I had thought that I was familiar with Reading’s town centre. However, one day as I was passing Harris Arcade on Friar Street I was surprised by a plaque that I had never seen before. It wasn’t new; it had been in the same place for over a hundred years! I read: This house was the birthplace of Professor Goldwin Smith DCL, born August 13, 1823, died at Toronto June 7, 1910. A second surprise… not just a plaque I had never seen but a person I had never heard of.
This Reading-born man must have been well known for a plaque to be erected in his memory. This unexpected encounter with an unknown person piqued my interest. I had to find out who Professor Goldwin Smith was and what had made him famous enough that when he died in Toronto, his contemporaries in Reading wanted to honour him. My first discovery was that I had read a brief account of his life a long time ago in Some Worthies of Reading by J.J. Cooper and had forgotten. I then discovered a biography by Elisabeth Wallace, written in 1957, which was an engrossing read. I tracked occurrences in his life through the newspapers, including the striking assessment in his obituary in the Reading Observer that he was ‘one of the most famous men that Reading has ever produced’. By this time, I had begun to understand why and to agree with that sentiment.
Having learned so much about Goldwin Smith, I inevitably brought him into my conversations, usually with the opening ‘have you ever heard of…’ No one I spoke to had heard of him, but many were interested to know more because of his local connection. That led me to the thought of writing about Goldwin Smith, the plaque and why Reading people had wanted to commemorate him. Thus my book, Signs of the Times, was born, with twenty of Reading’s memorials as starting points to look at why that memorial is there, what or who it commemorates, and what was the story behind the setting up of the memorial itself – stories that our forebears thought important enough to fix into local memory.