A circle and a century

A Reading Panorama 100 yrs agoA circle and a centure: panoramic views of Reading from the 1890s and today

10 August to 29 October, 2010
Staircase Hall, MERL

  • Free
  • Normal Museum opening times



Using historic photographs from MERL's collections and modern digital photographs taken by Chris Widdows for the Reading Civic Society, this exhibition will present fascinating and contrasting views of central Reading spanning 360 degrees and 100 years.

Archivists at MERL have worked with Reading Civic Society to put together the exhibition, in which the 1895 pictures, reproduced to A3 size, are compared to modern digital photographs taken by local photographer Chris Widdows.

The 1895 photos were taken by Dann and Lewis (of 35 Broad Street) a firm founded in 1856 by Reading’s first woman professional photographer. They were taken from the top of the water tower (built in 1820 and demolished around 1900) in Mill Lane.

MERL holds 11 of what would have been 12 glass plate negatives - so the search is on for the missing 12th!

Reading Civic Society member, Chris Widdows, has attempted to replicate the same views, shot by shot. The full 360 degree panorama, taken from the top of the viewing tower in the Oracle Car Park, has been recorded. The photos of today are displayed below those of 1895.

The views show the centre of town laid out before us. They show the enormous changes that have taken place in Reading over the last 115 years, from the built landscape, transport, industry to the way of life in central Reading.

A Reading panorama from 1895The exhibition highlights not only businesses now lost such as; Simonds Brewery, Suttons Seeds, Huntley and Palmer, and Serpells, biscuit manufacturers, and box makers such as and Huntley, Boorne and Stevens and the Iron works of T.C.Williams & Son but also the social changes that have taken place.

Visitors will be able to see; the cart workshops and gas storage tanks on the site of “The Oracle”, people walking along what is now the IDR, a townscape filled with smoke from industry and home fires and housewives hanging out their sheets - it was “Washing Day” - a Monday.

Many of the buildings from 1895 can however still be seen and Jacksons are still in business!

Photographic technology has changed much in the 115 years. The photographer would have hauled the heavy camera, and heavy, fragile, glass plates, up the winding staircase some 200 ft to the top of the water tower. Today’s photographer was able to catch the lift most of the way up the Oracle Car Park and then climb the short distance up the viewing tower. In the 1895s the plates would have had to be taken to be “developed”, today’s photographer knows instantly if the shot is good.

Alongside the photographs there will be an exhibition about the photographers Dann and Lewis - a glass plate camera is part of the exhibition. There will also be a small display of items from industries formerly in the centre of Reading.


“So much has changed that it seems almost impossible to make connections between the two sets of images. But as we delve into the photographs we can see examples of continuity as well. Once we have imagined ourselves in that late-Victorian world, it becomes impossible to walk past the modern shops, businesses and restaurants without seeing also the carts and the washing lines, breathing the smoky air and smelling the brewing beer.”
Local historian, Gerry Westall, who has worked as a volunteer at MERL for many years since his retirement from Sutton's Seeds

Related events

For details of family photographic workshops inspired by the exhibition, visit holiday events

Things to do now

  • Return to the Exhibitions page
  • Plan your visit
  • Find out about the photographic collections held in the MERL archives

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