Category Archives: General interest

Steam and Steel in the Vale of the White Horse

On Thursday 9th November the History Society heard a lively and informative talk by Tony Hadland on “Steam and Steel in the Vale of the White Horse”.

Mr Hadland described in detail the history of two enterprises, beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution, that at first manufactured farm equipment, but then went on to diversify into other spheres. He also described the history of the Wantage Tramway, that emerged later.

Tony Hadland’s first enterprise was Wantage Engineering, started by John Austin, that made small-scale farm equipment. Its development was affected by the Swing Riots in 1830, that started in Hungerford but spread to Wantage, and the foundry was attacked and damaged by the rioters. Arrests were made, and the prisoners sent to Abingdon Gaol, but later set free. The foundry recovered, and continued making farm machinery, including Ploughs, Threshers, Winnowing and Dressing machines, and also traction engines. By 1858 60 men were employed
there, and in 1860 they had developed a steam engine that could connect in the fields with Threshers. They were now exporting to many countries in Europe, including Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. By the end of the century, they were exporting to places like Argentina, Australia and Malaya.

In 1900 the Company was bought by Lord Wantage, who had been MP for Berkshire for 20 years, and Lord Lieutenant for 15. He had been one of the Founders of the British Red Cross Society, and a major contributor to the Wantage Tramway Company. This helped the
Company to continue, and production was greatly increased. At this time they developed a mobile electricity generator, which was very advanced for its time. When Lord Wantage died, the Company continued to be assisted by his Widow, Lady Wantage. They developed
further during WW1 when they were converted to munitions, and on to WW2, when they contributed to the manufacture of the Bouncing Bomb. After the War the firm continued with high precision milling, and work for the nuclear industry. Traction engines continued to attract the public’s interest, and one such engine, named “Constance”, used to be seen frequently at rallies around the country.

The second Company described by Tony Hadland was Nalder & Nalder. Based in East Challow, this company was founded by the Nalder Brothers, making use of the Wilts & Berks canal to transport goods and machinery. They began in about 1857 in a ramshackle building behind a
bpub, the Goodlake Arms. Like the previous company they specialised at first in manufacture of farm machinery, in particular in dressing and grading grain, but also in threshing machines and traction engines. But by dint of clever advertising and strong local support their growth was
rapid. By 1903 they employed 150 men, and were exporting widely. Many medals were won over the years. By the 20th century they had also diversified into food and drink production, especially into cocoa and coffee products. The company enjoyed the support of many local people, and built a housing estate for their employees.

They were also instrumental in helping to fund the third enterprise dealt with by Tony Harland, the Wantage Tramway. This was formed in 1873 to link Wantage with its railway station. It was part of a plan to cover Berkshire with a network of trams. It opened in 1875, and at first it was
horse-drawn, but quickly converted to steam. It was popular, but very slow, and could not compete with the motor car which was fast developing in the later years. It closed to public use in 1925, then to freight in 1945. The most famous locomotive, called ‘Jane’, or ‘Shannon’, still exists, and can now be found in Didcot Railway Museum.


The University of Oxford Botanic Garden – The First 393 years

On 12th October Timothy Walker gave a highly entertaining and informative talk on
“The University of Oxford Botanic Garden – The First 393 years”. The Garden was founded in 1621 with an endowment of £5000 by Sir Henry Danvers, 1st Earl of Danby. The land chosen had previously been the Jewish cemetery, and was prone to serious flooding in winter. This was rectified by the addition of large quantities of college waste sourced from the University scavenger “which added to the fertility of the soil”.

The original rectangular garden was surrounded by high stone walls – the work of Nicholas Stone – and constructed of local Headington stone. The magnificent Danby Arch was completed in 1633. The Latin inscription reads “To promote learning and glorify the work of God”. The purpose of the Garden was the cultivation of medicinal plants to support the University teaching, and its first “Horti Praefectus” was Jacob Bobart, a German botanist who arrived just
before the Civil War. His great achievement was to publish a catalogue in 1648 of the 1600 plants in his care in alphabetical order. One item from the original list is still alive in the Garden – asingle male Yew Tree. Its female companion died in 1972, and in 1992 the survivor changed Sex! This unusual ability to change from male to female is known as reproductive assurance, and this tree was the first conifer known to do this.

In 1659 a Herbal was produced by Robert Lovell which enabled students in Oxford and elsewhere to see the plants and their uses – a discipline still taught today. Timothy Walker then went on to talk about various plants and their special characteristics, for example each Yucca species needs a different moth to fertilise it. Research has also been done on locust
behaviour to determine which plants attract them to combat the damage done by huge infestations. The London Plane Tree was also first propagated in Oxford after seeds were brought in. The exchange of seeds between various botanic gardens is a practice that still takes place today.

Continuing with the history, we learned that Robert Morison became the first Professor of Botany in 1669, and in 1670 he gave the first lectures in the world on plant diversity. Johann Dillenius became the first holder of the Chair of Botany which was endowed by William Sherard. He was followed by Humphry Sibthorp, and later his son John, who in 1794 published “Flora Oxoniensis”, illustrated by Ferdinand Bauer.

We learned that greenhouses became a feature of the Garden in 1766. They were known to still be in existence in 1842. They were heated by trolleys filled with hot coals that were pulled through the houses throughout the night. Charles Daubeny (1834-67) was another significant figure associated with the Garden. He conducted experiments on the nutrition of plants. He also visited Chatsworth and was instrumental in bringing the giant Amazonian Lily to Oxford. It
required a special pond to be built to house it.

Between 1884 and 1888 Isaac Balfour became Professor of Botany at Oxford, and undertook a reorganisation of the layout of the Garden, classifying plants in beds. In more recent times modern methods have resulted in some alterations in these classifications. Some notable features of the Garden have been the Rock Garden, the main herbaceous border and the vegetable beds, and since 1983 the Garden has hosted the national collection of Euphorbias.
Another important development was the acquisition in 1963 of the Harcourt Arboretum. It was evident that the Garden will continue to evolve and change with each new Director, and remain an important feature of Oxford life.


Summer Visit to Coleshill – 8th July 2017

Once again we had a beautiful day for our visit to Coleshill to see the site of the wartime training area for “Auxiliers”, whose function would have been to form a resistance force
in the event that the German invasion had succeeded.

We were met by Liza Dibble the NT Community Learning Officer, and given a short introduction to the estate. It is a largely agricultural area with 11 tenanted farms, three of which are organic dairies, with approximately 400 acres of woodland.

The first ideas for this unit were discussed as early as 1937 and by 1940, with Hitler threatening invasion with Operation Sealion the unit was set up. It was decided that people should be trained centrally and Coleshill was chosen as a suitable site. The house was then occupied by 2 elderly ladies and it was thought that the site could be easily concealed and kept secret while also having easy access to the rail network.

Trainees were hand-picked and known as ‘Auxiliers’. – Many were recruited from the farming and gamekeeping communities because of the skills they already possessed. Our first stop was at the guard house beside the road which still exists in its original form. This is open to the public and contains several information boards and also a recording of one of the original trainees recruited as a boy of 17 who when asked if he was ever afraid said “When you are 17
you are invincible”. The guard house was well protected by trees so would not have been visible from the air.

The Unit was commanded by Col. Mike Gubbins and many of the recruits were veterans of the First World War or too young to be called up for the Second. We saw a map of the expected lines of attack in the event of invasion, and the code name for the Defence Operation was to be “Cromwell”. Each patrol had their own base unknown to any other for security reasons. About 3000 men in total were recruited, spread over the country. By December 1944 when it became clear they would not be needed the units were stood down, with instructions to destroy their operational bases, but this was not always obeyed. They were never awarded medals or officially acknowledged.

We were given fascinating details of the equipment and instruction booklets issued to each man. Equipment included a garrotting wire and commando knife as well as a revolver and sniper rifle. They were also issued with very advanced radios, none of which now exist even at Bletchley Park. The pamphlets were given covers designed to conceal the true nature of their contents, which included instructions on self-defence, weapon handling and explosives. One booklet was entitled “Highworth Fertilizers”.

We also learned something of the original 17th century house which was destroyed by fire in 1952. A garden now marks the ground plan. The personnel involved in these units were all men, with the exception of 2 very skilled women radio operators known as “Secret Sweeties”.

The next stage of the visit involved a fairly lengthy walk through woodland to the site of the actual training base, which had been examined exhaustively by an archaeological team. This consisted of an underground bunker replicating the bases from which the men would operate. It was entered via a concealed shaft with a ladder, there was a lavatory area and a blast barrier to provide a limited protection in the event of a grenade attack. There were also the remains of bed bases which could have accommodated 8 men, and also a storage area. We entered and left via the escape tunnel which would have given access into the Ha-Ha by dislodging blocking stones. There was a ventilation shaft disguised in the form of a tree, which would also have removed smells.

We were also shown concrete bases of accommodation blocks used for the trainees who came down for long weekend sessions. And our guide pointed out a number of mysterious holes in the ground, which she said were known as “sites of indeterminate use”(ie no-one knew what they were for).

At the end of our walk back we were able to enjoy the glorious views over the fields and woodland to the White Horse in the far distance. We were also shown some very moving plaques on some of the trees commemorating men who had trained on the site and later lost their lives when they had moved on to other wartime service.

We were very much indebted to Liza for her very well-informed and enjoyable tour.

Janet Taylor