Wednesday, 22 May 2019

History of Reading Society

History of Reading Society

THE subject of the March talk was “Defending Reading”. The speaker was Mike Cooper, who is an author and public speaker on the subjects of local and military history.

In Anglo-Saxon England, Reading was a strategically important border town between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex because of its situation at the heart of the Thames Valley at the confluence of the Kennet and Thames rivers and was on an important trade route between the south coast and the Midlands.

In 870, this led the rampaging Danish army, commanded by Kings Bagsecg and Halfdan Ragnarsson, to occupy the town and use it as the vanguard for their invasion of Wessex.

It was the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom not under Danish rule and its defenders, the West Saxons, were ruled by King Aethelred I.

In January 871, according to Bishop Asser in his Life of King Alfred, the Danes successfully repulsed the attack on Reading by Aethelred’s army.

The defending Danes had erected ramparts along the town’s exposed western flank and the rivers served as a natural barrier against attacks from the south and east; there is conjectural evidence that a castle was erected.

During the Civil War of the 1640s, fought between the Crown and Parliament, Reading was occupied by a royalist garrison commanded by Sir Arthur Aston.

The town would be an important outpost for the defence of the court of Charles I, now relocated to Oxford, against any attack by parliamentary forces from London.

Sir Arthur had at his disposal a force comprised of 3,500 infantry, 400 cavalry and dragoons and 50 artillerymen with 12 cannon.

He employed the latest defensive tactics introduced from the Netherlands — a line of ramparts encircling the town and cannon positioned on high ground to fire over them.

In 1643, in the Siege of Reading, Aston’s defenders were defeated by a parliamentary army of 16,000 foot soldiers commanded by the Earl of Essex. The mound in the Forbury Gardens is a visible reminder of the siege.

In the Second World War, after the surrender of France to German forces in May 1940, Britain was now vulnerable to invasion and preparations were made for the defence of the country.

In June, work began on a number of defensive lines designed to counter a German invasion.

The most important of them was the General Headquarters Line. This section traversed southern England between the Bristol Channel and the Thames Estuary.

To the south of Reading a network of small defensive fortifications known as pill-boxes was built. These concrete structures were equipped with light armour such as anti-tank guns. The largest concentration was at Sulham.

From the late Forties, as relations between the West and the Soviet Union plunged toward the Cold War, a new civil defence corps was formed.

Its local headquarters at Whiteknights Park, Earley, was known as the Region 6 War Room. This was built on two levels, the lower one designed to survive a nuclear attack.

In the aftermath of an attack on the UK the region around Reading would be administered from there.

Today, the possibility of a terrorist attack from within the UK is the main peril facing the authorities. In August 2018 a suspect device was discovered in the Oracle shopping centre in Reading. Although it turned out to be a hoax, it caused the partial shutdown of the town centre for several hours.

The subject of the next talk is different from that advertised. It will be on the subject of “Industrial Reading: pictures of 60 old Reading firms in 60 minutes” by our chairman, David Cliffe. This will be preceded by our annual book sale.

This will take place at Abbey Baptist Church, Abbey Square, Reading, on Wednesday, April 10 at 7.30pm. All are welcome, £2 to non-members.

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