For better or worse? The impact of the railways upon Berkshire, by Richard Marks

On the 30th March 1840, Reading would change forever. The Great Western Railway (GWR) had arrived. The original station opened as a temporary terminus on Brunel’s main line to Bristol followed quickly by the completion of the line throughout, a new branch line to Basingstoke (opened 1st November 1848), the Berks and Hants line which would eventually reach the West Country via Newbury and Exeter and the completion of the Oxford and Great Western Union railway to Oxford and beyond to the Midlands.

 Figure 1: Reading Stations, 1865 The South Eastern Railway Station is on the left, the Great Western on the embankment to the right (Unknown Author, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In order to take a share of the London traffic from the GWR,  the Reading, Guildford, and Reigate Railway was proposed to join Reading to London Bridge via Reigate, supported by the South Eastern Railway (SER) who operated the line from its opening on the 4th July 1849, absorbing it in 1852. The London and South Western Railway (LSWR), supported and later absorbed the Staines, Wokingham & Wokingham Junction Railway which opened in 1856, with running powers over the Wokingham to Reading section of the SER.

Figure 2: The Railways Around Reading

Histories of the railways and the Industrial Revolution, would have us believe that the network of railways should support a massive upsurge in economic and industrial development in the county, but there is a problem.

The histories of the Industrial Revolution and the Railways are based upon the big cities and the industries therein and appear limited in scope. Whilst the conclusions drawn are certainly correct for the United Kingdom as a whole, they do not appear to reflect the situation at a local level or within individual industrial sectors in those places.

A study of the industrial sectors operating in Reading at the time suggests something very different was happening.

One could assume that, with increasing population during the nineteenth century and the arrival of the railways, the need for manufacturers of footwear would increase.

Figure 3: Boot and Shoe Makers in Reading

It would seem, from the local business directories, that something at odds with the histories had occurred. The Great Western Railway opened to Oxford in 1844 in turn to Birmingham and the Industrial Midlands, including Northampton and Leicester, which were specialising in the mass manufacture of footwear. The cheaper goods from these places would appear to have impacted negatively upon the small manufacturers in Reading, for whom, it seems, the arrival of the railways was nothing short of a disaster.

Contrastingly, footwear retail seems to have experienced a huge growth later in the century, the number rising to 33 in Reading by 1884. The increase would suggest that these companies were taking advantage of the railways to access cheaper mass-produced products, and also of the availability of the railway telegraph to increase the speed of commercial communication to a level not far short of that provided by modern email.

Direct evidence of how successful retailers took advantage of the railways but to the cost of local businesses can be found by examining surviving account books. The account books for the Heelas and Sons stores in Wokingham and Reading fortunately survive for most years of the nineteenth century. The early years show a business trading locally, with suppliers based close to the stores. The account book for 1890-1911 shows a very different picture. The clerk who kept the books, has made a note of the telegraph addresses of their main suppliers, which suggests that this method of communication was now important. The supplier accounts contain the addresses of the companies concerned, which gives a useful picture of from where goods were being sourced for sale in the two stores. The majority of suppliers are located in London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Plymouth, Sheffield, Bradford and Dewsbury (Leeds). This suggests a shift to longer distance trade within the UK, facilitated by the availability of fast, cheap logistics through the railway companies.

It would appear that the picture is very different at a local level from that expressed in the histories of the railways and the industrial revolution. The conclusions drawn therein cannot be applied locally and seem to be generalisations. It appears that the impact of the railways is very different across industry and place and that general conclusions may not be made.

Richard Marks is a PhD Student researching the impact of the railways upon industry and economic development in Berkshire between 1830 and 1900.

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“Deference or drudgery? The census, community, and Berkshire servant life”, by Peter Jolly for Local and Community History Month

County outline, hand-drawn: Peter Jolly

Undertaking a demographic study of Berkshire domestic service has opened my eyes to how distinctive and varied were communities within the historic county at the turn of the twentieth century.

Given the impossibility of analysing all 15,000 county female servants, I examined specific communities from Sunningdale in the east to Lambourn in the west: from Wallingford on the Thames to Finchampstead on the Hampshire border. I found two-and-a-half times as many of Wallingford’s servants lived in as single domestics than the proportion in Finchampstead. Twenty-eight per cent of single persons in Lambourn who maintained servants were female, compared with 82% in Wokingham Borough.  Staff complements in Sunningdale houses with servants on average were double those in Lambourn, whose percentage of teenage servants was more than twice that of Sunningdale.

Decennial censuses, protected by the hundred-year rule preserving the privacy of the form we have all just completed electronically for 2021, provide neither full chronological timelines nor evidence of personal experience, but permit us to delve behind statistics to glean intriguing insights into contemporary society.

Take Eastbury, a village of some 300 souls within Lambourn civil parish, a couple of miles downstream from Lambourn itself in the eponymous valley, its properties clustered on both sides side of the chalk stream.  Although it had its own grocer, post-officer, various craftsmen, three inns, a village school, parish church and chapel, Lambourn itself, to which it was linked by valley road and since 1898 by the Lambourn Valley railway, was close enough to offer wider service and employment facilities. Eastbury reveals a striking example of the importance of local knowledge, as Frederick Quartermain, who notoriously lived for part of the year in an old tree trunk in the village is nonetheless included in the  census count. Fifty-three village menfolk directly worked in agriculture: a racing stables offered further male employment.

Eastbury, hand-drawn: Peter Jolly

There were nine female domestics in the village, of whom two were still living with their birth families, neither stereotypical young servant girls  as yet to leave home. Respectively 33 and 54, living with widowed mothers, perhaps the need to offer care and support at home inhibited taking residential posts.  At 31, the mean age of Eastbury’s servants was far above Lambourn as a whole.  Amongst servants only 38-year-old Louisa Clark had been married. But her servant designation by census officials is questionable. ‘Housekeeper’ for an agricultural labourer widower and his two children, she brought her own two offspring with her and they shared three rooms.  We might suppose he needed child-care, and she a roof over her head to escape the workhouse.  Of the eight unmarried domestics, none came from urban families: seven were daughters of agricultural workers, the other the youngest child of a master carpenter. Three domestics grew up in the village or East Garston a mile distant, and none was born over forty miles away.

Ellen Belcher, employed as housemaid by a local J.P and farmer typified the unmarried female domestic. The daughter of an agricultural labourer, (subsequently a shepherd), she was born in Wallingford, and at the age of fourteen was out in service to a widow in the town. By 1901 she was a single servant to a photographer, his wife and child in Henley-on-Thames, before  her appearance in Eastbury in 1911 as a single servant. As the 1921 census remains under wraps at the time of writing this blog, we next find Ellen in 1939, in her early sixties and still a domestic servant, living in the home of her much younger brother in Cholsey, only a mile or so from her birthplace.  

As well as Ellen’s employer, two more farmers engaged residential servants. Two of the other households maintaining servants were headed by ladies without declared occupations (though one was a farmer); the third was by the vicar. All these homes contained just the one residential domestic. The pattern of village female employment was completed by two cooks, two women running or helping run public houses, another a lodging-house-keeper, all between their mid-thirties and mid-fifties, bookended by a married school cleaner in her early thirties and the village bootmaker, a widow in her mid-sixties.  Although eight single women under the age of 25 were without employment, two were daughters of ladies themselves keeping servants, leisured classes who socially would not be expected to work, and two more daughters of publicans who may have given indirect assistance to family businesses.

Fascinating facts lie within every census enumerator’s book and household schedule complementing trade directories and newspapers as rich evidential sources for the local historian.  

Following a career in the law, Peter Jolly is now a PhD Research Student using decennial censuses to investigate aspects of domestic service in Berkshire.

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Shulie, and the place of the feminist past in the feminist present, by Dr Natalie Thomlinson

‘Sex class is so deep as to be invisible.’

So begins American feminist Shulamith Firestone’s 1970 global blockbuster The Dialectic of Sex. I remember vividly the first time I read it as an undergraduate: I’d certainly encountered feminist texts before, but none like this. Who was this person who told us frankly that love ‘is the pivot of women’s oppression today’, that childbirth was like ‘shitting a pumpkin’, who declared that her ‘dream action for women’s liberation’ was ‘a smile boycott’? Who was this 25 year-old with the intellectual chutzpah to declare that ‘Really, Freud can be embarrassing?’ Shulie’s voice rang clear across the decades between her writing and my reading; her words – direct, authoritative, funny – seduced me and showed me a new way of being. Shulie tells the truth to you straight about the world, and men’s power over women, with no apologies. And if men don’t like it? Well then, good. Who wants to please men anyway?

From “The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution” by Shulamith Firestone, published by William Morrow and Company, 1970

What’s more, whilst feminist texts I’d read previously seemed to offer little more than a counsel of despair – few appeared to be able to imagine a world where patriarchy was abolished – no-one could accuse Shulie of not having a plan. Not only did she look forward to ‘not just the elimination of male distinction, but of the sex distinction itself’, but her final goal? Nothing less than the Achievement of Cosmic Consciousness, brought about as a result of Instant Universal Communication! The book has a chart to show us:

Here, feminism-meets-communism-meets-science-fiction; dialectics meet test-tube-babies. I’m a historian of feminism, and truly, I still have no idea what this chart is on about 15 years after I first came across it. I love it for its ambition, though: Shulie wrote in what I call feminism’s utopian moment, a short period between about 1968 and 1972 when anything seemed possible, and the world was up for grabs.

It’s fair to say that the intervening years have somewhat dampened my initial ardour for Firestone’s ideas; she’s certainly, in the lexicon of our time, a problematic fave. Unlike Shulie, I don’t really think that women’s oppression is a product of their biological difference (a concept which itself has come to be questioned by feminists such as Judith Butler); I think that ‘seizing the means of reproduction’, whilst a great line, is unlikely to lead to liberation; and I certainly hope that her reductive analysis of racism – which she deemed as ‘the sexism of the family of man’– would have no place in the more intersectional feminism of 2021. But it’s the way that Firestone can all at once seem to be speaking to us very directly today, and yet simultaneously bewilder and appal us, which has come to interest me as a historian. Why? I’d argue that the reaction she provokes in us suggests that we’re not yet done with the feminist past that she represents.

From the moment I encountered her, I wanted to find out more about Firestone, but Google in 2005 was not yet the total repository of human knowledge that it has since become, and I was confused to find only one more book that she had written: 1998’s Airless Spaces, a collection of seemingly autobiographical, sort-of-short-stories set among the down and outs of New York. I read it and realised that the intervening years had not been kind to Shulie; in fact, she had suffered a serious mental breakdown in the mid-1970s from which she never really recovered before her death in 2012. Obituaries were full of her early dynamism and promise; I longed to know what Shulie would have been like as a young radical, working for a revolution she believed to be just around the corner. I imagined her to be like her writing: charismatic, irreverent, incandescent.

Images: ‘Stills from Shulie, 1997, copyright Elisabeth Subrin

So I was intrigued when I heard about the director Elisabeth Subrin and her first film Shulie. Subrin, whilst working at the Chicago Institute of Art in the mid-90s, found in its archives a film reel for a documentary project made by the Institute’s students in the late 1960s. The subject? Firestone herself. Herself a student at the Institute at the time, Shulie had already garnered a sufficient reputation for her politics, her radicalism, her charisma, for her course-mates to make her the subject of a film. Subrin watched it, and was so struck by the documentary that she decided to remake it shot-by-shot, in an act of what she called ‘conceptual time-travel’. By so doing, Subrin did not just simply recreate a lost historical document, but also, in her words, sought to ‘investigate the mythos and residue of the late ‘60s’. Through recreating Shulie 30 years later, Subrin suggested that the questions that Firestone raises were still pertinent in the 1990s, and posed more subtle questions about how the past haunts the present. When are we ever done with ‘history’? And how do we live with the ghostly presence of a revolution that never came to pass?

The result made Subrin’s name as an artist and director; The New Yorker called Shulie ‘a thing of wonder’. Nevertheless, the film, though shown at many festivals over the years, has never been commercially available. As such, I’m just delighted that CFAC have generously provided the funding for an online screening; I’m even more excited that Elisabeth Subrin herself will be joining us in conversation afterwards. I hope that at least some of you can join us in watching a film that I, at least, have been waiting 15 years to see.

You can book your ticket for this event which will take place online on Thursday 29 April, 19:00 – 20:30.

Dr Natalie Thomlinson is Associate Professor of Modern British Cultural History in the Department of History.

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Why the Greenham Common peace camp needs to be remembered 40 years after its inception, by James Watts

‘Women Come Now’ Poster (Berkshire Record’s Office)

Amidst the disruption and uncertainty that we have started the year with, 2021 marks both the 40th anniversary of the inception of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and the 30th anniversary of the final US cruise missiles leaving Greenham Common. Thousands of women from across the world travelled to Greenham, situated 20 miles South-West of Reading, to take a stand against nuclear armament and US imperialism, as the superpower placed its cruise missiles on European soil in an effort to square up to the Soviet Union.

Despite being described as the largest demonstration in modern history, the camp has vanished from many people’s memories and it does not feature on the curriculum. Despite being a keen history student, I began my placement at the Berkshire Record Office with very little knowledge of the camp. I knew the stories of the striking miners who confronted police officers at the Battle of Orgreave in an effort to protect their livelihoods but I had not heard the stories of those who fought for global peace at Greenham.

What began as a march from Cardiff to Greenham Common had rapidly evolved into a catalyst for change.

Britain Fuels the Apartheid War, 1984 (Berkshire Record’s Office)

The camp must be remembered for sparking resistance to nuclear armament on a global scale. Peace camps soon sprung up at every US military base across Britain and Greenham activists travelled extensively, helping local communities in places such as Comiso, Italy mobilise against US cruise missiles. Fundraising marches from Greenham to the Soviet Union were also organised, enabling Greenham activists to make international connections, and actions of solidarity with communities in places such as Namibia, where the uranium for the cruise missiles was being mined, became common. The camp must also be remembered for simultaneously challenging and utilising traditional notions of femininity. The movement rejected the widespread belief that women should not become involved in political discussion whilst playing to the concept of the maternal, caring woman.

It is vital that we tell the stories of the brave women who protested everyday in spite of extreme police brutality, harsh weather conditions and tabloid smears. One way to do this would be through an interactive walk-in exhibition where the voices of Greenham women from recorded oral testimony are played in the background and visitors can follow the story through from when Women For Life on Earth first arrived at Greenham in September 1981 to when Greenham women were finally able to reclaim the land that the airbase occupied as public land in 2000. The exhibition would contain accessible descriptions of the events alongside newspaper cuttings from the Lynette Edwell Collection at the Berkshire Record Office. It would also contain pamphlets which were used to raise awareness of the international situation and how Greenham women created links with activists across the globe. This would enable us to adopt a decolonisation approach to determining archival value and choosing primary sources to display at the exhibition.

James Watts is s an undergraduate History student at the University of Reading.

Follow our commemorative campaign on Twitter through #GlobalGreenham40.

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Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp’s Lynette Edwell, interviewed by Amy Longmuir and James Watts for Women’s History Month

As part of our #GlobalGreenham40 campaign, we are delighted to have been given the opportunity to speak with Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and Cruisewatch activist Lynette Edwell about her involvement in the movement and the importance of being a woman in the campaign against American nuclear weapons.

We also spoke about the international connections and friendships that Greenham women were able to make, and how Lynette believes their actions will be remembered (particularly the singing). From protests, to prison, to international campaigns, to the daily challenges women faced in the camp, Lynette paints a vivid picture of life at Greenham. Her reflections on the global legacy of the movement as well as its personal legacy for her life is an invaluable insight into this remarkable period of women’s history in Britain.

Thank you, Lynette, for speaking with us, and to Berkshire Record’s Office for their resources and support.

Make sure you follow the whole #GlobalGreenham40 campaign: @UniRdg_History

Amy Longmuir and James Watts are third-year undergraduate History students at the University of Reading.

Please note: This video has been edited for the purposes of this blog. If you would like to view the whole interview, please contact

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