The heritage antenna on Katesgrove Hill crackled into life when it received a transmission from the Reading Borough Council planning committee webcast in November about possible English Civil War defences underneath a town centre site proposed for redevelopment .
The site, between Weldale Street and Chatham Street, will be redeveloped to provide over 400 flats. It is not an area that the Whitley Pump would usually cover, but we were intrigued because of the important civil war defences in Katesgrove.
Councillor Tony Page said [at 0:56:40]:
The final point to welcome is the issue of the archaeological work on-site. Reference is made here, and perhaps the officers could clarify this of the potential civil war defences that may be under part of the site …
This must be on-site and proper excavation. I wouldn’t accept a desk-based assessment here and what I am looking for is an assurance from officers that this will be proper archaeology on-site.
The requested assurance was received from council planning officers and condition 32 specifies a programme of archaeological work in accordance with a submitted and approved written scheme of investigation.
Was there more than one Harrison’s Barn?
The developer’s archaeological statement lists many sites of historic interest near the area proposed for redevelopment; one of these was a fort called Harrison’s Barn (MRD3944).
In Katesgrove, there was also a Harrison’s Barn (MRD15649) at what is now the junction of Whitley Street, Christchurch Road and Basingstoke Road. This is shown on Burt’s map (below) so the Whitley Pump thought that further investigation was required.
Our investigation of the historic record for the town centre Harrison’s Barn uncovered a fascinating tale of the medieval St Edmund’s Chapel which, after it fell into disuse, became a barn which was then fortified during the English Civil War (1642-1651).
The original source was a short article in the 1906 Berkshire Archaeological Journal by Alan Cheales, curator for later historic archaeology at Reading Museum and librarian of the Berkshire Archaeological society [ref 1].
Mr Cheales related that St Edmund’s Chapel was a hermitage founded near Greyfriars church on Friar Street in 1284. By 1479 it was no longer a chapel and was used as a barn. He goes on to describe its role in the siege of Reading during the English Civil War as the ‘Invincible Fort’ called ‘Harrison’s Barn’:
It cuts off the approach from Caversham and appears to have done good service during the Fortnight’s Siege; as a cannon ball in the Museum shows that considerable sized ordnance was used by Lord Essex who made on this side his principle attack.
This places the barn in a different location from that in Burt’s lithograph. His plan was based on a contemporary record of the 1643 siege defences of Reading, so we went to see that at the British Library.
There was a Michael Wood moment when we unrolled a plan almost 500 years old; it is more beautiful than you can imagine. On the colour map, the detail is so much sharper than the black and white lithograph that we have grown familiar with.
Harrison’s Barn was clearly marked on the original just where Burt’s copy showed it and in the colour version it looked as if there was not only a pond, the King’s Head Pond, but also a moat around the fortifications.
Burt added descriptions to the map in square brackets to show the meaning of symbols such as ‘lunette’ or ‘redoubt’ and marked features such as Greyfriars Church (see above) but otherwise it is a faithful copy of the original.
Who was Harrison?
More confusion in the story lies in the identification of Harrison. The barn in Katesgrove is associated with Harrison the brewer. John Man, in his 1816 ‘History and Antiquities’, has a footnote saying that the St Edmund’s Chapel barn was probably rented by a carpenter called Harrison [ref 2].
Conclusion from evidence of plan
It is clear from the evidence of Burt’s map and the original plan that Mr Cheales could not have concluded that Harrison’s Barn was near Greyfriars. Elsewhere, he wrote a fictionalised account of the siege of Reading based on two diaries kept at the time. In this account he clearly located the barn on ‘Whitley Hill’ [ref 3].
If the Greyfriars structure wasn’t Harrison’s Barn, there is still no doubt that something interesting could be discovered by an archaeological investigation because there are other, less elaborate, fortifications and structures shown close to Greyfriars on the civil war defences plan.
Another possible location for Harrison’s Barn?
Charles Coates in 1802 wrote that the only remaining traces of Civil War fortifications in Reading were “… some traces of earthworks, on rising ground near the west end of Castle Street, probably the site of the ‘Invincible Fort’ called ‘Harrison’s Barn’ and the high rampart which passes near the west end of the Abbey Church… “[ref 4].
The Castle Street structures are probably not Harrison’s Barn but those marked on the siege plans as the ‘Forlorn’d Hope’ and ‘Castle Streete Hill’; located at the junction of Russell Street and Castle Hill and where St Mary’s Vicarage is on Castle Crescent respectively,
The Earl of Essex’s attack on Reading
Historians have debated whether Essex’s attack came from the north of Reading and Caversham, or the south. The current balance of opinion seems to be that it came from the south [ref 5].
M.C. Barres Baker devotes an appendix of his book about the siege of Reading to the direction of Essex’s route to Reading. He concluded that a northerly route, crossing the Thames at Caversham, is not backed up by the evidence and does not make sense.
The northerly route was widely accepted in the nineteenth century and had the consequence of confusion over whether it was the spire of St Peter’s Church in Caversham or St Giles in Southampton Street that was damaged in the fighting. According to Barres Baker:
The parishes of Caversham and St Giles now fought a virtual leaflet war over the privilege of having lost their tower to Essex’s artillery.
Postscript on St Edmund’s Chapel
The purpose of Alan Cheales short 1906 piece was that he believed that the remains of St Edmund’s Chapel, later used as a barn, had been rediscovered at the end of Beresford Road off the Oxford Road. It was thought to have been rebuilt on a farm on the Battel [Battle] estate and demolished in the first half of the nineteenth century.
However that may not have been the case; the wall of a barn on Battle Farm had blown down and before it was reconstructed, the agents contacted Mr Cheales and he was able to inspect the stones. The decoration on some of the stones suggested that they were from a religious building. Those of interest and two marble slabs were removed on behalf of Reading Museum and placed in the care of the Berkshire Archaeological Society at the Abbey Gateway.
- Planning application 170326
- Planning applications committee 8 November 2017 papers & webcast
- Heritage Gateway
- Town centre barn – Heritage Gateway MRD 3944
- Katesgrove barn – Heritage Gateway MRD 15649
- Barres Baker, M.C. The Siege of Reading April 1643
- Berkshire Archaeological Journal Volume 12 p28-29
- Man, John (1816). History and Antiquities Ancient and Modern of the Borough of Reading. p34 (or via google books)
- Cheales, Alan. The Siege of Reading 1643. Reprinted 1910 from the Reading Standard. p14
- Coates, Charles (1802). History and Antiquities Ancient and Modern of the Borough of Reading. p41 (or via google books)
- I am grateful to Steve Haywood, a local historian with an interest in the Civil War, for setting out for me the current opinion on Essex’s route. In our piece about the Siege of Reading in 2016 The Whitley Pump quoted sources supporting the northern approach route.
- I am grateful to the Berkshire Archaeological Service for tracing references to the sources cited in the Historic Environment Records (HER) and the Castle Street locations mentioned in Charles Coates (above).