Author Archives: Bob Goodenough

Country Houses in Oxfordshire

At our February meeting Alistair Lack made a return visit to the Society to talk about Country Houses in Oxfordshire. He reminded us that in much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries significant numbers of large country houses in Britain were demolished, including thirteen in Oxfordshire in the last hundred years. An exhibition illustrating this loss was staged at the V and A museum in 1975.

Alistair began and ended his presentation with Tusmore House situated a few miles north of Bicester. The original Palladian style house was completed in 1766 for William Fermore and passed through several families before it was eventually demolished in 1964. Tusmore has now been resurrected in a modern interpretation by Sir William Whitfield and built for the businessman Wafic Said in 2000 for £30 million.

In North Oxfordshire stands Rousham the delightful 15 acre estate of the Cottrell Dormer family. The original house was built for the Dormer family in the seventeenth century but the house and grounds we see today is the property modified and extended in the eighteenth century under the influence of the distinguished house and garden architect William Kent. The gardens at Rousham are a particular attraction, representing the first phase of English landscape design. Fine sculptures are displayed in the grounds to enhance a circular walk with ever changing vistas.

We are all somewhat familiar with Blenheim Palace, a veritable National Monument, often used to host visiting dignitaries, most recently the American President Donald Trump. The palace has its origins in a national award from Queen Anne to John Churchill who led the British armies to victory over the forces of Louis XIV in European battles notably at the village of Blenheim in Bavaria. Unfortunately the sums of money available were not well specified and this led to great conflict between Churchill’s wife Sarah and his friend John Vanbrugh, the chosen architect of the very large English Baroque building. Eventually Vanbrugh was released and banned from the property, to be replaced by Nicholas Hawksmore.

The impressive grounds at Blenheim were designed by Capability Brown who in his career was responsible for forty grand estates, including eight in Oxfordshire. Not everyone approved and the Cambridge critic Robert Owen said he hoped to die and go to heaven before Brown improved it! Brown’s masterstroke at Blenheim was to create the magnificent lake by damming the river Glyme with the “ most expensive bridge in Britain “ crossing it.

More evidence of lavish expenditure is the  £3000 Column of Victory in the grounds and the extensive use of Bath stone, for example in the Orangery. Apparently such stone often went missing from the yard to reappear later in Woodstock townhouses. William Kent also makes an appearance at Blenheim in his design for the Chapel.

Alistair next transported us to North West Oxfordshire and the Jacobean gem of Chastleton House, a National Trust property since 1991. The property was little changed in it’s lifetime and many features remain unaltered in four hundred years to give us a time capsule of Jacobean life. Several fine seventeenth century fireplaces adorn the house, having been commissioned to proclaim the wealth and standing of the then owners. Another gem at Chastleton is Bishop Juxson’s bible, used by him at the execution of Charles1. The grounds were famous for the Croquet Lawn and indeed the rules of the game were written down and formalised at Chastleton in 1866 by Walter Whitmore Jones.

The least visited National Trust House is Ashdown House near Lambourne. This modest but delightful seventeenth century country house or hunting lodge was built by the Earl of Craven for Elizabeth of Bohemia, the “ Winter Queen “ (see History Society talk May 2016). She was the aunt of Charles 11 who was a friend of Craven. Unfortunately she died before she was able to visit the Dutch designed house. It seems to be well worth a visit to swell the N.T. numbers.

600 Years of Morris Dancing

Speaker : Mike Heaney – himself a member of Eynsham Morris Dancers.

There are broadly 3 types of Morris Dancing – Cotswolds/South Midlands – distinguished by complex steps, slow capers and distinct tunes and dances; Welsh Borders/Midlands – distinguished by raucous behaviour, sticks, blacking up and simple steps; North West – distinguished by clog-wearing, slings, steps and kicks and processional movements.

There are many theories as to the origination of Morris Dancing but the most credible is that it came to England in the 15th Century from Flanders where the wealthy Burgundian/Flemish court had Morisch (Moris) entertainment.

In England the first recorded evidence of Morris Dancing was in 1448 when the Goldsmiths Livery Company of London employed Morris Dancers at its grand annual banquet. Shortly afterwards Sir john Folstaf from Norfolk commissioned a tapestry containing images of Morris Dancing. The Livery Companies perpetuated the employment of Morris Dancers at their annual Mid-Summer London banquets with the use of Morris Dancers reaching the Royal Court in 1511 under Henry V111.

Morris Dancing then filtered down to the general population initially under the auspices of the Church (Church Ale festivals). However, it fell out of fashion under Puritan Rule culminating in an Act of Parliament effectively banning Morris Dancing in 1654.

Morris Dancing returned but no longer under Church control with Whitsun Ales and Rushbearing ceremonies taking place within local communities. The revival of Morris Dancing, however, commenced at the end of the 19th Century with enthusiasts DArcy Ferrars, Percy Manning and Cecil Sharpe researching and reinventing Morris Dancing in the old style.

As far as Abingdon is concerned the first recorded mention of Morris Dancing was in 1560 where Church Records detail the purchase of bells for the uniforms of Morris Dancers to attend a Church Ales festival. Today there are 2 sets of Morris Men in Abingdon with the famous Mock Mayor election celebration a highlight.

Morris Dancing would appear to be in a healthy state today with new groups around the world developing new styles of Performance.

Conscientious Objectors in Oxford in the First World War

Speaker : Sue Smith, who has studied the subject in depth at Oxford University.

There were about 100 Conscientious Objectors (COs) in Oxford during the War, but many of the records have been destroyed. In the early part of the War the Armed Services used regular forces, but by 1916 we could no longer replace troops in sufficient numbers, so universal conscription was introduced. Everyone eligible was ‘deemed to be enlisted’. This meant that those who could not, or would not, join the Armed Forces were subject to a Military Tribunal which examined their case and delivered a verdict. Certain categories (eg those in nationally important employment, or who were ill) were able to get exemption. But those who objected to military service on ethical grounds had a much more difficult time.

The Tribunals usually consisted of men who were established local figures, and not likely to share such views. They also had a representative of the Military, who exerted an influence on them. In any case COs, among the general public, were suspected of cowardice or unmanliness, and often abused. In reality, COs, and in particular Quakers, often served as medics and ambulance men in very dangerous circumstances on the front line.

Altogether in the country during the war there were about 18,000 COs, who objected to service either because of religious objections to killing, or who objected on political grounds to the War. 6,000 of these were sent to prison. Conditions were often harsh. Many COs were sent to the notorious Dartmoor prison, and we were shown pictures of a large group of COs there.

The Oxford COs were a mixture, and came from all classes. Some COs, after the War, became well-known figures especially if they were from the upper class. Raymond Postgate, who later founded the Good Food Guide, spent time in prison, but was driven by taxi to jail. Another CO, a Quaker (Sydney Langford Jones), was a painter and sculptor, and made figures during his detention out of porridge oats. Alan Kay was of German descent, and a CO, and committed suicide in 1919.

The COs were not without sympathetic support. In and around Oxford there were the Morrells in Garsington, who provided a refuge, the Bishop of Oxford who forced a debate in the House of Lords, the Professor of Greek Gilbert Murray and many Quakers, some from influential families. Though the antagonism to them lasted for several years after the War (they were not allowed to vote until 1926), they led eventually to legislation (first in Britain, then spreading to many other countries) that guaranteed the right of COs to refuse to join the Armed Forces.

The talk was followed by a very rewarding discussion.