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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, March 2003
Berkshire Family Historian
March 2003

A rare insight into Reading University’s Library
Christine Milne

University libraries are a valuable resource for family historians, none more so than the University of Reading Library. But most of us have serious doubts about entering such seats of learning: it is difficult to obtain lending tickets, they are only meant for students and we baulk at finding our way around the hundreds of thousands of books and manuscripts. Christine Milne, History Liaison Librarian, at the University of Reading Library, shows us just how wrong we are.

The Library is open to anyone for reference purposes — all you need to do is turn up and sign the visitor’s book to use one of the best academic collections in the area. So if an ancestor of yours was a factory worker in the Industrial Revolution and you want to find out what life was like then, why not drop in? Or if you’re puzzled by the name of a battle, or you want to know who a local notable was, you might want to try our reference collection. If you’ve access to the Internet, you can even check our holdings before you come — you can find the Library website at To borrow books, either you need to be one of the staff or students at the University or bona fide scholars can join the Library as an external member for a fee of £60 (£30 for Reading University graduates).

It’s amazing what you can find on the open shelves. Whilst browsing for material I came across a diary written by a Reading man between 1814 and 1819 and published in the late nineteenth century under the title ‘Reading Seventy Years Ago’. There are some real gems, including a mention of American prisoners-of-war who were removed from Reading to Devonshire, because of their ‘unsuitable behaviour’. I particularly like this entry from September 1814 about John Clarke — an example to us all:

‘September 17th 1814 — Died John Clark, gardener, aged 93 years, all but three weeks - a man who never refused a half pint of beer, and had drank as much of that beverage as most men: he retained his faculties to the last, and worked at his trade till within two months of his death’.’

On a less frivolous note, the Library also has a fine collection of over five thousand Record Society publications. These are transcriptions of local records from all over the British Isles, including wills, apprentice records and monastic cartularies.

However, the real treasures of the Library’s collection lie not on the open shelves but in the Archives on the first floor, and here I must give my thanks to the Archives staff for helping me discover them. The Archives holds not only the official archives of the University, but also the archives of certain individuals, company records and some unpublished manuscripts. We used to have some estate records, such as those for Stratfield Saye, but these have now been added to the collections at the Rural History Centre, which is about five minutes walk from the Library. If you would like to see anything from the Archives, please arrange an appointment in advance, so that staff can arrange to have relevant material available. (Telephone: 0118 931 8776, email: ). If, for example, you were interested in the early days of the University, whose first classes were held in 1860, we’ll need a couple of days to fetch them from off-site.

My favourite parts are the personal archives, and you maybe surprised whose we have. The most famous is that of Samuel Beckett, the playwright, for which several catalogues have been published, but we also have the archives of David Lean, the film director, Aubrey Beardsley and Lady Astor.

During both the First and Second World Wars, part of Cliveden, the Astors’ house, was turned into a Canadian military hospital. After the First World War, in 1936, Lady Astor paid a visit to Canada and held a big reception in Toronto for all the staff and patients of the hospital. In Lady Astor’s archive, there are many letters and telegrams from former patients. This example is from James G. Harvie, a Canadian who had a more local connection, as his letter shows.

‘I was an officer in the Royal Air Force, and while on leave in the month of June or July, 1918, in Maidenhead, near Taplow, was stricken with influenza and sent to Lady Astor’s hospital. ... She might be amused at my memory of her very first visit to me at the hospital. She had breezed in, in her characteristic manner and said to me, ‘Hello there, curly head, what are you doing here to which I replied ‘swinging the lead a little I suppose’ to which she answered, ‘Splendid, swing the lead as much as you like and if there is anything your little heart desires, please do not hesitate to let me know.’ It might be interesting to Lady Astor to know that my wife happens to be a resident of Maidenhead, where I married her at the end of the war, and she enjoys the distinction of having been presented by Lady Astor as a budding artist with her first paint box, which she still has in her possession. My wife, who was then Bettina M. Rose, visited me occasionally while I was in hospital in Taplow’.


Coats of arms from Curtis Cherry’s Book

Hand painted and hand drawn coats of arms from Curtis Cherry’s Book

I’ve saved the best for last, as far as family historians are concerned. Around the middle of the nineteenth century the Reverend Henry Curtis Cherry wrote a three-volume work tracing the genealogies of important Berkshire families. Each volume is the size of an old-fashioned family bible, and every page is covered with detailed family trees. The first volume also has gorgeous hand-painted family crests — the later volumes only have illustrations cut from other books (not something that any librarian would approve of!). It is an astounding piece of work, but unfortunately Henry was to be disappointed. Like many books of this time the expense of publication was to be covered by subscription. Not enough people were persuaded to subscribe, so his monumental work was never published. As far as I’m aware, Reading University Library has the only copy. To add insult to injury, the printer supplied a mock frontispiece — and spelt Henry’s name wrong. It is hoped that this important work will soon be published on CD ROM.

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