Category Archives: Talks

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.

 

Beer, Sausages and Marmalade – 19th Century Food in Oxford

On September 14th Liz Woolley gave a talk to us on “Beer, Sausages and Marmalade – 19th Century Food in Oxford”. She began by mentioning the main providers of food and drink supplies – namely Brewers, Butchers, Corn Dealers and Bakers, Grocers and Provision Merchants.

Brewing had taken place in Oxford from Medieval times, but the demand for beer and other food items increased substantially in the 19th Century as the population grew and tourism created more demand. There were four main brewing families – the Tawneys, the Halls, the
Treachers and the Morrells. They were all related by marriage and were men of wealth and influence in the city. Hanleys, who operated from Pembroke Street on the site of the present Modern Art building, were later taken over by Halls. Their water was supplied by four wells on the premises and their offices were in Queen Street, on the site of the BHS store. The Pembroke
Street building was designed by the architect H G W Drinkwater who carried out a number of other commissions for Breweries and industrial buildings in Oxford.

In addition to the breweries there were two associated malthouses. Edward Tawney owned Fox’s Malthouse and in 1790 he built 1 Fisher Row and also a large property next door as an almshouse for 6 men and 6 women. Philanthropy seemed to go hand in hand with many of the influential businesses in the city. Edward Tawney also ran the brewery in St Thomas Street, which later became Morrells Lion Brewery. Fortunately the redevelopment of the site
allowed for the Brewery chimney and water wheel to remain. In addition to the main breweries there were many smaller operations including colleges and the Radcliffe Infirmary. We were told that patients were allowed a ration of 1½ pints per day!

In 1883 there were 319 outlets for alcohol to serve a population of 42,000. Butchery was another important provider of food, and in the 19th century the Cattle Market was a very important feature of city life. It was situated in what is now Gloucester Green, and was supplied from a wide area. Farmers brought their cattle by road or rail. One feature of this trade was the
appearance of the Oxford Sausage, which was a very spicy blend of pork, veal, lemon, herbs and spices, not encased in the normal sausage skin. A Poet Laureate actually called a collection of poems “The Oxford Sausage”. It quite quickly became famous, thanks to clever publicity that referred to the ‘celebrated’ Oxford Sausage, and claimed Royal connections (because
students related to the Royal Family bought them).

The Covered Market was another very important feature of Oxford life. It was supplied and run by local farmers. It was described as “the biggest market under one roof in England”. An important figure there was William H Alden, who had a farm off the Abingdon Road. His stall is still operating in the Covered Market in the 21st century. William Alden’s son, Leonard ran it until 1937, when he died in a road accident.

Another important activity in Oxford was the sale of Corn, hence the Cornmarket, and the Corn Exchange in George Street. One of the most famous, and notorious, was Isaac Grubb, a non-conformist corn merchant and baker. Unfortunately he became very unpopular among the population because he was suspected of selling bread at cheaper prices to the University Colleges than to the people at large. This led to riots in the city centre, which became so bad that the Army (Guards from Windsor) were called out. Eventually things quietened down, and the price of bread was lowered.This was followed by the appearance of Bakeries that had a tea room attached. One of the most popular of these was Boffins, in the High Street near the Carfax.

In the 19th Century food, especially groceries, began to be sold as packaged food, and this became very popular. Shops specialising in this became very successful. One of these was Underhills, that started life in the High Street, then branched into the Cornmarket, and St Clements in the ‘suburbs’. The Owner, Charles Underhill, became Mayor of Oxford in 1887, and his son, Sydney, was also elected Mayor.

Another establishment, Grimbly Hughes, was also very successful, lasting well into the 20th Century. James Hughes was Mayor of Oxford 6 times. The invention of Oxford Marmalade was credited to Sarah Cooper. In 1902 Frank Cooper moved the family business to the factory building opposite the Station in what is now Frideswide Square. The well-known façade is still
there, but without the famous sign advertising Oxford Marmalade. The product became celebrated both in this country and abroad. Frank Cooper created a tourist book on Oxford which contained many pages on Marmalade. Famously, Scott took large quantities of Cooper’s Marmalade to the South Pole and Kim Philby was also supplied by the KGB on his defection to the Soviet Union. However, not everyone was a fan. One customer wrote that she was ‘very disappointed’ with the product, and suggested ways in which it might be improved.