire was generally poor and included examples of some of the worst in the country. Victorian paintings give a romantic view of country cottages, and today those which survive bear little resemblance to the Victorian reality summed up in the parody of a charming poem:
The cottage homes of England
Alas! How strong they smell
There’s fever in the cesspool
And sewage in the well.
The end of the century brought two Acts which radically altered the structure of local government and created yet more boundaries. That of 1888 established the Berkshire County Council, an elected body which took over the administrative functions (but not the judicial) of the Quarter Sessions Court. Six years later the 1894 Civil Parishes Act removed the civil responsibilities from the parish vestries and introduced the concept of civil parishes governed by parish councils. Civil parishes were grouped in rural districts, and there were also urban districts, though old Berkshire had only one – Wantage. On the north side of the Thames (and now in Berkshire) there were also the Urban Districts of Slough and Eton. Both of these were carved out of much larger parishes, and it would seem that those who drew the new boundaries in 1894 paid as little regard to local interests as the ‘draftsmen’ of 1974. In both cases the remnants of the parishes were left with detached portions, an inconvenience to the residents and councillors alike.
Concern for the welfare of the community
The 19th century saw a revolution in a whole variety of matters which impinged upon the welfare of the people—rich and poor. Some were the responsibility of the statutory authorities—town councils, parish vestries and the local boards of health, but most were provided by commercial enterprises, private benevolence, churches, and charities. Each parish and town has its own story, and it is difficult to collect sufficient data to make any meaningful comparison with other counties, but some patterns and trends are clearly discernible.
Drainage schemes, street cleaning and lighting were almost always provided by the relevant statutory authority, either under one of the public health or local government Acts or a private Act of Parliament. In 1828 Wantage acquired its Improvement Act as a result of the enterprise of a number of residents, spearheaded by a local solicitor. Thirty of its most respected citizens were made commissioners responsible for the employment of watchmen, lamplighters, a surveyor, and rate collectors, rakers, cleansers, and scavengers. The provision of water and gas, on the other hand, was the work of private companies. Maidenhead, Reading and Windsor all had gas works before 1830, and gas companies were established in other towns later in the century. There was a waterworks in Reading as early as 1694, but this project was soon abandoned. A new works were established in the 18th century, but it was not until the mid-19th century that clean water, not untreated river water, began to be piped to the houses. Windsor’s water supply tells a similar story, but while most of the towns had a waterworks before the end of the century, piped water did not reach many rural areas until well into this century. At first many households in towns and villages had to make-do with outside standpipes which served several houses. It was ten years after water was first brought into the village of Eton Wick in 1892 that the families in the new terraced houses in’The Walk could enjoy the privilege of having a cold water tap in the kitchen; they were the first in the village.
Medical services had long been available for those who could afford to pay for them, but for the rest of the community there was scant provision and only the very poor had been the responsibility of the parish vestry. The 18th century had seen the foundation of many hospitals in the larger cities of Britain, but it was not until the next century that any were built in Berkshire. As early as 1802 a dispensary was founded in Reading through the enterprise of a group of doctors, and Windsor’s dispensary was opened in 1818; they were built and maintained through donations and subscriptions, and, since there were no wards, patients were treated at the surgeries or at their homes. Medical services were provided for the poor under the Poor Law Act of 1834, but by this date there was a growing belief that there was a need for a county hospital which could treat that middling class of people who could not afford to obtain private medical treatment but who did not want to be treated in the workhouse infirmaries. In 1836 work began on the hospital in London Road, Reading. William IV and Queen Adelaide became patrons and agreed that it should be called the Royal Berkshire Hospital. The opening ceremony in 1839 took place before an admiring audience of over three thousand. It was the only hospital of its kind in Berkshire.
Churches and Schools
The reform of the Church of England and expansion of the nonconformist churches had begun long before the Victorian period. Charles Wesley preached in Berkshire many times and Wesleyan societies developed at Maidenhead, Windsor, Newbury and several other centres. By the beginning of Victoria’s reign the Methodist Church was not only firmly established, but had divided into several branches, notably the Wesleyans, the Primitive Methodists and the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion. Villages and towns were ‘missioned’ and meetings were held in the open air, cottages and barns until money was raised for purpose-built chapels. A similar story of missioning can be told of the Congregational and Baptists Churches, and nonconformist churches and chapels were not infrequently the first ecclesiastical buildings to be built in a village which did not contain an ancient parish church. Bracknell, Chalvey, Brimpton, and Woodley are examples from different parts of the county.
New churches and the creation of new parishes were a physical expression of the changes occurring within the established church which can be found in every part of the county. The churches at Bradfield, Shaw-cumDonnington and Burghfield are just three examples of parishes churches rebuilt in the 19th century. St Sebastian’s at Wokingham and St Peter’s at Earley, on the other hand, were new churches which soon became the centre of newly created parishes in the suburbs of Wokingham and Reading respectively. St John the Baptist’s at Eton Wick was a daughter chapel serving the rapidly growing village; it replaced the schoolroom which had been used for church services for some twenty years.
The Victorians were horrified at the paucity of church attendance revealed by the one and only ecclesiastical census which was taken in 1851, but parish magazines also reveal a picture of churches with full congregations and Sunday Schools and programmes of church work which touched almost every aspect of the lives of the parishioners. New charities were set up and money was found for such things as maternity boxes for poor mothers, provident societies, reading rooms, savings banks, and the provision of tickets which could be used to get medical services at the nearby dispensary. Church and chapel ministers universally now had a pastoral role, a situation which had been not been prevalent at the beginning of the century.
Education was also very much a church affair. The survey of schools conducted by the government in 1833 revealed a very mixed picture, with some villages such as Catmere without a school of any kind, and others with schooling being provided by charitable parishioners, the local church, and private enterprise.
BRIMPTON Parish (Pop. 443)—One Sunday School (commenced 1829), containing 18 males and 20 females; supported by voluntary contributions.
BRIGHTWALTHAM Parish (Pop. 442)—One daily school, wherein 12 males and 18 females are educated and clothed at the sole expense of the rector.
BUCKLAND with CARSWELL Parish (Pop. 946)—Two daily schools, one of which is endowed and contains 30 females, in the other from 30 to 50 males are under instruction at the expense of their parents; the above schools are also opened for the benefit of the parish on Sundays, and about 30 males and 40 females receive gratuitous instruction.
That year, 1833, saw the beginning of the government’s interest in education with the passing of an Act of Parliament authorising grants to schools. It was the first of many Education Acts and only one of many forces of change which encouraged the provision of schooling for every child. By 1851, when an educational census was taken, Berkshire had 610 schools, of which 346 were private. There were also 306 Sunday Schools and 13 evening schools for adults. The great majority of the schools provided only an elementary education—fitting the pupils, as so many of those in authority believed, for their lowly status as labourers or servants. But Berkshire also had its share of old established grammar schools such as Eton College, Reading and Abingdon grammar schools, which were said to have been founded in the Middle Ages, and Saint Bartholomew’s Grammar School at Newbury. There were also a few new ones including Bradfield College, one of the earliest endowed grammar schools of the Victorian era, Wellington College, founded 116 Village school at in 1859 for the orphan sons of army officers, and Salt Hill Grammar School, Stanford in the Vale. a private school which flourished for some three decades and offered an education to the Sons of tradesmen. In 1885 Oxford University began a series of lectures in Reading—a small beginning, but an important one in the story of the University Extension Movement. It led to the establishment of Reading College in 1892 and the University of Reading in 1926.
The variety of schools available in the larger towns reflects something of the character and attitudes of their townsfolk. For example, at Windsor it was the churches (established and nonconformist) which were the driving force, not the Corporation and, on the eve of the great Education Act of 1870 in just one part of the town, St Stephen’s parish, there was a mission (or ragged) school, an infants school, a boys school, and a girls middle school (for the daughters of tradesmen), all founded by the nuns of the House of Mercy, an Anglican nunnery which itself had been founded in 1851 to rescue ‘fallen women’. Before the end of the century the nuns also opened St Stephen’s High School and a college for the daughters of clergymen. At Old Windsor there were industrial schools which taught laundry work and cooking to the girls and gardening to the boys.
Golden years and deep depression
Throughout the 19th century more people in Berkshire were working on the land than were employed in any other occupation, except perhaps domestic service. By 1837, when Victoria came to the throne, many of the difficulties hampering the increased use of scientific methods of farming had been removed, and many landowners and farmers, though few farm labourers, were benefiting from the changes. Corn laws passed in 1815, however, protected English agriculture, and there was a growing movement in the country for free trade and the abolition of these laws. An anti-corn law league was founded in 1838 which four years later extended its organisation by establishing 12 regional centres, the southern district covering the counties of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Berkshire. Local farmers and landowners responded to the threat and at a meeting held in the Upper Ship Inn, Reading, under the chairmanship of Col. Blagrave of Calcot Park, they formed the Berkshire Association for the Protection of Agriculture. Committee members came from all parts of the county, including Reading, Wallingford, Sonning, Twyford, Newbury, Lambourn, Blewbury and the Wantage area. The president was W. Mount of Wasing Place.
The conflict between the two societies and the agitation against the corn laws brought to light numerous unfair practices working against the tenant farmers and the belief of the Berkshire protectionists that labourers’ wages should be kept as low as possible. The speeches of the Members of Parliament representing Berkshire (reported at length in the local newspapers) were directed at the farming element in the population and those in the trades that depended on agriculture. In 1846 all three members cast their vote against the repeal of the corn laws, but they were on the losing side.
Although many, possibly the majority, of Berkshire farmers believed that the loss of protection was a betrayal, agriculture did not immediately suffer and the years 1846 to the 1870s were an exceedingly prosperous period with people being willing to put money into farming. The railway made the London market increasingly accessible to Berkshire farmers, and the early morning collection of milk for London became a familiar sight in many parts of the county. In 1865 the Great Western Railway was carry 9,000 gallons of milk to London daily, but that year a cattle plague virtually wiped out the London cowkeepers, and the following year the railway transported 144,000 gallons. Queen Victoria was patron of the newly formed Royal Agricultural Society of England which held a magnificent show in the Home Park at Windsor in 1851. Prince Albert and the Prince of Wales both served as president at different times, and under instructions from Prince Albert extensive work was carried out on the royal farms. One of the most splendid dairies in the country was built at Frogmore in the Home Park at Windsor. There were others of importance on Col. Loyd-Lindsay’s estate at Ardington and of lesser importance at Bloomfield Hatch Farm at Grazeley.
By 1880 the golden years of agriculture were over. Three years of bleak springs and rainy summers spelt disaster for arable and livestock farming, and the country suffered from economic depressions and periods of inflation for much of the last quarter of the 19th century. The fears of the protectionists materialised with the importation of cheap corn from Canada and wool and lamb from New Zealand and Australia; the first cargo of frozen lamb reached London in 1882. The production of cheese and butter in Berkshire was only of small importance, but the import and marketing of these products through Danish dairy co-operatives put Berkshire farmers, who were mainly selling to local shops, at a great disadvantage, and much of the farmhouse cheese which was sold at the Reading Michaelmas cheese fair was sold at a loss.
Prices of other products, particularly wool, fell disastrously. The great sheep farming area in Berkshire was still the Berkshire Downs. Upland fields which had been ploughed up during the good years for feeding the sheep on root crops were allowed to tumble to grass. Water meadows were abandoned and the sheep population decreased dramatically. Farms failed and soon land agents were reporting that tenants could not be found for the vacant farms. Arable farmers suffered just as badly a§ the price of corn plummetted. Those farmers who survived were often the ones who had adopted new methods of farming, such as dairying, reduced their labour force, and perhaps invested in new machinery.
Amongst those who did so in Berkshire were John Walter of Bearwood Farm, near Wokingham and George Baylis of Wyfield Manor near Newbury. It was the beginning of a new pattern of agriculture in Berkshire. John Walter, owner of The Times, could afford to put money into his farming interests and in the 1880s he bought a steam plough, the first in use in Berkshire. George Baylis introduced a cropping system on his newly purchased 400-acre farm which did not rely on animal manure for maintaining soil fertility. Instead he used artificial fertilisers and new varieties of corn. Believing that by enlarging the area farmed he could substantially reduce his overheads, Baylis took the opportunity to lease other farms that came on to the market at very favourable terms of tenancy. By the end of the century he was farming more than 4,000 acres and by 1917 he was the largest arable farmer in England with over 12,000 acres in Berkshire and Hampshire. But it was not just the size of his holdings that were large; so were his fields after the removal of many miles of hedgerows. His workforce, on the other hand, numbered only about two hundred. He was a key figure in the transition to modern concepts of agriculture.
The Shopping revolution
Until the early 19th century few villages in Berkshire, or elsewhere in the country, contained a shop where groceries or household goods could be purchased. What could not be provided by the villagers themselves must be sought in the neighbouring town or from an itinerant hawker or cheap jack. By the beginning of Victoria’s reign, however, village shops—usually grocers, general dealers, bakers or butchers—were to be found everywhere in the county. Few villages did not have at least one. Not many goods on sale were of the ready-prepared variety or even packaged—that was done by the shopkeeper while the customer waited and watched—but most village shops stocked a very large variety of goods. The ledgers of Edward Alinutt of Sonning, grocer and baker in the 1860s, list bread and cakes, flour, yeast, oatmeal, currants, tea, coffee, bacon, pork, fruit, sweets, starch, matches, blacklead, bird seed and coal. As the 19th century progressed, a new range of processed groceries became available, sold at prices that all but the poorest could afford. The cottager had at last joined the consumer society. Amongst these packaged and processed goods were biscuits made by Huntley and Palmer of Reading, lemonade by Mainwood’s of Wind- sor, Elliman’s embrocation made at Slough, and a fish sauce made by Cocks of Reading. One-man or family businesses predominated, but there were a few run by co-operative societies. These were usually found in villages or towns with strong associations with industry. The Slough Co-op was founded in the 1890s to combat the hardship being suffered by families during a strike by local brickmakers. Ardington Co-op Store, on the other hand, was the result of the philanthropic endeavours of Lord Wantage who wanted to encourage thrift in the villagers.
Itinerant salesmen still visited the villages, a few still on foot, but there was a growing number of town shops offering a service to the villages, and general carriers which acted as shopping agents, taking orders from village people for individual items as diverse as reels of cotton or a garden spade. In the towns the number of shops and small businesses had mushroomed. Reading had more than 1,600 according to Billing’s directory of 1854, Newbury and Windsor more than 500 each. Lambourn, one of the smallest of Berkshire’s towns, had at least 140 and Slough, which had only been a town for some twelve years, already had a High Street and was beginning to challenge the older South Buckinghamshire town of Eton.
One other retail outlet which was very much a feature of the Victorian village was the public house or beer shop; the latter was not strictly a shop, but a public house which could only sell beer (not spirits or wine) either on or off the premises according to the licence. They had come into existence as a result of the Beer Act of 1830 which, as its preamble states, was for the better supply of beer. The government was concerned about the recent increase in the consumption of gin following a lowering of the excise duties on spirits. The Act did not achieve its aim of reducing the amount of spirits drunk, but it was certainly successful in making beer more available. Hundreds of beer shops were opened in Berkshire, some of them in villages, such as Purley and Cippenham, which had been without a public house since licensing became more effective a hundred years or so years earlier. The beer shops were often little more than an ordinary cottage or terrace house whose owner purchased a barrel of beer from the nearest brewery and set it up in the kitchen. Many of them were free houses, but SimnTlond’s Brewery of Reading bought more than forty properties in anticipation of the Act and opened them as beer shops as soon as the Act was passed.
In 1887 and 1897 villagers and townsfolk all over the country cel- 123 The Wilts and ebrated the Golden and Diamond Jubilees commemorating the 50 and 60 Berks canal near years that Victoria had been queen. Contemporary comment dwelt on the Wantage. achievements which had made Britain a great country, the decorations and prodigious feasts that were provided in way of celebration. In reality they had not been ‘Sixty Glorious Years’ for many people in Berkshire, but the village of 1897, with its church and chapel, village shop, school, policeman, and a workingmen’s club or village hail, was very different from that of 60 years earlier.