16 Wokingham Road Reading RG6 1JQ

Serving those in need since 1802


by Walter Dear  (Clerk 1981-1983)


When I retired from the Civil Service in 1981, I took up the part-time appointment as Clerk to the Trustees of Reading Dispensary Trust and served in that capacity for over two years.

When I joined the Trust many of the records, some dating back to the early nineteenth century, were still being kept at the Registered Office of the Trust at 16 Wokingham Road, Reading.  Over the years they had, of course, deteriorated and in order to preserve them for posterity, the Trustees with typical public spirit, agreed that they would be lodged with Archives Department of the Royal County of Berkshire.  I should like to pay tribute to that Department for all their help and co-operation in this exercise.

Before the documents left the Trust’s possession, I made notes of them and on the basis of these, I gave talks to the Trustees and other groups.

Encouraged by the Chairman and Trustees and Mr Peter Hiley, Editor of Thames Valley Heritage, I have now written these notes up for publication.

I hope citizens in the Reading area will find them of some interest in the history of the development of an Institution, which was the forerunner of the Royal Berkshire Hospital and which has stood the test of time so fully since its inception in 1802.



The Founding of Reading Medical Dispensary

Even by the end of the 18th century, conditions in this country were very hard for the poor because of enclosures and displacement.  It was on 6 May 1795 that the magistrates in Berkshire met at The Pelican at Speenhamland to fix and enforce a minimum wage for the country in relation to the price of bread.  Only 18 magistrates were present and 7 of them were clergymen.  Responsibility for relief of the poor in those days rested with the Justices representing the Crown and gentry and unfortunately they were persuaded not to enforce the raising of wages but to supplement them from the parish to a certain sum, which varied with the price of a loaf (quarten) of bread.  The scale, known as the Speenhamland System was adopted in county after county throughout the country and of course it led to problems of settlement, employment, single mothers, elderly persons, etc.The population of Reading would have been just under 10,000 (9,742 at the count in 1801).  There was no railway, no hospital, no police force, no public water supply and few drains.  England had been at war with France for several years and a short peace had come in 1802 when the colours of the Reading Volunteers (the Militia) were first hung up in St Lawrence’s Church.  Dr Valpy was then Headmaster at Reading School and Addington was Prime Minister who later became Lord Sidmouth of Bulmershe of Royal Berkshire Hospital fame.

Convicts were heavily punished, for example an unemployed labourer was convicted of stealing a loaf of bread and was whipped at a cart’s tail from the House of Correction (Greyfriars Church) to his home in Silver Street.  When Reading Abbey was sacked the Greyfriars Chapel was handed over to the town and first used as a Guildhall but then adapted to cells to be the House of Correction.  Untold cruelties were perpetrated in what is now the nave of the church, for it was in this area that punishments were, in the main, carried out.  The unemployed labourer did not survive his punishment.

Poor persons who fell ill first attempted homespun remedies and if these were not successful then they perished.  Only those with money to afford a doctor could obtain medical treatment. Some of the remedies – even those recommended by so-called doctors – were fearsome by any modern standards and it is interesting and amusing to read some of the ‘prescriptions’ which existed in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Some examples were:

“Doctor Gibson’s Recipe for Consumption, instead of Asses’ Milk” ….. “To three pints of water put forty snails, two ounces of Eringo-root and two ounces of French Barley;  boil it to a Quart, then strain it and take two spoonfuls in half a pint of milk, twice daily.”

Another remedy for “Pleurisy without bleeding” was ….. “Take A Quart of milk and make a posset drink thereof with a temperate ail;  put therein, wilst it is hot, three balls of stone horse’s dung in a rag, and when the posset drink is cool enough, ring the rag hard with your hands into the posset drink 1  to qallify the tast of it, put a few fennel and caraway seeds into it, then warm half a pint, as warm as the patient can drink it, and put a teaspoonful of the best oil into it and stir them together.  Drink this twice a day.”

Dr Mead’s “Recipe for the Cure of the Bite of Mad Dog” was ….”Let the patient be blooded at the arm nine or ten Ounces.  Take of the Herb in Latin called Lichen Cinercus Terrestris, in English Ash Coloured Ground Liverwort, cleaned, dried, and powdered two Drams, mix these well together, and divide the Powder into four Doses, one of which must be taken every morning fasting, for four mornings successively, in half a Pint of Cow’s Milk, warm.  After these four Doses are taken, the Patient must go into the Cold Bath, or a cold Spring, or River, every Morning fasting, for a Month.  He must be dipt all over, but not stay in (with his Head above Water) longer than half a Minute, if the Water be very cold.  After this he must go in Three Times a Week for a fortnight longer.

These remedies must have been both unpleasant and drastic, and it was against this background that in 1802 Reading Medical Dispensary was instituted for “administering advice and medicines to the industrious poor at the Dispensary or in some cases, their own habitations”.  The earliest records explain the “utility of the Dispensary” and record the concern felt by the benevolent and wealthy for their poorer brethren.

“Actuated by such considerations, several of the principal inhabitants of this town have agreed to establish a public Dispensary for the benefit of families who may be deemed proper and after several meetings of deliberation, opened rooms for the Charity on 22nd November 1802”.

The subscription for a Life Governor was £10.10s.0d and £1.1s.0d for a subscriber.  A Life Governor could nominate up to three poor persons to be treated by the Dispensary at the same time.  At first no building was available for the Dispensary and meetings were held in the Council Chamber, the Annual General Meeting being held on the last Tuesday in October at 1pm.  Ladies were allowed to vote by proxy.

Regulation 13, appropriately enough, required that “no amputation or any other operation of consequence could be performed without a previous consultation of all physicians and surgeons”.  This was not surprising as little in the way of anaesthetics would have been available at that time.  Patients were, of course, treated at the doctor’s residences.

By 1803 a house had been rented from a Mr Davies for £12 per annum but apparently this proved to be unsatisfactory and it was later decided to take a house in Chain Lane at a rent of £7 a year.

A resident Dispenser was installed at a wage of “10/6d per week plus 2 ½ chauldron of coal and candles”.  Patients were required to bring their own gallipots and phials.  In 1810 Doctors Bully and Ring gave a set of gallipots and a few of these still survive.

Smaller pots were provided for mixing powders.  These were blue and several of both the pots and lids still exist. Pots for ointments were a pale pink and were much larger than those provided for mixing powders.  Although some of the larger pots are also still in existence, none of the lids have survived.  Their very existence is a tribute to the care with which they were handled by the Dispensers, over so many years.

Money for the Dispensary arrived from some interesting and surprising sources, in addition to the contributions from Life Governors and Subscribers. The names and amounts of gifts from benefactors were normally shown on “benefaction boards” which were displayed in the Board Room of the Dispensary.  These boards are still in existence and it is hoped that they may, at some time in the future, be put on public display.

The names of many well-known residents of the town, whose memory is now perpetuated in the names of roads and streets in Reading, appear on these boards e.g.

Dr Valpy (whose contributions normally included a few pence – in 1807 he gave £12.3s.3d’ and in 1818 £12.10s.10d), Dr Zinzan, Mr Blagrave, Mr Watlington and Sgt Talfourd.  Other benefactors were the Officers of the Oxfordshire Volunteers, the Bishop of Salisbury, the Marquess of Blandford and Doctors Hooper and Grainger.  Dr Grainger’s memorial and that of John Tappeden (also a benefactor) are in St Mary’s Churchyard.

Other less usual sources of income were from the Magistrates e.g.

1821 – a fine for depredations at Sonning, Oxon – £2

1822 – for an assault on Charles Hunt, watchman – £1

1823 – County Magistrates made a contribution recorded as a ‘compromise for poaching £5 and a further 4 shillings and a fine for attempting to cheat the turnpike.’

The First President was the Rt. Hon. The Lord Braybrooke and the Vice Presidents were the Mayor of Reading, the two Members of Parliament – Francis Annesley, Esq and Charles Shaw Lefevre.  The Committee consisted of Reverend Doctor Valpy, Doctors Barry, Marsh and Milford, Captain Bolton and Mr Harris.

Towards the middle of the century other famous names, such as Simmonds and the Palmers, appears on the Benefaction Boards.

Unfortunately, although the Minutes of the Dispensary from 1802 to 1813 are still in existence and are now housed with other old records of the Dispensary and Dispensary Trust in the County Archivist’s Department, Berkshire Records Office, the Minutes from 1814 to 1869 have been lost and a note to this effect was left by a Secretary to the Dispensary early in the century.


The second half of the nineteenth century

By the 1850’s Reading was a rapidly expanding town.  Suttons the seed merchants and Huntley and Palmer the biscuit manufacturers were flourishing, owing their existence to the canal, railway and imported corn.

In 1836 Reading Police Force was formed and so law and order was being enforced more effectively.  Previously “The Watch” kept law and order. The health of the town was also improving.  In the early part of the century congested courts, narrow backstreets, open cesspools and foul privies abounded.  Communal taps provided water but it was far from pure.  Outbreaks of cholera, typhoid fever, smallpox and scarletina were common and so the death rate in Reading was higher than in other parts of the county.

In 1843, a new cemetery was opened (at the junction of Wokingham and London Roads) using Masonic money and in 1850 the Board of Health made a review of institutions in the town leading to a real clean up in the 1850’s and 1860’s and in 1870 a new Water Works was opened.  In 1862 the Bridewell or House of Correction was closed and the building was restored to its glory as a Church (Greyfriars Church).

Although records were lost for the period 1814 to 1869, the history of the Dispensary and Dispensary Trust is fully recorded from 1870 onwards.

In that  year a most important change took place in the system which was being operated.  In July 1870 members could pay a penny per week and wives and families could be included if two pence per week was paid.  (At a later date this figure seems to have reduced to three half-pence).  Members paying this contribution could have medical attention ‘as of a right’ and were referred to as Provident members.  If a person as already sick at the time he applied to join as Provident member he had to pay an extra four shillings as an ‘entrance fee’.

Thus, from 1870 two schemes existed side by side, viz the Provident Scheme whereby members and their families paid contributions and received medical attention and the Gratuitous System whereby a poor person could, if he was ill, go to a Governor and be nominated for free treatment.

A room was fitted up as the Secretary’s office and for the payment of contributions wooden bowls (which are still in existence) were provided.

By this time, the Dispensary had three new departments – dental, midwifery and vaccination.  It even had its own special dental chair.  Many towns had Medical Dispensaries but it was said that the Provident Scheme of Reading Dispensary was one of the first in the country and its rules were used as a basis for introducing similar schemes in many other towns.

Meanwhile the Dispenser was on an increased salary of £90 per annum (increased to £100 in 1871). In 1870 514 Persons were ‘nominated’ for treatment and altogether 2,850 persons were treated by the Dispensary.

There were 22 Life Governors and the President was the Reverend Urey Cust, Vicar of St Mary’s Church, the Vice Presidents being Messrs George Palmer and John Simmonds.  There has always been a close connection between the churches in Reading and the Dispensary and in 1870 no less than three members of the Committee were Ministers of Religion (in addition to the President). 

In the later part of the century the boundaries of Reading became extended.  In 1878 Brock Barracks was built for the Royal Berkshire Regiment and additional housing grew up on the west side of the town.  Similarly more dwellings were built on the east side of Reading – industry and commuting.

Thus the work of the Dispensary grew.  By 1872 there were over 5,000 Provident members and over 900 persons were nominated for treatment under the Gratuitous Scheme.  In their Annual Report for that year the Governors reminded the public of “the need that those who seek help under the Gratuitous Scheme should be persons unable to pay”.  They went on to say that although many appreciated the Institution they needed to “be taught providence”.

In 1873 District Medical Officers were appointed to deal with the extending areas of Newtown and Earley and by the following year the number of Provident members exceeded 10,000 – about two sevenths of the entire population of Reading at that time.  In 1875 the Dispenser’s salary was increased by a further £20 per year, but he had to devote his whole time to the Dispensary and provide medicines every weekday from 9am to 1pm and from 3pm to 7pm.  By this time too, the “entrance fee” for a person who was sick already at the time he wished to join the Provident Scheme was increased from four shillings to seven shillings and sixpence, and family membership provided that children should only included up to the age of 12, whereas previously the age limit had been 14.

By 1877 the Dispensary premises were ‘remodelled’ and connected to main drainage at a cost of £40 and a special appeal was made for help with the cost of this work.

The boundary for the activities of the Dispensary was extended to 7 miles beyond Reading and the limit of 7 miles has continued as the boundary for Reading Dispensary Trust to the present day.

By 1883 the number of Provident members was such that branches were established in East Reading and Caversham.  In the 1882 Report there seemed to be emphasis on the influence of the Churches and receipts were recorded from collections in Anglican, Roman Catholic and Non-Conformist Churches.

Under the Rules, where collections were received from a Church, the Minister could nominate ‘patients’ under the Gratuitous Scheme in the same way as a Governor, but in 1886 it seemed from the comments that some Ministers made rather large numbers of nominations compared with the amount of their collections donated to the Dispensary, which, of course, caused financial embarrassment to the charity.

1892 saw the opening of the Branch Dispensary at 16 Wokingham Road. However, an extra penny was charged for medicines dispensed at this branch.  By the following year, doctors were in attendance at the branch for five days each week.

The rather condescending attitude of some of the doctors is indicated by the comments of one of the Dispensary doctors quoted in the 1893 Annual Report – “I cannot let this occasion pass without expressing my admiration of the Institution.  I think no-one is so competent to judge as the medical officer of the immense boon the Dispensary is to the thrifty factory class of Reading, nor how admirably medical relief is conveyed in a form which is devoid of all pauperizing tendencies and is singularly free from abuse.”

In 1894 the outside of the building in Chain Street was painted and grained for £13.16s.10d and both branches were flourishing. In 1896 it was proposed to increase the ‘family’ contribution under the Provident Scheme to three pence, but children over the age of 12 were still to be excluded.

In 1896 the Dispensary sold a small part of the garden of their Chain Street property to Messrs Heelas for £80 and the premises at Wokingham Road, which they had previously rented, were bought for £480.5s.0d.  The money for this was obtained from gifts and the President (Mr George May – a surgeon) contributed £250. This was a fitting end to the Dispensary’s work for almost the whole of the Nineteenth Century.


From 1902 to the end of the Second World War (1945)

By 1901 a special department of the Dispensary dealt with diseases of the eye and of the skin. 1902 saw the celebration of the Centenary of the Dispensary and it was marked by the purchase of the freehold cottages adjoining the Dispensary building in Chain Street, and these were used to extend the premises.  The eventual cost of these extensions was to be £1,709.10s.0d.

The 1903 Report recorded that fully equipped Dental Department was opened on 2nd February for anaesthetic (cocaine nitrous oxide) extractions, stoppings and dentures at “fees within the reach of members”. A new branch of the Dispensary was opened in Oxford Road to dispense medicines and a Throat, Nose and Ear Department was opened.

Not every extraction by the dentist attracted anaesthetic.  Indeed, in the first year out of 1,525 extractions an anaesthetic was used in only 872 cases.  There were only 46 stoppings in that year and 51 dentures were supplied.

Unfortunately, after only 16 months service, the branch in Oxford Road had to be closed because of the cost of maintenance.  The 1905 Report told of the opening of another special department for the treatment of the diseases of women, and a woman doctor (Dr Mary Cruikshank) was in charge.

In 1907 Doctor George May Mb, FRCS resigned because of age and infirmity and he died two years later on 7th May 1909.  He had been President of the Dispensary for 32 years, following in the footsteps of his father Mr George May Junior, whose photograph hangs in the present offices of Reading Dispensary Trust.

It was in the early years of the twentieth century that the first social welfare legislation was passed.  The Lloyd George Old Age Pensions Act became law in 1908 and it provided a pension of five shillings a week to be paid at age 70, subject to certain rigid conditions e.g. a lengthy period of residence in this country and a good character (periods of imprisonment could disqualify a person).

Then in 1911/1912 two important Acts were passed for working men, but not their families – the National Health Insurance Act and the Unemployment Insurance Act.  The former was to have a marked effect upon the work of the Dispensary, although the Chancellor of the Exchequer at that time (Sir Rufus Isaacs) assured that the Approved Societies and Health Committees would have ample powers to do what was wished by the Dispensaries.

All the medical staff resigned as from January 1913.  After much discussion and consideration it was decided to let the Dispensary premises to the local Medical Service, who took over exiting clerical and dispensing staff, as well as the medical staff.  Reading Medical Dispensary ceased to exist, as such.  Reading Dispensary Trust reserved the rights in the old Dispensary building, as such as the use of the Board Room.  Governors were entitled to make nominations for treatments of persons whose average income did not exceed 21 shillings per week and could make grants to those whose average income was under 30 shillings per week, for medical and dental attendance, surgical aids, medical foods, or to Queen Victoria Institute or similar bodies to help nursing the sick poor. Subscribers under the new Rules of 10s.6d and 21s. a year could nominate persons for free treatment by the local Medical service, which was known as the Borough of Reading Medical Society Limited.  Four separate persons or two families could be nominated for each guinea subscribed.

This meant that those persons insured under the National Health Insurance Act, which covered the majority of people working for an employer, could be treated by doctors of the Borough of Reading Medical Society Limited as their ‘panel’ doctor. (Civil Servants, those working for a Local Authority, or on high wages were amongst several special categories who were excluded).

Persons not working (e.g. persons too old to work, non-working wives and children) could receive treatment and medicines either under the Gratuitous Scheme or the Provident Scheme.  There were now three Schemes working side by side:

  1. The National Health Insurance Scheme
  2. The Provident Scheme
  3. The Gratuitous Scheme

In each case the treatment would be given by doctors of the Reading Borough Medical Society Limited and this would be paid for by either the NHS Scheme payments or by the Dispensary Trust under the Provident or Gratuitous Schemes.

Reading Borough Dental Society Limited was set up in the same way to provide for dental treatment.

In 1913 what were then substantial grants were made to the Queen Victoria Institute for Nursing the Sick Poor of Reading and the Caversham District Nursing Association – £80 and £40 respectively.  A grant of £50 was made to the Royal Berkshire Hospital in 1915, in addition to the Nursing Associations to whom annual grants were being made.

Also in 1911 the boundaries of the town were again extended in both Caversham and Tilehurst. Reading, in common with other towns in the country, was then affected by the Great War of 1914 to 1918.  The Borough Workhouse and Infirmary (which then became Battle Hospital), was Reading War Hospital and extra hospital accommodation was provided by taking over schools.

Help was given by the Dispensary Trust to refugees e.g. the 1916 Report records that help was given to 30 Serbian boy refugees in Reading, and throughout the war years it was recorded that they and Belgian refugees were helped.  Assistance was also given to the Tuberculosis Care Association.

In the immediate post war years, help continued to be given to those not covered by the National Health Insurance Act.  In 1921 there were 336 ‘free’ nominations for medical attendance and a further 172 applications for assistance.  Only one was not granted because the applicant’s income was above the limit.  In 112 cases of the free nominations, medical attendance and medicines were provided though the Borough Medical Society Limited and in 33 cases dentures were supplied through the Reading and District Dental Service.

The Trustees on several occasions drew attention to the fact that the Trust benefited a large number of persons not covered by the provisions of the National Health Insurance Act, and mentioned particularly old age pensioners.

By 1926 the Trustees drew attention to the increase in work in the 1920’s expressed the hope that more subscribers would come forward so that a still greater number of the deserving poor of Reading might receive treatment.  That year 169 people benefited from free nominations and there was an increased number of grants for dentures and artificial limbs etc.  In 1925 a meeting was held with a view to establishing a Scheme for the Trust.  But expenditure had increased to such an extent that grants could not be made to various institutions.

The Chain Street premises had been leased for 7 years form the 25th March 1927 at an annual rent of £175.  The Trust sold the furniture  – except that in the Board Room – for £167.11s.0d and later sold the old dental equipment, by then obsolete, for £6.13s.0d.

By 1930, the Trust was literally pleading, as it did in the following year, when the Trustees said how much was needed to enable the Trust to continue its useful work unhampered by want of means.  Because of a lack of funds the Committee had reluctantly been forced to postpone or refuse many grants for dental and surgical assistance.

The new Scheme came into being in January 1932 and the Committee then emphasised that the funds at their disposal had not expanded in proportion to the claims being made upon them.  In 1931 1,874 people had benefited from grants for medical attendance and medicines. an increase of 671 over the previous year.  185 grants were made for surgical appliances, spectacles etc – an increase of 34 – and 148 grants for dental treatment – an increase of 19.

Again in 1933 applications were so numerous that assistance was withheld from many deserving cases because funds at the disposal of the Committee had become exhausted.  In the 1934 Report the Committee made a special appeal for help to the various religious bodies and business firms in Reading (who were not already subscribing) to make donations to “what was believed to be the oldest Charity of its kind in the Country”.

The Trust was financially embarrassed in succeeding years and in the 1936 Report it said that in spite of pleas to religious bodies and business organisations, subscriptions and donations had increased by only £25.  They drew attention to the deserving poor of Reading and said that the following groups were mainly those involved:-

  1. The families of the unemployed
  2. Wives and children of the really needy
  3. Old age pensioners
  4. Widows and persons not benefiting under the provisions of the National Health Insurance Act

1936 ended with a deficit of £45 and the following year finished with a £27 deficit.  The 1937 Report contained yet another strongly worded appeal:

“When it is remembered that this old Reading Charity has, ever since 1802, striven to help the sick poor, and it is to this Institution that the Royal Berkshire Hospital owes its inception, the Committee feel sure that they will not appeal in vain”.

The 1939 Annual Report mentioned that the Borough of Reading Medical Society Limited had agreed to rent 16 Wokingham Road at a rent of £35 per annum. With the outbreak of the 1939-1945 war the rise in employment enabled many people receiving free medical attendance and medicines or other benefits to pay for these items, and this relieved the resources of the Charity:  as it was in the 1940 Report, “for the time being”.

There were, of course, difficulties during those years and some changes were necessary.  Martins Bank Limited were tenants at the Chain Street premises until 1941 when the Minister of Works and Buildings requisitioned the ground floor suite of offices for the Registrar of the County Court.  Earlier under a sub-letting arrangement of the Women’s Voluntary Service had rented two rooms.  Upstairs, the British Electrical Federation occupied accommodation.

Wartime paper restrictions meant Reports from 1942 were produced in drastically reduced form.  However, it was reported that year that a considerable number of wives and families of servicemen were assisted.  £400 was invested to strengthen the future income of the Charity against many applications which, it was anticipated, would be made when high war time wages ceased and medical fees would increase.

1943 saw similar help to the families of servicemen but, overall, there were fewer calls on the Fund.  But the Committee obviously feared a repetition of the experiences after the 1914-1918 war, i.e. that a large number of cases would arise on the cessation of hostilities.  They also anticipated expenditure on the Chain Street premises, from which the iron railings had already been removed for the war effort.

In the 1944 Report the Committee noted the small number of applications they had received because of continuing high wages.  Anticipating the defeat of Germany – correctly in the event – in 1945 they felt that their funds would be insufficient to meet the large number of cases likely to come before them.  They asked subscribers to covenant for seven years, which would have the effect of doubling the financial value, whilst income tax remained at 10 shillings in the pound.

The 1945 Report said that demobilisation had not affected grants to any extent.  The Committee predicted that the coming of the National Health Service would only be likely to change the work of the Trust by eliminating grants for free medical service.

In 1947 the Trust was still not able to predict precisely what effect the new legislation might have.

During the war Sir Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, had appointed a Committee under the chairmanship of Lord William Beveridge to consider social provisions existing before the war and to make recommendations.  The report, later to become the known as The Beveridge Report, was accepted in principle by both the Conservative and Labour parties of the day.


From 1946 onwards

Although a system of child benefits was introduced in 1946, the main legislation on social provisions came into force on the 5th July 1948:-

The National Health Act – to provide comprehensive free medical, dental and optical services.

The National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act – to provide benefits for those injured at work, or contracting industrial diseases at work (when working for an employer).

The National Insurance Act – to provide contributory benefits.

The National Assistance Act – to provide benefit for those not entitled to contributory benefits, or whose contributory  benefits fell below certain limits.  These benefits were to be paid to those whose financial resources were below certain limits and to scales laid down by Parliament.

The Committee of Reading Dispensary Trust noted in the 1948 Report that the new legislation had caused considerable dislocation in the work of the Trust.  From 5th July 1948, medical attendance, medicines, dental treatment and the provision of spectacles became the responsibility of the state.  At a later date, changes were made for payments towards the costs of medicines etc.

The work of the Trust, therefore, became limited to the making of grants mainly towards convalescent home stays, massage etc, where such was not available under the National Health Act or the National Assistance Act.  In 1948 a total of 807 people benefited, no number of grants was quoted in the 1949 Report, but it is of interest that only £252.12s.0d was paid in grants, compared with administration costs of £422.18s.2d.

By 1950, however, applications were increasing in number and 342 people were sent on convalescent holidays, 20 received grants for massage, special boots, shoes etc and 24 grants were made for extra nourishment.

A special appeal was launched in 1951 for the 150th Anniversary of the Dispensary the following year.  In 1951 extensive alterations were made to the Trust’s premises, but the number of applications decreased slightly. The response to the special appeal was disappointing by any standards and only £179.13s.6d was raised.

In the 1950s and 60s the Trust was making grants totalling around £1,000 a year.  Amounts were, in general, small and were for convalescence, extra nourishment etc.

In 1964 the Trust reported that it was put to great expense because of the Office, Shop and Railway Premises Act of 1963 which caused it to bring up to date the building which it had occupied for over 150 years.

The 1967 Report mentioned the deterioration of the stone facing of the building had resulted in expenditure of over £1,000 in essential repairs.  This, they anticipated, would cause a reduction in Christmas grants.  In the event, generous donations from Mrs Pursey, Alderman Woodrow and an anonymous gift of £450 dispelled these fears.

The 1937 Report noted that the Trust founded in 1802, and registered in 1931 as a Charity with the object “for supply of medical, surgical, or dental advice, treatment and appliances for the industrious poor of Reading and the neighbourhood”, had enjoyed in later years (or over 150 years) premises at 22-26 Chain Street, Reading and these premises had increased in value and become supported by modern developments.  The Chairman reported, with sadness, that the Trust had to leave this home and move to temporary quarters at 16 Wokingham Road, Reading.

The Chain Street property was sold for £225,000 and the Wokingham Road premises, already owned by the Trust, became the permanent offices.  (Almost 100 years before 16 Wokingham Road had opened as a branch of the Medical Dispensary).

Not surprisingly, with so much more money at its disposal, as a result of the sale of the Chain Street premises, the 1974 Report stated that the Trust was applying to the Charity Commission to revise and widen the Trust Deed of 1931.

No record of the work of the Dispensary and Dispensary Trust would be complete without a mention of Captain and Mrs Hawkes.  Captain Hawkes became Secretary to the Dispensary Trust in 1922 and remained in appointment until his death in 1964.  He was succeeded by his wife who continued as Secretary until 1972.

In 1973 assistance was given to one sick person by a grant towards travelling costs from Australia to Reading.  James Butcher Old Folks’ Housing Association Limited was also granted £6,000 to provide trained nursing attention for the sick, frail, elderly persons in the Association’s homes for a pilot scheme.

More generous grants were now possible and a new Scheme for the Trust was finally approved to become operative in January 1976.

During 1975, 314 applications were received (more than double those received in 1974) and 159 families received vouchers for extra nourishment for Christmas, and in 1974 a grant of £14,000 was made to the Therapeutic Pool Fund at Battle Hospital.

The Report of 1975 also noted that a number of citizens sought advice and not necessarily financial assistance upon problems troubling them.

In 1976 applications again increased and a wide range of help was being given – provision of gas and electric fires, washing machines, spin dryers, house decorations and adaptations, provision of bedding and clothing, conversions to motor cars for the handicapped, help with fuel bills.

Grants to organisations increased and in 1977 amongst such grants was £3,500 to the Surgical Laser Appeal and £5,000 to the Medical Care Unit of James Butcher Housing Association Limited.

In 1978 this trend increased and amongst organisations helped were the Sue Ryder Foundation (Nettlebed) £5,000 – many of whose patients came from the Reading and surrounding areas, and James Butcher Housing Association Limited £3,200.  £4,306 was given for a Fibreoptic Bronchoscope.

In 1979 over 300 families were still being helped.  Their ages ranged from 6 years to 93 years.  Over 100 received help with convalescent holidays.  Amongst the organisations receiving help were the new Centre for the Samaritans in Reading – £2,500 and £1,500 towards monitoring equipment for the new born babies at the Royal Berkshire Hospital Paediatric Department and £3,200 to James Butcher Housing Association Limited.

The 1981 Report mentioned that the year was proclaimed by the United Nations as the International Year of the Disabled People and that the Trust helping disabled people had been and would continue to be, a priority in the years ahead.  That Report also mentioned the problem of striking a balance between helping individuals and organisations.

In 1982 and 1983 the work of the Trust followed much the same pattern as in previous years.

How claims to the Dispensary are processed

Applications for grants from organisations who help sick, handicapped, disabled or infirm persons who live in the Reading area (7 miles from St Laurence Church) are usually made direct to the Clerk of Trustees at 16 Wokingham Road, Reading.

Individual applications arise in a number of ways such as:-

  1. Direct from the applicant to the Clerk of Trustees
  2. Via a neighbour or friend
  3. Doctor or District Nurse
  4. Social Worker or Hospital Social Worker, Probation Officer or Health Visitor
  5. Minister of Religion
  6. Voluntary Organisation e.g. Age Concern

All necessary enquiries are made by the Clerk and the case is then presented to the Trustees, who decide whether a grant shall be made and for what amount.

The Trustees meet monthly at the Charity’s Registered Office at 16 Wokingham Road.  There are 14 Trustees – one is nominated by Reading Borough Council and he/she may or may not be a member of the Council.

Of the remaining Trustees, when a vacancy arises, an appointment is made by other Trustees for a period of 5 years.  Persons appointed as Trustees are those who have had an interest in the welfare of their fellow citizens and are a ‘cross section’ of the community.

Of the Trustees in 1985, one is a Minister of Religion, a GP, a Chartered Accountant.  Others are a retired Civil Servant, Chartered Surveyor, Headmaster, Senior Home Help Organiser, Bank Manager, Dental Surgeon, together with two retired Principal Social Workers and two retired Company Directors.  The nominative Trustee of Reading Borough Council is a serving Councillor.  It will be seen that the majority of Trustees are retired. This is not surprising as they have to give a considerable amount of their time to the work of the Trust.  In addition to the monthly meetings of the Trustees, there are meetings of the Finance sub-committee and other sub-committees appointed from time to time to deal with specific subjects, such as staffing.  A sub-committee also meets to deal with individual cases and to make recommendations to the main monthly meeting of the Trustees.

From its number the Trustees elect annually a Chairman, Vice Chairman and Treasurer.  The Trustees appoint their own staff and the office is open two half days a week.

Each year the Annual report of the Chairman to the Trustees and the Audited Accounts are presented to the Annual General Meeting in April and sent to the Charity Commission. Copies are also sent to local organisations and to local newspapers.

Any alterations or amendments to the Rules of the Charity have to be submitted to the Charity Commission who exercise a supervisory role of the work of the Trust in exactly the same way as any other charity.

There is close cooperation between the Dispensary Trust and statutory or voluntary organisations who seek to help sick, handicapped, disabled or infirm person in the Reading area.  There is also the most helpful cooperation with other charities, such as the various Service Benevolent Funds (Co-ordinated by the Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmens’ Families Association, Berkshire Nurses in Relief of Sickness, St John’s Ambulance, Red Cross and organisations for the welfare of the blind, to mention a few.



The work of caring for the less fortunate members of the community in the Reading area has continued in the same spirit for almost 200 years.  As Mr D L Jones, Chairman of the Trust, said in his 1982 Annual Report to the Trustees:- 

“Doubtless the coming year will bring further requests for even more help for the sick, handicapped, disabled and infirm persons in this area, but they, and the organisations who help them, may rest assured that their requests will receive that same sympathetic and compassionate consideration which has governed the Dispensary’s and the Trust’s work throughout the last two centuries.”

The requirements which the Dispensary and Trust has needed to meet have changed much since 1802, and no doubt the future will see many more changes in the nature of applications for help, but is seems unlikely that the time will come when help for the groups who the Trust serves will disappear.

Long may the good work started by Reading Medical Dispensary and continued by the Dispensary Trust continue into the future, and may Reading Citizens always be grateful to those pioneers who, in 1802, had the foresight to help their fellow men and women in need.


The Housekeeper’s Pocket Book by Mrs Sarah Harrison of Devonshire (concluding with many excellent prescriptions of singular efficacy in most distempers incident to the human body, extracted from the Writings of the most eminent Physicians).

Printed by R Warr at the Bible and Sun, Ludgate Hill 1748

English Social History by G M Trevelyan

The Story of the Town of Reading by W M Childs MA published by Hazell, 1921

A History of the Town of Reading by Michael Hinton published by George Harrap and Co Ltd, 1953 

Reading – a Biography by Alan Wykes published by McMillan, 1970

The Story of Reading by Daphne Phillips published by Countryside Books, 1980

Annual Reports, Minutes and other records of Reading Medical Dispensary and Reading Dispensary Trust (now preserved by the Archives Department at Berkshire Records Office – by kind permission of the Chairman and Trustees of Reading Dispensary Trust.

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