Victorian Wokingham

Looking at a photograph of the inhabitants of Wokingham celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, there is the appearance of a town that was affluent and confident. 

If we were to go back however to when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, it would be a very different Wokingham that we would encounter.

In this podcast I will look at the changes that took place during Victoria’s reign that made Wokingham a desirable and attractive place to live.

Archbishop Thomas Godwyn Born in poverty in Wokingham in 1517

Wokingham in the early part of the sixteenth century was a busy medieval town. All Saints Church had been recently refurbished and remodelled, having been enlarged from the earlier Norman chapel. The tower and clerestory were built, and the white chalk pillars were put in place. The chantry of St Mary had been erected in 1443 on the north side chancel aisle under the supervision of Adam Moyens, Dean of Salisbury. 

It would have looked very much like the church we know today.

The tracks that are now etched into the Wiltshire and London Roads led to Warfield in one direction and in the other to the hunting lodge at Easthampstead Park. And in front of the church was Rose Street. This was the location of the weekly market held each Tuesday. Today there are twenty houses in Rose Street that date from or before this period. And in one of these lived Thomas Godwyn.

Thomas had been born of poor parents in 1517 most likely in one of the cottages in Rose Street. Unlike many of his background in that period Thomas received an education.

John Norreys, who owned the estate to the north-west of the church, and John Westende another wealthy inhabitant of Wokingham had provided the endowment to the chantry. They had also provided for a school ‘within the said chantry’ where twenty-eight-year-old Robert Ayres was both priest and teacher.

The young Thomas must have been an outstanding pupil for he came to the attention of a certain Dr Richard Layton. Layton was Archdeacon of Buckingham and saw that Thomas was bright and capable. The Archdeacon effectively adopted the young man and sponsored his education and progression to the extent that in 1538 Thomas entered Magdalen College, Oxford. Thomas was twenty-one years old. 

Thomas Godwyn, the pauper child from Wokingham, was a student at Magdalen College in 1538, having been adopted by Richard Layton subsequently Dean of York. Thomas graduated in 1543, became a Fellow and then earned his Masters in 1547. His reformist leanings caused a breach with his colleagues, and he resigned his Fellowship and took up a post as a teacher at Brackley School in Northampton. While at Brackley he married Isabella Purefoy and with her subsequently had nine children. 

The reason he left Brackley is open to speculation. Some commentators suggest that with the arrival of Queen Mary on the English throne in 1553, Thomas decided that he should find a more secure haven. ‘Bloody Mary’ wanted to reverse the Reformation that her father Henry VII had started. Alternatively, it could have been that Thomas fell out of favour with the college and left before Mary ascended the throne; in the negotiations for his successor’s appointment the post is described as “being now voide through ye neglygens of him that lately occupied it”. But what this negligence could have been we do not know.

Either which way he returned to Oxford and qualified to practice medicine in 1555. The Counter-Reformation ended in 1558 with the death of Mary and ascension of Elizabeth. Thomas decided that now was the time to follow his true vocation and returned to divinity.

Thomas was a remarkable preacher and soon came to the attention of Queen Elizabeth. The Queen pleased with his “good parts” and “goodly person”, made him one of her Lent preachers in 1565. He held this post for eighteen years. Thomas’ career progressed swiftly. In June 1565 he was appointed Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and in 1567 to Dean of Canterbury.

He stayed at Canterbury until 1584 when the Queen appointed him Bishop of Bath and Wells. His episcopate in Bath and Wells (1584-1590) was short and troubled. Sir Walter Raleigh the sailor and for a time royal favourite wanted to extort from him the lease for a hundred years of the manor of Barnwell, some church lands. Thomas refused. The two men quarrelled. Raleigh bided his time. When Godwin remarried, Raleigh told the Queen that his new wife was a twenty-year-old girl, whom Thomas had married for her money. She is believed in fact to have been a widow. Despite the Earl of Bedford coming to the defence of Godwin, saying that the widow had a son aged about forty, Elizabeth took Raleigh’s part and Godwin fell from favour.

It had been a long journey from the small charity school in Wokingham. He was suffering with gout and recurrent bouts of malaria. Thomas returned to the town of his birth in 1590 and succumbed to his illness.

In the choir vestry, there is a plaque erected by his son. In translation it reads:

In sacred memory of a very dear parent, and truly reverend father, Thomas Godwyn, Doctor of Divinity of Christ Church Oxford first, and then Dean of Canterbury; afterwards Bishop of Bath and Wells; who was born in this town, and here also (whither he returned on the advice of his doctors to regain his health) was consumed by the quartan fever and died on the 19th day of November 1590, in the 7th year of his consecration; and lies here awaiting the coming of the great God. Erected by his son Francis Godwyn, Sub Dean of Exeter.

The Wokingham Whale

In this podcast, I tell the strange story of a flying machine built in Wokingham in 1909 by local inventor Jesse Farbrother. The machine was made of wood and canvas and was designed to take off vertically! Its sudden disappearance and the disappearance of Jesse have been shrouded in mystery. Was there an explosion or was it taken by the War Office? And what happened to Jesse?

This photograph is a copy from J & R Lea’s Wokingham, A Pictorial Guide. If anyone has an actual photograph I would be delighted to see it!

In Living Memory

What are the local events that have made the biggest impression or impact on you? How has the town changed in the last 50 or so years? In this episode, I explore the history of Wokingham in the recent past, from 1969 onwards. Traffic jams, the Royal Princes, and the demise of the Ritz cinema are a few of the highlights I look at in this short podcast. This photograph of Market Place in the 1960s is from the extensive and excellent collection.

The Founding of Wokingham

Have you ever wondered when Wokingham was founded, or indeed why it was established where it is? Wokingham’s early history starts in the Anglo Saxon period. The town developed during the medieval period with a market and annual fairs. In this episode of Wokingham A Potted History I explore the foundation of the town, try and explain why it was located here in the first place, and describe how a priest called Alerud should be considered one of Wokingham’s founding fathers.

Wokingham at Play

Wokingham’s past, in terms of leisure activities, is not completely wholesome. The local historian Arthur Heelas writing in 1928 said:

‘The sporting instincts of the inhabitants of the district have always been well developed, although not necessarily applied in the right direction.’

The wrong direction included bull baiting and bare-knuckle fighting.It wasn’t until the Victorian and Edwardian period that Wokingham’s pastimes became more politically correct with numerous football and cricket clubs. And then in the 20th century, we saw Martin’s Pool and the opening of the Electric Theatre and Ritz Cinema in the 1930s.

The painting, probably dating from the late 18thcentury, shows bull baiting taking place in Market Place. The Old Guildhall is on the right and the artist is probably standing in front of The Red Lion looking across the square to The Roebuck. The scene is chaotic; the bull, the dogs and the people all in frantic flight. The actual painting is in the Town Hall and this image is taken from the Wokingham Virtual Museum and is available online at  and was accessed on 28th January 2019.

Wokingham’s Pubs and Breweries

The Queen’s Head taken about 1906 and sourced from the Francis Frith Collection.

At one point in time, Wokingham could boast 45 public houses, as well as three major breweries and a couple of inns. Our oldest pubs, such as the Queen’s Head, The Duke’s Head as well as The Roebuck and the Red Lion, can take us back to the 18th century. Others came with the railway in the Victorian era.

In this short podcast, I look at the history of the pubs and breweries in Wokingham and the town’s ongoing enthusiasm for beer and wine.

Wokingham at War

Wokingham was the epitome of the Home Front in WW1 and WW2. A small market town trying to maintain life as normal while everything was in turmoil. As the young men and women went off to war, the town was inundated with new arrivals: Belgium refugees, Canadian soldiers and the build-up of troops for D Day. And all the time the townsfolk did their bit to support the war effort in their inimitable way including ‘fag days’, caring for the wounded and looking after evacuees.

In this podcast, I look at the events in Wokingham during the two major wars of the 20th century.

The photograph, taken from the excellent WokinghamRemembers web site, shows crowds celebrating the end of WW1 in Broad Street. It is available online at and was accessed on January 21, 2019.