Matthew Farrall, from The Whitley Pump, browses for antiques and rummages for bargains at Reading’s monthly auction house, held in the historic Reading Cattle Market.
Every month, The Cattle Market at Great Knollys Street plays host to a general auction for household furniture, collectibles and antiques. It’s not only great fun to attend, it’s also a place where rare bargains can be found and traditional competitive bidding and auctioneer’s patter can still be heard. The auctions, run by land agents Thimbleby & Shorland, usually take place on the third Saturday of every month with a viewing day on the Friday before, where you can go and explore, peruse and check out the items out in person.
There are, in fact, three auctions going on at once on a Saturday. In one room to the right you’ll find collectibles, furniture and antiques. Over in the former cattle pens, there’s mostly redundant stock from liquidated businesses along with gardening equipment and tools. Out the back you’ll find reclaimed and second-hand cars, vans and caravans, some of which have been repossessed. You can also find a reasonably priced mug of tea and a very traditional fry-up at the Cattle Market Café next door. My last breakfast there included fried bread and bread and butter! Just like the old days.
The Cattle Market site itself dates back to the 1850s with a major extension taking place in 1939. Then it was one of the leading markets in Britain for the sale of pedigree stock (especially Ayrshire Cattle) and Shetland ponies. The original ‘sales ring’ a sort of auctioneers theatre, is still in its original state though not generally open to the public. It is used for special sales, so keep a look out for these as this chamber is so authentic you could imagine a gentleman farmer straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel bidding with a faint nod, twitch of the nose, or subtle shake of the stick. There is still a regular sale of horse-drawn carriages and ponies held throughout the year, along with other specialist sales where it may be in use.
I went to explore February’s Friday viewing and really enjoyed the sheer variety of the lots on display in the large general sale room. The main draw was a startling oil-on-canvas portrait of socialite and winter Olympian, Rupert Deen, painted by Royal Academy artist John Bratby (1928-1992). Bratby was the artist who virtually invented kitchen sink realism and was notorious for painting portraits of Michael Foot and others in a thick paint, colourful and gritty way. I can’t say many of my group cared for this garish painting, and it didn’t reach reserve sales price of £800, but it was quite a spectacle.
The rest of the room is dotted with furniture – a real mixture of dark wood and light, new and old, with small sideboards, gaming tables, elaborate beds, and stylish old chairs along with ‘60s style kitchen cupboards of the sort which some commented their parents still owned! One of our group who bids at the auction says that some of this furniture is sold for very competitive prices indeed. Although there are also some design gems to look out for – an angular 1950s desk turned out to be by Hille of London and designed by Robin Day. It went for £450.
The collectables tables were groaning with cornucopia. Some of the local items were fascinating, including a collection of Sutton Seeds boxes. There was also other associated ephemera such as various local awards and trophies related to Reading historical, sporting and town business events. Some lots are boxed and have various related items like toy cars, wines stoppers or even collections of horse race-meeting badges. Silverware and other more expensive items are kept under glass but you can ask the helpful assistants for a closer look.
Over in the former cattle pens lots included many used garden type items, tools and bikes along with stock from liquidated businesses. Here you can buy bundles of items altogether in one lot. There was one lovely apprentice piece – a little box of small drawers filled with screws, nails and other useful things just like my granddad made while doing his City & Guilds. There was one standout item amongst some liquidated stock – a framed classic England football shirt from the ’82 World Cup, signed by Kevin Keegan.
It’s also worth looking up to spot the great old advertising boards on the walls in this building as they are a rich historical record of Reading businesses which have been and gone. Including Langstons Industrial Clothing, formerly of Friar Street, and countryside newspaper The Berkshire Mercury, which ceased publication in 1987. They really do show Reading in its pre-digital existence as an industrial redbrick town, but at its heart still very aligned with the local countryside and market-style agricultural trading.
The car auction is also fascinating to attend on a Saturday to watch out for the skill and speed of the auctioneer and the incredible cast of characters bidding. We had a look round at the cars and some, but not all, were in a bit of a state with obvious signs of repossession with broken windows, tyres and graffiti. Many purchases have to be made by registered scrap dealers but there may be some real bargains for those willing to take a punt.
There are also agricultural vehicle and carriage auctions held at the Cattle Market throughout the year, and an annual horse and pony auction is held in the summer. See the auction calendar.
Visit the auction website below to register if you want to sell items, or are there to bid on a Saturday. The viewing day on Friday, the day before, is open to all to browse.
As well as being a Reading heritage site, the monthly auction house is fascinating to poke around. It’s a great place to pick up rare antiques, special pieces you couldn’t find in a shop and bargain hidden gems. Bid wisely and you can come away with iconic furniture for your home for a good price. Go and check it out. We really enjoyed exploring it.
The next Monthly General and Vehicle Auction is on the fourth Saturday of the month at the Cattle Market, Great Knollys Street, RG1 7HD. The viewing is open all day on the Friday before. Find out more.
Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018. We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.
Also by Matthew Farrall
Matthew Farrall was a parochial explorer and writer for the Whitley Pump and Explore Reading. He wrote about the people and places that make Reading great, with a focus on heritage, Katesgrove and Whitley. Matthew passed away on 20 April 2018. We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.