Category Archives: General interest

Memories of the Vale Before the Railways

On March 8th Julie Ann Godson gave a talk on Memories of the Vale before the Railways . The source material came from two books edited by Julie: Memories of the Vale by Rev. Lewin George Main and The Scouring of The White Horse by Uffington born Thomas Hughes, the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

Lewin Main (1828-1897) was curate in Stanford in the Vale from 1859 until 1866 when he became Vicar of St Lawrence Church Reading. He was a town person at heart and had started his professional life as a bank clerk in London. Observation of local poverty moved him to join the church and on completion of his training, he was sent, to his surprise, to the Vale. His first impressions on moving into the Rectory with his wife were not favourable. He observed dilapidated buildings, poorly dressed and downtrodden workers and a relatively primitive way of life in all the local villages. Nevertheless he enjoyed access to all the local families and set about collecting a rich variety of memories and folk lore going back many years, which he described in his book. He regretted the loss of traditional farm clothing of men’s white smocks and women’s bright red cloaks, many of which were family heirlooms.

Main described the daily round of work on the farms starting with the gathering of all the village cattle, summoned by the sound of a cow’s horn at dawn. The main meal of the day was taken at 11.30 and tea in the farmhouses was taken at 3.30.Transport was dominated by horses and every village had a blacksmith. Older farmers still remembered manure being taken to the fields in large baskets carried by horses. They also remembered the dog whipper, paid four shillings a year to keep the large number of strays out of the village church. Village games and pastimes remembered included cock fighting, hockey, skating in winter, marbles and the occasional fox hunt. Churchwardens’ records gave details of charitable work at Whitsun to raise funds for the poor, including the sale of ale in the church, regarded by some as a pagan practice. Local dialect interested Lewin Main and he concluded that in the Vale it was predominantly of pure Anglo Saxon origin. An example cited was the word for a new year gift: a hansel. He also noted that in the years after the civil war Christian names changed dramatically and those based on Old Testament characters became much favoured.

In the second book edited by our speaker, Thomas Hughes described the history and practice of the annual refurbishment of the White Horse known as Scouring. Villagers and visitors would gather to clean the chalk monument, thought in those days to be associated with King Alfred and his wars with the Danes. We now know it was constructed in the bronze age. The local squire provided food and drink for the workers including two eighteen gallon barrels of ale. The event was also embellished by many sporting activities known as  ‘The Pastime’ to which as many as twenty thousand visitors were attracted. Local men complained that men from Somerset had an unfair advantage in the boxing because they had less blood in their heads as a result of excessive cider consumption!

In conclusion Julie Ann told us that the Rev. Main had a somewhat ignominious change of career when he and his wife suddenly fled to Yorkshire in 1874 following a ‘domestic affliction’. When Mrs Main died twenty years later Lewin was joined by the governess from his Reading vicarage and they lived together until his death three years later. She lived on until 1936 when she died aged eighty nine.

The History of Oxford University

On Thursday 8th February we were treated to a very interesting and entertaining talk on the History of Oxford University, by Alistair Lack. The story began in a small house on Merton Street, which was used to house students in the 13th century. The owner of the house was
able to teach them, but not much teaching, or learning, appears to have been done. But in the 1200s the Papal Legate described Oxford as a seat of learning, and the first college – University College – was founded. Thus Oxford became the first English University by date. The Sorbonne in Paris, and Bologna University are the only two older universities in Europe.

Oxford has a number of advantages as a centre of learning. It is surrounded by water, it is very close to the centre of England, it is on the river Thames – a very good route to London and the Continent, and it is close to Woodstock, where there was a royal hunting lodge, so the King was often close by. University College was founded in 1249 by William of Durham, Bishop of Rouen, to satisfy the need for a Civil Service to run the rapidly expanding English State that extended from the border with Scotland to South West France.

Balliol College was the next to be founded – by John Balliol. This college rapidly became a well-known academic centre and has remained so to this day, with many famous graduates, including Lord Curzon Viceroy of India (“a very superior person”), and Harold Macmillan.

New College was founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham Bishop of Winchester (the richest diocese in the world). The College was rich enough to create a large site on which it could accommodate students. The Bishop also founded Winchester College in Winchester, which became a source of supply of students for New College.

Lincoln College, founded in 1427 by the Bishop of Lincoln, was set up as a centre of religious orthodoxy, to counter the influence of the Lollards, a revolutionary movement looking to reform the Church. In the late 16th century under Thomas Bodley the Bodleian Library
was begun, building on the smaller Duke Humfrey’s Library. In 1610 Bodley persuaded the King to decree that a copy of every book printed in England should be sent to his library – a requirement that continues to this day.

All Souls College is a unique establishment. There are no undergraduates, and all members are automatically Fellows. The fine buildings were designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. A famous ritual connected with the College is the Mallard Dinner, where Fellows wine and dine before setting off round the College to “Hunt the Mallard”. It is not a very frequent occurrence – once every 100 years.

Another more famous ritual occurs every May Day, when the college choristers sing Latin Hymns from the tower of Magdalen College. Mr Lack’s grandson is a member of the Choir and has sung at this event (and his younger grandson says he would also like to).

The Bear Pub is the oldest in Oxford, founded in the 1400s. Christchurch Dining Hall was used as the Hogwarts Hall in the Harry Potter films, though after the first film a mockup was used instead. Queen Victoria loved Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, whose portrait hangs in the Dining Hall. Victoria apparently asked Lewis Carroll if he would send her his next book after “Alice in Wonderland”, and he agreed, sending her his “Principles of Euclidian Geometry”.

John Radcliffe was a noted and important benefactor in Oxford. On his death he bequeathed money to build the Radcliffe Camera, which became the first Science Library in Oxford.
The Sheldonian Theatre was designed by the young Christopher Wren and financed by Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury. In front there is a series of busts on pillars which are the “Terms” – gods protectors of boundaries.

The Clarendon Building, built by Hawksmoor, once housed the printing presses of the Oxford University Press (OUP). The OUP moved in the 1820s to Walton Street, and became the largest
publishing house in the world.

The Natural History Museum was built in the 1840s, and was the venue for the famous debate on “Evolution” – between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce (Soapy Sam). It is also the home for many Swifts who each year, after migrating back to Oxford make their nest in the museum tower.

In about 1680 Elias Ashmole donated his Cabinet of Curiosities to the new museum in Broad Street, which soon migrated to the present building in Beaumont Street and became the Ashmolean Museum – the first public museum in the world.

Oxford has fostered 50 Nobel Prize winners. It also has more religious buildings than anywhere else in England. Oxford was the venue for the breaking of the 4-minute mile in 1954 by Roger Banister, assisted by Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher. The first women’s college, Somerville College, was founded in 1879. Famous women graduates include Dorothy Hodgkin, Nobel Prize
winner in Chemistry, and Margaret Thatcher. The first female head of a former male Oxford College was Marilyn Butler. Women were allowed to take an Oxford degree after World
War 1. The present Vice-Chancellor, number 223, is, for the first time, a woman, Louise Richardson.

The Prehistory of the Upper Thames

This talk was given to the Society by Andrew Sargent.

Mr Sargent began by telling us that the period he would cover spanned about 500,000 years. This was a time when Britain was attached to the European mainland, the climate was similar to the Mediterranean climate today , and the fauna and flora were very different from the present. The Thames followed a very different course then, taking a channel to the north of the present one.

The earliest remains of ancestors of modern man (hominids) in Britain were found in Boxgrove in Sussex, and have been dated to 500,000 years old. Similar (though later) finds were made in Swanscombe in Kent and Kents Cavern in Devon. Later evidence of hominids in Britain is rather slight for a long period, until the appearance of Neanderthal man some 60,000 years ago. Only a few Neanderthal remains have been found in the Thames Valley.

The first humans appeared on the scene about 40,000 years ago, although again there is very little evidence of their presence in this area. Then about 16,000 years ago the climate worsened and the Neanderthals disappeared. From now on there is more evidence of human activity. Flint axes and tools have been found in many places, including Burford and Goring, and this shows that groups were passing along the Thames, probably in pursuit of game.

Between 9,500 and 6,000 years ago, the Mesolithic (Middle Stone) Age, objects with a ritual significance were produced, and around 6,000 BC, at the beginning of the Neolithic Age, the first pottery and stone tools have been found, for example on the confluence of the Ock and the Thames, and in Tubney woods. Around this time was the start of mixed farming. The communities were still mobile, and there is only evidence of a little cereal farming. The main activity seems to have been the clearing of ground for grazing livestock. There have been many finds in Stanton Harcourt, and in Benson from this period.

Some of the most significant monuments in the Upper Thames area from the Neolithic period were Waylands Smithy on the Downs (a Long Barrow), the Devils Quoits at Stanton Harcourt, structures at Dorchester on Thames and Barrows in Barrow Hills in Radley. By the second millennium BC barrows were no longer used. With the onset of the Bronze Age we see the rise of a class of leaders, and evidence of conflict and the development of metal weapons. Trade, too, became more important, and there is evidence that Wallingford became an entrepôt for traders using the Thames to carry goods to the London area. Further down river, Runnymede became an even larger entrepôt.

At this time people were often buried with weapons and rich objects, and many swords were cast into the river, probably as a ritual action. In the Iron Age, between 800 BC and the Roman invasion, there is more evidence that a stable social order was developing. Small settlements
were developing on a permanent basis, with fields and permanent dwellings. In Stanton Harcourt, and nearby at Gravelly Guy there was evidence of about 30 round houses. Another example was Mingies Ditch, on the Windrush, a farmstead with rough grazing for livestock.
At about the same time, hill forts were developing, for example at Wittenham Clumps. Similar settlements were built in lowland areas too. Many of them survived the Roman invasion and have become known as Oppidums (Oppida). A good example of that is Silchester, in Hampshire.
Abingdon, too, may have been an Oppidum. It was occupied through the whole of the Iron Age, and it has claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited town in the country.

The main ‘Roman’ towns in this area were Abingdon, Cirencester, Dorchester, Oxford and Wallingford. The Roman occupation led to a more peaceful existence for the native people who often began to think of themselves as Romans, and villas appeared in many places. These were usually farmsteads, and not necessarily luxurious places, as they might have been in Italy. The
Romans themselves were rather dismissive of the natives, often referring to them as “Britunculi” (titchy Britons), but there is little evidence in this area of poor relations between occupiers and occupied.