There has been a settlement at Theale since the Bronze Age. Its growth was related to the importance of the gravel terraces which provided a dry site for habitation and firm trackways above the floodplain of the river Kennet. Its Saxon name derives from a causeway built to bridge a gap in the gravel and carry a track across wet land – not, as is popularly believed, from ‘The Ale’, a description of the village’s numerous public houses. Gravel extraction for road maintenance was an important industry from the Middle Ages onwards. For much of its history Theale depended for its prosperity on farming, passing traffic, and craft industries geared to servicing their demands.
From the early 17th century the Coaching Age had a big impact on the development of the village. Situated 5 miles west of Reading, on the main road to the thriving port of Bristol and the fashionable spa resort of Bath, Theale became a major halt for a change of horses and a comfort stop for passengers. Theale’s shops could provide for the needs of travellers and local craftsmen could supply everything this growing industry needed.
The completion of the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1810 provided a London-Bristol waterway and Theale became an important link in this chain. A quay existed south of the village where goods such as coal, iron, stone and rags for paper making were unloaded and local products such as timber, grain and peat were dispatched. The building of the Great Western Railway from Paddington to Bristol brought a visit to Theale from Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but the completion of the route in 1841 heralded the decline of long distance horse traffic and the canal.
During the late 19th and early 20th century Theale was a community geared to the rhythms of the farming year and the countryside. The village owed its resurgence yet again to road traffic when the M4 was built and Theale’s position at Junction 12 necessitated a by-pass opening in 1971. Theale and its business parks are now home to a multitude of local, national and multi-national businesses.
Theale owes its development and survival to its ability to utilise its location and natural resources and its capacity to respond to changing economic trends. Adaptability is the key to Theale’s success and it has weathered its changing fortunes without losing its essential character.