FORBURY Gardens was within the grounds of the Reading Abbey Quarter from 1121, and it suffered from the general malaise of the town after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

From the early 1800’s local troops and militia used the open spaces to practice drilling and parading, especially when celebrating winning battles during various European wars.

The first celebration culminated in 1814 with a parade and outdoor feast in which 6,000 local people were treated to a sit-down meal followed by ‘Rural and ludicrous Sports’.

These included, pig chasing and a ‘grinning contest’, the latter consisting of grinning through a horse’s bridle.

The most bizarre ‘sport’ of all must go to the ‘smoking contest’ which entailed inhaling a few ounces of tobacco as quickly as possible through a clay pipe. The winners of this dubious activity, it was noted, usually came from the assembled ‘swarthy old maids gathered therein’.

By the next decade this had expanded into a ‘Michaelmas Fair’ being held every September within the Forbury area, also incorporating the ‘Reading Cheese Fair’.

Unfortunately, all did not run smoothly-one year when 1,000 tons of cheeses were displayed for sale it was noted that: “The cheese went off heavily during the day-resulting in sluggish sales.”

In 1820 visitors to the Fair were amazed and enthralled by the appearance of a ‘meteor’ directly over the Forbury Hill and the ‘pointed star’ hung over the town for an hour and a half.

Other more down to earth entertainments in the following years included a bizarre performance of Macbeth-which lasted for ten minutes!

Thankfully another attraction appeared soon after in the shape of Reading’s first ‘circus-style’ entertainment-by the wonderfully named ‘Mr Wombwell’s Menagerie’.

This included wild beasts, giants, lions and black tigers, but a report in the Mercury stated: “The great attraction must surely be the 19-inch tall female dwarf.”

As if to prove how different entertainment could be 200 years ago, an added attraction included pony racing with the jockeys being replaced by monkeys.

One local cheese seller was relieved of his £65.00 takings by a ‘nymph of the pave’ and it was not uncommon for waves of thieves to steal anything that was not tied down.

A pioneering flight took place at the fair in 1831 by a Montgolfier Balloon, secured to the Forbury Hill, amazed visitors gathered below as it rose hundreds of feet above.

One of the spoils of the Crimean War gifted to Reading in 1857 included a giant two-ton ‘Russian Siege gun’ which was placed on top of the hill in the Forbury.

Subsequently the temptation for mischief got too much for some locals, and the Reading Mercury reported: “Some jokers fired it off twice in the night thus breaking many windows in the surrounds.”

That was all too much for the Town Council who decided to make the gardens more formal and put an end to the ‘jollities’ when the area was officially fenced off and reopened in 1856 as a ‘Pleasure Gardens’.

A Special Constable was employed to patrol the locale and immediately had problems with ‘mischievous children and parties’ digging up the freshly planted bedding bulbs and flower.