Life story told by Yota Dimitriadi
William Silver Darter, was described as one of the oldest inhabitants of Reading when he died on Tuesday 13th April 1897 at the age of 94. He was one of the key figures in modernising the town of Reading. Experiences from his early years also contributed to his interest in the wellbeing and welfare of people around him.
The Reading Evening Post (Monday 7th October 1968) reports that when he was a boy William remembered having seen “spectacles more appropriate to the dark ages, such as bull baiting, a public execution near the Abbey ruins, and a man being publicly flogged all the way from Greyfriars to Silver Street for stealing a loaf of bread”. These experiences and other recollections are recounted in a collection of articles put together in the book ‘Reminiscences of Reading. By an octogenarian’ (1888/1889, printed at the Blagrave Street Steam Printing Works). The book started as a series of articles that he was asked to write for the Reading Observer newspaper between 1884-88 as he was a keen observant and fount of information about Readi.ng They were published in a book a year later and the book was a success.
”In the year 1884, I received a visit from a representative of the Reading Observer newspaper, who desired to know if I could furnish him with some materials, culled from my own personal recollections, for an historical sketch of Reading during the last half century, with a view to its publication in the above journal. I told him of my scattered memoranda, adding that if they were of any use to his Editor they were entirely at his service. They were accepted, and having been revised, and in some cases amplified, were published in the form of numbered papers indifferent issues of the Reading Observer. A portion of these papers was re-published in a pamphlet in association with other locally historical and antiquarian contributions to the same newspaper. This led to the suggestion of my friends that I should gather the whole of my notes into one collection, and thus it is that the present pamphlet has been issued.”
William was born in 1803, the son of a minor government official who had moved from Staines where he lived in 1790. The family lived near the Crown Inn and William was christened at St Giles in January 1804. His elder sister, Eliza, was born on 13th December, 1794. We know that she was living in Ouseleaze, Wargrave in 1888. The house belonged to Miss Elizabeth Silver, the last of her family (A’Beare family) who left it to her nephew William. Eliza is buried with William at Reading Old.
In 1809 William was at school in Portland Place, the master being Mr. Jameson, late writing master at Dr. Valpy’s Grammar School and the assistant master being Mr. Warwick, who assisted him in his first effort at letter writing. He was also “pretty well known to have a tolerably good treble voice” (Darter, 1888) and he recalls that with the permission of his father, he sang second voice at the newly-erected Unitarian Chapel in London Street (later known as St. Giles’s Hall) during a well-attended funeral service.
William started his career as a plumber, house decorator and a glazier in London Street, near Mill Lane. He always openly discussed his trade past, even long after he had risen financially and politically. Once at a political dinner in front of some distinguished politicians, he mentioned that he knew the host’s house well as he had made a lead coffin in that very room for a former occupier. He was always proud of his working class background. In 1853 a presentation was organised in his honour and durig his speech William said “Mr. Sumner was quite right when he said I had been identified with the working classes (applause). I am proud to say that I was— (applause)—and such I know their wants and sympathies as well as any man (applause)”.
He was always passionate about taking a stand and improving local matters. In his book he recounts how in the 1841 elections, while he was seriously ill, he had himself wrapped in a blanket and taken to the poll in a closed carriage. Like many of his fellow tradesmen, he was an ardent Liberal and after encouragement from his friend George Lovejoy, the well-known bookseller, he entered politics in 1847, got elected to the town council, and remained on it for 45 years. He went into local government not long after the Municipal Corporations Act had abolished the old oligarchy of families who had always co-opted new members from among their own relatives and connections (Reading Evening Post, 7th October 1968). He was the Mayor of Reading between 1850-1852.
At the age of 21 William set up a business at 21 London Street and around two years later he married Maria Jenkins of Bristol. The couple moved to 26 London Street (which is now 54 London Street) where they had seven children – although sadly three (two sons and a daughter) died in infancy and are buried in St Giles churchyard with William’s father, who had died in 1825.
In 1832 he supported his friend George Lovejoy with a loan that enabled him to purchase Edmund Havell’s[eminent local artist] stationer and circulating library business and set himself up as a bookseller at 31 London Street.
William was also an astute businessman. When he was travelling once to London by coach a violent hailstorm occurred. He judged that there would be huge demand for glass to replace all the broken panes, so he immediately bought up all the glass he could in London and had it despatched to Reading the same day. He brought that sense of business into his political activities and that enabled him to support better conditions for Reading. He had the Corn Exchange built, which brought valuable market tolls to the Borough. He brought back the Assizes to Reading from Abington and each sitting was calculated to bring to the town about £2,000 in purchasing power. Next time you walk past London Road and Kendrick Road, look at the row of trees that he had actioned to be planted!
This was also the time when the churchyards were full to capacity, cholera and typhus raged and Reading’s death rate was by 1849 twice the national average. Darter joined the campaign to open a new cemetery (our Reading Old Cemetery) after as he was riding through Gun Street about 4.30 am and saw a gravedigger (whom Mr. Butler, the artist, has immortalised) at St. Mary’s “very busy, spade in hand, chopping up a half decomposed corpse, in order to make room for another grave” (Darter, 1888).
In 1847 he wrote to the local press about the unsanitary conditions in Reading, the desire to carry out a system of drainage and better supply of water. During his time in office Reading Water Works were also purchased, with the owners’ full co-operation, and that provided adequate and clean water supply. The Corporation of Reading also provided recreation space by purchasing twelve acres of King’s Meadow and the Abbey ruins and setting out Forbury Gardens.
He was well respected and in 1853 the Corporation of Reading organised a presentation in his honour. It was a well-attended and well-received event. During that event, which took place at 11am on Thursday 3rd February 1853 at the Town Hall, William was presented with a “very elegantly chased round waiter, of magnificent dimensions. The whole of the inner part was elaborately engraved, with the exception of the centre, on which the inscription was placed. In addition, to this there were four silver double dishes, enclosed in a French polished mahogany chest. The whole of it weighed about 300 ounces. The plate was purchased Messrs. Savory’s, Cornhill, London.
The inscription was read, which ran thus :—
PRESENTED, WITH A SERVICE PLATE,
WILLIAM SILVER DARTER, ESQUIRE,
MAYOR OF READING, 1851 & 1852,
BY HIS FRIENDS AND FELLOW-TOWNSMEN,
TESTIMONY OF THEIR RESPECT AND ESTEEM,
AND AS A MEMORIAL OF THE ENERGY, LIBERALITY, AND PUBLIC SPIRIT
WHICH DISTINGUISHED HIS
DURING TWO SUCCESSIVE YEARS.
FEB. 3, A.D. MDCCCLIII.”
(Berkshire Chronicle, Saturday 5 February 1853)
He was also presented with a mat, the handy work of one of “Reading’s fair daughters” and a salver, a mark of respect for his public conduct during the time he you held office. The inscription read:
” This salver was presented W. S. Darter, Esq., the working classes of his native town, to record their admiration of his valued and disinterested services as Chief Magistrate of the Borough, during a period of two yews. ‘ Reading, February 3, 1852.”
In 1839 William was wealthy enough to move into a large, new house which he had built Kings Road. He called it ‘Swiss Villa’ and was designed by Henry Briant (architect of The Royal Berkshire Hospital). A few years later the family moved into ‘Sutherlands’ a bigger house in Whitley where his wife died on 15th March 1855 at the age of 50. Around 1877 he moved into another house which he had built on the corner of Christchurch and Vicarage Road now Abbey Junior School, -called Somerleaze, and named it ‘Somerleare’. He spent the rest of his long life there and died on 13th April 1897, aged 93.
His funeral took place at Reading Old Cemetery at 1.45pm on Saturday 17th April 1897 and was attended by a large congregation. The funeral service took place at midday at Christ Church. His will, with two codicils. of Mr. William Silver Darter, of y, near Reading, who died on April 13th, barn been proved, the value of the personal estate being £18,530 .
William’s daughter Maria married John Talwin Morris and his daughter Kate (12 Feb 1834-9 Oct 1885) married Edward Morris, both were brothers of Joseph Morris Reading’s County Architect between 1872 and 1905. Kate is buried in Reading Old. His only surviving daughter, Florence married Alfred booth Hearn, a solicitor on 28 October 1895 at St Peter’s Eaton Square, London. She was living at 32 Chapel Meet. Belgrave Square, London.
In the family grave apart from Eliza, William and his wife Maria, his children Clara and George, his son-in-law John and his daughter Maria are buried with him. Caroline Annie Dopson, the family domestic help who died at the age of 38. She worked for the family for 18 years!
The book Reminiscences of Reading. By an Octogenarian is available on JISC Historical texts
Section 47, Row S, Plot 4