Coley Talking: Realities of life in old Reading


  • Looks at how Coley developed in the 19th century and the harshness of everyday life in this very poor community
  • Includes a substantial central section which records memories of a way of life long gone from people who lived in Coley from 1900-1950
  • Reveals the struggles of the town, and the community, to gradually improve their lives
  • Covers the early 20th-century clearances and redevelopment that was eventually to disperse a whole community
  • Makes available once more the oral history material from the Coley Local History Group’s Talking of Coley and More Talking of Coley which are both long out of print


Nineteenth and early twentieth century Reading prospered from the canal, the railway, brewing and biscuit making, but massive population growth in the middle years of the nineteenth century brought with it many problems.

Coley Talking lifts the lid on a dark aspect of Reading’s, and England’s, history. Memories, photographs, maps and archives, tell the story of how life was lived in one of its poorest communities.

All the symptoms of extreme poverty – workhouses, chronic disease, insanitary back-to-back housing – are revealed in shocking, ‘this is what life was like’ detail. But change was on the way: ragged schools, sanitation, the work of socialist councillors Harry and Lorenzo Quelch, and the early days of the local Labour party, together with a strong and resilient community spirit all played their parts.

Through the microcosm of Coley we are shown the transformations brought about by slum clearance, the NHS, state education and the work of trade unions, and can appreciate the initiatives which make life better today.

Margaret Ounsley. Paperback, 210 x 135 mm, 120 pages, June 2021

About the author: Margaret Ounsley has lived in Coley for 35 years. Having completed an MSc in English Local History at the University of Oxford, she is currently pursuing doctoral research on Reading’s Elizabethan Poor Law at the University of Reading. She worked on the original Coley Oral History project in 1989, with other members of the Coley Local History Group. Her fascination with this very special and absorbing neighbourhood continues.


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