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Martin Richards writes about Alfred Waterhouse in Reading and beyond

A famed Victorian architect’s time in Reading and beyond

A guest post from Martin Richards

What is the connection between the great Victorian architect, Alfred Waterhouse and Paddington Bear, who arrived at the London railway station from deepest Peru? Well Michael Bond the bear’s creator was brought up in Reading and his witnessing the evacuees arriving at Reading General station at the beginning of WW2 was an inspiration behind the Paddington Bear books. In his late thirties Alfred Waterhouse who hailed from Liverpool and Manchester built a house, Foxhill (1867-8), for himself and his family on the Whiteknights Park estate on the edge of Reading, while running his practice in central London. Concurrently Waterhouse was designing London’s Natural History Museum, which just happens to be Paddington Bear’s favourite building as witnessed in his first film outing.

In a career of nearly fifty years Waterhouse became a foremost exponent of Victorian Gothic architecture and was involved in designing, adapting or restoring around six hundred and fifty buildings, including town halls, university colleges, museums, private homes and ecclesiastical buildings. In Manchester for instance he designed the Assize Courts, a much praised early work that established his reputation for large and well-planned projects. Much damaged, it was pulled down after WW2 but his imposing Strangeways prison close by and his towering gothic masterpiece, Manchester Town Hall are still extant.

In the 1850s the Whiteknights Park estate (now the University) was divided into six plots of land that were sold off with a sizeable house built on each. After retirement Waterhouse’s wealthy textile manufacturing father, also Alfred, and Quaker mother bought one of these in 1859 and a few years later leased a part of his land to his son to build Foxhill House, by Whiteknight’s lake. Waterhouse had already built a house Erlegh (sic) Park on the opposite side of the lake for a plantation owner from the West Indies; this was pulled down in the nineteen sixties to make way for Wessex Hall, student accommodation for the University that had recently been re-sited to the park. His third building on the estate, Wilderness House was also demolished in the nineteen fifties.

In the ten years before he moved his family to the delightful west Berkshire village of Yattendon in 1877, Waterhouse left his mark in the Reading area. He built the south end of Reading Town Hall which included the iconic clock tower; the north end – nearer the railway – was started in 1877 but was the work of Thomas Lainston, a cheaper option. His rebuilt and greatly expanded Reading Grammar School (1868-72) was relocated to Craven/Addington/Erleigh Road from its central site: it is one of the oldest schools in the country, starting out in the mid-twelfth century as the school for Reading Abbey but by the nineteenth century had declined and needed reinvigorating. East Thorpe in Redlands Road was built as the marital home for George Palmer and his bride Alice Exall; it was later given by Palmer, the founder of Huntley and Palmer’s biscuits, to University College, Reading (later Reading University) and is now the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL). In 1877 he was asked to build a Temperance Building in Silver Street, a poor area just south of the centre of the town. By the 1980s the Rising Sun Institute, as it was by then known, was in a semi-derelict state and after a semi-squat by campaigning local artists, was reopened as the Rising Sun Arts Centre.

Oh yes, there is another connection with children’s literature. Not a bear but a squirrel and a rabbit. Early on in his life as an architect he built two neighbouring houses by Derwentwater near Keswick in the Lake District. Beatrix Potter when holidaying from London stayed in both of these and was inspired to create Squirrel Nutkin and Peter Rabbit, well-known characters in her children’s books.

A lot more can be read about these matters in Alfred Waterhouse, architect. The life and works of a Victorian Goth, a ninety-page A5 illustrated book that can be bought privately from Martin Richards, £10 incl. p&p.

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