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.

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.