MERL historical photographic exhibition offers birds-eye view of Reading past and present

By Richard Moss | 19 August 2010
a black and white photograph of a black and townscape with terraced house with smoking chimney and a church spire

(Above) One of the photographs of Reading taken by Dann and Lewis in 1895. Image: University of Reading

Exhibition: A circle and a century – Panoramic Photos of Reading from the 1890s and Today, Museum of English Rural Life, Reading, until October 29 2010

In 1895, pioneering Victorian photographers Dann and Lewis climbed to the top of Mill Tower in Reading to photograph the growing industrial town spread out beneath them.

The images they captured, processed on glass negatives, provided a bird's eye view of a bustling townscape filled with factories, the smoke of industry and home fires. Amid the bustling gloom housewives could be seen hanging out their sheets. It was Monday, the traditional washing day.

Mill Tower was demolished shortly afterwards, leaving the photographs as a unique document of a late Victorian industrial town.

a colour photograph showing a townscape of red bricked buildings

(Above) Courtesy University of Reading and Chris Meadows, Reading Civic Society

Fast forward 115 years and the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) in Reading is revisiting 11 of these iconic images and presenting them as a panorama that contrasts with modern photographs taken from a typically late 20th century Reading location – the viewing tower of the Oracle Car Park.

At first glance the new digital shots of Chris Meadows of the Reading Civic Society serve to illustrate the many changes the town has witnessed during the intervening 100-odd years.

"So much has changed that it seems almost impossible to make connections between the two sets of images," admits Local historian Gerry Westall, who has worked as a volunteer at MERL for many years following his retirement. But as you study the photographs closely many examples of continuity begin to emerge.

black and white photographs collaged together of an industrial townscape

(Above) The photographs have been montaged to offer a panorama of the city. Courtesy University of Reading

Most of the businesses, such as Simonds Brewery, Suttons Seeds, Huntley and Palmer and the Iron works of TC Williams & Son are now gone, but many of the buildings are still in existence, leaving the overall fabric of the town surprisingly intact.

"Once we have imagined ourselves in that late-Victorian world, it becomes impossible to walk past the modern shops, businesses and restaurants without also seeing the carts and the washing lines, breathing the smoky air and smelling the brewing beer," adds Westall.

The evocative photos clearly offer an insight into the social changes that have taken place. Where the Oracle Car Park now resides, the photos of Dann and Lewis show cart workshops and gas storage tanks and people walking along what is now Reading's ring road (the IDR). It's an industrial townscape that contrasts markedly with the modern Reading of information technology and insurance.

black and white photographs collaged together of an industrial townscape

(Above) Courtesy University of Reading

Alongside the photographs an exhibition explores the history of the photographers Dann and Lewis (of 35 Broad Street), a firm founded in 1856 by Reading's first woman professional photographer. There is also a glass plate camera and a small display of items from industries formerly in the Centre of Reading.

Find out more about the work of Reading Civic Society at http://readingcivicsociety.org.uk.

A series of events has been organised by MERL to tie in with the exhibition – follow the venue details below for more information.

2010 is Year of the Museum in the South East. Discover a museum at www.culture24.org.uk/southeast and find out about the Beautiful South campaign at www.visitsoutheastengland.com.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: