So much has happened to Earley very recently, but it is extremely interesting to look back at the area in past times. A brief history can be found below, and two books; Earley Memories and Suttons Seeds produced by the Earley Local History Group are available for purchase from the Earley Helpshop.
Copy of the Millennium plaque – history of Earley timeline created of Eve Giblin
It is very likely that humans from the Palaeolithic period – the Old Stone Age – up to 400,000 years BC were foraging in Earley for edible vegetation and grubs and hunting wild cattle, deer, and elephant. Traces of flimsy shelters made from brushwood have been found in North Earley on the site of the old Power Station at the Thames Valley Business Park. Tools from this era have been found within the Town. These early residents would have depended on the surrounding woodland for hunting and gathering of edible plants such as nuts, berries, and roots. It is thought that the clearing of woodland for agriculture and the keeping of domesticated animals started in and around 4000 BC, the Neolithic or New Stone Age, with the arrival of people from the Continent. Small areas of wildwood would have been cleared using stone tools. There is archaeological evidence for continued human presence during the Bronze and Iron Age on the site of the Thames Valley Business Park in North Earley.
THE ROMANS AND BEYOND
The Romans invading England in AD 43, came to a land with fully developed agriculture and Roman and Roman artefacts have been found at a number of sites in Earley. A Saxon settlement has been discovered in Reading at the confluence of the Kennet and the Thames dating from about 600 AD. During the Reign of Edward the Confessor the Manors at Earley were held by the Crown. The Great Survey of AD 1086 reveals that only about 20 per cent of Berkshire was wooded, and by 1200 much of the modern landscape was already recognizable. The Norman Conquest had the positive effect of increasing woodland cover to provide hunting forests with Windsor Forest extending to the Loddon.
THE MIDDLE AGES
Domesday records two manors, Erlegh St Batholomew and Erlegh St Nicholas. The de Erlegh family held the manors c.1160 – 1362. John de Erlegh, 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. The Manor of Maiden Erlegh, Erley Maydens, is attested from 1502 and it was formed out of Earley Whiteknights in the 14th Century.
The estate passed through several owners over the Centuries eventually being acquired by Viscount Sidmouth who died in 1844. The Manor remained in the Sidmouth family until the 1930’s after which the estate was sold for building development.
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 Spekes sold the manor of Erlegh Whiteknights for £7,500 to Francis Englefield. His nephew, also known by the same name, became the owner in the beginning of the 17th Century. The Englefields were devout Roman Catholics and thus faced persecution and heavy taxes. The estate remained in the family until the late 1700’s, when they were forced to sell due to the 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. However, he ran up massive debts and his possessions were seized and sold including many of the landscape features. The impressive Manor House was demolished in 1840-41. The Whiteknights Estate of today is the home of the University of Reading which took over the site in 1947.
Much of the material contained in this brief history derives from and is contained within the local history book ‘Earley Days’ which was produced by the local History Group with help from the Town Council. This first book is available on loan from local libraries. Two further books have been published, namely ‘Earley Memories’ and ‘Suttons Seeds’, available to purchase from the Town Council Offices, local bookshops and the Lower Earley library.
ABOUT SOLLY JOEL
Solomon Barnato Joel purchased the Maiden Erlegh Estate in 1903. His generosity and lavish lifestyle have been written into the folklore of Earley. Even the current spelling of Maiden Erlegh is attributed to him. He is also believed by some to have had the Lake created, although maps of the 1700’s show it to be already in existence. However, the large island within the Lake can probably be attributed to him. He invested heavily in the Estate commissioning a wonderful marble swimming pool complete with fresco. The grounds were well laid out, complete with a magnificent rose garden and terracing. The Estate boasted an aviary, polo ground, cricket field and tennis courts. He also established a famous racehorse stud at New Farm, which was renamed Home Stud Farm, and was situated near what is now Marefield, off Rushey Way.
A map held by the Town Council clearly shows that the Mansion stood between Silverdale Road and Crawford Close. To get to the Mansion you would have travelled from Wokingham Road along Maiden Erlegh Drive, most of which still exists today complete with sections of Victorian fencing and the Lodge.
When millionaire Solomon Joel died on 22nd May 1931, the final chapter in the large estate of Maiden Erlegh was near to completion. His death and the subsequent dividing up of the 750-acre estate 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 started; the area, including around Silverdale to Lakeside, being of this era.
After his death in 1931, the luxurious contents of the Mansion were sold at auction. The Mansion itself became Maiden Erlegh School for Boys which flourished until 1942. In 1945 the building was sold on to the Church Army, which 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 Limited 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.
MAIDEN ERLEGH PARK
In response to the demands of local residents, Cooper Estates agreed to sell Maiden Erlegh Lake and the surrounding woodland to Earley Parish Council in return for being allowed to build on another greenfield site. As it was realized 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 acquired from the then Wokingham District Council, giving the Park a total area of some 24 acres. The woodlands within the Park are of great historical and ecological importance, with Oak wood dating from at least the 16th Century and containing some 18 indicator species associated with old woodlands. Charcoal and pollen deposits from the sediment indicate that the Lake area was once wet woodland, almost certainly created by building a dam, flooding the valley bottom. This practice was commonplace from the Middle Ages to the 18th Century to create fishponds, to provide ice and as a landscape feature.
FROM HAMLET TO TOWN
The population of Earley stands today at just over 33,000 in contrast to the Herlei of 1086 where the Great Survey records a population of 21 people, although it is thought likely a truer figure would be around 100. The population remained fairly constant during this period up until the time of the Black Death in 1348, which it is estimated would have reduced the population by more than half. The tax records for the 17th Century reveal only some 17 persons paying tax and thus the population seems to have remained low. In 1841 the population stood at 471 and this had grown by 1931 to 847 and to over 5,000 by 1948. The increased size of population in the 19th Century led to the Church of England making Earley a Parish in its own right, rather than being part of the old Parish of Sonning.
Earley St Peter’s Church was consecrated in 1844. The boundaries of Earley have changed considerably over the years as the population has increased. In the 1890’s the Corporation of Reading expanded its boundary to include the area between Cemetery Junction and Church Road, whilst in the 1920’s the boundaries were adjusted between Shinfield and Woodley. The railway came to the Parish in 1863 when the London and South Western Railway opened Earley Station. The Great Western Railway had passed to the north of the village near Shepherds Hill, part of the infamous Sonning Cutting which claimed many workers’ lives.
MAIDEN ERLEGH ESTATE AND MANOR
Maiden Erlegh was formed out of the Manor 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 Valentine Crome, and 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 passed to the Rt. Hon Edward Golding, MP for Downton, Wiltshire. The Manor was purchased by John Hargreaves in 1878, Master of the South Berks Hunt, who founded a course where hunt and yeomanry races, similar to the modern hunter chases were run. The course extended over an area now covered by Hillside Road, Sutcliffe Avenue and Mill Lane. The grandstand stood on an area which is to the back of the houses in Hillside Road, opposite Loddon Junior School. Solly Joel continued to allow racing until the First World War, when the Maiden Erlegh Racecourse was demolished, the grandstand being re-erected at Newbury racecourse.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT IN EARLEY
Although Earley has been a civil parish since the middle of the last century, perhaps the really significant date in local government terms has been quite recent, when in 1974 there was extensive reorganization of local government in Britain. Primarily, principal authorities were affected and the previous Wokingham Rural District Council became Wokingham District Council, renamed Wokingham Borough Council in 2007. Also in 1974, the Town Council as we know it today was formed.
One particularly interesting feature of the first Council meeting in 1976 was the newly elected Councillor, Adrian Paddick, attending his first meeting and in the absence of anyone else willing to accept the post, was thrust into the role of Chairman of the Council. He was to continue in this role for some years, and by the time of his death in 1997, had become the elder statesman of the Town Council, highly respected by his colleagues and by the local residents for his wisdom and calming effect on proceedings.
At the time of its formation the Town Council looked after an area with some 12,000 inhabitants. At this stage the development of Lower Earley had yet to commence. Early meetings of the newly formed Earley Town Council were held in St Peter’s Church Hall on Church Road. In 1978, the Town Council struck a deal with Maiden Erlegh School and began to hold meetings in the staff dining room and set up office in a converted storeroom. The Council took on its first full time Town Clerk in January 1979 when Mr Leslie Norton became Clerk to the Council.
Despite its comparatively small size, the Town Council responded positively to the challenges with which it was being faced with the impending Lower Earley development. The Radstock Lane Community Centre was opened in 1983 and included a small suite of offices which became the Council’s administrative home until its final move to Radstock House, on the opposite side of the road, in 1987. 1986 saw the building of the Maiden Place Community Centre. Initially it included a small room plus in 1987 it was decided to add a main hall, bar, and upstairs room. The improvements were completed around 1989.
The two Community Centres proved to be much needed facilities. With over 6,000 houses being built on the Lower Earley development and a population expansion from C.11,000 in 1974 to some 28,500 in 2002, the new facilities were essential additions to the Town’s infrastructure. There was also significant activity by the Town Council during this period to try to improve facilities at Maiden Erlegh Reserve.
At the same time the structure of the Council was gradually changing to meet the new demands. In the days of the Parish Council and immediately after 1974, the Town Council had members who were not politically labelled. Gradually their numbers dwindled and by the mid-1980s, all elected representatives were members of the main political parties.
The 1998 Local Government reorganization significantly affected Earley in that the first-tier authority, Berkshire County Council, became defunct as a new system of Unitary Authorities, based on the areas of the old district councils, was put in place. The changes themselves had little impact on the Town Council’s work, but local government in the area has only two tiers instead of three as previously.
As the responsibilities of the Town Council increased, so the respective roles of councillors and council officers similarly changed. Mr Leslie Norton had steered the Town Council through the difficult period during the development of Lower Earley. By the time of his retirement in 1991, the Town Council recognized the need for improved administrative systems to consolidate its earlier achievements.
Leslie Norton was succeeded as Town Clerk by Richard Raymond who moved to Earley from his previous post with a large Borough Council in Essex. He retired in 2003, to be replaced by Philip Truppin, who had served as Clerk to two Local Councils in Hertfordshire previously. He retired in 2018 to be replaced Jo Friend who joined from Theale Parish Council. The Town Council is re-elected every four years and has an efficient administrative structure in place with the capability to deal with all additional facilities now provided by the Council and to meet the increasing demands of central Government.
In 2006 the Council resolved that, henceforth, its Chairman would have the title of Town Mayor, adding status to its civic presence ad representative profile in the community.