'The Courts' housed working-class families for nearly 100 years in the poor, sub-standard conditions, and almost from the time they were built they were known as 'the slums'.
Coley Courts and Coley Steps
Adjacent to the Coley Primary School and located on a hill between Wolseley Street and Coley Place was the cramped and very poor area known as The Courts. These early dwellings were some of the first to be built on the old Sudbury's Bleaching Grounds and Little Coley Farm land. They were erected around the 1830's mainly to house labourers working at the nearby kilns and brickworks. It seems they were constructed with little regard for the well-being of the hundreds who ended up herded together in such terrible squalid conditions.
Central to the courts was a flight of steps called Coley Passage but known locally as Coley Steps as it was built up the side of a hill with the houses rising in tiers up each side of the hillside. The houses were of the back to back type and therefore had no through ventilation. As you can imagine the smells left little to the imagination.
The Courts and Coley Steps (Coley Passage) c1911
Image thanks to Colleen Thatcher (nee Price) whose
family lived at the 'courts' around this time!
There were a number of dwellings grouped into small subdivisions and generally labelled a Court. The Courts were given the names of trees. These are the ones I have found so far:
Ivy Court - Fir Court - Elm Court - Hazel Court - Box Court - Rose Court - Holly Court - Alder Court
Generally four dwellings had to share a common area for toilets, washing and ablutions. One copper was provided for washing clothes and verbal rosters were drawn up to share the meagre facilities. There was no water to the houses, and water had to be carted by bucket to flush the toilet or use for the washing copper. The copper needed a decent fire underneath to heat the water and had to be kept alight using mainly rubbish from the surrounding homes or by scrounging what they could.
During the 1870s, housing to the south of Coley was emerging. Built to a better standard by the builders Collier and Catley, the housing populated areas along Wolseley Street, Garnet Street, Field Road and St Saviours Terrace. Larger private homes were also emerging along Coley Avenue. Even by this time, the Courts were considered 'slums'.
The Courts soon became infested with rats, mice and cockroaches, and the occupants were then more susceptible to illness and diseases. Beds were constantly ridden with bedbugs. But that didn't necessarily mean that the houses were dirty or occupants were unclean. In most cases they took pride in themselves and made the best of what they had. A school inspector's report of the time stated that the local children attended in a most clean and tidy condition.
According to available statistics, it has been estimated that around 1915, there was over 90% of children living in Coley below the poverty line, with up to 60% of the workers receiving less that the minimum wage.
A highlight of every year was the Christmas Breakfast. This was paid for by John Bucknell and other local businessmen, and held at the local St Saviours Church hall. The lucky families were chosen by ballot held in early December at St Saviours Church. Most of the food was delivered by carts from Bucknell's farm. Children were presented with a bag of fruit, biscuits and sweets on leaving..
Credit must be truly given to those poor mothers and fathers who raised their children in the most horrid conditions, whose children and then their children make up the Reading (and Coley) we know today. Some descendants still live locally but most have long moved on, but the sacrifices made by those early settlers eventually improved the conditions for those that followed.
The Coley Steps in 1953
By the 1930's, the 'Steps' were finally condemned, after standing for a hundred years. The occupants packed up their meagre posessions and joined a long procession of people and handcarts heading to the new estates of Tilehurst, Caversham and Whitley.
Authors note: Even up to the mid 1960's the area had remained empty unkempt land with signs of brick rubble amongst the long grasses. Amazingly the 'Coley Steps' were still intact and as a boy I walked up them a number of times admiring the three original gas lamps that were still erect (similar to the photo above only 12 years later - but the building on Coley Place seen at the top of the steps had long disappeared).