The Secret History of Reading's Market Place

How often do you look - I mean, really look - at Reading's Old Market Place? 

Yes, sure, it might seem as if all the action is in the main shopping area of Broad Street - all those glossy shop-fronts, buskers and restaurants - but it's actually worth taking some time to see what this little part of town has to offer.

As it turns out, this ancient part of town has quite an impressive, colourful history all of its own... 

Panoramic of Reading's Market Place, copyright Jo Romero

Simeon Monument

This lamp-adorned obelisk was commissioned in 1802 by Edward Simeon, a wealthy businessman who split his time between Reading and London. He saw that, as well as the market place being dimly lit, carts on market days would trample across the market place in all directions, causing accidents and confusion. His obelisk set out to force carts to drive around it, slowing down traffic and creating a kind of early mini-roundabout. He also intended that the lamps be continually lit. But by the early 1900s, Simeon's wishes were no longer carried out: the lamps were adorned with flower baskets. Lamps were lit sporadically during the next century. Edward died in 1812. 

27-28 Market Place 

Towards the Town Hall end of the market place there's a slightly wonky, timber-framed building. Historic England estimates that it dates from the early 1600s, but is "possibly older". There are eighteenth-century shop windows on the ground floor and it's recently undergone conservation work. It's mind-blowing to think what these old beams have seen in their 400-year history: boys rushing to the Grammar School, the hustle of market traders and shops selling shoes, cheese and meat. The carts and horses loading and unloading produce and punishments carried out at the pillory. Pickpockets, barking dogs and the shouts of locals calling to one another. The dull thud of boots as Parliamentary soldiers marched past, towards the Forbury and Reading Abbey. 

St Laurence's Church

St Laurence towers above the Market Place at the Town Hall end, and has done for almost a thousand years, in different forms of building. The original church was thought to be standing in the 1100s and at its side was the gateway to the abbey. The abbey then, was once much closer to Reading's market place in Medieval times and would have been the entry point for Kings, Queens and powerful nobles who often held parliaments here. We know that Henry II, Henry VI and Edward IV would have passed St Laurence's church. Henry VII was said to have taken a walk in today's churchyard when he gave permission for the Grammar School to be founded. Elizabeth I worshipped here and had her own personal pew. St Laurence's also hosted the Robin Hood-themed Mayday Celebrations in 1499, and was badly damaged by a Second World War bomb blast in 1943. 

Queen Victoria Statue

If you stand at the end of the market place at St Laurence's church and turn towards Friar Street, you'll see the statue of Queen Victoria. She looks haughtily towards the train station and local legend says that she's placed here, facing away from the town because she hated it. Read this post to find out why I don't think that's exactly true. Victoria's statue was placed here in 1887 for her Golden Jubilee, and it was the focus for the town's celebrations, decorated with ribbons and streamers. Originally Friar Street, where she stands, was wider and the statue was placed in the centre, so carts and cars would travel up the road on either side of it, with traffic coming from the Market Place, unlike the pedestrianised area that we see today.   

The Place Samuel Pepys Stood

Just along from the Market Place, on the High Street (but still in view from here) was an inn called The Broad Face. Samuel Pepys, when he visited the town in 1668, decided to take a little walk. He noted in his diary later that evening, about the town, that "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..." We know that he didn't stay here, as he says he then went to his inn and to bed. If you want to walk in Pepys' footsteps, it's where the old Lloyds Bank building is now, across the road from the Simeon monument. 

The Pillory

The town's stocks and pillory were placed here since Medieval times. They were here for maximum impact - so that your family, friends, neighbours and customers could see you being punished on busy market days. The market place witnessed whippings, the placing in stocks and the cutting off of ears -  John Sawnders was one of these, convicted of spreading lies about the king's death in 1553

As I walk through the market place past the pigeons, burger stalls and office workers on their lunch break, I often wish that I could travel back in time here, to 400 years ago. 

Today it's a quiet part of town, but it was once a bustling centre of town business. If we could detect its ghosts, we'd see women in long skirts fumbling for their purse to pay for dinner - and the stealthy pickpocket lurking behind her, waiting for a moment of distraction before cutting it from its leather belt. We'd see Samuel Pepys with his long grey wig, gazing quizzically up at the Broad Face's creaking sign and flapping his jacket open in the heat of a June afternoon. We'd hear the shouts of traders, and locals heckling at the unfortunate ones buckled for hours, their backs bent into the pillory with their crimes written on a band of paper around their heads. The solemn walk and soft rustle of gilded skirts as the ageing Elizabeth I strode into St Laurence's church, deep red curls tumbling down onto her pale shoulders. The distant gunshot of Civil War soldiers firing within the Forbury and Abbey grounds. And the golden glow on a dark, misty Georgian night, of Edward Simeon's lamps.

This is the fascinating history of Reading's market place. Bet you'll never see it the same way again. 

You might also like: Finding the Ancient Pubs of Reading, A Riot, A Dog and The George Hotel in Reading: 1639 and Sir Francis Walsingham's Lost Reading Townhouse. Have a look at my Reading page for more local history articles. 

Reading's Market Place was also not far from some of the action during the Wars of the Roses conflict of the mid-fifteenth century. I explore the stories of some of the women linked to the town in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. They include Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth Clerk, a Draper's wife who lived in the town, on Friar Street, among others from around England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland.  Order your copy here. 

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