The Berkshire book of song, rhyme and steeple chime was published in 1935 and is a unique record of country song, children’s games, epitaphs, droll church inscriptions, poems, doggerel, social history and some scurrilous local gossip. These pieces were lovingly collected over twenty years or so by the publisher and author Arthur L Humphreys.
The chapter on Reading is particularly rich with entries on political figures and other local characters, pubs, rivers and churches. A reference to a scarlet town in an old ballad called Barbara Allen is believed to be a reference to Reading.
There is an interesting rhyme from the inn sign at the Grenadier pub, formerly in Whitley, that requests we
not abuse strong beer and don’t forget the Grenadier.
A poem commemorates the new surveyor of the turnpike roads in Reading that uses the word grip meaning ditch or drain.
There is a report of a sign over a small inn with some early advertising spiel:
Step right inside!
Alexander Pope, that master of the heroic couplet, wrote of Reading’s Rivers:
The Kennet swift for silver eels renowned,
The Loddon slow, with verdant alders crowned.
A verse called Ralph of Reading has the lines:
At Winchester there was a wedding,
The like of which was never seen,
Twixt lusty Ralph of Reading
And Bonny Black Bess of the green.
Although it’s not clear why he held this opinion, Bishop Atterbury had this to say about the first Earl of Cadogan, who lived at Caversham Park:
Ungrateful to the ungrateful man he grew by,
A big, bad, bold, blustering, bloody, blundering, booby.
A rather lovely quatrain from Mary Russell Mitford about Whiteknights Lake (now on Reading University’s main campus) concludes:
A spot it is for far-off music made,
Stillness and rest – a smaller Windermere!
The ballad called the Reading skirmish reminds us of the running battle in the town in 1688 when Reading townspeople fired their muskets from their houses at the invading Catholic army in the market square, causing them to scatter and flee.
Five hundred Papishes came there, to make a final end
Of all the Town in time of Prayer, but God did them Defend.
A ballad referred to as the Berkshire beauties or Reading races has a great two-line ending.
Both Gods and men now clearly prove,
That READING IS THE CORT OF LOVE.
It follows the events at a 1777 race meeting at Bulmershe Heath, as well as the subsequent party at Reading town hall that honoured the beautiful women who were present. It doesn’t appear that there is much difference between race meetings then and now, as the events depicted in this ballad have a faint whiff of innuendo and debauchery.
The Berkshire Lady was once a very well-known ballad and relates a story thought to have some truth. Miss Frances Kendrick was left a fortune by her father John (he of the school and benefactor of the Oracle) and was said to be skilled in horse riding, swordplay and embroidery “and other accomplishments of the period”. She met a barrister called Benjamin Child at a wedding and completely fell for him, but she wanted to test out his resolve and sincerity first. She wrote a letter challenging him to mortal combat at Calcot Park, where he found a masked lady.
“So now take your choice,” says she:
“Either fight or marry me.”
He asks her to unmask herself so he could decide, to which she replied:
“I will not my face uncover,
Till the marriage rites are over,
Therefore take you which you will –
Wed me, Sir, or show your skill.”
The following entry was found in the parish church marriage register at Wargrave:
1706 March 28. Benjamin Child, gent of Reading, and Frances Kendrick of ye same.
There is a reference to a verse written by Sir Henry Englefield on the subject of a jealous dancer in a letter to the local novelist Mary Russell Mitford in 1870. It ends with the mordant lines:
What you have touched you may take. Pretty waltzer adieu!
There is a rich group of stories taken from the Mary Mitford’s life and letters book of 1870, including elegies to her dog of 13 years Manx and her greyhound Marmion and a lovely verse poem written at the Swan Inn at Three Mile Cross in 1829 in praise of the village inn, which also seemed to hint at a romantic encounter. Her fictional town, Belford Regis, is Reading in beak and claw.
I have concentrated on the Reading section, but the book is a florid panoply of writing and remembered parochial history from every part of Berkshire. Until that dark day on 1 April 1974 when we lost the Uffington white horse and gained Slough, remember that Berkshire was absolutely huge. Anything on the south side of the Thames (known as the Isis above Oxford), including the Saxon strongholds of Wantage, Wallingford and Abingdon, was ours. On that dark night, some hardy Berkshire folk from surrounding villages climbed White Horse Hill at Uffington and set a bonfire that could be seen for miles around (some say five counties) which was then symbolically doused down at midnight.
There are some lovely rhymes in the book about the white horse, and one in particular is written in local dialect:
Ah zur, I can remember well
the stories that the old volk do tell-
The book ends on a lovely rhyme and sentiment found inscribed on a sundial at a house in Yattendon once owned by Alfred Waterhouse RA.
LIKE TO THIS SIRKELL ROUND
NO END TO LOVE IS FOUND
If you love our town and county as much as I do, then I would recommend you read this book someday. It’s the most extraordinary exploration of our colloquial and almost forgotten culture and it was compiled by one of Reading’s most fascinating residents – there really is nothing like it.
Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.