Did Queen Victoria Hate Reading? The Legend of Queen Victoria's Statue in Friar Street

Spend more than a couple of days in Reading and it won't be long before someone lets you in on its most famous urban myth: that Queen Victoria actively hated the town and personally requested her statue was placed facing away from it, in perpetual, stony-faced, royal displeasure. 

Reasons often given for the queen's animosity to Reading range from a band of locals once hurling rotten fruit at her when she visited - to the fact that she was not a fan of the railway (Reading being an early station built in the mid-nineteenth century). Another reason I've heard was that she felt the people of Reading were especially rude to her whenever she came here.

But there are problems with these stories. All of them. 

Queen Victoria Statue, Reading, c.1893. Henry Taunt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I've scoured the local newspapers of the late 1800s for any hint of a royal visit from Queen Victoria and there are none, let alone accounts of an anointed queen being pelted with mouldy fruit by angry residents. Local papers like The Reading Standard reported on things like the selling of "63 pedigree pigs" in 1897, or a woman in St Mary's Butts being "slightly elevated" (read: drunk) in 1891. Such an assault on a queen - or even a royal visit that usually attracted well-wishers in their thousands and sometimes millions - would have made it into the local news, if not the national papers. And for Reading, it's just not there. 

There's also nothing about visits to Reading in Queen Victoria's diary entries. She mentions that she 'passed Reading' many times, en route to other places, often Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, London or Windsor Castle. She came past Reading three times in the autumn of 1852 and once in February 1866 (when she mentioned some local flooding). In 1870, she writes that rail carriages for the royal children were added to their train at Reading station on 17th August, which is probably the best claim Reading has to a 'visit' from Victoria, as she sat at the station, gazing out of the window, while railway workers hurriedly attached the extra carriages. (1)

She mentions Reading again on 23 March 1872, noting the melting of some snow as she passed, and some flooding on her way to Windsor in February 1883.(2) These 'visits' were all at a distance: always en route to somewhere else. No stopping, no greeting, no royal waves and no laying of foundation stones with an ornamental trowel.

For a woman who wasn't afraid to be verbal about her likes and dislikes (she once wrote that Wolverhampton and The Black Country looked "dismal and horrid") there is nothing at all to suggest any hatred of Reading in her diaries.  

There is one interesting mention of Reading though, which she penned on 4th March 1882. Two days before, Edward Roderick MacClean had opened fire on the queen in her carriage at Windsor station. He was wrestled to the ground and beaten to the floor by a school boy with an umbrella. MacClean was arrested, tried at Reading and spent the rest of his life in a London asylum. Victoria notes, two days later, that "the wretched man is... today taken to Reading jail". (3) His sentence was eventually pronounced as insane but not guilty and he died in Broadmoor in 1921. Could Victoria's disappointment in the not-guilty verdict have trickled into a hatred of the town whose judges had passed it? It's possible, but seems extreme. Again with plenty of opportunity to deride, insult or take a quick snark at Reading, she mentions the town again a few times after this. She passes through in 1883 without incident and in 1887 - the year the statue was erected - has an audience with Military Knights at Windsor Castle, one of whom she carefully notes was from Reading. In June 1889 at Windsor she receives "a bouquet of honey secreting flowers, which had been gathered in Messrs Sutton's grounds in Reading." And in 1890 she off-handedly notes that members of the royal family travelled to Reading for a "Masonic Function". (4)

Victoria Statue, Friar Street, Reading 1888. Henry Taunt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But what about her hating the railways? Could this have put Reading in her bad books? 

The queen was a frequent traveller on the trains, and saw the network flourish during her reign. She was the first monarch to travel by rail, from Slough to Paddington in 1842 - and had her own royal carriage. She was able to visit different areas of her country, noting in her diary train trips to and from places such as London, Nottingham, Windsor, Gravesend and Kew. The trains heralded faster and more efficient travel and postal delivery around the country and Victoria remarked on its cost savings as well as its speed so it's strange that she would be seen as staunchly against these new and exciting innovations, although she was at times wary of its safety. There are reports that she was unenthusiastic about the new crowds that formed in places she liked to visit - train travel boosted tourism in places like the Isle of Wight and Brighton. But she was positive about it as a whole.  She wrote, of her trip from London to Brighton in 1845:

"The railway is very well constructed & goes through tunnels and over bridges, passing through very pretty country. We only took an hour and ¼ going down! In former times it used to take us 5 hours and ½ getting down to Brighton." (5)

The problem with this theory too is that if any animosity to Reading was over the building of a railway station, Victoria might as well have boycotted railway towns and cities like Bath, Gloucester, Brighton and London, all of which had railway stations  by the mid-1800s.

With no record of Victoria ever having set foot in Reading and also no compelling evidence of a personal grudge, I decided to look into whether the people of Reading held a grudge against their queen. That would go some way to explain why she 'faced away' from the town, right? 

But guess what? I couldn't find anything about that, either. 

In 1897, the statue was described as 'very pretty, streamers of paper flowers and flags being suspended from ornamented poles' in celebration of the Royal Counties' Agricultural Show held in the town. (6) The statue was chosen as the site of the unfurling of the royal standard, the singing of the national anthem and the end destination for a torch-lit procession of around 700 townspeople to mark the queen's Jubilee in the same year. A Mr Ridley gave a speech at these festivities rejoicing that 'the ancient Borough of Reading is celebrating Her Majesty's Jubilee in a truly loyal and enthusiastic manner...". And at its unveiling by Prince George, Duke of Cambridge in 1887, there was no hint of awkwardness or any reporting of a preference for the statue's facing position. (7)

So no evidence for the people's animosity towards their queen, then. They gathered around the statue, decorated it and declared their loyalty. These don't sound much like the actions of a rude, angry town to me.

Friar Street, Reading. Queen Victoria Statue, 1888. 
Henry Taunt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So maybe the queen's statue is actually in the right place.  

It seems to me that one of the reasons this legend began in the first place is that many modern townspeople consider the 'centre' of Reading as the area around Broad Street, The Oracle and Cheapside. In the modern town then, it might look as if the queen's statue has been placed awkwardly on the edge of it, and faces away from the main action. But everything changes when you peel back the modern shopping centres, offices and restaurants and see the statue in Reading as it was in the late 1800s. 

The statue, created by George Blackall Simonds in 1887 and unveiled in the summer of that year, stands in front of Reading's Town Hall, gazing towards it, in line with the new Reading Station.  Her likeness, therefore, would have greeted visitors to the town arriving by rail, and dignitaries coming to do business at the town hall. 

There was a cultural aspect to her position, too. 

Although work on the hall had started in the eighteenth-century, the concert hall, museum and library on the site was finished between 1882-1884 and the final extension of the building opened in 1897, after the statue had been erected. The queen was placed firmly at the junction of the new, innovative railway station and the trendy new Victorian architecture of the town hall, where administration was done in her name. It makes much more sense then, that she should be here, rather than at Broad Street or in St Mary's Butts. 

So. Is there any truth to the legend that Queen Victoria hated Reading? 

We can't find any evidence that Victoria ever set foot in Reading and that means many of the events surrounding the legend - the fruit pelting, the rude locals - have no basis. It's unrealistic too that events such as these wouldn't have made the papers or resulted in some recorded, public punishment for the offenders. 

Victoria's own personal diaries mention Reading a number of times but without emotion, and she took the time to elegantly record her meetings with, and gifts from, Reading townspeople. 

There's also no existing royal order I can find that specifies she must be placed facing away from the town. When placed in the context of Victorian Reading, her position makes sense, acknowledging and celebrating two of the town's greatest and proudest Victorian innovations: the railway station and the newly-renovated town hall. 

There's also every suggestion that the locals were loyal to her, in return. They kept the statue clean and celebrated her Jubilee enthusiastically, hundreds of residents coming out to light torches for their queen. 

For me, until further evidence comes to light, this legend seems exactly that: a local legend that makes for a good talking point but isn't based on any real evidence, as exciting as it sounds. 

What do you think? Do you have any other evidence regarding this that I should take a look at that might change my mind?

Let me know in the comments!

You might also like Hidden Talents of British Kings and Queens, Mary I and Philip of Spain Visit Reading in 1554, and Sir Francis Walsingham's Lost Reading Town House. 

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Notes and sources

1. Queen Victoria's Journals, Monday 30th August 1852, Princess Beatrice's Copies. Vol 34. p55-57. Also Thursday 14th Oct, Vol.34. p 134-139 and 29th November 1852, Vol 34. p219. 5th February 1866, Vol. 55. p24-25. 17th August 1870, Vol. 59. p 186-1888. 

2. Ibid., Saturday 23rd March 1872, Vol 61. p88-89. 

3. Ibid., Saturday 4th March 1882, Vol 76, p69-70. 

4. Ibid., Tuesday 13th February 1883, Vol. 78, p34-35; Thursday 14th July 1887, Vol 86, p13-14; Friday 28th June 1889, Vol. 89. p224-227; Monday 15th December 1890, Vol. 92, p183-184. 

5. Ibid., Friday 7th February 1845. Vol. 19. p58-59. 

6. Reading Standard, 4th June 1897. The British Newspaper Archive. 

7. Berkshire Chronicle, 26th June 1897. Reading Mercury, 30th July 1887. The British Newspaper Archive.