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Antique Print of Wokingham Old Town HallWokingham
of Bells & Bull-Baiting

The name Wokingham comes from "Wocca's People's Home". Wocca was a Saxon whose followers farmed much of the land in this area, notably also Wokefield. Their main home, however, was at Woking (Surrey). It was, up until this century, known as Oakingham, but this was a corruption that has now been dispensed with.

Wokingham was noted for its Bell Foundry in Medieval times. As early as 1383 the industry was well established in the town, and many local churches ring out on Wokingham Bells. Only Bell Foundry Lane now remains (although the foundry was in the centre of town), for by the late 16th century the business had relocated in Reading. At about the same time, Flemish weavers fleeing from religious persecution made Wokingham famous for its manufacture of silken goods. In the 19th century, though, this trade declined due to cheap French imports and the townspeople turned to other industries: leatherworking, wool-dealing, brick-making, brewing and coach-building! The Lush Brothers made coaches for King Edward VII, Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein and Empress Eugenie of the French.

Historic buildings in the town include the 15th century Overhangs, associated with the Windsor Forest Verderers' Courts, in Peach Street and much changed medieval hall houses in Rose Street. The 16th century mansion at the junction of the A321 and A329 has a superb timber-framed facade, but it is not original. It was brought from a house in Binfield in the 1920s. Wokingham's almshouses are said to be the finest building in the town, called the Lucas Hospital after their benefactor, they were built through a bequest of 1665. The church was originally a chapel-of-ease to that at Sonning. It dates back to the 13th century but was heavily restored in 1864. Inside, there is a fine Royal Arms of Elizabeth I's time (1582) and a memorial to local man, Thomas Godwin, a 16th century Bishop of Bath & Wells. The churchyard, meanwhile, has the most extraordinary monument to the wife and nephew of one Benjamin Beaver (1761). Inscribed on a huge block of Portland stone is this man's full family history back to the time of Charles I. It recounts many tales of woe brought on by the Civil War, including how a Beaver ancestor, along with his brother-in-law, Richard Harrison (See Hurst), was almost ruined raising three troops of horse for the King at their own expense.

During the Civil War, the Royalist garrison from Reading arrived in Wokingham, demanding that the townspeople fill eight carts full with firewood and bedding. When they refused, the troops burnt four town houses to the ground. The occupiers were told to take themselves off to parliament-supporting Windsor. By the time of the restoration, about twenty percent of the town had been destroyed in the upheaval. This, despite the fact that the commander-in-chief of the Berkshire troops was himself a Wokingham man. Major-General Sir Richard "Moses" Browne grew up in the town. He was the man who led Charles II's triumphant procession into London at the Restoration.

Cock fighting was popular in Wokingham and there was once a famous cock-pit at the end of Cock Walk. However, the place was best known for its bull baiting. In 1661, a local Butcher, George Staverton, left the rent from his house to provide a bull for the townsfolk to bait in the Market Place. This horrible sport continued in the town until banned by the Corporation in 1821. Despite the nation following suit six years later, the last bull baiting in England took place here in 1832. The bull was still provided as beef for the poor, but before the unfortunate creature could be slaughtered, an excited mob seized the animal and set the dogs upon it, as of old. People came from miles around to see the spectacle, and the vast crowds often got quite rough as the parish register records:

Martha May, aged 55,
who was hurt by fighters after the Bull-baiting,
was buried December 31st, 1808.

The old Market Hall with pillared undercroft was replaced with the present building in 1858. Inside are many interesting old portraits of the Royal Family, some better than others: one of George I by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Another bequest, from Richard Palmer in 1664, provided for a curfew bell at the church to be rung at 4am and 8pm between September and March. This was so strangers lost in the countryside could know the time and receive some guidance as to the right way to go.

The gallant French highwayman, Claude Duval, worked this area and is said to have owned a cottage in Highwater Lane. However, he was not the only thief in Wokingham. In 1723, a white paper was passed in parliament, making it a criminal offence to undertake blacking, the painting of one's face black in order to commit unlawful acts. It was know as the Black Act and was so called after the infamous Wokingham Blacks, a band of footpads who infested Windsor Forest. They began as mere poachers, but soon expanded their list of nefarious activities to encompass such crimes as robbery, blackmail and even murder. Their little base at one William Shorter's house in Wokingham soon commanded nearly all criminal activity in Eastern Berkshire. The locals were afraid to speak out against them, for retaliation was swift and merciless. Even the local magistrates were not safe. Eventually, the custodian of Bigshotte Rayle called in the Bow Street Runners to entrap the leading miscreants. Two disguised officers arrived and made friends with three of the Blacks at Wokingham Fair. They convinced them that there was plenty of easy money to be had by becoming professional witnesses in London. Meeting some days later, in a Holborn tavern, the unsuspecting Berkshire lads were quickly taken into custody. Their arrest led to a major round up and the gang was broken. (See also Bracknell, Easthampstead & Old Windsor).

It was around this same period that Wokingham became much celebrated for the residence of Fair Molly Mogg, barmaid at the Rose Inn. She was the publican's daughter who had been brought to public attention through a ballad written for her by Pope, Gay, Swift and Arbuthnot. Being a local man, Alexander Pope often visited the inn and, finding himself stranded there, one day, during a violent storm, he and his friends set about to extol the virtues of their beautiful hostess. The obsessive suitor, mentioned in the rhyme, was said to have been the young Lord of Arborfield whose advances she rejected. Although some claim this was her sister, Sally, who was even more beautiful. Furthermore, the Rose was not that which we see today, but an older building which stood on the site of the present Boots.

Though nationally not as well known as Molly Mogg, Molly Millar is better known locally for the Lane which bears her name. Who this lady was, however, is something of a mystery. One theory says the lane was named by the Welsh Drovers who passed this way with their sheep in the late 18th century and got to know Molly, an old woman who lived by the wayside. Local legend says more: she was not just any old lady but the town witch!

William Heelas arrived in Wokingham sometime in the 1790s and set up business as a linen draper. Over the centuries the shop expanded to cover most of the north side of the Market Place. Heelas are no longer in the town but their second branch has, of course, become Reading's greatest Department Store. One of the old Wokingham buildings is now part of Boots.

At the corner of Rose Street and Wiltshire Road can be seen a post that reminds us of the peculiar situation that gained the latter road its name. It used to stand in Cross Street, and marked the boundary of Berkshire with a detached part of Wiltshire. For the manor of Ashridge, though in the parish of Wokingham, was in the county of Wiltshire until 1845. Ashridge Farm, a 17th century timber-framed building sits just north of the town near Bill Hill.

See also Crowthorne

Click for the Wokingham Stop on the Berkshire Towns Tour
Click for Wokingham History for Kids

 

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