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Theale today is a thriving and dynamic village community which owes its prosperity to its location close to the M4 corridor and the hi-tec industries of ‘silicon valley’. Despite its proximity to Reading, it has maintained a distinct identity and sense of community. Unlike many villages, it continues to support a primary school, secondary school, post office and an impressive array of public houses. The wide range of shops and businesses in the High Street and its bustling life during the working day bear witness to its active commercial life, but it has also retained some residential character. The modern landscaped Arlington Business Park on the S.E. outskirts testifies to its success in attracting a wide range of big name companies to the area. Theale has generally been an adaptable community evolving to meet changing economic circumstances whilst holding on firmly to its architectural heritage and semi-rural character.
There has been a settlement at Theale since the Bronze Age and its growth was related to the importance of the gravel terraces which provided a dry site for habitation and firm trackways above the floodplain of the River Kennet. Its Saxon name derives from a causeway built to bridge the gap in the gravel and carry a track across wet land. Gravel extraction for road maintenance was an important industry from the Middle Ages onwards and there is ample evidence of this activity around Theale today. For much of its history, Theale depended for its prosperity on farming, passing traffic, and craft industries geared to serve their demands,
In the early 19th century following the Napoleonic Wars there was a period of social unrest culminating in the Swing Riots of 1830: a protest against low agricultural wages, irregular employment and payment of tithes. Being a poor county Berkshire experienced much local rioting, rick burning and machine smashing. Theale did not riot but a rioter from West Woodhay was arrested here.
Situated five miles west of Reading on the main road to the thriving port of Bristol and the fashionable spa town of Bath, Theale became a major halt for the change of horses and a comfort stop for passengers. Inns multiplied and by c.1840 there were 11 in Church Street and High Street alone. Theale’s shops could provide for the needs of travellers and local craftsmen could supply everything this growing industry needed. Blacksmiths, harness makers, saddlers, basket makers, wheelwrights, rope makers, soap makers all plied their trade here. A barber-surgeon and a vet also practised in the village at this time to tend to the needs of human and animal travellers. Some of its pubs retain their coaching yards and stable buildings and a pump at the west end of the village reminds us of the need to water the road in summer to keep down the offensive mixture of dust and horse dung. Theale was a service station long before the advent of the motorways.
The completion if the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1810 provided a London-Bristol waterway and Theale became an important link in this chain too. A quay existed south of the village where goods such as coal, iron, stone and rags [for paper] were unloaded and local products such as timber, grain and peat were dispatched. Little remains of this now but the canal still provides important recreational facilities and rural walks. The building of the Great Western Railway from Paddington to Bristol brought a visit to Theale by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but the advent of the railway in 1841 heralded the decline of long distance horse traffic and the canal, both vital to the past prosperity of Theale.
Theale went into decline for much of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Older residents who were children here in the 1920s and 1930s describe a quiet rural community geared to the rhythms of the farming year and the countryside. Theale owed its resurgence yet again to road traffic in the late 20th century. The building of the M4 and Theale’s position at Junction 12 necessitated a village bypass opened in 1971. The motorway gave easy access to London, Heathrow and all parts of the UK and increased Theale’s desirability as a place for industry, residence and commuters. A 1930s population of 900+ has expanded to 4000+ and new housing developments necessary to accommodate this has dramatically changed the face of the original linear village. Houses now stand on the water meadows painted by Constable and only the gravel pits remain to remind us of Theale’s watery past. The village owes its development and survival to its ability to utilise its location and natural resources and its capacity to respond to changing economic trends. Adaptability is the key to Theale’s success and it has weathered its changing fortunes without losing its essential character.
Taken from the trail leaflet A Walk Around Theale
More information on the Theale Local History Group