Sonning, occasionally called Sonning-on-Thames is a village and civil parish in the Borough of Wokingham in the English county of Berkshire, a few miles east of Reading. The village is situated on the River Thames and was described by Jerome K. Jerome in his book Three Men in a Boat as "the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river".
Sonning was part of the Sonning Hundred and the Wokingham Poor Law Union. The parish was located in the Wokingham Rural District 1894-1974, and since that date in the Wokingham District (1974-1998) and the Wokingham unitary authority (since 1998).
The parish of Sonning originally included Charvil, Woodley and Earley and, before the formation of civil parishes in 1866, was a cross-county-boundary parish containing Sonning Eye, Dunsden Green and Playhatch in Oxfordshire as well. It is now much smaller and triangular shaped. The ecclesiastical parish of Sonning continues to include Sonning, Charvil and Sonning Eye. The north-western boundary is formed by the River Thames before passing through the middle of the Thames Valley Park. The southern border follows the railway line. The north-eastern boundary travels over Charvil Hill and follows the edge of the housing at Charvil itself until it reaches the confluence of St Patrick's Stream with the Thames, near St Patrick's Bridge. The northern corner of the parish consists of very low-lying land adjoining the River. The Sonning Golf Course sits in the south-east corner, with Holme Park, Sonning Hill and the business park in the south-west, and the village roughly in the middle.
Sonning village is at a crossing point of the River Thames, where the narrow arched Sonning Bridge on the B478 crosses the river to the hamlet of Sonning Eye on the Oxfordshire bank. Just upstream of the bridge is Sonning Lock. The old village is now joined to further housing along Pound Lane and the A4 Bath Road. It lies some three miles east of the major town of Reading. In other directions this would put it within the Reading suburban sprawl, but Sonning remains a clearly delineated small village.
The historical name of the village is Sunning, derived from the name of the Old English Sunna. Older, more traditional villagers still pronounce the name of the village in this way and the spelling can be found on old maps and documents. In Anglo-Saxon times, the village was of considerable importance as the lesser centre of the bishopric of Ramsbury, sometimes called the see of Ramsbury and Sonning. The church was a secondary cathedral and the present structure, St Andrew's Church, contains re-used Anglo-Saxon carvings. By the 12th century Sonning church had eight dependent churches, four of which had become independent parishes by the 15th century. This is an example of the organisation of the Anglo-Saxon church into minsters with their own parochia known as the minster system.
Sonning prospered as an important stopping post for travellers, both by road and by boat. There were a number of ancient hostelries where they could have stayed, notably the Great House on the site of the original ferryman's cottage. The Bull Inn had the added bonus of being near the church where pilgrims could venerate a relic of Saint Cyriacus. The Bishops of Salisbury succeeded those of Ramsbury and Sonning and had a Bishop's Palace in the village until the 16th century. King Richard II's young bride, Queen Isabella of Valois, was kept captive there during his imprisonment and deposition.
Aberlash House is a Grade II listed house situated on an island in the River Thames at Sonning. It was originally built in the 17th century and formerly owned by the Rich family, Lords of the Manor of Sonning.
The Great Western Railway passes about half a mile south of the village, in a two-mile long cutting, Sonning Cutting. It was opened in 1840, and was the scene of one of the first railway disasters in 1841, when a goods train ran into a landslip. Nine passengers died in the accident, being thrown from the open trucks just behind the engine. Many were stonemasons working on the Houses of Parliament, and the disaster led to changes in the Railways Act, which required that third-class passengers be carried in stoutly constructed carriages rather than open trucks. The Act also created Parliamentary trains for third-class passengers.
Just outside the village, above Sonning Lock, is the independent secondary school, Reading Blue Coat School, in the 19th century manor house, Holme Park. Built in the 'Home Park' of the old palace, it replaced a Georgian mansion erected for the Lords of the Manor who eventually superseded the bishops. The first of these was Laurence Halstead, partner to the Reading cloth merchant, John Kendrick.
In the early 20th century, a second country house was built in the village, the Deanery. It provides a fine example of an Edwin Lutyens house with a Gertrude Jekyll garden, originally designed as a show house for the founder of Country Life magazine.
Online Historical References
Nineteenth Century Local Administration
English Jurisdictions is a webpage provided by FamilySearch which analyses every ecclesiastical parish in England at the year 1851. It provides, with the aid of outline maps, the date at which parish records and bishops transcripts begin, non-conformist denominations with a chapel within the parish, the names of the jurisdictions in charge: county, civil registration district, probate court, diocese, rural deanery, poor law union, hundred, church province; and links to FamilySearch historical records, FamilySearch Catalog and the FamilySearch Wiki. Two limitations: only England, and at the year 1851.
During the 19th century two bodies, the Poor Law Union and the Sanitary District, had responsibility for governmental functions at a level immediately above that covered by the civil parish. In 1894 these were replace by Rural and Urban Districts. These were elected bodies, responsible for setting local property assessments and taxes as well as for carrying out their specified duties. Thses districts continued in operation until 1974. Urban districts for larger municipalities were called "Municipal Boroughs" and had additional powers and obligations.
Poor Law Unions, established nationally in 1834, combined parishes together for the purpose of providing relief for the needy who had no family support. This led to the building of '"union poorhouses" or "workhouses" funded by all the parishes in the union. The geographical boundaries established for the individual Poor Law Unions were employed again when Registration Districts were formed three years later. In 1875 Sanitary Districts were formed to provide services such as clean water supply, sewage systems, street cleaning, and the clearance of slum housing. These also tended to follow the same geographical boundaries, although there were local alterations caused by changes in population distribution.