Woodley is a modern suburb of Reading, but the fact that it still forms part of Wokingham Borough serves to remind us that it was anciently part of the parish of Sonning. The liberty of Woodley & Sandford consisted of part of the manor of Sonning in the north, along with the smaller manors of Bulmersh in the west and Haywards (around Coleman’s Moor Farm) in the east. The name means ‘Wood Clearing’ and the area was originally heath and moorland cleared at the edge of Windsor Forest. This is remembered in the names of Bulmersh Heath, Hadleigh Heath and Coleman’s Moor; but the area was soon taken into agricultural use. The locals supplemented their diet by fishing in the fish ponds at Coleman’s Moor Pond and the ‘New Pond’ (from the mid-18th century) on Bulmersh Heath. Farms and farm workers’ cottages were widely scattered, largely rented from the Palmers at Holme Park or the Addingtons at Woodley House.
Woodley House, also known as Woodley Park, was built about 1790, soon after the Speaker of the House of Commons, Henry Addington MP (later Viscount Sidmouth) purchased the Bulmersh estate from the executors of George Blagrave. His father had been a Reading doctor and he made Woodley his chief country seat until he became Prime Minister in 1801. In the lead up to the Napoleonic Wars, in 1798, Addington established the ‘Woodley Cavalry’ as a very early form of the territorial army. Along with other Berkshire units, they were reviewed, the following year, by King George III on Bulmersh Heath. Unfortunately, this great honour turned into something of a farce, when the Queen turned up early and the King late, having spent most of the day at Billingbear Park awaiting his wife.
In 1801, Addington moved to White Lodge in Richmond and sold Woodley to a Roman Catholic, James Wheble. He built a small Catholic Chapel at the house and later poured much money into the founding of St. James’ RC Church in Reading. The house was renamed Woodley Lodge and the family lived there for another two generations, selling up in the early 1920s. It was used by the Ministry of Defence during WW2 and subsequently fell into a ruinous state. It was pulled down in 1964 to make way for Bulmershe College (later part of Reading University and now a housing estate).
Woodley Lodge was also sometimes known as [New] Bulmersh Court which has made for much confusion with the previous manor house, [Old] Bulmersh Court, which stood to the north-east and is now called Bulmersh Manor. The Blagraves had lived at this former grange of Reading Abbey since it was purchased by their step-ancestor, William Grey, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Another branch of the family lived at Southcote House. Its survival can be attributed to it having been converted into farm workers cottages during the time of the Whebles. In the late 1920s it was restored by HE Budd using architectural details from the burnt-out Billingbear Park.
The commonland of Bulmersh Heath was known as a “marshy wilderness frequented by gypsies”. From 1727 until 1814, the highly popular Reading Races were held in its middle each Summer. There was quite a party atmosphere, with additional revels and sporting matches, like cudgel-play, centred on the Chequers Inn. However, when the unpopular Earl of Barrymore was steward in the 1790s, owners shunned the meats and his lordship was obliged to enter his own horses under his friends’ names.
Nucleated hamlets soon began to emerge at Woodley Green and Sandford (where the mill was mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086), later followed by Wheeler’s Green and Cobbler’s City around the beginning of the 19th century. Wheeler’s Green had a Congregational Chapel as early as 1834, an offshoot of St. Mary’s Castle Street (in Reading). The village name ‘Woodley’ switched between a number of areas, as recorded on old maps, and was presumably just a general name for anywhere in the liberty. By 1847, nine farmers, three other tradesmen and six publicans were listed in the liberty, although, of the latter, all except those at the Chequers, the Bull & Chequers and the George (at Loddon Bridge), were probably merely taking advantage legislation allowing them to sell beer from home. They certainly didn’t last. Local pubs could be rough places even when the races were not in town. In April 1839, a man named George Greenaway was killed in a fight outside the Bull & Chequers pub by his colleague, John Siddall, whilst being egged on by thirty fellow railway workers. Siddall was let off with a fine and a short stay in prison.
The village school was opened at Woodley Green in 1854 under the patronage of the Palmer family. Miss Caroline Palmer took a particular interest in the local children, and visited often. The Palmers also built St. John’s CofE Church in 1873, and Woodley became its own parish in 1881.
Cobbler’s City, previously Headley Corner, at the most easterly end of Headley Road East, may have been a nickname for the enterprising region of the liberty. The Sonning Workhouse was built here in 1821, but was soon described as, “an ill-conducted establishment, and more like a disorderly and over-crowded lodging house than a useful public institution”. George Aldridge Senior (1836-1902) set up a bakery in this area about 1875. The family sold locally famous ‘Zilvo’ flour with its secret ingredient. George Aldridge Junior (1861-1929) expanded the business into a grocery store and pig farming enterprise, selling pork and bacon, and also opening a second bakery. The original bakery and shop (see photograph) was, unfortunately, demolished in 1969.
In 1913, French aviator, Henri Salmet, landed an early aeroplane in a field in Woodley as part of an air circus touring the country. Shocked villagers were taken for flights or allowed to sit in the plane, including Gladys Aldridge, daughter of the baker. Perhaps this was the inspiration for the opening of Reading (later Woodley) Aerodrome, with a flying school, at Sandford Farm in 1929. Two years later, the heroic aviator, Douglas Bader, had his famous flying accident there, which led to his losing both his legs at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Other famous visitors, in happier circumstances, included Amy Johnson and Charles Lindbergh. In 1932, Phillips & Powis, later renamed Miles Aircraft, built an aeroplane factory at the aerodrome. It was an important centre of the British war effort, with huge aircraft hangars and temporary accommodation for over 500 Royal Air Force personnel. The first biros in Britain were also manufactured for them here by the Miles Martin Pen Co. In 1948, the aviation assets of the bankrupt Miles Aircraft, were taken over by Handley Page and production of just under 6,000 civil and military aircraft continued until 1962. The Museum of Berkshire Aviation stands on part of the site today.
There was also a bookbinding machinery and actuator side to the Miles company, taken over by the Western Manufacturing Estate Ltd. They later merged with the Adamant Engineering Co to become the Adwest Group. Adwest was taken over by Magal Engineering in 2002 and they still operate from one of the old aeroplane factory buildings. Other industries also moved into the area. Huntley Boorne & Stevens, the Reading tin box manufacturers, moved here from their London Street/Crown Street/ Southampton street site in 1967. They were taken over by Linpac in 1985 and largely turned to aerosol can manufacture before closing in 2003.
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