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More than Drews – Reading

Late 2018 saw the sad demise of ‘Drews – The Ironmongers’ which sat on the corner of Caversham Road and Northfield Road in Reading. However, this site has been far more than just a useful shop over the years. Thanks to the work of BIAG members Evelyn Williams and David Cliffe and colleagues who are hoping to obtain a ‘Local Listing’ for the site we learned much more of the site’s history.

Drews The Ironmongers - Caversham Road Frontage

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Drews was a relative newcomer to this long-occupied site, having only moved here in 1977. The map below is from 1897 and shows a Malthouse complex on the site. The buildings are believed to have been built between 1871 and 1877.  As such, they would have been among the first substantial industrial buildings in this area, joining already present agricultural buildings, saw mills and the White Hart Inn at Caversham Bridge. (Maps ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ Map images website.) This Malthouse belonged to Henry Pendlebury Dowson of Castle Hill. Mr Dowson owned another two malthouses in Reading; one in Tudor Road and one in Malthouse Lane. As well as being involved in the brewing industry he was an active member of Reading’s society and its parliamentary activities.

In 1872, Dowson’s was chosen by H & G Simonds Brewery to supply malt when the pressure for space meant that the brewery turned their own malting area in Bridge Street into beer storage. Dowson’s continued to supply malt to Simonds until 1903.

1897 Map of Caversham Road Area

1897 Map - Drews Building

There isn’t a lot of documentary evidence of the site’s detailed use during this period, but the Bell Tower Community, who are the local community and historic group for this area, believe that the building on Caversham Road is where the malting happened – the germinating, steeping etc. and was also for storage of raw materials and similar; this building shows the characteristic long elevation with regularly spaced windows of other known malting houses. The somewhat similar-looking buildings that sit behind, labelled No. 1 Northfield Road, would have given additional storage capacity. Where there is now a car park between these buildings would have been the site of the malting kiln. Below are photographs of the relevant buildings. There is also a schematic of a typical malting house which is taken from Historic England’s excellent publication ‘Maltings in England’.

Main Building View from Northfield Road (Photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)

Brewing - Dowsons - Reading (2018) (Drews) 1

Back Building View from Northfield Road (Photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)

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A Typical Malt House (Taken from Historic England's 'Maltings in England'

Typical Malting from Historic England Maltings in England

When Simonds stopped needing the malt from Dowson the premises on Caversham Road were occupied by Stransom and Cheney, who were corn, hay and straw merchants and they remained there until after the First World War. By the 1920s a manufacturing chemist, G W Harrison, had moved in sharing premises with Album and Solomon, who were tailors, and Read and Partners, who were electrical engineers. Those of you with eagle-eyes may be able to spot a ‘ghost sign’ on the side of the main building; it says ‘Smallbone’ (The picture below shows the outline). Percy H Smallbone was a motor engineer and he came to the site in 1925 and stayed until 1947 when another company in the motor industry arrived. This was Brown Brothers, who are described as motor accessories factors and later as electrical wholesalers.

Ghost Sign saying Smallbone Ltd (Photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)

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We see Drews arrive on the site in 1977.  The firm was started in 1925 by Percy Drew, a plumber, in a yard off Minster Street. As the firm grew he moved to Queen’s Road and then to the corner of Friar Street and Greyfriars Road. By this time the focus of the company had moved from plumbing to ironmongery. Percy’s son Archie later took over, then his son David and finally David’s children assuming charge when he retired in 2006.

Many of us remember the site as where we went for all of those little items that are either no longer available or, if they are, come in packs of fifty and you rarely need fifty. It was sad to see it close down at the end of 2018, and in its final week the shop manager kindly allowed BIAG to photograph the shop’s interior, as shown below. Let’s hope that the site goes on to have a new role that retains the industrial heritage while giving it a useful purpose in the community in much the same way as it has negotiated the centuries so far.

Drew's Interior (photo: Jo Alexander-Jones)

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