Willow Street today

Stage 2 of Reading’s Inner Distribution Road (IDR) from Castle Hill to Southampton Street was under construction during 1969. After crossing Castle Hill, pedestrians can use a slipway down to Coley.

Part of Coley to the west of the IDR was demolished in the 1930s and more was demolished, particularly on the east, in the 1960s. As with the route from Baker Street through to Hosier Street, an old link was broken from Coley Street to Fobney along Willow Street. A pedestrian bridge over the IDR was built to replace this.

The first housing built in the area was low quality. It was regarded as very bad around Bosier Square in the 1850s, and by the 1900s it was described as an area of slums. In 1881 this was the area of Reading in which the Salvation Army began work and they still have a citadel and a hostel nearby.

View north – pedestrian bridge over the IDR

The loss of community that went with slum clearances is described by Phoebe Cusden [ref 1]:

The price of the clearance of Coley slums was the break up of a friendly community which was a rare example of an integrated caring neighbourhood which had all the qualities of a human family, sharing it joys and sorrows, rejoicing in its virtues and successes, while showing understanding tolerance towards its foibles and failings.

In 1905, licensing magistrates refused to renew the licence for the Wooden Walls beer house on Coley Passage on the grounds of ‘non-necessity’ [ref 2].

In 1903, when a survey of Reading’s licensed premises was carried out, it had been described as an “Old house, very dirty inside and outside requires rebuilding. Frequented by the lower class, both men and women.” The neighbourhood was described as “Street and neighbourhood entirely occupied by the lower working classes” [ref 3].

There were certainly better public houses in the area, one of which was H & G Simonds’ newly built Blue Lion on Wolseley Street. Both this and Wethered’s Rose and Crown on Coley Street survived until the 1960s but were demolished to make way for the IDR.

From the end of Brook Street West there is a pedestrian and cycle route that snakes under the IDR and provides a veritable festival of concrete surfaces to admire up close.

Fancy concrete

You can take the path along the canal and then up onto the bridge over the Kennet for a view east into Reading and the Oracle. Here, the IDR is right next to you and although the bridge is very wide, keep away from the traffic to be safe.

Until the 1970s, the Courage brewery (originally H & G Simonds) would have dominated this view.

County Lock – once a centre of industry on the Kennet

You can descend on the other side of the Kennet along the side of St Giles’ millstream to the underpass under the IDR which marks the approximate location of Philbricks tannery, although even by the 1940s the buildings had been put to other uses.

The last few hundred yards of this stage can then be completed by taking the pedestrian and cycle path to Southampton Street, noting the change in age of the concrete on the flyover. Use the pelican crossing to cross the road back to the Premier Inn.

This is where the walk on 16 September will start and end. Before the IDR was built, it would have been possible to visit the Little Crown or the Reindeer on Southampton Street at the end of the walk.

References, bibliography and links
  1. Phoebe E. Cusden, Coley, Portrait of an Urban Village. Reading 1977. Reading branch of the Workers’ Educational Association. p77
  2. Berkshire Chronicle 11 March 1905 p2 (via findmypast.co.uk)
  3. Ann Smith, Reading in the 1970s. Library publications
  4. History of Reading. Library publications
  5. Katie Amos and Mike Cooper. Coley and Coley Park: An Historical Introduction. Library publications.
  6. John Dearing, Reading Pubs. Stroud (2009)The History Press (Blue Lion is on the front cover)
  7. County Borough Of Reading. Licensed Houses : Reports of the committee of borough justices appointed to visit Licensed houses to obtain Statistical Information, and of the Clerk to the Justices, and Statistical Information obtained (1903). John Read Printing Works
  8. Smells of Katesgrove – Philbrick’s Tannery
  9. The IDR on the Whitley Pump