Discover for the first time in 900 years what Reading was really like

The secret history of one of the most historic parts of the Thames Valley has been uncovered for a new book.

Reading’s Abbey Quarter – An Illustrated History is the title of the book, written by local historian John Millaney and his wife Lindsay.

The book reveals for the first time in centuries what the precinct of the 12th century Abbey would have looked like, and how the Abey, founded by Henry I, developed and changed all the way up until his descendant Henry VII dissolved it.

The ruins were initially plundered and then neglected for hundreds of years before being saved from complete demolition in the nineteenth century.

Book launch

You can hear more about the story behind Reading’s Abbey Quarter at a special launch event to be held in Reading’s Central Library on Thursday, November 13. Starting at 7.30pm, the evening gives you the chance to buy the book. Places are limited and can be booked from Reading Central Library.

The book also tells the history of Reading Gaol, made famous by Oscar Wilde, and its predecessors.

Next door neighbour, St James’ Church, is also covered. The Victorian church was the first to be deisgned by the great Victorian architect and designer of Big Ben, AWN Pugin, in 1840. The school alongside the church dates from the 1870s and covers the probable burial place of Henry I.

Later chapters look at the Abbey Gateway and how it has changed over time, the Abbey Mill, parts of which can still be seen over the Holy Brook, the buildings along Abbots Walk, the Law Courts and the Forbury Hotel, once the Shire Hall.

Some old landmarks have disappeared.

These include the Suttons Seeds headquarters and trial grounds, now covered by Forbury Square and, more recently, the Prudential Building, originally built in the form of an arch to allow the IDR to pass beneath it.

St Laurence’s church, served by the monks, once stood by another Gateway, known as the Compter Gate, through which pilgrims entered into the Abbey grounds. This church too has seen many changes, including being severely damaged by German bombs in the ‘People’s Pantry’ raid of 1943.

The book moves on to consider the Hospitium and its successors, the Municipal Buildings, including Waterhouse’s beautiful town hall and the original site of what became Reading University.

Finally a section looks at the Forbury Gardens themselves, once a market place and fairground, and later transformed by the Victorians into ‘pleasure gardens’.

Here too, there were times when developments might have destroyed the Forbury. The arrival of the railway in 1840 brought problems such as air pollution to the area and radically altered the northern part of the old Abbey grounds.

A 1928 project proposed covering the Forbury with new municipal buildings and the original IDR plan would have taken the road through the western part of the gardens.

The book also considers the various excavations and archaeological research carried out in recent years and concludes with a look at the Trooper Potts statue planned to stand opposite the Crown Court.

A unique aspect of the book is provided by illustrations by John and Lindsay’s son, John R Mullaney, a professional architectural illustrator and a fellow of the Society of Architectural Illustration.

These show an imaginative reconstruction of how the Abbey may have looked in its heyday, based on archaeological evidence and comparison with other Cluniac abbeys built at the same time.

Many Reading people are relative newcomers to the town who know little of its rich history. This book should serve as a fascinating introduction to the historic heart of Reading, a town whose origins go back to Saxon and Viking times and which has at times played an important part in the history of England.

John and Lindsay have spent three years researching the book, which has just been released.

With the aid of hundreds of illustrations, maps, photographs and paintings, many provided by Reading Library, a crucial partner in the research, the book is a fascinating glimpse into the past.

Reading’s Abbey Quarter – An Illustrated History costs £15 and can be bought at local bookshops, Reading Museum or direct from Scallop Shell Press through their website