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Narrative History of the Royal County of Berkshire
by Brenda Ralph Lewis

B E R K S H I R E

Georgian & Victorian Times

The succession of King George I to the English throne saw a vast improvement in the condition of communications across the country as Turnpike Trusts were set up to establish tolls to take the maintenance of major roadways out of the hands of impoverished parishes. Though there is considerable doubt as to how much impact the money collected had on the roads passability until the early 19th century when John McAdam's macadamized road surface became available. Speedy mail coaches were introduced in 1784, and their first ever run along the Bath Road almost certainly changed horses at the King’s Arms in Thatcham. They later transferred to the George & Pelican in Speenhamland. Along the same road, Coach services rose from only two two-day long journeys to ten eleven-hour long ones by 1830. Some sixty coaches a day were then passing through Maidenhead where inns like the White Hart (now Woolworths) could stable up to fifty horses. Unfortunately, increased travel brought an increase in crime on the road and Berkshire became famous for its dangerous highwaymen whose gibbeted bodies often lined the main roads. Maidenhead Thicket, Knowl Hill and Ascot Heath were notorious black spots associated with men such as Dick Turpin, Captain Hind, Captain Snow, the Golden Farmer and Claude Duval. Wokingham was infamous for its "Blacks", a band of painted-faced footpads who infested Windsor Forest: poachers, robbers, blackmailers and murderers. Their notoriety led to the passing of the 'Black Act' in 1723, making the painting of one’s face black in order to commit unlawful acts a criminal offence.

By the time King George III came to the throne in 1760 and, later, re-established Windsor Castle's importance as the chief royal residence, the commercial emphasis in Berkshire had changed. The malting of barley to make beer and wheat and wool comprised the major items among county's supplies to London. Berkshire trade of all kinds as well as the market for farm produce received a boost from the canal-building 'mania' which saw a canal linking Newbury and Kintbury by 1810; by 1818, this canal carried over 200 boats, including seventy barges loaded with up to 60 tons of goods. Later, the Wilts and Berks Canal joined the River Thames at Abingdon with the River Kennet and the Avon Canal, enabling coal to be brought in from Somerset and corn and timber to be transported out.

The image of prosperity all this gave to Berkshire was however, deceptive. Bad harvests, the scarcity of corn, the depressing of wages, all compounded by inflation and leading to unemployment and bankruptcies made much of the 19th century a turbulent time in Berkshire. An all-too-typical tragedy was the liquidation in 1812 of a large Wantage tannery which was the town's greatest employer. The county did, however, do its bit for poor relief and the National 'Speenhamland Act' of 1795 setting relief rates was so called because the whole of the country followed the scale worked out by the Berkshire magistrates when they met at the George & Pelican.

More problems arose with the Agricultural Revolution. Enclosures continued to swallow up common land, often through individual acts of parliament, such as those for Bray (1786 & 1814). Areas such as Bulmersh Heath and Mortimer Common had completely disappeared by the early nineteenth century; and Windsor Forset, similarly, ceased to officially exist in 1813. The most famous of agriculturalist of the time was the Basildon-born Jethro Tull whose invention of the seed-drill in 1701 and the writing of his pioneering "Horse Husbandry" thirty years later, led to many new farming practices. New breeds of livestock such as the famous black Berkshire Pig or the Berskhire Nott Wether Sheep were bred and there was a wide-scale introduction of farm machinery. This latter state of affairs resulted in violent demonstrations, known as the "Swing Riots," as gangs of protesters roamed the country, destroying threshing machines and burning haystacks. November 1830 saw Berkshire's own "Kintbury Riots" with mobs raiding farms across the Western half of the county. The ring-leaders were eventually tracked down at the Blue Ball Inn in Kintbury. One protester, William Winterbourne, was subsequently executed while forty-five others were transported to Australia.

The advance of technology was all the same relentless and nowhere more markedly than in the introduction of railways after 1825. Berkshire acquired its railways early, with the Great Western Railway crossing its territory by 1838, later followed by lines between Wokingham and Reading, Slough and Windsor and Windsor to Waterloo in London.

The effect was to metamorphose the rural vistas of Berkshire by embankments, cuttings, bridges, and stations, all of it stoutly, but futilely, resisted, especially by those who feared for the future of the county's canals. Their fears were justified. In the competition with the much faster railways, Berkshire's canals were badly affected, the Kennet and Avon Canal suffering a 20 percent drop in its takings. By 1870, the Wilts and Berks Canal was virtually destroyed by the railways. So were the coaching and wagon trades. The coming of the railways had meant, inevitably, the loss of large tracts of agricultural and common land. This was afterwards compounded by the twin evils of economic depression and inflation, which spelled the end for widespread arable and livestock farming. Consequently, after about 1880, there was a shift towards dairy farming, though giant enterprises like the highly mechanized 12,000-acre farm in Berkshire and Hampshire owned by George Baylis, the largest arable farm in the country, continued to thrive.

The links with the county's traditional past were rapidly weakening, but despite a dramatic increase in urban living by 1851, the towns of Berkshire tended to remain small. Only Reading managed to develop into a bustling manufacturing and commercial centre unlike anything that had been seen in the past. The town was dominated by Bulbs, Biscuits and Beer. William Blackall Simonds had begun his brewing industry in Reading as early as 1785, but only in the Victorian Age did the business expanded exponentially. Sutton Seeds performed similarly, while the dominant factory in the town was that of Huntley and Palmer Biscuits. Within twenty years of its formation in 1841, this famous partnership was housed in the largest biscuit factory in England, exporting their wares all over the World.

The motor car, introduced after 1895, transformed the Berkshire's roads along with its rural calm. In its wake came associated trades, such as motor works, garages and tarred roads suitable for motor travel. Meanwhile, the traditional travelling salesmen who had supplied Berkshire households with goods began to be replaced by permanent shops and, later, large stores. One of the eventual results was to sideline the farming which had once characterised Berkshire and confine it to the west of the county and the Vale of the White Horse. Today, fifty years have passed since its horses left the land to take up a new role, on the racecourses of Ascot, Windsor and Newbury. The county is now better known for its nuclear and microchip industries which have earned the area its name as England's "Silicon Valley": the office blocks and warehouses which lie at the centre of the so-called Golden Triangle of prime business sites - and the role to which it was always susceptible, as a dormitory area for commuters to London.




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