Drawing of the Whitley Conduit 1908 by Mr T.T. Cumming – Berks, Bucks & Oxon Archaeological Journal Vol 14

The Whitley Conduit on Highgrove Street was probably Reading Abbey’s drinking water source until the Abbey’s dissolution in the sixteenth century. The conduit existed at least until 1908, when Edward Margrett described the remains and requested that the municipal authorities repair it. But what happened to it after that?

Margrett explained where he found the conduit:

It is situated on the west side of Highgrove Street, about 50 yards north from Christchurch Road in a small enclosure about 18 feet square…

Ordnance survey maps from 1877 and 1898 show a spring in this area.

By 1910, shortly after Margrett’s visit, the spring had been reclassified as a reservoir.

OS 25-inch Berkshire XXXVII.7 (Reading) 1910. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

In 1908, Margrett had discovered “considerable remains of a brick superstructure much overgrown with ivy of great age” which he estimated was of sixteenth century construction:

The brick structure is about nine feet in length and five feet six inches in width, abutting on the north wall of the enclosure, and rising about four feet above ground level. On the west side is an opening or pit about four feet deep, leading down to the ancient front of the conduit. This I found to be an old brick archway about three feet wide in a wall measuring about seven feet frontage; there are two steps down to the present water level, which is one foot six inches below the level of the bottom of the pit.

T T Cumming drew this brick archway and approaching steps (see picture at the top).

A potted history up until 1910

Reading Abbey was founded by King Henry I in 1121.

His grandson, Henry II, gave Abbot William permission to create a park at Whitley. Some time before 1184, Peter de Cosham transferred his Whitley lands to the Abbey and over time the abbey accumulated significant land holdings in the area. In 1335, Gelbert of Heckfield gave a piece of land at La Lynche near Cadelsgrove in Whitley (Katesgrove) to the Abbey.

King Henry VIII dissolved Reading Abbey in 1539.

In 1559 or 1560, Conduit Close was granted to the ‘Mayor and Burgesses of the Borough of Reading’ by Queen Elizabeth I, who had inherited it from her father, King Henry VIII.

The conduit was observed in 1739 in the garden of the Fountain ale-house “which stands on the left-hand just above the Whitley turnpike.” At the time, the Whitley turnpike was probably at the top of Silver Street, near where the Pheasant public house is now, so the Fountain ale-house must have been near the current location of the Whitley Street shops.

Margrett quoted from Coates’ History and Antiquities of Reading (1802), where Coates said that the stone reservoir of the conduit still filled with spring water but the stone superstructure was gone:

The Abbey, which may seem remarkable, was supplied with spring water from so great a distance as the conduit, beyond Whitley turnpike.

In 1839, Reading Corporation sold the land to build Conduit Crescent, which is still there.

Conduit Crescent, on Whitley Street

Conduit Crescent was bought by John Jackson Blandy in 1842 and became part of the Highgrove estate; he built his house Highgrove nearby (see the 1877 map above).

In 1866, after Blandy’s death, the estate was sold and bought by local businessman, Richard Toomer. In 1892 it was on the market again and the new owners made an arrangement with the Corporation of Reading so that the Whitley Conduit and nearby land would become a “public cistern, well or conduit for the purposes of the public health act 1875”, which may be why it was reclassified as a reservoir on the 1910 map.

Highgrove was demolished and by 1898, the modern Highgrove Street had been laid out, although the houses didn’t yet reach the conduit (see the 1898 and 1910 maps).

In 1908, Edward Margrett visited the conduit and requested that Reading Corporation repair it; the conduit was cleaned out and the vaulting underpinned. After excavation, he reported that the underground reservoir was 14 feet six inches north to south with a semicircular end at the north, six feet six inches east to west and seven feet high.

After 1910

OS 25-inch Berkshire XXXVII.7 (Reading) 1932. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

By 1932, a terrace of three houses had been built right up to the reservoir that had once been the Whitley Conduit, and in November 1948, W F Hussey of 73 Whitley Street Street (now the Vel Indian restaurant) obtained permission to build a garage at the back of the property.

Planning application ‘ref 221’ November 1948

The 1948 garage didn’t obliterate the conduit, because the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner visited Reading in 1966 and described:

Then, just north of Christchurch Road, in Highgrove Street an old conduit house of brick, nine by six and a half feet in size.

The 2010 edition of the same book makes no mention of the conduit house.

In April 1995, the owner of 110 Highgrove Street, Mr Brian Colby, got permission to build an extension over the garage. He said that Reading Borough Council asked him to fill in the conduit to avoid the possibility of subsidence or collapse. He said:

The conduit did run under the garage of my property. I discovered this some 20 years ago [ie 1995] when the Council requested that I exposed the foundations of the garage. What I discovered was a substantial void of the old aquifer, on investigation this appeared to be part of the water course from the Whitley Pump which apparently served the old Reading Abbey. I was instructed by the Council to fill this in with concrete. It took approximately one and a half lorry loads of cement to fill the void.

So, the remains of the ancient Whitley Conduit now lie beneath of the garage of this house and the neighbouring car park at the south end of Highgrove Street; the redbrick back of the Conduit Crescent buildings on Whitley Street are at the left of the photograph.

The site of the Whitley Conduit today. View approximately towards northwest.

Many thanks to Brian Colby, Evelyn Williams and Reading Borough Council for their help.

Updated 20 October 2018 to include Pevsner’s 1966 description.

Links and Bibliography
  1. Whitley Conduit plaque features in Reading Museum display
  2. The Old Conduit at Whitley, Reading. W. Margrett (1908) (PDF)
  3. A Whitley Gate toll ticket from 1867
  4. Reading Abbey Cartularies Vol 2. Brian Kemp (1987) (includes Whitley deeds).
  5. Rev Charles Coates (1802). The History and Antiquities of Reading
  6. Berkshire Chronicle and Reading Mercury 1892 via findmypast.co.uk
  7. The Buildings of England: Berkshire. Nikolaus Pevsner (1966).
  8. The Buildings of England: Berkshire. Geoffrey Tyack, Simon Bradley, Nikolaus Pevsner (2010).