A group of municipal buildings which include the Town Hall, two Concert Halls, Museum and Register Office for Reading, but which formerly also housed the Library and Art college, together with office space. Constructed in 1871-1872 to the designs of Alfred Waterhouse, 1879-1882 by Thomas Lainson, 1896-1897 by John James Cooper and William Roland Howell. With later C20 and C21 additions and restoration by Architects Design Partnership in 1988-1989 and also in 1993 and 2000. The complex of interconnected buildings also contains the Victoria Hall (formerly Small Town Hall) of 1785-1786, designed by Charles Poulton and remodelled in 1863 by WH Woodman.
Reasons for Designation
The Town Hall, Reading is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
* the building, designed by the highly regarded architect, Alfred Waterhouse together with Thomas Lainson and John James Cooper and William Roland Howell and including the earlier Victoria Hall by Charles Poulton and William Henry Woodman, has a consistent and accomplished design to both the exterior and interior which clearly has more than special interest;
* notwithstanding alterations made in the late C20 to aid the flow of activities around the interior of the building, the impressive internal spaces dating from the C19 have been retained with little alteration to their original appearance.
* as an indication of the development of Reading in the C19 and a representation of the prestige of the town as it grew;
* a demonstration of the expansion of the functions housed within a town hall building as a result of new legislation as the C19 advanced.
The first written record of Reading dates from the ninth century when the name seems to have referred to a tribe, called Reada’s people. Reading’s position at the junction of the Thames and Kennet was crucial and it is possible that there was a river port here during the Roman occupation. The first mention of the town as a royal vill came in 870 due to a Viking camp, and by 1086 there was a thriving urban community, recorded in the Domesday Book. Reading Abbey was founded in 1121 and this transformed Reading into a place of pilgrimage as well as an important trading and ecclesiastical centre with one of the biggest and richest monasteries in England. By 1525 Reading was the largest town in Berkshire and the tenth largest in England when measured in taxable wealth due to its trade in wool and cloth.
The dissolution led to the monastic complex becoming a royal palace and by 1611 the town’s population had grown to over 5,000. A number of the timber-framed houses from this period survive in Castle Street and Market Place. The Civil War caused a defensive ring of earthworks to be built around the town and caused much damage.
During the C18 Reading became a prosperous market town and administrative centre, due to the development of the town’s waterways and road links. In 1723 the River Kennet was transformed into a canal, linking Reading to Newbury, further extended by the opening of the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1810, to create a route between Reading and the Bristol Channel. Turnpike roads were also improved, establishing major coaching routes from London to Oxford, the West Country and the southern coast. Iron works and brewing caused the expansion of the town further west along the Oxford and Bath Roads and in the older part of Reading, many older, timber-framed buildings were refaced in fashionable brick. A new town hall was built just northeast of the west end of Friar Street in 1786.
In the C19 the town expanded further; three separate railway companies ran routes through the town to London, causing a rapid increase in population (9,400 in 1801 to 21,500 in 1851 and over 70,000 by 1900) as well as the development of Reading’s famous Three B’s industries: beer (Simonds Brewery, 1785-2010), bulbs (Suttons Seeds, 1837-1974) and biscuits (Huntley and Palmers, 1822-1976). Growth during this period was characterised by the proliferation of brick terraces, made from the area’s fine clay deposits, and Hardy referred to Reading as ‘Aldbrickham’ in his novel Jude the Obscure. In 1869 the town was confirmed as the county town for Berkshire.
Today, Reading is one of the largest urban areas in the UK without city status. The town centre was considerably changed in 1969 when the Inner Distribution Road opened.
The building now known as Reading Town Hall encompasses a number of civic spaces and functions. These include the former Council Chamber, the Small Town Hall (now called the Victoria Hall), the Concert Hall, the museum, the former School of Art and Science and the former library. The various parts of the building were constructed at different dates in the C18 and C19 and have been subject to alterations and restoration in the C20 and C21.
The earliest building to house civic offices in Reading appears to have been the Guild Hall in the town centre. In around 1542, following its suppression, the former church of the Greyfriars, which had come into the hands of the crown, was offered to the mayor and burgesses of the town to be their new guildhall. In the same year, a new Charter was issued by the crown, which may have encouraged the move to new quarters. After 1578, however, they moved again to the old Hospitium of the Abbey which lies to the east of the present town hall site. Part of this medieval building still stands and it is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and listed at Grade II. It abuts the Town Hall building and originally extended further towards the west on a site which is now occupied by later, C19 additions to the Town Hall. In 1785-1786 a plain brick classical building designed by Charles Poulton was built slightly to the south of this range and running north-south as a concert hall for the town. In 1863 it was given an internal, Italianate scheme of decoration by WH Woodman and an organ designed by Father Willis was installed. This has variously been known as the Town Hall, the Small Town Hall and, now, the Victoria Hall.
In 1871 or 1872 Alfred Waterhouse, a nationally-acknowledged architect with local family connections, was commissioned to design an extension to both of these ranges on the site of what had been the former vicarage to the Church of St Laurence. His design appears to have been intended as a supplement to the medieval building and a mask to the classical town hall in a style which was designed to unite the grouping and also provide a focal point at the juncture of Friar Street and Market Place with a prominent clock tower that was similar in outline to the western tower of the Church of St Laurence. The building included offices and a Council Chamber. This range was extended in 1879-1882. Waterhouse was apparently approached to design the extension but refused the commission and a competition was held. Thomas Lainson of Hove adjudicated, and WT Sams won but Lainson also recommended his own design and emerged as the ultimate victor. His range, in a C13 style, followed the lead set by Waterhouse’s work, but Lainson’s choice of materials was a harder, blue brick which was not local, together with Corsehill stone. The large, L-shaped range included a new concert hall at first-floor level into which the Father Willis organ was moved from the Small Town Hall. In addition to the hall, the building included the Reading School of Art and Science facing north onto Valpy Street and the central library and museum.
In 1896-1897 JJ Cooper and WR Howell added an art gallery in the angle between Blagrave Street and Valpy Street on land donated by the Palmer family, who were local industrialists. This replaced another Victorian building on the site of lesser height, which may have been designed by Lainson and combined the materials seen on the earlier two buildings with Lainson’s harder, darker brick to the lower floor and Waterhouse’s lighter-grey brick above.
Bomb damage in 1943 affected the southern flank of the Waterhouse building facing towards Market Place and this was tactfully replaced (with some embellishments) by the Architects Design Partnership in 1988-1989.
An extensive, phased scheme of refurbishment and re-organisation was undertaken over several years between 1993 and 2000.
A group of municipal buildings which include the Town Hall, two Concert Halls, Museum and Register Office for Reading, but which formerly also housed the Library and Art College, together with office space. Constructed in 1871-1872 to the designs of Alfred Waterhouse, 1879-1882 by Thomas Lainson, 1896-1897 by John James Cooper and William Roland Howell. With later C20 and C21 additions and restoration by Architects Design Partnership in 1988-1989 and also in 1993 and 2000. The complex of interconnected buildings also contains the Victoria Hall (formerly Small Town Hall) of 1785-1786, designed by Charles Poulton and remodelled in 1863 by WH Woodman.
MATERIALS: the Waterhouse building is of blue-grey bricks laid in English bond with rubbed brick dressings and a tiled roof. The Lainson block to its north is in a similar Gothic revival style with darker grey bricks and red brick and Corsehill sandstone dressings and the later Art Gallery by Cooper and Howell combines both types of blue-grey brick.
PLAN: the building extends from the junction between Friar Street, Blagrave Street and Market Place at its southern end to the junction of Blagrave Street and Valpy Street at the north. There are three storeys and attic dormers in the steeply-sloping roofs with a basement. A clock tower faces Blagrave Street and two more towers of lesser height face towards the Market Place and Valpy Street.
EXTERIOR: the building is predominantly of grey or blue brick with red brick, moulded brick, terracotta and sandstone dressings. The Cooper and Howell building of 1896-1897 has a deep panel of terracotta ornament below the second-floor windows. Floor heights increase as the building rises with greater elaboration to the upper window surrounds. Red brick string courses run around all parts of the C19 building.
The Waterhouse building turns the corner between Market Place and Blagrave Street by means of a wide quadrant. This has four bays divided by triangular buttresses. Each window has two lights divided by a mullion and there are transoms to the upper, taller windows. The lowest rank of windows has paired lancets placed below segmental relieving arches and the first-floor windows have Caernarfon heads to the lights. There is a band of moulded brick ornament between the first and second floors and at the top of the wall is a projecting parapet with cusped openings. The buttresses are capped by square finials with pyramidal tops. To the east of this quadrant is a tower, which was largely rebuilt in 1989-1999 following the original pattern, but enriched. This has a doorway to the ground floor with a pointed relieving arch. Above is a recessed panel with two ranks of triple lancets. The top stage which rises above the parapet level has bartizans to its corners and a central roundel of moulded brick bearing the C20 arms of the town. A further bay to its right is also rebuilt and similar to those seen on the quadrant. Facing Blagrave Street is the clock tower which has a portal at ground-floor level with a wrought iron screen bearing the words ‘THE / TOWN HALL’. Roundels at either side show the date ‘18 / 75’. Above this, the first floor has three lancets under a conjoined hood mould above which is a brick panel with two ranks of triple lancets. The upper stage of the tower has bartizans to the corners capped by spirelets. The circular clock face has a moulded surround and above it is a miniature arcade of belfry openings. The steeply-pitched roof terminates in a lead finial and wrought iron weather vane. To the north of the tower the former Council Chamber, now known as the Waterhouse Chamber, is placed at first-floor level. It has ground-floor windows as seen on the quadrant, but the chamber windows above rise through two floors and consist of four windows, each of two lights with a central mullion and two transoms. The tympana above the window heads and below the relieving arches have a chequerboard pattern of red and grey bricks. The left pair of windows step forward slightly and are set beneath a gable which shows the arms of Reading in a roundel.
The Lainson range which adjoins to the north of the Blagrave Street frontage follows the general pattern of the Waterhouse design in its Gothic revival style and materials and some of the details but is more uniform in its treatment. The pattern for six of the bays along this front, clustered in groups of four to the right of an entrance portal and two to the left is similar to the Waterhouse quadrant in having paired lights with lancet heads to the ground-floor windows and Caernarfon heads at first-floor level. The second-floor windows have plate tracery with paired lancets and a roundel to the apex of their relieving arch. Bays are divided by triangular buttresses, as before, with square finials and a miniature arcade to the parapet. The portal is placed in a projecting gabled wing at right of centre. This has an elaborately-moulded arch with colonettes to the responds and stiff-leaf capitals. Octagonal corner buttresses flank this bay and there is a canted oriel at second-floor level with a richly-moulded support. To the left of this range is a projecting wing with polygonal corner buttress and three bays divided by stepped buttresses. Windows for these museum rooms rise through both ground and first floors. Second-floor windows have moulded surrounds with cusped roundels to their heads. The gable above has two-light windows with traceried roses to their tops which are set at either side of a canopied statue of Queen Victoria carrying the orb and sceptre. The arms of Henry III are in a roundel to the apex of the gable. The deep stone band below the second-floor window has a central carving in relief which shows the laying of the foundation stone to Reading Abbey. It was intended to be the first in a series of episodes from the town’s history. At left, or north, again and forming the termination of the Lainson additions is a projecting, canted porch-wing whose lower structure is largely of pink sandstone. This has an open lobby at ground level with circular columns and foliate capitals. Above are two-light windows and their aprons have panels of carving, including shields which carry the wording ‘ART / GALLERY’, ‘PUBLIC / LIBRARY’ and ‘PUBLIC / MUSEUM’.
Turning the corner from Blagrave Street to Valpy Street is the range added by Cooper and Howell in 1896-1897. This housed the library reading room on the ground floor and the art gallery on the first floor and consequently has elaborate fenestration to the ground floor and no windows to the top-lit first floor. It too follows the style of its predecessor buildings with similarly-coloured brickwork and bays which are, in this case, divided by polygonal buttresses terminating in square finials. A deep sandstone plinth has basement windows with metal grilles. The ground-floor windows turning the angled corner have cusped heads to the lights and above them are terracotta panels which portray a series of local and national historic events. At street level, there is also a tablet commemorating the life of William Isaac Palmer, the local biscuit manufacturer, who contributed to the cost of both the Lainson and Cooper and Howell buildings. The five windows facing Valpy Street have two lights and quatrefoil heads which rise into gablets with panelled terracotta dressings. The blind grey brick walling at first-floor level is divided by the buttresses and topped by a running arcade of terracotta with two large, canopied niches to the angled corner.
To the left, or east of this is a further part of the earlier building designed by Lainson which originally housed Reading School of Art and Science. This is in a plainer style than his Blagrave frontage and has a gabled wing at right and a turret at left. The ground floor has doors to both right and left with five mullioned and transomed windows between. At first and second floor levels there are a joined triplet of lights at right and a single light to left with two paired lights between. The turret at left has a pyramidal roof and the gable at right has three grouped lancet lights. A gable above these records the date as '1879' in a roundel.
The eastern front, facing the churchyard of the Church of St Laurence is partially masked by later buildings joined to the eastern end of the former School of Art and Science and forming neighbouring properties. The eastern side of the Victoria Hall (formerly known as the Small Town Hall) built in 1785-1786 by Charles Poulton can be seen. This has five windows placed behind gauged-brick relieving arches. These each have sashes of four by six panes and the space between their square heads and the arches above was opened during the remodelling of the interior in 1863 by WH Woodman to give the windows arched heads that include a pattern of semi-circular and round panes.
INTERIOR: the oldest of the current interior spaces is the Victoria Hall (formerly the Small Town Hall), of 1785-1786, designed by Charles Poulton and remodelled internally in 1863 by WH Woodman. This has a coffered ceiling and panelled walls with three bays to each end wall divided by pairs of columns with Composite capitals and lateral niches. A bust of the young Queen Victoria is shown in a roundel at the north end. Six windows with arched heads run along the eastern wall and the western wall has blind arched panels matching this effect. These indicate where windows used to be before the Waterhouse extension was built.
The former Council Chamber (now called the Waterhouse Chamber) was designed by Alfred Waterhouse and has a stone fire surround to the north wall with an overmantel including an arcade of Gothic arches and a shield with the arms of the town. Fixed seating and desks have been removed, but the gallery front extends along the east side of the room, now adapted to form a first-floor passageway. The large windows have panels of stained glass in Waterhouse's characteristic style with pink and green quarries against a grisaille background. The dogleg staircase which leads up from the portal entrance to the Waterhouse block has pointed arches piercing the central spine wall with wrought and cast-iron brackets supporting the wooden handrail. These arches and others at basement level had moulded heads.
The Concert Hall which forms part of the Lainson addition was originally approached by a staircase leading up from a portal at ground level which now forms the entrance to the whole complex. As part of the late-C20 and early-C21 alterations this stair was removed, but the three, pointed arches to its landing have been retained with a balustrade, forming a lobby to the concert hall and allowing views down to the entrance. The hall is entered from the lobby by five sets of double doors. The hall has a coffered ceiling with a series of glazed, quadrant lights running around the perimeter. There is a cantilevered, horseshoe-shaped balcony to three sides of the hall and walls at both levels are panelled, those at the upper level having arched heads divided by Composite pilasters. The lower panels are divided by polished wood pilasters with inlaid marble panels and brackets for the original gas lights. The chandeliers suspended from the central ceiling appear to be the original gasoliers, converted for electric lighting. In the centre of the eastern end is the Father Willis organ which originally stood in the Small Town Hall (now called the Victoria Hall) but which was enlarged and moved, and given a Baroque style of wooden case, designed by Thomas Lainson Junior and carved by JT Chappell. This stands to the rear of the stage, flanked by tiers of chorus seating.
The former School of Art and Science, by Lainson, has a dogleg staircase with square newels and spire finials and balusters in the form of Gothic colonettes. The museum rooms have panelled ceilings and cast-iron columns decorated with spiralling foliage motifs. The staircase also uses elaborate cast iron panels for the balustrade and screens.
In the Art Gallery wing by Cooper and Howell the former ground-floor Reading Room, which is now the registry office, has a panelled eastern wall and ceiling.
Area railings of cast and wrought iron run around the bowed part of the Waterhouse building. They guard the sunken area which is set before the basement of this part of the building. Panels have a screen of vertical bars with closely-set dog bars to the lower body. Uprights which divide the panels are capped by tri-part spikes.