In 1801, the population of Reading was about 9,400. During the 19th century, Reading grew rapidly as a manufacturing centre. Reading maintained its representation by two Members of Parliament with the Reform Act 1832, and the borough was one of the ones reformed as a municipal borough by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. In 1836 the Reading Borough Police were founded. The Great Western Railway arrived in 1841, followed by the South Eastern Railway, in 1849, and the London and South Western Railway, in 1856. The Reading Establishment, an early commercial photographic studio, operated in Reading from 1844 to 1847 and was managed by Nicholaas Henneman, a Dutchman and former valet of William Henry Fox Talbot (a pioneer of photography). Many of the images for The Pencil of Nature by Fox Talbot, the first book to be illustrated with photographic prints, were printed in Reading.
In 1851 the population was 21,500. The town became the County Town (superseding Abingdon) in 1867 and became a county borough under the Local Government Act 1888. By 1900, the population was 59,000 — large sections of the housing in Reading are terraced, reflecting its 19th century growth. The town has been famous for the "Three Bs" of beer (from 1785 dominated by the Simonds' Brewery - India Pale Ale was invented in Reading), bulbs (1807–1976, Suttons Seeds), and biscuits (1822–1977, Huntley & Palmers). In the 19th century the town also made 'Reading Sauce', described as a sharp sauce flavoured with onions, spices, and herbs, very like Worcestershire Sauce.
The town continued to expand in the 20th century, annexing Caversham across the River Thames in Oxfordshire in 1911. This expansion can be seen in the number of 1920s built semi-detached properties, and the 1950s expansion that joined Woodley, Earley and Tilehurst into Reading. Miles Aircraft in Woodley was an important local firm from the 1930s to 1950s. The Lower Earley development, started in the 1970s, was the largest private housing development in Europe. This extended the urban area of Reading up to the M4 motorway, which acts as the southern boundary to the town. Further housing developments have increased the number of modern commuter houses in the surrounding parts of Reading, and 'out-of-town' shopping hypermarkets.
The local shopping centre, The Oracle, built in 1999, is named after the 17th century workhouse founded by John Kendrick which previously occupied the site. The original 'Oracle' gates can be seen in the Museum of Reading in the town hall but usual reside in the main hall of Kendrick School, a girls' grammar school set up from money from John Kendrick's Will. It provides 3 storeys of shopping and boosted the local economy by providing 4,000 jobs. Reading has become more appealing to tourists by pedestrianising Broad street
Reading has had some degree of local government autonomy since 1253 when the local merchant guild was granted a royal charter. Over the years since then the town has been run by a borough corporation, as a county borough, and as a district of Berkshire. The Borough of Reading became a unitary authority area in 1998 when Berkshire County Council was abolished under the Banham Review, and is now responsible
The borough council has bid for city status in several recent competitions but, as of 2007, these have been unsuccessful. The application for city status is politically controversial, with some groups of residents strongly opposed, while others support the bid.
Since 1887, the borough has included the former villages of Southcote and Whitley and small parts of Earley and Tilehurst. By 1911, it also encompassed the Oxfordshire village of Caversham and still more of Tilehurst. A small area of Mapledurham parish was added in 1977. An attempt to take over a small area of Eye & Dunsden parish in Oxfordshire was rejected because of strong local opposition in 1997.