A History of Earley

Facta non Verba

Deeds not Words - Sol. Joel’s motto 


İRay Harrington-Vail, Earley Town Council, Draft 25 July 1998

Prehistoric Earley

It could be the case that humans from the Palaeolithic period - the Old Stone Age - up to 400,000 years BC were foraging for edible vegetation and grubs and hunting wild cattle, deer and elephant. In 1961 a young man by the name of Ian Skaife found a small pointed handaxe near Maiden Erlegh Lake near excavations at Instow Road. Finds of handaxes and other items from the same period have been discovered within gardens in Silverdale Road, Fowler Close plus other locations within the immediate area. All finds are thought to come from Late Palaeolithic period around 35,000 years ago.

It seems hard to imagine Early some 12,000 years ago covered with pine and birch woodland. As the climate warmed and the English Channel was created the woodlands of southern England had succeeded to elm, alder, lime and oak . This period of history is known as Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age. It is from this time that the first evidence of human settlement and activity in the area is found. Traces of flimsy shelters made from brushwood have been discovered in Earley on the site of the Old Power Station at Thames Valley Business Park. Tools from this era have also been found within the Town. These people would have depended for food on the surrounding woodland through hunting animals and gathering edible plants such as nuts, berries and roots. It is during this period of time that early humans began to change the landscape by the deliberate burning of the woodland. This would have created glades in the forest which in turn would have attracted wild animals into the clearing to feed on the new growth, and this provided easy hunting. Hazel is known to benefit from increased sunlight to the forest floor, which encourages flowering and nut production, thus providing another food source.

The clearing of woodland for agriculture and the keeping of domesticated animals started in 3500 BC, the Neolithic or New Stone Age, with the arrival of ideas and people from the Continent. This clearance may have coincided with an outbreak of Elm Disease (Rackham 1993). Indeed, the spread of early agriculture may have hastened the spread of this devastating disease. Whatever the cause there is widespread evidence of a country-wide decline of elm at this time, an event quickly followed by deforestation. Small areas of wildwood would have been cleared using stone tools for cereal growing and to create pasture for cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. The grazing of these animals would have also prevented re-growth from the tree stumps. Again artefacts have been found from this period in Silverdale Road and other locations.

There is archaeological evidence for continued human presence and settlement throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages on the site of the Thames Valley Business Park in North Earley. It was possibly during the Bronze Age, 2400 - 750 BC, that large areas of Earley and Woodley were cleared for agriculture. The Bronze Age in Britain is possibly best known for the development of the great ritual sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury, both relatively close to Earley. The clearance of woodland for farming would have continued during the early Iron Age, about 700 BC, with improved tools such as iron axes and ploughshares. It is possibly the case that much of England had ceased to be wildwood by 500 BC, (Rackham 1993).

The Romans and beyond

The Romans invading England in AD 43, came to a land with fully developed agriculture. Roman artefacts have been discovered at a number of sites within Earley. In east Berkshire a number of settlements have been discovered ranging from villages to isolated farmsteads. Some Roman settlements developed from existing Iron Age sites, such as that located at the Thames Valley Business Park in North Earley. By the time Roman rule had ended all traces of this settlement had disappeared, and the area was effectively abandoned. During this time the nearest large Roman settlements were at London and Silchester. A Saxon settlement has been discovered near the confluence of the Kennet and the Thames dating from about 600 AD. These people were known as the Readingas, from which the Town of Reading takes its name.

During the Reign of Edward the Confessor the Manors at Earley were held by the Crown. The Domesday Book of AD 1086 reveals that only about 20 per cent of Berkshire was wooded, and by AD 1200 much of the modern landscape was already recognisable, (Morris 1979) (Rackham 1986). The Norman conquest had the positive effect of increasing woodland cover, and active planting was encouraged to provide forests for hunting, in particular the New Forest. It is generally believed that Windsor Forest came up to the River Loddon, (Hinde 1985) (Page 1923), however Dormer, a writer in 1912 states that spurs of the woodland came up the vale of the Kennet. The author states that in 1226 the Kennet Valley was deforested by Royal Charter, and that this would have included the woods of Woodley and Bulmershe adjoining Erleigh Court, (Dormer 1912). It is worth noting that the term forest does not necessarily mean woodland, rather it is a place of hunting governed by Forest Law. A forest can contain heathland, farmsteads, woodlands and settlements, (Rackhan 1986).

The Middle Ages

Place names change with history. The current spelling of Earley has co-existed for the last century along with the older names of Erlegh, Erleigh and Early. Today three of these are in use as is evidenced by place names such as: Earley Hill Road, Maiden Erlegh Lake and Erleigh Road. There is no correct way of spelling the settlement’s name as all names have an equal place in history.

The Domesday Book of 1086 records the name as Herlei and Erlei and history has allowed the name to evolve into many spellings. The Domesday Book spelling could be a corruption of the original. Exactly what the name means is open to some debate. Many hundreds of place names have ley or leigh within them - which is Anglo Saxon for wood or clearing, locally this would apply to both Earley and Woodley. Er or Ear could refer to eagles or gravel pit, (Gelling 1972) . Both are possible, birds of prey would have been a common sight in the Middle Ages. More recently a Golden Eagle was shot in Berkshire in 1924 - the unfortunate creature became a focal point in Reading Museum at the time. A few sightings of White tailed eagles were recorded in the County up until 1927. Today one occasionally sees a Sparrowhawk hunting over Maiden Erlegh Lake. Red kites have recently been re-introduced near Henley in Oxfordshire, so large birds of prey might one day return to our skies. The area does have large gravel deposits and thus this is a possible meaning. The most likely is however, "Eagle Wood".

The Manors of Erlegh

Domesday records two manors, Erlegh St Bartholomew and Erlegh St Nicholas, also known as Erlegh Regis. The de Erlegh family held the manors from about 1160 until 1362. John de Erlegh, who owned the Manor around the year 1292, was known as the White Knight - thus the manor of St Nicholas was renamed. The other manor also had a name change to Erlegh Court. It is recorded that the Manor of Maiden Erlegh, Erley Maydens, was attested from 1502, and that it was formed out of Earley Whiteknights in the 14th Century (Gelling 1972). The size of the estate is believed to have been some 19 acres. It is hard to discover the exact meaning of the term Maiden, but it could refer to the fact that it was owned or occupied by young women.

There is evidence that a Deer Park existed within Richard de Erlegh’s Manor in 1276 being some 40 acres in size, but it is not clear where is was situated, (Hatherley and Cantor 1979). However, a writer in 1944 records that a deep ditch ran along the south side of Wokingham Road near Maiden Erlegh Manor, but had been infilled to widen the road, (Dormer 1944)(Reading Chronicle 1983). This could have been a feature to prevent deer from escaping from the old Deer Park.

The de Erlegh family, who took their name from the estates, owned both Manors from the eleventh to the fourteenth century. Erlegh St Nicholas, Whiteknights, was then bought by Henry de Aldryngton, as was Erlegh St Bartholomew, which then passed through several owners before coming into the possession of the Fettiplace family in 1488. They held the manor, then known as Erlegh Court, until 1706. Sir Owen Buckingham was in possession of Erlegh Court in the early part of the 18th century. He was Lord Mayor of London in 1705 and established a factory in Reading making sail cloth. Richard Manly was in the possession of the estate until his death in about 1750. His daughter inherited the estate and married, but her husband’s failing health and the subsequent debts lead to them both being imprisoned until their deaths. Erlegh Court came into the hands of John Bagnall in 1766. After his death the house was inherited by his daughter Maria Anne - who married Sir William Scott, who became Lord Stowell, a famous politician. He was also an opponent to the construction of the Great Western Railway which he said would spoil the view from his window.

Just as Lord Stowell had acquired Erlegh Court by marriage, so did the Viscount Sidmouth who died in 1844. The Manor remained in the Sidmouth family until the 1930s after which the estate was sold for building development, and was demolished in 1935. The site of the old chapel of St Bartholomew and the Manor of Erlegh Court stood between Pitts Lane and London Road.

Erlegh St Nicholas, Whiteknights, was bought by Henry de Aldryngton in around 1361. After his death it passed down the family line to the Beke family until the death of Henry Beke in 1580. By marriage to Beke’s daughter Hugh Speke gained the estate. In 1606 the Speke’s sold the manor of Erlgegh Whiteknights for £7,500 to Francis Englefied. His nephew, also known by the same name, became the owner in the beginning of the 17th century. The estate remained in the family until the late 1700s, when they were forced to sell due to ongoing prejudice of their neighbours.

The Marquis of Blandford, who became the Duke of Marlborough, had the parkland extensively landscaped during his ownership between 1798 and 1819. He spent lavishly to achieve a magnificent estate which was praised by Kew Gardens, however, he ran up massive debts and his possessions were seized and sold including many of the landscape features. The Manor House was demolished in 1840-41. The Whiteknights Estate of today is the home of the University of Reading who took over the site in 1947.

It is worth noting that another Manor was created out of land formerly part of the Erlegh Court estate, that being Woodley Lodge, later to be called Bulmershe Court, just over the border in Woodley. It was built in 1777 for James Wheble and the garden is believed to have been designed by Capability Brown. During the time of the Napoleonic War the house was owned by Henry Addington, the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Woodley Yeomanry was formed during this period with Henry Addington as their commander. The Prime Minister William Pitt was a regular visitor to the house. George III inspected the local militia on Bullmarsh Heath in 1798 (Rooke 1992), which was situated to the north of Wokingham Road. During the Second World War, Bulmershe Court was used by English and American troops. In 1963 it was demolished to make way for Bulmershe Teacher Training College, now part of the University of Reading, (WTC 1997).

Maiden Erlegh Estate and Manor

Maiden Erlegh was formed out of Erlegh St Nicholas, as a gift of land by John de Erlegh to Robert de Erlegh in 1362. Later it was transferred to a Charles Hide of Abingdon. In 1673 the estate was sold to a Valentine Crome, it then passed through several hands and at the end of the 18th century it belonged to William Matthew Birt who was Governor General of the Leeward Islands.

In 1818 the property then passed to the Rt Hon Edward Golding M P for Downton, Wiltshire. The Manor was purchased by John Hargreaves in 1878, Master of the South Berkshire Hunt, who founded a course where hunt and yeomanry races, similar to the modern hunter chases, were run (Douglas-Home 1992). The course extended over an area now covered by Hillside Road, Sutcliffe Avenue and Mill Lane, (Reading Chronicle 1985). The grandstand stood on an area which is to the back of the houses in Hillside Road, opposite Loddon Junior School. Solomon Joel continued to allow racing until the First World War, then the Maiden Erlegh Racecourse was demolished, the grandstand being re-erected at Newbury racecourse, (Reading Chronicle 1969).

Good Ol’ Soly Joel?

Solomon Barnato Joel purchased the Maiden Erlegh Estate in 1903. From his humble start in life, in 1865, as the son of a poor publican, brought up in the tough East End of London, to millionaire diamond dealer is a story in itself. ‘Soly’ or ‘Solly’ Joel had many business interests including diamond and gold mining, brewing, the City & South London Railway and the Drury Lane Theatre in London. A book about his life entitled ‘Ace of Diamonds’ was published in 1958, (Mayer 1958), a fitting title for him.

His generosity and lavish lifestyle has been written into the folklore of Earley. Even the current spelling of Maiden Erlegh is attributed to him. Apparently Mr Joel was very superstitious and realising that the spelling of Maiden Erleigh had 13 letters, dropped the ‘i’, thus giving us Erlegh. However an Ordnance Survey Map of the area surveyed in 1887 reveals that the spelling was already in existence before Soly Joel purchased the estate. He is also believed by some to have had the Lake created, again maps of the 1700s show it to be already in existence. However, the large island within the Lake can probably be attributed to him, along with the thatched Summerhouse which stood on the north side of the island until the late 1960s. He invested heavily in the Estate commissioning a wonderful marble swimming pool complete with fresco of nude figures. The grounds were well laid out, complete with a magnificent rose garden and terracing. The Estate also boasted an aviary, polo ground, cricket field and tennis courts. He also established a famous race horse stud at New Farm, which was re-named Home Stud Farm, and was situated near Marefield, off Rushey Way. His relationship with his immediate family was not always amicable. He disapproved of his daughter Doris’ marriage and so changed the name of his yacht, which he had named after her. It was not until she divorced her husband four years later that he resumed normal relations with her. Soly was constantly disapproving of his other children’s romantic attachments. The autocratic ‘Ace of Diamonds’ was bitterly unreconciled to his son Stanhope’s marriage for two years. Joel’s first marriage to Nellie ended in divorce, (Mayer 1958)

A map held by Earley Town Council clearly shows that the Mansion stood between Silverdale Road and Crawford Close. The large Turkey Oak which stands in the middle of the Close is believed to have grown against the Palm Court, and thus is not symmetrical in shape. To get to the Mansion one travelled from Wokingham Road along Maiden Erlegh Drive, most of which still exists today complete with sections of Victorian fencing and the Lodge.

Sol Joel Park in Wokingham Road was given to the Corporation of Reading in 1927 and its official opening was a grand affair as you might have expected, it was opened by the then Duke of York, who became King George VI. Joel also purchased the first motorised ambulance for the Royal Berkshire Hospital (Reading Chronicle 1978).

After his death, in 1931, the luxurious contents of the mansion were sold by auction. The Mansion itself became Maiden Erlegh School for Boys. During the summer a punt was used to take certain pupils onto the large island on Maiden Erlegh Lake and lessons were held in the thatched building which stood there until the 1960s. The school flourished until 1942. In 1945 the building was sold in to the Church Army, who used it as a Training College until 1952. ICI then bought the Manor and used it as a conference centre and offices until 1954, when Cooper Estates Ltd purchased the site. Hungarian refugees were housed there, following the Soviet invasion of their country in 1956. They were its last residents - the bulldozers starting their destruction in March 1960. The County Council had considered purchasing the site from ICI and establishing their offices there. However, they opted for the site at Shinfield instead.

The Stud Farm was purchased in 1932 and continued in existence until the 1980s. The horses were grazed on what is now known as Laurel Park.

Maiden Erlegh Park

In response to the demands of local residents, Cooper Estates agreed to sell Maiden Erlegh Lake and the surrounding woodland, almost the last remnants of the old Maiden Erlegh Estate, to Earley Parish Council in return for being allowed to build on another greenfield site. As the purchase would lead to an increase in the rates the Council held a public meeting and a referendum. With the backing of the people of Earley the Council purchased the site for £8,500 in 1965. More recently Old Lane Wood, at the rear of Sellafield Way, was obtained from the District Council, making the Park some 24 acres in total. The woodlands within the Park are of great historical and ecological importance, with Oak Wood dating from at least the 16th century and contains some 18 indicator species associated with old woodlands. Charcoal, from fire sites, and pollen deposits from sediment indicate that the lake area was once a wet grassland, and thus was almost certainly created by building a dam and thereby flooding the valley bottom. This practice was common place from the Middle Ages to the 18th century to create fishponds, to provide ice and a landscape feature, (Rackham 1986).

As the woodlands within Oak Wood, Old Pond Copse and Moor Copse are set in a wet valley bottom it is unlikely that the woods were completely cleared for agriculture. Wild and farm animals would have grazed within clearings, and humans would have taken wood for a number of purposes. It is worth being reminded that the rural population of Earley was very small even up to the late 1800s, whilst the nearby population of Reading stood at 32,000 in 1871, thus pressure to build on the land was not immense. Woodland names give us a clue to their history. In Berkshire the name Oak Wood is a strong indicator that it may date back to the Middle Ages, (Welsh 1986). The 1820 Maps of Enclosures and the Tithe Map of 1844 both show the woodlands and Lake, within Maiden Erlegh Park, as being almost the same size and shape as today. The Park was designated a Local Nature Reserve in 1996 by English Nature, is a Site of Urban Landscape Value and contains Wildlife Heritage Sites. Species of particular conservation interest which inhabit the Park. Some twenty species of butterflies including the Holly Blue, Speckled Wood and Small Copper; a number of birds including Treecreepers, Bullfinch, Woodpeckers, Kingfisher, Tawny Owl and Song Thrush. Bats are present along with White-clawed Crayfish, Water Vole, Common Shrew, Crickets and the Stag Beetle. Drifts of attractive plants can be enjoyed throughout the warmer weather, these include Bluebells, Wood Anemones, Marsh Marigold, Yellow Loosestrife, Opposite-leafed Golden Saxifrage and Honeysuckle. Tree species which are indicative of old woodlands can be found, such as Oak, Crab Apple, Wild Service, Hornbeam and Hazel. A programme of coppicing Hazel was reintroduced in the 1980s, thus reviving a practice which had ceased to be common woodland practice in Berkshire by the 1850s. Archaeological evidence has revealed that coppicing has been practised in England since the New Stone Age. A coppiced wood is divided into compartments called coupes. The trees are cut periodically, this produces numerous shoots or poles rather than one main stem. Traditionally Hazel from coppiced woodland had a number of applications including hurdle making, thatching spars, pea sticks, charcoal and wattle fencing. Today some of the timber thinned from the woodlands within Maiden Erlegh Park is given to local craftspeople. Coppicing if carried out in a sensitive way can be both beneficial to wildlife and humans and is an example of sustainable wood production.

Other Natural Features

Earley has some other areas of semi-natural ancient woodland which include Redhatch Copse, off Redhatch Drive, High Wood, near Church Road and Pearmans Copse near Lower Earley Way. A small remnant of Buckhurst Copse still exists within the grounds of Maiden Erlegh School. In the case of High Wood the site also contains the last remnant of heathland within the area, which had covered a fair part of Earley and Woodley until the 18th century. This area of heathland would have possibly been created by woodland clearance in the Bronze Age, around 4,000 years ago, and kept as such by grazing and harvesting of heather and brushwood. Bullmarsh Heath and Earley Heath are clearly shown on maps of the area in the 17th and 18th centuries.

From Hamlet to Town

The population of Earley stands today at around 30,000 this is a contrast to the Herlei of 1086 where the Great Survey records that the Manor of St Nicholas consisted of two fisheries, a meadow and a woodland and had supported some 9 families. Whist the Manor of St Bartholomew also had two fisheries, a meadow and a woodland with about 12 families, (Morris 1979). It is worth noting that Domesday does not revel exact population as not every individual was recorded. When figures are given historians multiply them by a factor of 4 to 5, (Darby1962), thus we can only presume that the population of the settlement was between 100 and 200 persons. Medieval pottery from 12th - 14th century has been discovered in Earley, and one presumes that the population remained fairly constant during this period up to the Black Death, which struck the Reading area in 1608, 1625 and 1638 (Phillips 1990), which it is estimated would have reduced the population by half. The tax records for the 16th century reveal less that 20 persons paying tax, and thus the population remained low. In 1841 the population stood at 471 which had grown by 1931 to 847, and had increased to over 5,000 in 1948, due to a housing boom prior to the Second World War. In the 19th century the Church of England made Earley a Parish in its own right, rather than being part of the old Parish of Sonning. Earley St Peters Church was consecrated in1844. However a Primitive Methodist Chapel was already in existence in Beech Lane, which is now a house. The boundaries of Earley have changed considerably over the years as the population has increased. In the 1880s the Corporation of Reading expanded its boundary to include the area between Cemetery Junction and Church Road, over the years the boundaries have also be adjusted between Shinfield and Woodley.

In the 19th century the Civil Parishes Act removed the civil responsibilities from the church and introduced civil parish councils (Hunter 1995). It is believed that the Earley Civil Parish dates from 1866 (Youngs 1979). However, Minutes of Earley Parish Council held at the Town Council Offices only date back to 1974. Some older documents are held by the Council notably the Deeds to Maiden Erlegh Park and Mays Lane Burial Ground.

The railway came to the Parish in May 1863 when the London & South Western Railway opened Earley Station, thus linking Reading with Guildford. The Great Western Railway had passed to the north of the village near Shepherds Hill, part of the infamous Sonning Cutting which claimed so many workers lives.

When millionaire Solomon Joel died on 22 May 1931 it spelt the nearing of the final chapter in the large estate of Maiden Erlegh. The demise of the British aristocracy lead to many old manor houses and estates being divided up and demolished or left to fall into disrepair. The death of Soly Joel, and the subsequent dividing up of the 750 acre estate, that marked the start of the building of the town we know today. However, it was not until the Manor was demolished in 1960 that the real growth of the parish started. The area including around Silverdale Road to Lakeside being of this era.

In 1974 the population stood at some 12,000 and thus the Parish Council became a Town Council. It was however, the building of the Lower Earley Estate, which commenced in 1977, that the town mushroomed in size. It was until recently the largest private housing development in Europe. The term Lower Earley was not invented by the property developers but holds a place in history. Maps of the 1800s make reference to Lower Earley Farm and Earley Lower Wood Common, and the term was in popular use from that time. Today Lower Earley is generally recognised as the area to the east of Mill Lane, the south of Rushey Way and west of Elm Lane, bounded by the M4 and the A329M. During is long construction there was criticism from its new residents regarding the lack of facilities. The ASDA supermarket opened its doors in 1979 and the Maiden Place Centre in 1988. A new large police station is one of the latest attributes to the area.

Remnants of Lower Earley’s rural roots can be found when travelling along its old road, such as Mill Lane, Cutbush Lane and Carshalton Way, formerly part of Beech Lane. Old Oaks too can be seen dotted around the landscape, once part of field boundaries. Small stretches of hedgerows and pockets of woodland still exist along the old tracks, which now help make up the network of footpaths and cycleways. Despite the growth of the Town there is still evidence of its history. The cottages of Radstock Farm can be seen in Radstock Lane near the school. In the section of Beech Lane which runs parallel with Rushey Way can be found the old Home Farm cottages, one of which is thatched. The old farm pond nearby is managed by the Town Council and is a Wildlife Heritage Site, due to its rarity and the great diversity of aquatic life within it.

It is well worth going for a walk around the roads of the area looking for the many historial treasures hidden away between the modern houses.

Earley St Peter’s School is the oldest school in the Town being founded in 1848, and was originally known as the Earley School. It remains the only Church school within Earley (Watts, 1998). With every dramatic increase in house building came more schools. Every part of the Town now has a primary school within walking distance of its catchment. Maiden Erlegh School was opened in 1962 and expanded in the early 1970s, it is still the only secondary school within Earley.