Reading changed hands many times during the English Civil War (1642-1649). In 1642, defences were built around the town by the Royalists. There was a line of fortifications to the south of Reading from the River Kennet eastwards to approximately where Crown Street is today (see map).
The siege of Reading by Parliamentary forces, commanded by the Earl of Essex, lasted from 15 to 25 April 1643. He arrived outside Caversham with 15,000 foot soldiers and 3,000 horse compared with Reading governor Sir Arthur Aston’s 3,000 foot soldiers and 300 horse. Sir Arthur Aston would not surrender and on 16 April the Earl of Essex crossed the Thames from Caversham and the bombardment of Reading began. Lord Grey joined him at Reading a couple of days afterwards with additional forces of 3,000 foot soldiers and nearly 500 horse.
Daphne Phillips describes how Katesgrove became a focus for the Parliamentary attack later during the siege:
Essex was now concentrating on its southernmost point, where, on Whitley Hill, just outside the bulwarks crossing Southampton Street and Silver Street, stood a strongly fortified outpost known as Harrison’s Barn. It belonged to Thomas Harrison, the wealthy brewer who ventured much in the cause of his King. At night Essex’ men advanced their batteries on the western side until they were within pistol shot of the barn; it was planned that Lord Grey’s forces would approach it similarly from the east. The southern end of Reading now came under heavy fire; St Giles’ Church was badly damaged, and tradition says that its spire received a direct hit which sent it crashing to the ground [ref 3].
Through the capture of a messenger, the Parliamentarians discovered a plan to relieve the siege and a Royalist force was defeated at Dorchester.
Colonel Richard Fielding, who had taken over as governor when Sir Arthur Aston was wounded, surrendered on 25 April. A Royalist force arrived the same day but was defeated at Balmore in Caversham without support from Royalists in Reading.
Reading changed hands again in October 1643 (Royalist) and May 1644 (Parliamentarian) and Reading became headquarters of the Parliamentary Committee for Berkshire. Royalist sympathisers including Thomas Harrison who were on the town council were declared unfit to remain in office, although this appears to have been ineffective. The town council had borrowed money from Thomas Harrison earlier in the Civil War which had not been repaid to him. He continued to ask for repayment, but it remained unpaid when he died in 1652 [ref 4].
What remains from the Civil War?
Harrison’s Barn is shown on the map at the corner of Christchurch Road and Whitley Street. In front of it is the King’s Head Pond which was replaced by the original Whitley Pump when it was filled in in 1860.
The redoubt shown just north of the barn is where the corner of Southampton Street and Waldeck Street is today and it still looks like a redoubt.
The spire of St Giles’ Church today is not the original; it was added in 1872-3.
References and Links
- Reading Museum – Wartime Heritage Leaflets
- Burt’s Map of Reading during the Siege of 1643 – Reading Borough Library
- Daphne Phillips, The Story of Reading
- Kenneth Goodley, Early Reading Breweries. published in 3 parts in Brewery History Society Journal No 55, February 1989, No 56, April 1989, No 57, September 1989
- St Giles, guarding Reading since the Civil War