A History of Berkshire


Berkshire Old and New—In Search of the County

Colnbrook became part of Berkshire on 1 April 1995; it was the most recent of the many county boundary changes that have taken place over the past thousand years—and the last change before the county disappears as an administrative unit. The heart of the original shire, created in the mid-Saxon period, lay in the Vale of the White Horse. But the Berkshire of those times did not include the eastern part of the present county; this area did not become part of the county until the tenth century. The county which was then formed survived, except for minor boundary adjustments, until 1974. For the inhabitants of the parishes concerned, however, these small changes could bring very important changes indeed—be they differences in taxes, local government policies, the way in which justice was administered, or merely a change in loyalties.

Berkshire Old and New. The map depicts the county as it never existed in order to show the main areas lost or added to the county in the last 200 years.

The very irregular shape of the ancient boundary in the extreme south west, together with its relationship to field patterns, suggests that here the county boundary was drawn long after the local communities had determined their territory, and was a matter of local determination. In the 11th century, parts of the parishes of Shalbourne and Hungerford lay in Wiltshire, but sometime later in the Middle Ages Shalbourne became part of Berkshire and is shown on the early county maps as a curious meandering extension to the main body of the county. In 1894 it was transferred to Wiltshire. Under the same Act of Parliament Combe parish was transferred from Hampshire to Berkshire, together with parts of Hungerford which for centuries had belonged to Wiltshire. At last this corner of the county took on its present shape.

The Norman lordship of Faringdon included outliers, detached parts of the estate, at Little Faringdon and Shilton within Oxfordshire and at Barrington in Gloucestershire. At some time in the Middle Ages parts of the parishes of Barkham, Hurst, Swallowfield and Sonning became outliers of Wiltshire lying within Berkshire, a result of grants to the Manor of Amesbury of land in Windsor Forest. Such detached portions of county areas were abolished in 1844. In 1894 part of New Hinksey in Oxfordshire came into Berkshire and in 1911 the Oxfordshire village of Caversham, which had by then become a fashionable suburb of Reading, was also transferred to Berkshire.

There have been other minor changes, but these were eclipsed by those wrought under the 1974 Local Government Act. As a result of this, a very large area in the north west, arguably the most ancient part of the county, was given to Oxfordshire, in ‘exchange’ for the southern tip of Buckinghamshire. Three years later Caversham and Slough were once again enlarged at the expense of their old counties. Twenty years on there are still those who regret the recent changes. But roots have grown and new allegiances formed, and many will mourn if Berkshire is lost as an administrative county through the government’s restructuring policies. But as long as people care about the past, the county name will live on; this book concerns the story of all those Berkshires, old and new.