Friday, 17 August 2018

Wargrave Local History Society

MEMBERS were given a talk on the history of Berkshire County Council at April’s meeting.

Clive Williams, a former county solicitor and secretary, spoke about the Shire Hall-based council and the people involved in running it.

The council was formed in 1889, when the county town was Abingdon and the population was about 176,000.

By 1961, the population had risen to 400,000 and now it had more than double that number.

In 1974, proposals were made for local government re-organisation, resulting in the Berkshire structure plan.

The deal agreed by Berkshire and Oxfordshire was to move what was then north Berkshire into Oxfordshire and move south Oxfordshire, including Henley, into Berkshire.

But when the detailed plan was published, although Oxfordshire gained the area proposed, Henley was to remain in Oxfordshire with only Caversham transferring to Berkshire.

After re-organisation, the “new” Berkshire, which included Reading and Slough, was very wealthy and generated large sums in business rates.

However, much of the money was taken by central government, leading to difficulties for many local councils.

The first members of the county council included major landowners such as Viscount Barrington, Lord Craven and Sir Gilbert Clayton-East, while the aldermen included Richard Benyon of Englefield, Sir George Robert Mowbray and John Walter, of Bearwood.

The county council had just four clerks from 1889 to 1974.

The first was John Thornhill Morland, an Abingdon solicitor and clerk of the peace.

When new law courts were built in Reading and it became the county town, Morland was appointed as council clerk.

He didn’t retire until he was in his eighties.

It was said that he travelled to Reading by train each day from Didcot and it was not uncommon for him to fall asleep on his return journey at the end of the day.

The land around the new courts was owned by Suttons Seeds, which had a large repository and a row of houses facing the Forbury.

The council originally leased the houses to use as offices before later buying them.

A new Shire Hall was built in 1912 but it was not large enough to accommodate all the staff so the various council departments came to be housed in buildings scattered across Reading.

Morland’s successor was Harold John Cooke Neobard, who was a keen collector of antiques and was able to purchase a number of items to furnish Shire Hall.

Neobard’s deputy was Welshman Ellis Roger Davies, who succeeded him as clerk in 1951.

He, in turn, was followed in 1971 by Bob Gash, who served as clerk of “old” council until 1974 and then as chief executive of the “new” one until 1986.

Mr Williams also spoke about council chairmen including Thomas Skurray, William John Cumber, Air Commodore Sir Louis Walter Dickens and Richard Seymour.

The construction of a new Shire Hall was agreed in 1980 to bring the various departments together in one building. 

The building cost £32million and was opened in 1982, while the old Shire Hall was sold to Grosvenor Estates for £1.5million, becoming the Forbury Hotel.

Mr Williams told anecdotes including when the council was sent a bill by the Thames Conservancy.

After buying a toll bridge in Sutton Courtenay, they made it free to use and “chucked the bridge into the Thames” by removing the tolls. The county council, which celebrated its centenary in 1989, was divided into six unitary councils in 1998 under the Local Government Act.

Mr Williams has written a book, Shire Hall Recalled, which is due to be published soon.

The society’s next meeting will take place on Tuesday, May 8, when local historian Dr Margaret Simons will talk about Reading during the First World War.

On Tuesday, June 12, Ian Wheeler, author of a book on Fairmile Hospital in Cholsey, will speak about the history of the former Victorian asylum.

Meetings take place at the Old Pavilion in the recreation ground off Recreation Road, Wargrave, starting at 8pm.

For more information, call Peter Delaney on 0118 940 3121 or visit www.wargrave
history.org.uk

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