This spot was inside the abbey’s walled garden near the centre of the Abbey's precinct. In the middle ages, one of the largest buildings in Britain stood just to the east. That building was the church of Reading Abbey. It was as tall as the Blade office block, at a time when other buildings in Reading were two or three storeys high at the most, and would have towered over the town and surrounding countryside.
Sutton and Son was established in 1837 by John Sutton and his son, Martin Hope Sutton. The business was set up in the Market Place, which was always full of farmers and shoppers. At this time seed merchants had a reputation for adding inferior or dead seeds to the seeds they sold. Sutton’s took advantage of this demand, and established a reputation for quality and reliability by only selling good quality, highly tested seeds. The company gradually expanded so that by the end of 19th century its premises occupied a large area between The Forbury, Market Place and Abbey Square - much of the area now occupied by Forbury Square.
Martin Hope Sutton exploited the benefits of the railway and the penny post for transporting products cheaply and quickly all over Britain. He encouraged amateur gardeners by sending free catalogues with information on how to grow flowers and vegetables; he arranged for the company to pay for the transport of goods to customers; and using air-tight containers, perfected a system for transporting seeds abroad without damage.
The firm’s reputation for quality meant that it supplied seeds to royal farms and gardens. The government also sought Sutton’s advice during the potato famine in Ireland. They supplied quick-growing crops such as beetroot, cabbage and turnip to curb the effects of the famine. In 1900 the ‘Royal Seed Establishment’ had an annual turnover of £216,000.
In 1974, despite high sales levels, the company announced its move to Torquay because of the difficulty of finding part-time workers in Reading, and the premises in the Market Place were closed. The trial grounds to the east of the town closed in 1976.
The Forbury Gardens were originally the outer court of Reading Abbey in front of the Abbey Church. In 1854 Mr Wheble sold the Forbury Hill and the eastern section of the present gardens to the town. Plans were invited for laying out the area as a pleasure garden including a fountain and summer house and work began in 1855. The Pleasure Gardens opened on Easter Sunday 1856; planting of shrubs and deciduous trees was supervised by Suttons Seeds.