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A tale of two magazines Part 1

Posted in Articles on 09 Dec 2022

Review and Catalyst: A tale of two magazines Part 1

Two recent deposits of Reading-based magazines reveal much about how local society changed in the second half of the 20th century. In the first of a three-part series, we take a look at them and find some striking similarities and differences.

The Reading and Berkshire Review (hereafter called the Review, ref. D/EX2686/5) was a monthly magazine produced at 46 Market Place, Reading (which was the premises of the chemist’s shop of Herbert Dyson) in 1951, while Catalyst (ref. D/EX2800/1-6) was a non-profit magazine published in Reading between 1989 and 1991 by a team of keen individuals.  It was initially published fortnightly, moving to monthly in 1991. We also have a Catalyst calendar produced for 1991, illustrated with black and white drawings by local artists. The Review was illustrated with photographs, and it’s fair to say it had a much more professional production and appearance, whereas Catalyst had a more ‘homemade’ look.

1991 Front Cover of the Catalyst magazine showing a drawing of a tree with birds and aeroplanes as a border ref. D/EX2800/5/9

Catalyst’s articles on local life and politics reveal a left-leaning, pacifist, green and sometimes anarchist bias, reflecting its target market, while perhaps not being reflective of the entire Reading community. Their first editorial introducing the magazine stated, 'We believe that this town is a good place to live, and we want to make it a better one'. The Review was more conventionally aimed at a wider, and perhaps older audience, but shows a similar affection for the area.

Hard sell high street?

The Review included advertisements for many local shops and entertainment venues. Catalyst was more selective in its embrace of trade (or perhaps the big retailers were less impressed!), with the very first issue excoriating Broad Street as 'one of the most hard-sell High Streets in the country', including 28 clothes shops but not a single coffee shop or café. They were fans of more alternative businesses, such as the radical Acorn Bookshop, one of their main stockists, and mourned when the shop closed down.

Advert for a dance at the Corn Exhange, Reading, 1951 ref. D/EX2686/5

Some months saw supplements to the Review produced by Reading Chamber of Commerce, some relating to the Festival of Britain. The last of these, in November 1951, reflected on the 'lack of success' of the industrial and retail trades exhibition held in conjunction with the Festival. The Chamber’s secretary is quoted saying, ‘There was in Reading, as in most parts of the country, a good deal of apathy towards the Festival. Many people asked what we had to be festive about’. The July issue of the main magazine provides a list of events being held in Reading as part of the Festival, so it is a shame to see that they had met with little success. In October 1951 the Chamber of Commerce Supplement included proposals to alter winter closing hours for local shops, and these Supplements give a good insight into local shopkeepers’ concerns.

Occasional small features in the Review relate to local schools, such as a small feature on the pupils at Katesgrove School who cared for the school rabbits. The rabbits multi-tasked as 'artists' models, subjects for lessons [including sex education], and allotment workers'. There is also mention in January 1951 of work by three 15-year-old Reading schoolboys to clear the Kennet and Avon Canal; and pupils at Piggott School, Wargrave, working on a Newtonian Reflector telescope in March 1951. In June/July 1989, Catalyst ran an article on a Reading Alternative School (for children excluded from other schools), but its interest in education focussed more on the University, and not always in a complimentary way (many students were among its readership).

The January 1951 issue of the Review includes a pictorial review of 1950 with photographs of a display by the Women's League of Health and Beauty and a visit by HRH Princess Elizabeth [later Queen Elizabeth II] to the show of Windlesham Camera Club. The Christmas 1989 issue of Catalyst contains typically opinionated views on the changes which had come to Reading during the 1980s.

We find a description of the work of the cleaner of the public street gas lamps in the Review of January 1951; and in February an article on Detective Sergeant Walter Crombie, chief of Berkshire’s CID, who had been at the heart of sensational cases such as the ‘Maidenhead trunk murder’; and reference to ‘the biggest plague of rats in living history’ in Bradfield Rural District. In April there is an article on Handley Page (Reading) Ltd, aircraft manufacturers based at Woodley, and in June an article on the Reading X-ray Unit and its work monitoring for tuberculosis. In September there is a short snippet on the dolls' hospital in King's Road, Reading.

The February 1951 issue of the Review refers to the establishment of the University of Reading’s new Museum of English Rural Life, now known more simply as the MERL. In June 1951, the grant of planning permission for Reading University’s new campus at Whiteknights Park is mentioned. Catalyst had a stronger interest in the university, partly because many of its readers were students. In May 1989 there is an interesting article on the university's Agricultural Extension and Rural Development Department in London Road. 

The only bright jewel left in Reading's now sorry-looking crown

The progress of Bracknell New Town is referred to in a number of issues of the Review, including a snippet on its 'four-in-one' style of factory in April and one on the work of the landscape consultant for the New Town in October.

Catalyst was keenly interested in environmental and planning issues, reporting regularly on contentious issues. They fervently opposed the development of Hemdean Bottom, Caversham, for housing, in an issue produced in April 1989. They took a strong interest in the proposals for the major development of the Oracle, readily criticising various early proposals. They also reviewed the new Reading Station in issue no. 1 (March/April 1989). One article has the headline, 'Philistines on London Street'. In September 1989 they reported threats to the Royal Berkshire Hospital, 'the only bright jewel left in Reading's now sorry-looking crown'. A 1990 review of the first of 16 proposed leaflets published by Reading Civic Society 'to help the tourist or resident explore Reading and appreciate its remaining visual pleasures...  The author finds Queens House (ex Metal Box) 'Distinguished and elegant'. To me [the reviewer] it looks simultaneously sinister and weak'. A suggestion of building a road above (actually on top of) the River Thames was, we can only assume, an April Fool.

April fool drawing of a road on top of the River Thames, c.1990 ref. D/EX2800/5/5

Giant spiders underground

The June issue of the Review has a human interest story featuring a photograph of newly-weds John and June Drury from Kent on their honeymoon at the Robinson Crusoe Holiday Camp in Finchampstead. June, aged just 16, had gained the courts’ permission to marry John, 20, following her parents’ refusal to grant permission, and the story had made the national news. The Review was no doubt pleased to find a local connection. 

The July issue mentions the reopening of Wellsteed’s department store following its severe wartime damage; and has an article on Royal Ascot. In November 1951 there was a short snippet on the RAF Photographic Reconnaissance Branch at Benson, Oxfordshire, and the work there of girls belonging to the WRAAF; and a feature on Wokingham Telephone Exchange. 

One of the most memorable articles in Catalyst is an account in the final issue of travelling along the Holy Brook by canoe, which reads like a horror film with its description of the spider-infested underground sections – the two young men emerged from a tunnel to find they were covered with the enormous creatures which had dropped onto them unseen as they paddled through the lightless passageway. 

To be continued with a look at social and economic change, and cultural and sporting entertainment as seen through the eyes of these two very different publications.


D/EX2686/5 The Reading and Berkshire Review amongst the records collected by Violet Lovell of Reading.

D/EX2800/1-6 Catalyst: Reading's Magazine