Gun Street, Reading
Gun Street is named after the Gunsmiths who are known to have been operating in
Reading from at least the early 17th century. When a certain Richard Reddat died in February 1618, he was recorded as having been a gunsmith in
St. Laurence’s parish. Perhaps it was soon after this that the gunsmiths made Gun Street in
St. Mary's their home. It is not so named on John Speed’s Map of 1610, but by 1636, we find the first man in the parish making guns: Benjamin Abery (died 1666). No doubt his stock would have been confiscated for use by the Royalist troops during the Civil War Siege of the town. Reading Museum has guns in its collection made in Reading in the 18th century, but whether these came from Gun Street or not is unknown. By the 1820s, although the only gunsmiths, listed in the town’s directories, were not resident in Gun Street, there were general ‘ironmongers’ there who specialised in guns.
The Gun Street of today is unusual in having houses on only one side of the road; but this wasn’t always the case.
John Man described
its narrowness in 1808 that led to one side being removed. In 1885, William Silver Darter (1803-1897) recorded what happened:
"The south quarter [of St. Mary's Churchyard] towards Gun Street [w]as an open space for the recreation of children. My belief is that A. Deane was almost the first person buried in that quarter. A Mr. James had a house and shop in the churchyard, and when it became necessary to enlarge the burying ground this was demolished, and it was stated that Mr. James was buried in his own cellar. There was also a house on the south side with the back of it opposite Messrs. Hart and Sons, and there were trees in front of this residence corresponding with those opposite the Dispensary; all these trees 72 years since were quite hollow and seemed to entirely exist by the bark through which the sap ascended. I threw a boy's cap in the one opposite the Dispensary in 1812, and had to obtain the assistance of a man with a ladder to recover it. Last spring I saw that this tree bore leaves as fresh and green as it did nearly three quarters of a century since."
"In the year 1816, the two houses referred to, viz., the one occupied by Mr. James and the other in which a Mr. Martin lived, were pulled down and all trees and other obstructions removed. A ditch which ran parallel with Gun Street by its whole length, was cleaned out, and Messrs. Wilder and Son fixed the iron railing in 1816. This portion of the churchyard was thus properly fenced in, but in effecting this great improvement it became necessary to raise the road considerably, the effect of which may be seen by looking at the Shades Inn, and until recently the Cross Keys Inn was at a similar depth below the carriage road. At that time there were attached to the Shades Inn a lock-up for the detention of prisoners during the night, but this I believe was removed at the time of the sale of the Oracle. The latter was evidently built at a time when this road was several feet lower down than now, and I perfectly recollect that the centre yard was easy of access for heavy carriages, and there was a pair of massive oak gates which could easily be shut; the date on these was 1628; they are now the property of Mr. Alderman Hewett, and may be seen at his private residence, Downshire Road. "
In the middle of Gun Street is the well-known ‘Purple Turtle’ Bar at No 9. The earliest recorded occupant was the ironmonger, Henry James (1790-1874), the son of James James (1751-1819) who was probably the owner of the shop – mentioned in WS Darter’s reminiscences – that was demolished in order to extend St. Mary’s Churchyard. Perhaps this was when the family business moved across the road. Henry was a non-conformist and attended the chapel in Broad Street, now Waterstone’s. Henry James’ Ironmongery was also a gun manufactory from at least 1831, as this 1831 advert shows:
TO THE SPORTING WORLD,
WORKING PERCUSSION, FLINT GUN, & PISTOL MANUFACTURER,
No. 9, GUN-STREET, READING.
Avails himself of the present opportunity of returning thanks to the Nobleman, Gentlemen, Sportsmen, and the public in general, for the many favours they have conferred upon him, and anxiously hopes still to retain their support.
H. J. respectfully announces that as the Shooting Season will shortly commence he has taken into his service workmen fully qualified to do any part of the Gun Business in the best style, and on the shortest notice.
Guns Re-stocked, Repaired, Browned, and Old Guns taken in Exchange.
A BRACE OF GOOD DOGS FOR SALE
Furnishing and General Ironmongery, Harness, &c. Fishing tackle in all its branches, wholesale and retail.
Country Shops supplied on the lowest terms.
But the range of goods he had on sale was much wider: "Stoves, Ranges 36 inch 13s. with oven, Sash Weights 7s. per cwt., cut and wrought Nails, Locks, &c., Iron Gas or Water Tubes, half-inch, 2d. per foot, 3-inch Patent Gutter 1d. per foot, Iron Hurdles 2s. each, or £10 per ton, continuous Galvanized Iron Roofing 2½d. per square foot, Asphalte Felt Roofing 1d. per square foot, Bar and Hoop Iron. Furnishing Department - Iron Bedsteads from 8s. upwards, and handsome Bronzed Fenders 2s. 6d. each, Fire-irons 2s. 6d. per set, Knives and Forks 3s. 6d. half-dozen, Sponging Baths from 9s., Sitting Ditto, 14s., Toilet Ware, Brass Rods, and Cornices, Moderator and Paraffin Lamps, Gas Brackets from 2s. 6d. each, Chandeliers, several second hand 2-light 18s., the best Colza and Parafin Oils.”
And bizarrely, "Also, he manufactures a new invented TRUSS for RUPTURES, especially adapted for Sportsmen or Persons using strong exercise; these Trusses can be set to the part affected by the patient; will not shift, and require no bandage; those who have tried them have found immediate relief, while others have failed – the price also considerably less.”!
By about 1851, when Henry became a town councillor, the shop was known as H. James & Sons, Nathaniel & Archibald having joined in partnership with their father. Their elder brother, Henry Simmons James (1822-1841), who died tragically young, would also have been a great asset to the business had he survived: "his mechanical genius developed itself early in life; he brought the Bude light to greater perfection than any one, his simple apparatus for distillation on a small scale would well deserve a patent, he invented force pumps of various kinds, and his model of a locomotive engine was not one of the least of the efforts of his bright and dawning genius.”
By 1861, Henry had retired from the business to 80 Southampton Street, but he was still a property landlord. His eldest son, Nathaniel Simmons James (1824-1908), was running the shop. About 1866, Nathaniel sold up to Joseph J Staples (1818-1895) who appears to have made it a second shop to an ironmongery business (employing 7 men and 1 apprentice) that he already had established in Church Green in Newbury (and later moved to Bartholomew Street & Bridge Street) and possibly another in Witney, which he had run in partnership with S Lea (although Mr. Lea may have taken that when the partnership was dissolved). Staples was originally from Stonehouse near Plymouth.
Mr. Staples described himself as a Wholesale, Retail, General Furnishings & Saddlers’ Ironmonger. As well as the goods previously sold by the Jameses, he stocked electroplate and Japan ware, "COLZA AND CRYSTAL OILS, Warranted of the Best Quality. GENERAL TOOL WAREHOUSE, and AGENT FOR MOSELEY'S LONDON PLANES," as well as "FIREWORKS. FIREWORKS: J. STAPLES HAS just received a Large Assortment of FIREWORKS for this season, including Roman Candles, Sky Rockets, Tourbillions, Mortars, Wheels, Jack-in-Box, &c.” His son, John Edward (1845-1921), took over in Reading by 1883, although he appears to have lived at Tredwell in Bulmershe Road & 110 Oxford Road rather than over the shop. By 1895, he’d sold up to George Smith Cox (1862-1946) and retired to the Gables in Conisborough Avenue, Caversham. No 9 continued as an ironmonger’s, later passing to John Herbert May (1867-1950) around 1909. He was still there 1931.
Click for a Report of a Tragic Accident in Gun Street 1863