Finding The Ancient Pubs of Reading, Berkshire

One kind of establishment that holds onto business for hundreds of years is the good old fashioned British pub. 

Which makes sense, if you think about it. 

Our happiness, hope, excitement and celebration are soaked into the walls of our local pub. They are places people have gone, for thousands of years, to have fun, socialise, debate the day's events - or share grief, worries, ask for help - or perhaps secure a dodgy deal in the secretive shadows of the flickering candlelight. 

Reading was extremely well placed for pubs, situated on the ancient road between London and Bath. As such, it was a stopping place for kings, queens, soldiers and all other types of travellers making their way across the country. From the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, the trade in inns was helped along by the foundation of Reading Abbey, where not only monks devoutly performed their duties within its pale stone walls, but members of the royal family held weddings and parliaments and made key decisions of the realm. In the days of walking, carts or riding by horse, this meant that visitors on business in Reading needed food, rest and refreshment. 

The George: Photo by Metin Ozer on Unsplash

An inventory of 1577, diligently recorded in the middle of Elizabeth I's reign, reveals that Reading boasted 7 inns, 44 alehouses and 3 taverns. The distinction between these types of businesses back then was probably blurred. At an inn, you'd expect to have stables that you could tie up your horse for the night while you rested - but we know that The Bell on the High Street also had stables that were built in the 1430s. In Reading's town accounts we see numerous instances of lodgers staying the night in 'houses' with various pictorial signs that swung from the top of the door and were likely to be pubs as we know them today with a few rooms for overnight stays. And there's even a note in the Corporation's Records from 1623 of a Blacksmith called Thomas Green, who, as well as having a workshop, 'doth keep bere in his house for his customers and his freindes' and had a 'signe of the horseshooe' over his door. 

In theory, anyone could set up an alehouse or start selling beer to neighbours and friends, so the governments under Edward VI and Elizabeth I in the 1500s took steps to regulate the industry. Once a place had a licence, it could be easily taxed. The town's records do list some landlords, or 'victuallers' who were found to be unlicensed and were ordered to stop operating, like poor Goodwife Wheler in July 1628, who denied she kept any alehouse. Her interrogators forbid her to keep one going forwards anyway. There was also a need to regulate the amount of beer you received from various houses, as well as the price paid. So Elizabeth tightened these too. The town appointed two burgesses in 1593 who gave an oath to oversee the prices of beer and ale 'according to the forme of the statute'. 

Not all of Reading's 54 inns, alehouses and taverns from 1577 survive in the historical record. When they do, it's usually scrawled into the town's books because it was the scene of a crime, or because there was a query as to the use of land adjoining it. Premises free of drama are unlikely to be recorded in this way. And if the records are scarce, the bricks on the street are even more so. But you can take a search through Reading to find the sites. Standing on the path, take a moment, in your imagination, to clear the glistening multi-faceted office blocks, shopping centres and buses from your mind's eye. In their place, build up a semi-rural town of the sixteenth century, with the bustling marketplace and timber-beamed buildings - their swinging signs creaking in the breeze. 

The Sun, 16 Castle Street, Reading
Thought to be Reading's oldest pub, and perhaps originally called The Rising Sun, parts of this building date to the thirteenth century. Historians from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were certain that there was once a twelfth century castle near to the site, although there's no evidence of it today. If it did exist here, it was demolished soon after it was built, and a gaol was constructed. There has been speculation that the The Sun was linked somehow to the gaol, and that the basement may have been used as a holding place for prisoners where they would be guarded and await imprisonment or execution. In the 1600s, we know that The Sun was where the 'skavinger' - the town's street-cleaner - would start work. On 22 December Richard Jones was employed to "sweepe, ridd and carry awaye weekly all the soile arisinge weekly in and about the Markett place, vizt . from the Sun dore till the Streete to the Bucher rewe end, at Mr Dewell’s dore and Market places unto the Walke; from and by all the Walke unto the Counter dore; from thence in and by all the Markett place and Streetes downe the Shoomaker Rewe unto th’end of the Markett by the Taylors’ wall." Of the archaeological finds discovered at the pub over the years include a sword, with three tiny heads engraved into it, that was dated to the 1630-40s, that was found embedded in a wall, strangely enough, where the kitchens used to be. 

The George, 11-12 King Street, Reading 
The George still stands, as part of the Mercure chain of hotels, although it's undoubtedly been refurbished and adjusted since its original design. This black and white timbered building has a sign above the door dating it to 1531, but it is mentioned in town records of 1423. In 1513, there is a payment for 'bere and ale to my lord Chamberlain's serjeants' and on 30th July 1628 the Corporation decided to meet here, with the order noted in the diary that they had 'apoynted stewardes to provide dyett for the Company that shalbe at the spending at the George." Another ancient inn, The Cock Inn, was said to stand opposite The George, the earliest mention of which is in 1565. 

The Bear, Castle Street (moved later to Bridge Street)
The first mention of The Bear is in 1484, where a tenement is mentioned, belonging to Robert Kaynes, situated "in the south part Castle Street near the Bear there." In 1501 there is a payment for 'fyssh that was sent to my lord of Redyng to the Bere" and in 1608, the Corporation Diary records John Wigge building next to it. It's said that Oliver Cromwell visited here in 1648 and James II's wife, the Italian Mary of Modena visited in 1686. It's surprising that, having stood in some form or other (it was moved to Bridge Street at some point) since at least the fifteenth century, the building was demolished as late as the 1980s. 

The Cardinal's Hat, Minster Street, North Side
One of the most dramatic days in Reading's history was the arrest of Julins Palmer in 1556. Julins was in his early twenties, was fluent in Greek and Latin and loved to debate the ideas of the day. He attended university at Oxford and was a master at Reading School. He also privately taught the Knollys family, who lived in the area. Sometime around 1555 he became disillusioned with the Catholic faith and, specifically, the burnings of Protestants that took place under Mary I. Not one to keep his opinions to himself, he rallied against the victims and made "violent exclamations against the tyranny and cruelty of their persecutors." Letters to that effect were found in his study and, for his safety, Julius left Reading - going to Oxford and considering work in Gloucester, but returning to the town with the impression that he had support - and to put some affairs in order. He lodged in a room at The Cardinal's Hat in Minster Street, asking the hostess for "a close-chamber, where he might be alone from all resort of company." But word got out that he was in the town and he received two visitors, as Foxe says, "under the pretence of friendship," where the men "waxed hot in talk." Foxe's Book of Martyrs, published in 1563, tells us the dramatic scene that followed:  

"Palmer not yet suspecting such pretended and devised mischief as by this crooked and pestiferous generation was now in brewing against him, called for his supper, and went quietly to bed: but quietly he could not long rest there. For within short space after, the officers and their retinue came rushing in with lanterns and bills, requiring him in the king and queen's name to make ready himself, and quietly to depart with them. So this silly young man, perceiving that he was thus Judasly betrayed without opening his lips, was led away as a lamb to the slaughter, and was committed to ward; whom the keeper, as a ravening wolf greedy of his prey, brought down into a vile, stinking, and blind dungeon, prepared for thieves and murderers. And there he left him for a time, hanging by the hands and feet in a pair of stocks, so high, that well near no part of his body touched the ground."

Julins Palmer was taken to Newbury and interrogated. He was burned, with two other men accused of heresy, on 17th July 1556. He was 24 years old. 

The Broad Face, High Street
Not much is known of this pub, but it was noted by Samuel Pepys, who would record his experiences here in a kind of Tripadvisor-style review of Restoration Reading. He arrived at Reading on 16th June 1668, listened to his wife read and after eating, went for a walk about the town. He mentions that it is a "very great one, I think bigger than Salsbury: a river runs through it, in seven branches, and unite in one, in one part of the town, and runs into the Thames half-a-mile off one odd sign of the Broad Face." The inn receives less praise, as he scribbles about the "musick, the worst we have had, coming to our chamber-door, but calling us by wrong names, we lay." The pub was demolished in 1926. Another old inn existed near here, called The Bell which was later called The Guildhall Inn, with records showing rents paid, dating back to 1430.

The Crown Inn, 10 Crown Street
The Crown is first mentioned in 1618, and in 1623 it bursts into the records of the Corporation, where a robbery is being investigated. The extract, from the town's diary, goes like this: 

"At this daye Edmond Poynes, servant to the Right Hn Lord Corke, complayneth that this presente morninge, jº October, lodging at the Inn called the Crowne, was distreyned and deprived of 3li. 6s in money by a straunger that lodged in the house all that night and supped with him, and one of the parties calling himself Mr Greene lodged in bed with him, and the other is called Mr Smyth. "

The Lord Corke mentioned here is probably Richard Boyle, who worked in Ireland under Elizabeth I and was later admired by Oliver Cromwell. He was created Earl of Cork ini 1620. The Crown was said to have been visited by William Pitt and John Wesley and in 1796 the landlord was named as Francis Tudor. The building was demolished in the 1960s. 

The Katherine Wheele Inn, 175 Friar Street 
Through the town records, there's a feeling that Stuart Reading suspected strangers, which is strange in itself when you consider the vast number of them travelling through on their way to London or Bath. They were often questioned on their intentions in the town. Some were suspected of carrying out an unlicensed trade, others were ratted out to the Corporation if they were spending a little too generously, in case they were thieves. On 20th January 1623, Robert Ramsey, a farryer, "being a stranger lodgeing at the Katherine Wheele, was warned by Mr. Mayor to be gone and departe the towne at or before xijth of this moneth of January" with the addition next to the entry "gone", confirming he had left the town. The inn was demolished in 1882. 

There are other establishments that we have mention of, but have not been featured above. Usually this is if there wasn't as much juicy evidence of them in the record. For The Half Moon, for instance, the exact location is unknown, but it is mentioned in the town's diary when on Good Friday 1612 Danyell Pearce has a query with land there. There's also The Lower Ship, on Duke Street, where on 27 February 1628 Henry Clere, described only as 'a foreigner' is granted his license to run the premises. At The White Swan, on Thorn Street, a vagrant lodging there was ordered to move on, in 1622. There were many victims of cut-purses in the inns in Reading at this time - in addition to the robbery committed at The Crown there is also an instance at a Duke Street pub called The White Hart, where a visitor from London came to Reading and lodged there. He played dice with two strangers. The scribblings of the investigators records his loss: "before the play was ended they stirred from the bale, the saide Complaynant cryed out that he had lost his purse." 

Many of the official records relate to crimes, investigations, arrests and land or building queries. These are usually very official, and summed up fairly coldly in a few paragraphs or lines. But with a little further investigation into the buildings and people they relate to, along with some filling in of details we know about Tudor and Stuart society, we can start to build up a picture of what it would have really been like to go on a historic pub crawl in Tudor and Stuart Reading. These colourful tales show the real people that lived and worked in Reading, their laughter and cries silently haunting the vibrant, modern streets even today. 

Did you enjoy this round up of Reading's historic pubs and their stories? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 
Interested in more about the history of Reading? Have a look at my other posts here

Reading Records, Diary of the Corporation, edited by JM Guilding, vol.1 and 2 (1892)
Foxe's Book of Martyrs, 1563. Accessed digitally at ExClassics 10 May 2020
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 1668, accessed 10 May 2020
History of the Sun Inn, Reading. CAMRA. Author unknown. Accessed 10 May 2020. 

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  1. Much Maligned TownMay 12, 2020 at 4:04 AM

    What remained of The Bear on Bridge street was accidentally demolished allegedly, as nobody told the developer/demolition crew that it was listed. I have a council document from the 1970's about improving Reading's waterways and it shows the Bear as listed and not due for demolition as well as several of the older Huntley and Palmers factory buildings also planned to be retained. How ironic that RBC should end up in that building a few decades later. The licence and name of the Bear moved to Tilehurst in the 30's, this occurred several times to other pubs around Reading, and the original building was partly demolished and became part of the brewery.
    Good work on the blog

    1. Thanks for the kind words! :) That's awful, if they didn't mean to demolish it! It blows my mind really that so many ancient buildings in Reading ended up getting demolished or lost in accidents very recently. They stood for all that time. A friend told me about a thatched cottage in Tilehurst that dated to pre-Tudor times (I think he said 1300s) and it was ruined in a fire very recently when workmen left a light on when they left for the night? I'll have to find the details. I don't live very far from The Bear (now Water Tower) in Tilehurst - fascinating to see that it had the connection with the two older ones in Reading. Thanks for the comment, very interesting!


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