The Wilderness and an Anniversary

      • ‘Originally, the word “wilderness” was a compound of wild and deer; it was any place where wild animals roamed free. But wild-deer-ness was always more than just a place; it was a state of mind.’ (Nick Hayes, ‘The Book of Trespass’).

edited mapThe University Campus showing the side entrance to the Wilderness.

Every Monday morning a group of mostly retired local residents enter the campus via Wilderness Road. They are members of the walking groups that have been enjoying the grounds for the past 15 years, originally under the aegis of Reading Borough Council but now supported by the University.

When all the walkers have gathered, and there will be as many as 60, they will join one of four different walks graded according to difficulty, each led by an experienced guide. The 15th anniversary of the first walk is on Monday 23rd October, 2023.

Dec 2009
The Wilderness Road entrance, December 2009

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that at the height of the Covid lockdowns the ‘permissive’ paths through the Wilderness and the rest of the Whiteknights Campus offered a lifeline, a welcome sanctuary, a safe space to take exercise and savour the surroundings and wildlife.

The Wilderness extends from the Philip Lyle Building along the boundary of the Harris Garden and the eastern edge of the campus to Earley Gate. It covers some 11 hectares. A survey of 2011 recorded over 100 species of plant in the woodland areas and numerous species of broad-leaved and coniferous trees are listed in the University’s management plan, some of which are notable exotic specimens.

The Wilderness: footpath bordering the Harris Garden, June 2009
Some Campus history

In 1798 Whiteknights Park became the property of George Spencer-Churchill (an ancestor of Winston Churchill) who held the title Marquess of Blandford and later became the 5th Duke of Marlborough. Before his bankruptcy in 1819 and subsequent departure to Blenheim Palace, he made extensive changes to the estate, landscaping the parkland, designing botanic gardens, re-shaping the lake, creating paths and planting trees.

Thomas Hofland, A View of White Knights from the Park with a Lady Sketching, c.1816, oil on canvas. University of Reading Art Collection, UAC/10236.
The woods

Most of the land now occupied by the Harris Garden and the Wilderness was originally just known as ‘the Woods’. During the Marquess of Blandford’s ownership these were described in detail by Barbara Hofland in her account of the ‘Mansion and Gardens of White-knights’, published in 1819. The text is accompanied by 23 engravings by her husband, Thomas, who also painted the landscape above.

Unfortunately, because of the Duke’s debts the Hoflands were never paid for their book despite the flattery of their patron in this quotation about the Woods:

The beautiful walks, velvet lawns, exotic plantations, flowery arcades, rural bowers, and gay pavillions which now embellish them, owe their existence to the taste and spirit of their Noble Possessor’.

There follows an itemised and, at times, lyrical description of the features of the Woods including the paths, trees, seats, fountains and flower gardens. Some outstanding items were:

    • the Acacia Bower (600 feet long); the Laburnum Bower (1200 feet);
    • the Rustic Orchestra, a hexagonal space for concerts, ‘large enough to accommodate his Grace’s complete band’;
    • the Chantilly Gardens, ‘laid out in the French taste’;
    • the Vineyard and Swiss Cottage;
    • the Rosary, ‘containing every possible variety of the Rose (the queen of flowers) which modern improvement has furnished.’;
    • the Juniper Lawn, ‘of the softest turf’;
    • the Pavillion, an octagon-shaped summer-house.
    • the Antique Vase on the ‘Catalpa Walk’, ‘of the finest Grecian form and most beautiful workmanship’.

Two further highlights, the Grotto and the Rustic Bridge, are worth a little more attention.

The Grotto

‘This charming retreat appears like a rocky cavern, and closes the flowery valley with an object of the utmost interest and beauty ….  and if ever a scene on earth could be conceived the abode of Genii and Fairies, this must be deemed the spot dedicated to their choicest revels.’ (Barbara Hofland, p. 99).

The interior was said to be lavishly decorated with varieties of seaweed, coral and sea shells:

‘Conchs of glowing pink, or bold black and white, are seen on every side, and large masses of glittering spar of rich violet hue or shining white, chrystals, ores, nautili and ear shells, give variety to the internal decorations, while at the entrance many noble clams and conchs are scattered around.’ (Barbara Hofland, p. 99).

Engraving of the Grotto by Thomas Hofland published in 1819. Image reproduced with permission of the University of Reading Special Collections (Reserve Collection)

The Grotto was restored in 1985 but, sadly, its former romance has all but disappeared, together with its interior decorations.

Grotto today
The Grotto today, October 2023
The Rustic Bridge

An unusual construction was situated close to the Grotto:

‘This beautiful Bridge is supported and formed entirely of roots and branches of trees in their natural state, combined in the most simple yet ingenious manner it is possible to conceive : the whole is entwined and covered with Ivy, and forms a most beautiful object from whatever point of view it meets the eye’ (Barbara Hofland, pp. 97-8).

name changed
Engraving of the Rustic Bridge by Thomas Hofland published in 1819.Image reproduced with permission of the University of Reading Special Collections (Reserve Collection)

Today’s bridge is less ingenious and less rustic, but probably more robust. From the right angle and in the best light it can also be an object of beauty.

modern version
Bridge opposite the Grotto, December 2009

Following a period of relative neglect the Wilderness had become almost completely overgrown by the 1980s. In 2011, however, it became subject to a formal management plan. The priorities identified in 2021 were ‘hazard remediation, clearance of weed species and creation of planting opportunities’, the overall aim being to perpetuate the woodland and historic trees’ .

It is worth noting that as well as an area for recreation and well-being, it is also a resource for teaching and research.

Student research project, June 2021

The Management Plan identifies a number of ‘Injurious Agencies’: disease, animals, fire and human damage. The latter is rare and confined to relatively minor incidents of vandalism, graffiti, camp building, and the construction of cycle tracks. Also mentioned are ‘”Art” installations’, presumably the result of the proximity of the Earley Gate entrance to the old School of Art buildings.

Nevertheless, while any litter or damage is to be deplored, some of the installations have given pleasure to passers-by and have certainly been a talking point. No doubt we have now seen the last of them thanks to the School of Art’s move to the centre of the campus.

Art Installation, Summer 2006
February 2009
June 2009
Thanks to:
    • Sue Brickell, walking group leader, for information about the walkers’ groups;
    • Dr Hannah Lyons, Curator of the Reading University Art Collection, for permission to use the painting by Thomas Hofland;
    • Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian, for permission to reproduce the engravings by Thomas Hofland;
    • Chris Morris for recommending the book by Nick Hayes and lending me his copy.

Hayes, N. (2021). The book of trespass: crossing the lines that divide us. London: Bloomsbury.

Hofland, B. (1819. A descriptive account of the mansion and gardens of White-knights, a seat of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough. Illustrated with twenty-three engravings, from pictures taken on the spot by T. C. Hofland. London: Printed for His Grace the Duke of Marlborough, by W. Wilson.

Hylton, S. (2007). A history of Reading. Chichester: Phillimore.The Friends of the University of Reading. University Heritage: Whiteknights Park 1798-1819.

University of Reading (January 2021). Woodland management plan for the Wilderness, Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading.

Edith Morley, Hockey and the College Magazine

According to The Economist ‘the Lionesses are national heroines’ (19 August 2023). When they roared at the Euros in 2022 and again at the World Cup this summer, we were repeatedly reminded how the Football Association had banned women from their pitches in spite (or perhaps because of) the fact that women’s football was flourishing during the years following World War I. The FA’s justification was that football was ‘quite unsuitable for females’.

Edith Morley and Sport at Reading

Reading University’s archives contain similar views about competitive rowing, even though in 1894 Women’s Sculling was the first sports club to be established at the College. Edith Morley was its Secretary from 1904 to 1907.  It was only natural therefore that in 1917 she would be co-opted onto a committee that investigated whether boat racing was an appropriate activity for women. A letter to the Principal from Sir Isambard Owen, Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University, contained the following opinion:

‘Shall I be out of place in adding my opinion, as a physician, that rowing in races is not a suitable form of exercise for young girls?’ (Special Collections, UHC AA-SA 8).

In addition to sculling, the young Edith Morley’s sporting interests had included hockey and cycling. She had been given a bicycle for her 21st birthday but her father was wary of letting her ride it:

‘A few women had begun to ride a year or so before when safety bicycles first came into use, but in 1896 bicycling was still so unusual a proceeding for girls, that my father took counsel with various medical friends to find out whether there was any likelihood of my injuring myself permanently if he allowed me to accept the preferred gift.’ (Morley, 2016, p. 65).

The description of her cycling escapades that follows is further evidence of Morley’s spirit of adventure and sense of humour. She is, however, also making a serious point:

‘The acceptance of that bicycle marks an epoch in my life for it brought me, as it brought many other girls, hitherto undreamed-of freedom and emancipation. The bicycle meant a speedy end of chaperonage, the power to go on long expeditions on one’s own, the means of locomotion and enterprise previously denied women.’ (Morley, 2016, p. 65).


As a hockey player, Morley claimed to be enthusiastic rather than talented, but she did have the distinction in 1901 of being a member of the first English women’s team to play in Holland. These were not official internationals, but Morley’s team won all their matches, one of which was attended by Queen Wilhelmina.

Earlier, Morley had  joined the King’s College Hockey Club, one of the earliest London clubs for women. They had to play in skirts that hung exactly six inches above the ground, checked with a tape measure by the team captain. As skirts of this length were considered to be ‘indecently short’, players never wore them other than on the hockey pitch. Even so, the sight of a woman carrying a hockey stick in public brought forth cries of ‘new woman’ from bus conductors or passers-by.

Worse mockery can be found in Reading’s College Magazine in its second issue in 1901:

‘The Athletic Club Ground presents a sight every Thursday afternoon which is by turns sad and amusing. A seemingly numberless host of girls are closely packed together on a very small section of the hockey ground. All are armed with hockey sticks which they use unceasingly to belabour any large or small object within their reach. At long intervals a ball appears, which, as soon as a fair player discovers, she promptly sits down upon it. This is an extremely healthy method of taking exercise, and one which we can sincerely recommend to all our lady readers.’ (College Notes, Reading College Magazine, 1901, Vol. II, pp. 11-12).

Magazine V2
Front cover of the second issue of the Reading College Magazine, 1901 (University of Reading Special Collections)

In the next issue, a letter to the Editor retaliated with comparable sarcasm:

‘Dear Editor, – It is a pity that those who don’t take a prominent part in Athletics should make fun of those who do. They probably, however, make up for it by longsightedness, as this is essential for a person who sees what is going on at the Athletic Ground while “stewing” in the College Library, instead of taking healthy exercise; or perhaps they borrowed Kosmos Telescope. A Hockey Player.’ (Reading College Magazine, 1901, Vol. III, p. 32).

We need to remember that in 1901 Reading College, as it was known then, was still based in Valpy Street next to the Town Hall. Kosmos was the College Science Club – perhaps the ‘Hockey Player’ suspected the identity of the original writer.

The first mention of women’s hockey in the College calendars is in the issue for 1899-1900 where a Miss Gaynor was the ‘Lady Captain’. As for photographs, the earliest I have found is of the St Andrew’s team of 1906-7, mentioned in a previous post; and the Special Collections also hold a postcard of the College Team taken the following year:

The Women’s Hockey Team, 1908 (University of Reading Special Collections)

The reverse shows eight names, handwritten and not always easy to decipher:

(University of Reading Special Collections)

Some information about the women named can be found in examination results, in the College Annual Reports and copies of the Gazette, and in the Calendars’ lists of sports club committees:

    • ‘Nell’ Plumley was probably Eleanor L. Plumley who passed the final examination for the Diploma in Letters in 1909.
    • ‘Kitty’ Green was Lady Captain of Hockey, 1908-9 and 1909-10. I assume she was Kate Green who was awarded the BA of the University of London (Pass, Division II) in 1909.
    • Nora A. Curtis studied science receiving her BSc Pass Degree, Division II, in 1910.
    • Winfred M. Spain studied Arts and Education (distinction for years 1 and 2), and was awarded 1st Class Honours in Modern European History in the University of London Examinations of 1909.
    • Gertrude S. Black was Lady Captain, 1907-8. If I have identified her correctly, she studied Horticulture, obtaining Class I in the Royal Horticultural Society Examinations in 1908 and the Associateship in Horticulture in 1909.
    • Elsie S. Metcalf was Lady Secretary, 1908-9. She won the College Prize for University Students in the Faculty of Letters and the University College Scholarship for Singing in 1909.
    • Maude G. Scott obtained the Diploma in Letters in the 1909 final examinations with a Distinction in Philosophy; in the same year she received the ‘Recognition of Teachers for Elementary Schools’.
    • Edith Elliott was Deputy Ladies Captain, 1908-9. She passed the Year 1 Associate Examination in Philosophy and History in 1908.

The contrast between the image above and those of more recent students couldn’t be more conspicuous:

Reading Hockey
University of Reading Ladies Hockey team in action on the astroturf at Whiteknights. March 2011 (University of Reading Imagebank)
Jolly Hockey Sticks

Nevertheless, for a long time a combination of gender and social class connotations persisted, encapsulated in the phrase ‘jolly hockey stick(s)’. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of this is from the character actress and comedienne Beryl Reid who used it in her comic portrayal of a schoolgirl in 1953.

The full OED entry attests to three closely related meanings: as an interjection; as an adjective; and as a noun. The definition of the first of these reads as follows:

‘Used in representations or imitations of upper or upper-middle-class speech associated with a type of English public schoolgirl, esp. to express (mock) boisterous enthusiasm, excitement, exuberance, etc.’

Descriptions like this seem amateurishly remote from the 21st Century. There may be hockey sticks here, but there’s certainly nothing jolly about them!

Hockey 2
Whiteknights, March 2011 (University of Reading Imagebank)
Post Script

With support from The Friends of the University, ‘A History of Sport at University of Reading’ was published in 2021. This was a collaborative project involving Iain Akhurst, Director of Sport from 2004 to 2019, Dr Margaret Houlbrooke, Professor Cedric Brown, and Chris Lewis (Department of Typography).



To Sharon Maxwell, Archivist at the Museum of English Rural Life/Special Collections Service, for finding the original references to hockey in the College Magazine.


Anonymous contribution to College Notes. Reading College Magazine, 1901, Vol. II, pp. 11-12.

Letter to the Editor. Reading College Magazine, 1901, Vol. III, p. 32.

Lionesses of the future. A game-changer for domestic football. (2023, August 19). The Economist, p. 26.

Morley, E. J. (2016). Before and after: reminiscences of a working life (original text of 1944 edited by Barbara Morris). Reading: Two Rivers Press.

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “jolly hockey sticks, int., adj., & n., Forms”, July 2023. <>

Reading College. Calendar, 1899-1900.

University College, Reading, Annual Report, 1908-09.

University College, Reading, Calendar, 1907-08 to 1909-10.

University College, Reading, Official Gazette, No. 51. Vol. V. July 3, 1907.

University College, Reading, Official Gazette, No. 52. Vol. V. November 25, 1907.

University College, Reading, Official Gazette, No. 55. Vol. VI. December 15, 1908.

University College, Reading, Official Gazette, No. 56. Vol. VII. October 25, 1909.

University of Reading (2021). A history of sport at University of Reading 1892-2018.

University of Reading Special Collections, Uncatalogued papers including correspondence about Boat Racing, Reference UHC AA-SA 8.

University of Reading Special Collections, MS 5305: University History, Photographs – Groups Box 1.