BERKSHIRE, Description and History from 1868 Gazetteer


The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland - 1868

From The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland(1868). Transcribed by Colin Hinson ©2003

"BERKSHIRE, an inland county of England, bounded on the N. by the river Thames, which separates it from the counties of Oxford and Buckingham; on the S.E. by Surrey, on the S. by Hampshire, and on the W. by Wiltshire. It extends in length from E. to W. about 42 miles, and its greatest breadth from N. to S. is about 30 miles. Its form is very irregular, the north boundary following the remarkably winding course of the Thames from near Lechlade to Old Windsor, a length of about 105 miles. The county is about 165 miles in circuit, and comprises an area of 705 square miles, or 451,040 acres. It lies between 51° 20' and 51° 48' N. lat., and between 35' E. and 1° 43' W. long. The name of the county is traced back through the older form Barkshire to the Saxon Barocscire, and the Roman name of a tribe which occupied part of the district-Bibroci.

During the period of the Roman dominion in Britain, this county formed part of the division called by them Britannia Prima. Under the rule of the Saxons, it was included in the kingdom of Wessex. Part of it was seized and held for a time by Offa, the ambitious king of Mercia. During the latter years of the 9th, and the early part of the 10th centuries, Wessex, of which this county again formed part, was invaded by the Danes, who got possession of Reading in 871. Three battles were fought within a very short period, at the last of which the Danes sustained a great defeat. It took place at Aescesdun (Ash-down), and the Saxons were led by Ethelred. Alfred also was present on that occasion. The invaders, however, shortly afterwards gained a victory over the Saxons, and Ethelred received a mortal wound. The county suffered severely from the Danes in 1006, when they laid it waste, and burnt the most important towns. A battle was fought near the Kennet, and the Saxons were defeated. During the civil war in the reign of Stephen, Wallingford Castle, which had been erected soon after the Conquest by Robert Doyley, one of the Norman nobles who came over with the Conqueror, was garrisoned for the Empress Matilda, and was frequently besieged by Stephen, who did not succeed in taking it. It furnished a safe retreat for Matilda when she had to quit Oxford ; and when the armies of Stephen and Prince Henry met in 1153 beneath its walls, a truce was agreed to with a view to a lasting peace, the conditions of which were settled shortly after at a great council held at Winchester. The castle, erected at Farringdon by Robert, Earl of Gloucester, was taken and destroyed by Stephen. The castles of Wallingford and Windsor fell into the hands of John, when, taking advantage of the absence of his brother, Richard I., he came over from Normandy to raise a rebellion against him. But he only held them a short time. Conferences were held between King John and the barons, in 1213, at Reading and Wallingford. In 1263 the barons, under Simon de Montford, took Reading and Windsor Castle, the latter being already a royal residence. Richard II. met the barons at Reading in 1389, when a temporary arrangement of their disputes was made. Berkshire was the scene of important military operations during the civil war of the 17th century. Each of the contending parties held throughout the war one of the two fortresses in the county ; Windsor being garrisoned for the parliament, and Wallingford for the king. Prince Rupert made an unsuccessful attempt to gain possession of the former place, which was not attacked again during the war. Reading was at first in the hands of the parliamentary forces, but came into the possession of the royalists in the autumn of 1642. They were then masters of the whole county, with the exception of Windsor. In April, 1643, they lost Reading, being compelled to capitulate to the parliament. Five months later, the first battle of Newbury was fought, in which the Earl of Essex commanded on one side, and the king himself on the other. The result was indecisive. It was on this occasion that the amiable Lord Falkland was killed. The royalists got possession of Reading immediately afterwards, and dismantled the fortifications. Donington Castle, near Newbury, was then garrisoned for the king, and was the object of numerous attacks. In 1644 the whole county, with the exception of Wallingford, was in the possession of the parliament. A second indecisive conflict took place at Newbury in October of that year. Abingdon was twice attacked by the royalists-in 1645 by Sir Stephen Hawkins, and the following year by Prince Rupert; on both occasions unsuccessfully. At the Revolution in 1688, a skirmish took place near Reading, and an affair of trifling importance occurred at Twyford.

Berkshire is one of the most beautiful counties of England, presenting in its scenery a charming variety of landscapes: the noble river Thames, with border of green meadows, lofty chalk downs, rich woodlands and copses, many small streams and broad pasture lands, picturesque villages, scattered farmhouses, and a great number of villas and residences of the gentry. The highest grounds are in the north-west, the most wooded in the south-east. A range of chalk hills, part of the same chain as the Chiltern hills, crosses the county from the Thames south of Wallingford in a westerly direction to Wiltshire. Their elevation gradually increases towards the west, and they rise at some points to a height of nearly 900 feet. The well-known White Horse Hill, not far from the border of Wiltshire, is one of the loftiest in the range-its height is 893 feet. These hills are mostly sheep-walks, only the eastern part of the range being susceptible of cultivation. To the south of this range is the broad valley of the Kennet, and to the north the valley of the Ock, or as it is usually called, the Vale of the White Horse. A low chain of hills extends along the northern part of the county, between the Thames and White Horse Vale. Windsor Forest, which formerly extended over the whole southern part of the county, and into the neighbouring counties, is now limited to the eastern corner, and since 1813 has been partly brought under cultivation. Its present area is about 60,000 acres, and is mostly enclosed. The Vale of Kennet, many parts of which are still well wooded, was included in the Forest until the year 1226, when it was disafforested. Oak, beech, and ash, are the principal trees, and the copses consist chiefly of hazel or alder.

The rivers of Berkshire are the Thames, the Kennet, the Lambourn, the Loddon, the Ock, the Auborne, and the Pang. The Thames is navigable throughout its course, along the border of this county, and receives the waters of all the other streams. The Ock rises near the western border, and receiving several tributary streams, runs by Stanford and Lyford to the Thames at Abingdon, having a length of about 20 miles. The Lambourn rises among the Lambourn Downs on the western border, runs in a south-easterly direction by East Garston, East Shefford, and Boxford, and after a course of 15 miles, joins the Kennet below Newbury. The Kennet, rising in Wiltshire enters this county at Hungerford, and pursuing first an easterly course by Kintbury, Newbury, and Thatcham, to Aldermaston, and thence a north-easterly course to Reading, falls into the Thames a little to the north-east of that town. Its length from Hungerford to the Thames is about 30 miles, and it is navigable from Newbury. The Loddon, which rises in Hampshire, and for a few miles forms the boundaries of the two counties, runs from Swallowfield in a north-easterly direction, by Arborfield and Hurst, to Wargrave, where it falls by several channels into the Thames. The Auborne, also called the Emborne, rising near Inkpen, flows eastward between Berkshire and Hampshire, and from near Brimpton north-east to the Kennet near Aldermaston. Its length is about 18 miles. The Pang runs from the hills near East Ilsley, by Bucklebury and Bradfield, to Pangbourn, where it falls into the Thames.

The climate of Berkshire is considered very healthy, --bracing on the chalk downs, mild in the valleys, and pure everywhere. The numerous streams which flow through the county contribute to the purity of the air. Chalk, which rises into lofty hills in the north-west, is believed to form the substratum of the greater part of the county. In some places a very thick deposit of clay covers the chalk. Limestone underlies the White Horse Vale, which is famed for its fertility. The Vale of Kennet is less fertile, but highly cultivated. It contains a large extent of fine meadow land. A bed of peat is found below the meadows in the neighbourhood of Newbury. Large quantities of it are cut and burnt, and the ashes used as manure. The low hills between the Thames and the valley of the Ock consist of oolite and shell-sand, gritstone and clay; and detached blocks of gritstone are found scattered over the downs. They are called locally the "Greywethers." The poorest soil is found in the Forest division, especially at Bagshot Heath and the vicinity. The finest corn crops are produced in the Vale of the White Horse and the Vale of Kennet. There are large and very productive market-gardens in the neighbourhood of Reading, the asparagus of which is in great repute. The farms are generally of moderate size, and are let on lease for seven or fourteen years. The cattle are of various breeds--the Devon and Yorkshire being common. Many Alderney cows are imported. The Berkshire pig is a superior breed, of black colour spotted with white, of moderate size, and small of bone. The sheep are now mostly of the Leicester and South Down breeds, which have superseded the native coarse breed, and also the Merino. Large and important sheep fairs are held at Ilsley twice in the year.

Berkshire is divided into 20 hundreds, viz.: Beynhurst, Bray, Charlton, Compton, Cookham, Faircross, Farringdon, Ganfield, Hormer, Knitbury-Eagle, Lambourn, Moreton, Ock, Reading, Ripplesmere, Shrivenham, Sonning, Theale, Wantage, and Wargrave. At the period of the Norman survey there were 22, Windsor and Wallingford being the two additional ones. The county contains about 150 parishes, including the 12 market towns of Abingdon, Reading, Wallingford, Windsor, Maidenhead, Newbury, Wokingham, Farringdon, Hungerford, East Ilsley, Lambourn, and Wantage. Of these the first four are parliamentary boroughs. Reading is the county town. The assizes are held at Reading and Abingdon. The latter is the place of election for the county, the nomination of members taking place at Reading. The polling places are, besides Reading and Abingdon, Farringdon, Newbury, Wantage, Wokingham, Maidenhead, and East Ilsley. The first six of these towns, with Hungerford, Wallingford, Windsor, Bradfield, Cookham, and Easthampstead, are the seats of the 12 Poor-law Unions into which the county is divided. There are eight new County Court districts, those of Reading, Abingdon, Farringdon, Hungerford, Newbury, Wallingford, Windsor, and Wantage.

Berkshire has a population, according to the census of 1861, of 176,103, and returns nine representatives to parliament: three for the county, two for Reading, two for Windsor, and one each for Abingdon and Wallingford. The government of the county is vested in a lord lieutenant, 40 deputy lieutenants, a high sheriff, and a body of magistrates about 150 in number. It is included in the Oxford circuit. It forms an archdeaconry in the diocese of Oxford, and province of Canterbury, and is subdivided into four rural deaneries, viz., Abingdon, Newbury, Reading, and Wallingford. It contains nearly 140 benefices, and 35,880 inhabited houses, according to the census of 1861.

Berkshire is an agricultural county, and has no important manufactures. There are, however, cotton factories and paper-mills at Newbury and Bagnor, a blanket manufactory near Thatcham, and several establishments for the making of sheeting, sailcloth, floor-cloth, ribbons, &c., at Reading.

The antiquities of the county are numerous. The ancient Roman Road from Gloucester to London passes through Berkshire, from a point near Lambourn to Speen, where the road from Bath probably joined it. The course of Icknield Street, which also passed through the county, is uncertain. Several Roman stations existed in Berkshire, but their sites are doubtful. The village of Speen, near Newbury, is, however, proved to be the Roman Spinæ. There are many remains of ancient camps, of which the principal are Letcomb Castle, Offington Castle, and Hardwell Camp. The first is a circular work with double rampart, on the downs near Lambourn, and extends over an area of 26 acres. Offington Castle, on the top of White Horse Hill, is of an oval form, 700 feet in length from E. to W., and 600 feet in breadth from N. to S. A double rampart surrounds it. Hardwell Camp, quadrangular, with two ramparts, is near the former. Other encampments are found near Farringdon, Easthampstead, Ashdown Park, Wittenham, and Lambourn. That near Easthampstead is of considerable size, and is called "Cæsar's Camp." That near Ashdown Park is circular, and is called "Alfred's Castle." The county contains tumuli, of which the most remarkable are Wayland Smith's Cave, and the Dragon Hill. The name of the former, and the popular tradition associated with it, of which Scott makes use in his "Kenilworth," are traced back to a Scandinavian origin. The barrow situated on the hills near Wiltshire is covered with massive stones, some being disposed in the common form of a cromlech. On the same range are the "Seven Barrows,", and the singular "Blowing Stone." The latter is a small rough block of sandstone, with holes in it of unequal size. The sound produced by blowing in some of these openings may sometimes be heard five or six miles off. Berkshire has not many remains of feudal castles. For an account of Windsor Castle, see the article Windsor. The ancient fortresses at Reading, Newbury, and Farringdon, have so entirely perished that it is scarcely possible to determine where they stood. A gateway with towers is all that is left of the picturesque castle of Donnington. Extensive entrenchments still exist at Wallingford, but of the castle nothing remains but a small part of the wall. Berkshire was the seat of many religious establishments, including three of the rank of "greater monasteries," but the remains of the buildings are generally slight and unimportant. The principal houses were the united abbeys of Reading and Abingdon. Other abbeys were founded at Bisham, Bradfield, and Farringdon, and priories at Bisham, Cholsey, Harley or Lady Place, Farringdon, Reading, &c. There were also two preceptories of the Knights' Hospitallers, several colleges and hospitals. Of the churches, which are usually of small size, the following are the most interesting:-Avington, an example of Norman architecture; Lambourn, of the same; Uffington, of the early English style; Shottesbrook, a very small and beautiful cruciform building in the decorated style, with a central tower and spire; Welford, Bucklebury, Great Shefford, &. St. George's Chapel, Windsor, is the finest specimen of the perpendicular style. The county contains several interesting old mansions and manor houses. One of the most ancient is that of Appleton, partly belonging to the reign of Henry II. Others are at Aldermaston, Cumnor (where the murder of Amy Robsart was perpetrated), Ockholt, Witham, Little Shefford, &. The White Horse, which has given name to a hill and the valley district which lies below it, is one of the most remarkable antiquities of Berkshire. It is a gigantic figure of a horse galloping, formed by removing the turf and surface soil, on the steep side of the hill. It is nearly 400 feet in length, and under favourable conditions is visible at a distance of ten or twelve miles. The "scouring of the White Horse," i.e. cutting away the encroaching turf, which takes place every three years, is the occasion of a rustic festival. A very high antiquity is assigned to this singular work.

Besides the royal residence of Windsor Castle, Berkshire contains a great number of seats of the nobility and gentry. Among the principal of them are the following :-Wytham Abbey, the seat of the Earl of Abingdon; Ashdown Park and Hampstead Marshall, seats of the Earl of Craven; Coleshill House, the seat of Earl Radnor; Billingbear Park, of Lord Braybrooke; Sandleford Priory, of Lord Rokeby; Beckett Park, of Viscount Barrington; Basildon Park, of Sykes, Bart.; Beenham House, of Rich, Bart.; Bear Place, of Ximenes, Bart.; Stanlake, of Dukinfield, Bart.; Warfield House, of Walsh, Bart.; Lockynge Park, of Martin, Bart.; Aldermaston House, Barton Court, Bear Wood, Binfield, Bisham Abbey, Donnington Castle, Englefield House, Padworth, Swallowfield House, &c. &c.

The principal railway in Berkshire is the Great Western, which enters at Maidenhead, and passes by Twyford, Reading, Wallingford Road, Didcot, and Steventon, to Swindon in Wiltshire; running nearly parallel with the Thames as far as Didcot. From Didcot a branch line runs to Oxford and Birmingham. Several branch railways run from Reading: one through Theale to Newbury and Hungerford; another by Mortimer to Basingstoke, on the South-Western line; one to Guildford and Reigate, on the South-Eastern and Brighton railways; another by Wokingham to Staines. Windsor is connected by short branch lines with the Great Western and South-Western railways; and from Maidenhead a branch of the former runs to High Wycombe.

Berkshire is crossed by the great roads from London to Bath and Oxford, which enter at Maidenhead, whence the former runs by Reading, Newbury, and Hungerford, into Wiltshire; and the latter quits the county near Henley. Other roads are from Reading to Streatley, Wallingford, Abingdon, and Oxford, a distance of 28 miles; from the same lace, by Streatley and Upton to Wantage, past the White Horse Hill, to Ashbury and Swindon, 41 miles; from Reading to Wokingham, and by Sunninghill and Windsor Park to Staines; and several others.

This county is intersected by two important canals, the Wilts and Berks, and the Kennet and Avon canal. The length of the former, from the Thames near Abingdon, where it commences, to the border of Wiltshire, is about 20 miles. Its course is through the Vale of White Horse, past Wantage, Uffington, and Shrivenham. It attains a level about 160 feet above that of the Thames at Abingdon, and meets the Kennet and Avon canal near Melksham. Of the latter, about nine miles are in Berkshire, from Newbury, where it meets the Kennet, to Hungerford. It is connected with the Avon near Bath."


From The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland(1868). Transcribed by Colin Hinson ©2003.

[Created 15 Dec 2006 by Paul Brazell]