Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway (GWR) connected Reading to London on 30 March 1840. To reach the town, the railway builders needed to make a cutting nearly two miles long, from 20 to 60 foot deep through high ground at Sonning, east of Reading. To complete the Sonning cutting on time 1,220 men worked day and night during the winter of 1839-1840.
The cutting was a major engineering problem because the land was waterlogged and consisted of sand, hard clay and gravel. Landslips were common, as were accidents. The first person to be treated at the new Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading was a 15 year old railway worker called George Earley. In 1839 his broken arm was successfully amputated at the shoulder.
Another known incident happened just six days before the opening of Reading Station in 1840. A freak whirlwind struck Reading ripping off a 4-ton section of the station. Henry West, who was fixing the glazing of the roof at the time, was hurled to his death. He is buried in St Laurence’s churchyard, where his wooden memorial originally put up by his fellow workmen can still be seen.
During the 1840s the GWR built branch lines towards Hungerford and Basingstoke. Competition to the GWR at Reading arrived in 1849 when the predecessor of the South Eastern Railway opened a line to Reigate with its own station terminus in Forbury Road.
Some of Reading’s industries had direct rail connections. Simond’s Brewery was connected to the GWR’s Coley goods branch and Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory had its own private sidings connected to the GWR goods yard.
The present Reading station was planned in 1982 and opened by the Queen in April 1989. It was extensively rebuilt and enlarged between 2011 and 2014. The 1868 station building that replaced Brunel’s original GWR station survives and is now occupied by the Three Guineas pub.
The 1849 second station for the South Eastern and London and South Western Railways was known as Reading South or Reading Southern, whereas the main GWR station was called Reading General. The Southern station closed in 1965 and was demolished in 1982 to make way for the station concourse which was completed in 1989 and the neighbouring Apex Plaza building.