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Church of St Mary

A Grade II* Listed Building in Abbey, Reading

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Latitude: 51.4538 / 51°27'13"N

Longitude: -0.9748 / 0°58'29"W

OS Eastings: 471332

OS Northings: 173254

OS Grid: SU713732

Mapcode National: GBR QLG.49

Mapcode Global: VHDWT.2Q0D

Plus Code: 9C3XF23G+G3

Entry Name: Church of St Mary

Listing Date: 22 March 1957

Last Amended: 13 June 2022

Grade: II*

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1113427

English Heritage Legacy ID: 38821

Also known as: Church Of Saint Mary

ID on this website: 101113427

Location: Reading, Berkshire, RG1

County: Reading

Electoral Ward/Division: Abbey

Parish: Non Civil Parish

Built-Up Area: Reading

Traditional County: Berkshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Berkshire

Church of England Parish: Reading St Mary the Virgin

Church of England Diocese: Oxford

Tagged with: Church building Neoclassical architecture

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Evangelist chapel of 1798 by R Billing, with embellishment and extension by N Briant around 1840 and further alterations in the late C19 and mid- to late C20.


Evangelist chapel of 1798 by R Billing, with embellishment and extension by N Briant around 1840 and further alterations in the late C19 and mid- to late C20.

MATERIALS: stucco walls scored to simulate ashlar, with stone and artificial stone dressings including probable Coade stone capitals, under a slate roof.

PLAN: the church orientation is described as a compass. It comprises an entrance hall with dual end stairs to a gallery, a large nave and a chancel to the north end, with a vestry to the west side and Sunday school rooms to the east.

EXTERIOR: the symmetrical front elevation is dominated by a giant hexastyle portico of Greek Corinthian order under a triangular pediment, both of 1840. The portico is formed of six, fluted columns with Corinthian capitals (probably of Coade stone) and is accessed by three stone steps from the street level. Above the portico, the cornice and tympanum have a dentil moulding. A shortened and simplified, stone bell tower straddles the apex of the roof, taking the form of a giant pedestal with rebated corners and a moulded cornice. The front wall of the church has three giant door openings, with that at the centre being taller. Each has a moulded architrave and a pair of timber panelled doors with wrought-iron drop handles and a geometric pattern of circular, iron mouldings.

The west side elevation is of six bays and has metal, eight pane, round-headed windows, five of which are full height with the that towards the front of the church being smaller. The wall has a stucco render, including to the moulded soffit. The east side is similar in design but largely obscured by adjacent buildings. It has a panelled gate which leads to a passageway. Towards the rear, there is a panelled entrance door with rectangular fanlight, surmounted by a triangular pediment. At the rear of the building, the end gable of the school is visible. It has a single C20 window and is faced with brown brick in a header bond (probably a later repair).

The rear elevation is constructed of red brick laid in a Dutch bond. There is a chancel to the centre, a vestry to the right and a two-storey former Sunday school, to the left. The chancel has three, tall, round-headed windows, with that at the centre being taller. The gable end above has a plain bargeboard. The single-storey vestry has a plain, C20 door under a timber porch, supported on carved brackets. The single sash window is recessed under a segmental brick arch and is six over six with margin lights. The two-storey, four-bay rear elevation of the school has regular, rebated sash windows to both floors, under segmental brick arches. The windows to the ground floor are one over one and four over four to the first floor, apart from at the far-right which is also one over one. To the left side, there is a small, C20 lean-to extension.

INTERIOR: at the front of the building there is a wide narthex with a geometric tiled floor. This is located between the later portico and the original front wall of the chapel, which retains its stone quoins. At the centre, there is an entrance to the nave, which has a moulded architrave and a set of panelled timber doors. To either end of the entrance hall, there are dog-leg stairs with plain spindles and curved, moulded handrails, which rise to the gallery.

The interior of the nave largely dates from 1798. It is rectangular and laid out with timber box pews of raised and fielded panelling, either side of a mid-C19, geometric, coloured tile floor. The box pews are numbered with plaques and many carry informal carvings with the name of their owners and the date 1798 or 1799. Doric columns painted to resemble marble (scagliola), rise to support a gallery to three sides, faced with moulded panels, fronting raked, box pews. The columns appear to continue through the gallery, transitioning to an Ionic form. They terminate under longitudinal beams which connect to a cornice around the walls, all of which is decorated with a modillion moulding. The nave has three, curved ceilings, with the central being higher and lit by two, late-C18 cast-iron chandeliers, under ceiling sconces. An unused sconce is fixed to the pitched ceiling of the chancel.

The small chancel is located at the north end under a round-headed arch, which is decorated with the painted letters 'TAKE THE WATER OF LIFE FREELY'. Under the entrance, there is a mid-C19, barrel-shaped pulpit, of polished wood, which stands on a short column with carved console brackets. It has decorative panel mouldings, fluted columns, a dentil course and brass fittings. To the rear, there is an access stair, which has a curving moulded handrail and decorative, wrought iron spindles. The adjacent reading desk is similar in design, but the barrel body is attached directly to the floor. The chancel arch has round-headed timber plaques to either side, carrying the Ten Commandments. The windows to the rear of the chancel have multiple panes of coloured glass and to the centre, a stained-glass garland with text commemorating Caroline Young dated 1902. Above the chancel windows are the painted letters 'TILL HE COME'. The organ is set into the western side of the chancel and its pipes are also revealed to the west gallery, within a round-headed arch. At first floor level to the east side of the chancel, there are three sets of sliding screens which allow a view of the chancel and congregation from the first-floor schoolroom. The chancel has timber pews and a timber, moulded communion rail with wrought-iron spindles. The communion table and reredos (added in 1930) are constructed of timber and have decorative moulded panels of Gothic character.

A door to the east side connects the nave to the Sunday school rooms which predominantly have four or six-panel, solid timber doors. The entrance hallway has a decorative cast-iron ventilation grille to the church side. The foreshortened schoolroom to the front of the building has a small, brick fireplace and a number of panelled, fitted cupboards. At ceiling level, it has a modillion cornice under exposed rafters. At the rear, the ground-floor school room has a spine beam supported by a cast-iron column. It is fitted out with panelled cupboards and has a 'Tortoise Stove’ to the rear, supplied by the Reading ironmongers. There is a door out to a C20, rear extension, which has functional fixtures and fittings. A plain, dog-leg stair rises from the eastern side of the rear schoolroom up to the first-floor schoolroom, which has exposed A-frames to the ceiling and is otherwise plain and functional.


The first written record of Reading dates from the C9 when the name seems to have referred to a tribe, called Reada’s people. The town lies at the junction of the rivers Thames and Kennet and it is possible that there was a river port here during the Roman occupation. The town was recorded as a royal village by 870 and by 1086 there was a thriving urban community, as recorded in the Domesday Book. Reading Abbey was founded in 1121 and this transformed Reading into a place of pilgrimage as well as an important trading and ecclesiastical centre with one of the biggest and richest monasteries in England. By 1525 Reading was the largest town in Berkshire and the tenth-largest in England when measured in taxable wealth, largely due to the wool and cloth trades.

The dissolution led to the monastic complex becoming a royal palace and by 1611 the town’s population had grown to over 5,000. A number of the timber-framed houses from this period survive in Castle Street and Market Place. The civil war caused the building of earthwork defences surrounding the town and it was besieged.

During the C18 Reading became a prosperous market town and administrative centre, due to the development of the town’s waterways and road links. In 1723 the River Kennet was transformed into a canal, linking Reading to Newbury, further extended by the opening of the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1810, to create a route between Reading and the Bristol Channel. Turnpike roads were also improved, establishing major coaching routes from London to Oxford, the West Country and the southern coast. Iron works, brewing and malting caused the expansion of the town further west and in the historic centre of Reading, many older, timber-framed buildings were refaced in fashionable brick. A new town hall was built just northeast of the west end of Friar Street in 1786.

In the C19 the town expanded further; three separate railway companies ran routes through the town to London, causing a rapid increase in population (9,400 in 1801 to 21,500 in 1851 and over 70,000 by 1900) as well as the development of Reading’s famous Three B’s industries: beer (H & G Simonds Brewery, later Courage, 1785-2010), bulbs (Suttons Seeds, 1806-1976) and biscuits (Huntley and Palmers, 1822-1976), although all three have now moved from Reading centre. Growth during this period was characterised by the proliferation of brick terraces, and Hardy referred to Reading as ‘Aldbrickham’ in his novel Jude the Obscure. The excellent local clay had been used for tile making from medieval times and then bricks after the C18. In 1869 the town was confirmed as the county town for Berkshire and the extent of the borough was increased to the south in 1887 and again in 1911 to the north and west.

The University was founded as an extension college of the University of Oxford and received its charter in 1926. The town centre was considerably changed between 1969 and the 1980s with the development of the Inner Distribution Road and also the opening of the M4 in 1971. In 2022, Reading is one of the largest urban areas in the UK without city status. Information technology and the service economy now dominate commercial activity and the newly built development of the town.

Ecclesiastically, the C18 saw the birth of the Methodist and Evangelical movements. When the minister of the Church of St Giles on Southampton Street, Reading, was succeeded by a rationalist minister in 1797, the Evangelical members of the congregation including R Billing, Dr Thomas Ring and Peter William French, left to establish another church. They raised £2,000 to buy the site of the old country gaol in Castle Street and R Billing (1747-1826) designed a chapel, which was completed in 1798. It was fitted out with box pews over two storeys and designed to seat a congregation of around 1,000.

In 1836, the congregation was reconciled with the Church of England, which may have prompted the enlargement of the chapel around 1840. The principal frontage was embellished with a giant hexastyle order of fluted columns with Corinthian capitals, under a triangular pediment and secured from the pavement by decorative railings (since removed). The capitals are probably of Coade stone, a patented artificial stone invented around 1769. A bell tower in the Greek revival style was added to the apex of the roof, which is thought to have been inspired by the Tower of Winds in Athens (an ancient timepiece that is also considered to be the world's first weather station). The chapel was extended to the rear by the construction of a chancel and two-storey Sunday school.

Internally, a timber pulpit and reading desk were fitted, perhaps replacing a three-decker pulpit. A relocated organ was installed to the side of the chancel. The 1840 work was carried out to the design of Nathaniel Briant of the local architectural and building practice, H & N Briant. The practice was also responsible for the King Street Bank (NHLE entry 1113497, listed at Grade II) and the main block of the Royal Berkshire Hospital (NHLE entry 1156091, listed at Grade II*). In 1882 further improvements were carried out which included encaustic pavement laid in the aisles and chancel by Messrs Strong, Sumner and Lewis under the direction of the architects Messrs Webb and Tubbs.
Around 1956, the bell tower was reduced for safety reasons and a detached episcopal school to the rear of the church was demolished. In the later C20, toilets were inserted to the east side, foreshortening one of the school rooms. In the 1970s a small number of box pews were removed from the rear of the church when a dais was installed.

In 1994 and prompted by changing General Synod policy, the congregation left the Church of England and aligned with the Continuing Church of England, whose worship is based on the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Reasons for Listing

The Church of St Mary, an Evangelist chapel of 1798 by R Billing, with embellishment and extension by N Briant around 1840 and further alterations in the late C19 and mid- to late C20, is listed for the following principal reasons:
Architectural interest:

* the church's principal frontage is distinctive, consisting of a giant hexastyle order of fluted columns with Corinthian capitals, under a triangular pediment;
* good survival of a late-C18 and C19 chapel interior, including the gallery supported on columns, and fixtures and fittings such as the late-C18 box pews in addition to the curved matching pulpit and reading desk;
* for the survival of the extensive Sunday school with its viewing panels to the chancel;
* both phases of design (the original chapel of 1798 by R Billing and the embellishment of 1840 by N Briant) are by notable architects.

Historic interest:

* the church plan and interior fittings are illustrative of non-conformist worship throughout England in the late C18 and early C19.

Group value:

* the church is of considerable importance to Castle Street which has many other listed buildings, including the Grade II*-listed, number 15 (National Heritage List for England entry 1303734) which stands opposite.

External Links

External links are from the relevant listing authority and, where applicable, Wikidata. Wikidata IDs may be related buildings as well as this specific building. If you want to add or update a link, you will need to do so by editing the Wikidata entry.

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