On Track : Reading Railways - Past, Present and Future
On Track exhibition logo
Reading Museum marked 175 years of railways in Reading with a major exhibition On Track in the Sir John Madejski Art Gallery from May 2016 to January 2017.
175 years ago the arrival of trains in Reading was marked with an unusual fatal accident. It was on Tuesday 24 March 1840 that the bizarre death of Henry West occurred, causing a sensation in Reading. A journeyman carpenter, aged 24, hailing from Wilton in Wiltshire, Henry was at work putting the finishing touches to a raised lantern adjoining the newly built railway station house when, at about half past three, the whole neighbourhood was alarmed to hear the noise of crashing timber. They soon discovered that a violent whirlwind had torn the roof off the lantern, taking poor Henry West with it and leaving his broken body in a ditch, some 200 feet away.
Henry was taken to the Boars Head pub in Friar Street where an inquest was held that night. His funeral at St Laurence’s Church the following Sunday was attended by over forty of his fellow workmen, who clubbed together to pay for a memorial board to be erected over his grave. Since restored on three occasions, first by his brother, then by his niece and subsequently by the town council, the memorial stands to this day, a poignant reminder of a life cut short by a horrendous industrial accident.
The sun shone brightly on the Monday morning after Henry West’s funeral. A day which witnessed an event that changed Reading’s fortunes forever. The official opening of the railway station at Reading was a monumental occasion in the history of the town, heralding the dawn of the modern industrial age.
From the early hours people from the surrounding countryside came flocking into town to watch the first trains arrive. Friar Street and Forbury Hill were thronged with sightseers. At six o’clock the very first train, pulled by the engine ‘Fire Fly’, set out for Paddington and throughout the rest of the day a total of seventeen trains were seen arriving and departing. The fastest journey to London recorded that day was 1 hour and 5 minutes. The previously sleepy market town would never be quite the same again!
Exactly 175 years after these events, Reading Museum's programme of research into the past, present and future of the railways in Reading culminated in the On Track exhibition that opened in May 2016 as part of Reading’s Year of Culture.
Reading’s associations with significant figures in the history of the railways featured in the exhibition, which also looked at long forgotten railway lines and the passions of Reading railway enthusiasts; their model making and train spotting hobbies.
Reading’s new station with its European style architecture gives a real glimpse of the future but the railway has long been at the heart of Reading’s life and livelihood. It’s a place of goodbyes and hellos, lost luggage, missed connections and brief encounters.
Date updated: 31 Jan 2017