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Blake's Lock Museum (Reading)

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Reading's commercial, industrial and waterways history of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It features the Reading Regatta, a Victorian naturalist and includes a Reading printer’s shop, boat-builder’s and a Reading-made gypsy caravan of abou

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      26.03.2001 00:16
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      For those who regularly read my stuff, Dooyoo gives me the opportunity to share one of my long-term interests – history. I studied the Tudors and Stuarts at school when I was 13. I then carried on with ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels in Social and Economic History before coming to the conclusion that there wasn’t a decent career to be had in history and so I switched to computing. To me, history can be bought alive and to the attention of joe public in museums. Reading has 3 of them. One can be found in the Old Town Hall (please feel free to read and rate my opinion on it), another – the Museum of Rural English Life can be located in Reading University (no opinion yet!)…..and the last one is the little museum at Blake’s Lock. Before I waffle on about this little museum, I need to mention Reading Borough Council (RBC) and their attitude to this quaint institution. Like every Council in this land, they decide what they are going to spend in the next Council year and set a precept for the amount of money they want from the Council taxpayer. And every year, RBC decide that some grant-aided body is going to have their grant cut. Last year I think it was the Citizens Advice Bureau. The details get to the press, there is a public outcry and RBC come to the rescue at the 11th hour by withdrawing the threat. Good wheeze eh! This year it’s the turn of Blake’s Lock Museum. RBC say they can’t afford to run it and they are actively considering selling it off as an eating establishment – albeit with a much smaller museum. As a history lover – this is sacrilege. Charging to visit Museums is bad enough – decimating them by closing them down is something else. I decided that it was time to take me, my camera and something to write on down to the Museum and express its plight as an opinion. So forsaking my comfy armchair, I ventured out into the cold Reading air. Why is it
      so cold at the present ? The location ========= The museum can be found in Kenavon Drive. Reading Borough Council (bless ‘em) have recently changed the access into Reading along Kings Road into a bus/taxi only lane. This makes getting into the town from the east even more difficult. If you can get to Homebase/Toys R Us/Reading Prison, take Kenavon Drive (Comet and McDonalds are on your left) until you get to a junction. The Museum is on the other side of the road to the right. Park near the Museum. Don’t leave your car in the Retail Park near to Ronnie McD’s. There are some vigilant parking attendants who will shop you if they think you are going to leave your car there and wander in Reading town centre. Tip – if you want to do that – park in front of Staples! Reading charge £1 per hour car parking and a brisk walk through Forbury Gardens will get you some exercise as well as saving you some dosh. The area near to the museum is a bit run down – but its safe to leave your car there. If you arrive by train, you will have a good 20 minutes walk. A taxi journey (£3-4ish) might be worth considering. The history ======== The Museum is tied up with sewage (or should it be – it has it pumping through its veins – yuk). Reading like many growing towns in the industrial revolution had a problem with waste and clean drinking water. Up to 1849, it found its way into the River Thames. Outbreaks of cholera and other Victorian diseases were common up to this point. There was an outcry about the problem and in 1873, Reading’s sewers were opened. A pumping station was built at Blake’s Lock and the town’s waste was pumped to a treatment plant at Manor Farm in Whitley (south of the town centre – near the new football stadium). Power for the 4 pumps was provided by water turbines. The pumps provided good service and were replaced in 1929 by
      electric powered versions. In 1959, a brand new pumping station was opened by Thames Water on an adjoining site and the old building was bequeathed to Reading Borough Council. The museum is thus housed in the old pumping house buildings. It was opened in 1985 and won a tourist award that year followed by a special museum of the year award the next year. Before I leave the subject of sewage – I have to mention the ‘Whitley Whiff’. Up to a couple of years ago, you could smell the output from the Manor Farm treatment works when the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. Hence the term. Thames Water to their credit have largely resolved this problem. This leaves the Courage Brewery down the road causing more smells although the aroma of the brewing process is a little more aromatic! Sorry for dwelling on this subject. No more funny smells! The Exhibits ========= Upon entering the Museum, you come across a tiny Gift Shop and toilets to the right near the entrance. Descending the stairs (or was it a disabled ramp – I wasn’t paying too much attention – whoops), you come to three exhibition areas, which will be described in turn. The Barbers shop The Museum has re-assembled Pottingers Hairdressers, which opened in 1909 in Whitley Street (south Reading) and was family run until its closure in 1980. It’s a proper old-fashioned Barber with the familiar smell of freshly cut hair, the paraffin heater in the corner and the heat from the clippers. I remember my Dad taking to places like this in Leamington Spa. A haircut was 60p (remember these were 1980’s prices), and a dry shampoo 45p. I couldn’t work out what a dry shampoo was though a sign in the shop recommended it because it ‘prevents you from catching cold’. These places were miles away from your modern hairdresser with their exotic stylists and high prices. The ‘Carriages’ Hall
      The largest hall has a transport theme though it was rather empty and needs to be filled with something. There is a manual fire engine belonging to the parish of Sonning, which was purchased from the London County Council and used up to 1920. It has a bar on each side, which are alternatively pushed up and down to, pump the water. Before the Fire Brigade, as we know it today existed, many companies had their own Fire service. Huntley and Palmers, the biscuit people (a major employer in Reading in the 19th and 20th centuries) had their own fire brigade. In fact, the museum explains that getting your fire put out was like paying a subscription to say the AA to get your car fixed. The fire insurance companies had their own fire engines, and the building owner had a plaque attached to their building, which denoted they had paid their subscription. They didn’t say what happened if the plaque was melted by the time the fire brigade arrived! The other vehicle in the hall is a restored Gypsy Caravan dating from between 1901 and 1914. It is green with gold leaf and possesses a number of elaborate carvings. The ‘land and water’ Hall This is the most interesting part of the museum, and is divided into those activities, which are land based and those, which took place on or near the water. The hall shows aspects of Reading life at the end of the 19th century. There are many recreations of shop windows filled with items readily available in those days. These include: Parnells the printers – including printing presses Photographers Shoe makers (they had tiny feet!) Bazaar – where you could buy games, toys, egg cups, cards etc Confectioners (note they didn’t call themselves a sweet shop!) Reading in the 19th century produced an internationally known sauce called Cock’s. Its no longer produced any more. It ran into competition from Lea and Perrin in 183
      7 when they introduced “Worcester Sauce”. And as we know – Worcester Sauce is still going strong. In the water section of the hall is a recreation of a tool shop from a boat builders. There are also decorated objects from canal barges including tea boxes, lamps etc. Henley Regatta is well known today, but in the 19th century. Reading had its own Regatta. In fact it had 2. The main one started in the early 1840’s. The second one was a “Working Man’s Regatta” for those barred from taking part in the main one. Reading still has many boating clubs dotted along the Thames. In the Summer, the Thames and the Kennett and Avon canal are busy with tourist craft. Outside Wandering outside, you can see Blake’s Lock. Sorry – I was not able to find out who Blake was. There is a long brick building containing remnants of the original pumping turbines. The walls are 2-tone, white at the top and green at the bottom. The history and purpose of the building are well explained using interpretation boards. There is another building called the “Screen Room” where school workshops are held. In the past it was used to let smells escape via a green steeple on the tope of the building. Other details ========== The museum is small and interesting but needs revamping. Its location well away from the town centre does not advertise it. Reading Borough Council has not invested in the museum unlike its bigger brother in the Town Hall. Blake’s Lock Museum is open at weekends and Bank Holidays between 2 and 5pm. It’s also open between Tuesday and Friday during school holidays between 10am and 5pm. It’s not open at any other time. The museum is free. So if you are ever around Reading during the weekend, please visit the forgotten museum. Don’t hang about – it may be a restaurant next time!

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