In the time of Abbot William (1165-1173), Reading Abbey was given permission by Henry II to enclose land that it had in Whitley into a park. By the time of the dissolution of the Abbey in 1539, large swathes of Whitley were owned by the Abbey; Whitley Manor to the west of Basingtoke Road and Whitley Park to the east.
The cartularies of Reading Abbey include deeds for land and other transactions in Whitley in which the Abbots were involved. The purpose of the park was ‘for the benefit of infirm monks and guests’ [ref 1].
Elizabeth I gave permission for 50 oaks from the royal parks of Whitley and Binfield to be taken for repairs of bridges in Reading [ref 3].
John Speed’s 1611 map of Berkshire shows Whitley Park surrounded by a fence, and on the same map is a much larger Windsor Park similarly marked. In 1790, Thomas Pride marks Whitley Park on his map with shading which accentuates the ridge along Shinfield Road and the steep hill down to Northumberland Avenue where Rabson’s Recreation Ground nestles. Whitley Park farmhouse which built around the time of this map is today hidden among the university student accommodation between Cintra Park and Northcourt Avenue.
In the mid-nineteenth century, payment of parish tithes in kind was converted to payment in currency. A tithe survey was carried out in St Giles’ parish, which included Whitley, to establish a valuation of the amount to be paid. At this time Whitley was mainly agricultural and the survey produced maps and records which numbered and named the fields, their size, the owners and tenants and what the land was used for. The fields which now form Rabson’s Recreation Ground (499) and part of the Cowsey (500) were called Great Park (is that significant?) and Great Green Hill. Tithes were not paid on land which had been owned by Reading Abbey and these two fields like many others in Whitley were ‘tithe free’[ref 4].
So to answer our own question: yes, monks and their guests did play or relax or hunt at Rabson’s Rec.
As part of the Reading Abbey Revealed project, Reading Museum has produced leaflets about north, south, east and west Reading in medieval times which includes one about Katesgrove, Whitley and Earley.
- Kemp, Brian. Reading Abbey Cartularies Vol 2, charter 1206. Other charters 1207, 1208 and 1210 also relate to the creation of the park and the details have been translated. See also C F Slade, An Early Medieval Miscellany for Doris Mary Stenton, pp235-240.
- Baxter, Ron (2016) The Royal Abbey of Reading p127
- ibid pp143, charter dated 23 September 1560
- St Giles tithe records at Berkshire Record Office D/P 96
- Ron Baxter, The Royal Abbey of Reading
- Brian Kemp, Reading Abbey Cartularies Vol 2
- University of Cambridge – John Speed proof maps
- National Archives – Tithe Survey
- Medieval south Reading revealed (scroll to the bottom of the page)
- Reading Abbey Revealed Project
- Three days to go before Reading Abbey re-opens