Before we were the University of Reading

by Dr Ruth Salter

As many of you are probably aware, this year marks the 90th anniversary of Reading receiving its University Charter.  Reading, which was given the charter by George V in 1926, was the only institution to be awarded university status between the two world wars.  However, before there was a University of Reading there was another higher education institution, a predecessor, Reading College.

Female students make notes and sketches in the Cole Museum, 1945


Two students make notes and sketches in the Faculty of Science Museum, London Road campus, 1945


Reading College began life in the 1860s as Schools of Arts and Sciences which was based in one of the surviving buildings of Reading Abbey, the hospitium on Valpy Street.  These schools were incorporated into an extension college of Christ Church college, Oxford, in 1892.  The college remained a satellite college of Oxford University until it was granted its charter.

Victorian woman at Early Gate in 1899, Whiteknights became university property in 1947


A Victorian woman at Early Gate in 1899, Whiteknights only became university property in 1947 (courtesy of Dr Jacqui Turner’s Twitter feed!)


Even before the charter, the college had begun a process of development.  In 1904 the Palmer family, of the famous Reading-based Huntley & Palmers biscuits, had given the college and extension site on London Road.  In 1908 the Palmers also supported opened Wantage Hall, Upper Redlands Road, the oldest hall of residence in use at the University today, and a Grade II listed building.  In 1947 the University purchased Whiteknights Park, which then became the primary campus, and remains so today.

Wantage Hall, built 1908


Wantage Hall, Upper Redlands Road, opened 1908


This might sound interesting, after all, as historians, it peaks our collective interests to learn more about long-established institutions such as the University of Reading, nee Reading College. But you might be wondering what the purpose of this post is, especially as its being written by a medievalist…

Well, a few years ago while clearing through some old papers in Whiteknights House a member of the administrative staff happened to come across a very interesting item – the Reading College Student Handbook for 1907-08.  This member of staff just so happens to be my mum and so I now have in my possession some lovely photographs of selected pages of this handbook.  Not only do these images give a fascinating insight into the College that was to become our University, but also there are some wonderful adverts for local businesses from this first decade of the twentieth century.  As we come to the end of this momentous, ninetieth year as a university and prepare to celebrate this year’s graduation it seems timely to me to look back on our past.  Enjoy!

1. cover



L:  The old college, Valpy Street, was once part of Reading Abbey
R: A hand-drawn map shows the location of (the then new) London Road campus


L:  The Buttery, London Road campus
R: The Long Cloister, London Road campus


9. plan of London Road campus


The plan of Reading College’s London Road campus in 1907-08


L: One of the glasshouses, London Road campus
R: One of the college’s farms (the institution has always had strong links with agriculture and in 1912 the Research Institute of Dairying was established, it still owns a number of farms including one at Sonning)


16. first page of the college song - the song of the shield


The first page of Reading College’s ‘The Song of the Shield’



A number of advertisements for Reading-based buisnesses were also printed in the pages of the 1907-08 Student Handbook:

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2 Responses to Before we were the University of Reading

  1. If you like this you will also like the history of the “new” University site in the Facebook Group “Memories of Earley and Whiteknights”

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