IN THE COMMUNITY: Smelly Alley secrets revealed to Wargrave Local History Society

Union Street - aka Smelly Alley
Union Streett - aka Smelly Alley - in Reading Picture: Matt Buck/Flickr

The February meeting of Wargrave Local History Society was held on-line using Zoom. Kevin Little, formerly the proprietor of Frost’s – the fishmonger in Reading’s Union Street – gave a very entertaining and informative presentation on Smelly Alley and other items of interest about Reading.

Many people, Kevin said, thought that Union Street was also called Smelly Alley because of the fish and meat shops there, but an old map showed that the name pre-dated any of those.

He had been shown a 16th century map that marked an open sewer where Union Street is now, with a narrow pathway alongside, labelled Smelly Alley.

It was the only way from Broad Street to Friar Street between Market Place and West Street at that time – the name Union Street only came into use in the 18th century.

Kevin regaled his audience with many stories of traders and their ‘tricks of the trade’.

When fishmongers started trading in Union Street, there was no refrigeration, the fish was displayed on marble slabs at the front of the shop, and there would be sawdust on the floor. The fish would be transported in wooden boxes, with some ice thrown in around them, by train, and there was a special fish dock at the station, from where the boxes had to be collected – hopefully without too much delay.

There were numerous stories of encounters with the officialdom – such as a health inspector who objected to aspirins in the first aid box, or another inspector who did not approve of the sale of goose eggs – something sold for may years.

The rules seemed ridiculous, with different distances from the farm allowed depending on if a market was covered, or sold at a fete, etc, or the police, who thought that the pike on sale were a dangerous wild animal.

Kevin had many, many other tales to tell – including sharp practices by some retailers, the water company who declared the sewer (the enclosed one from which Smelly Alley got its name) was not their responsibility as it belonged to the shop owners – even though for decades the water company had charged for its use, or detecting the early stages of a furniture stop in Friar Street, to running a disco (playing music he did not like or understand) at the Tudor Tavern close by.

With a light, gentle and entertaining style, the audience were left with smiles on their faces after so many ‘fishy tales’.

The Society’s planned programme is at www.wargravehistory.org.uk, where the latest information can be found, or email info@wargravehistory.org.uk  to confirm meeting details.

Peter Delaney

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