Custom, Community and Conflict in South Oxfordshire

Historical Archives

Rural Resistance 1800-1914:

Custom, Community and Conflict in South Oxfordshire.

Kate Tiller


On Sunday morning, 21 November 1830, a large crowd gathered in the churchyard of Benson in south Oxfordshire. They were waiting for Thomas Newton, a substantial farmer who owned or occupied virtually the whole of the hamlet of Crowmarsh Battle (also known as Preston Crowmarsh) on the bank of the Tames just to the west of Benson. A notice had recently appeared on Jackson’s Oxford Journal announcing that an application was to be made to parliament for a bill


to divide, allot and inclose, or to divide and allot only; and also for draining and improving all the open and common fields, common meadows, common pastures and commonable lands, and waste grounds, in the parish of … Benson, and in the hamlet or tything of Berrick Salome, in the parish of Shalgrove, and in the parish of Ewelme, all in the county of Oxford, with power to divide and allot, with consent of the respective owners, and upon just and reasonable allowances, any homesteads, gardens, orchards and old inclosed arable, meadow, and pasture land, and other ancient inclosures and lands, lying in either of the said parishes.


This was widely recognised as Thomas Newton’s latest attempt to transform the customary common field agriculture of the local district and, like his previous attempts, had generated concerted opposition. It was expected that Newton, his son, or a representative would that morning post the required notice of the planned enclosure on the door of the parish church at Benson. As in the case of other opposed enclosures, this was seen as a critical occasion on which to manifest mass objections to the proposal. When Newton failed to appear, the protesters marched to Crowmarsh Battle Farm and, armed with sledgehammers taken from local smithies, broke down the barn doors and demanded undertakings that neither Newton nor his son would now or in the future proceed with any enclosure. They threatened to break his threshing machines and eventually did so.


These events have been briefly catalogued by Hobsbawm and Rudé as part of the broader picture of the Swing Riots. The first disturbance in Oxfordshire had taken place near Henley on 20 November and on the following day the Benson protesters went on to break threshing machines at Ewelme, Berrick and Rofford. Whilst the accounts in Captain Swing and elsewhere acknowledge the role of a local enclosure grievance, their concern is with the overall pattern of events, stressing widespread grievances a bout wages and the use of machinery and exploring the transmission of agitation and possibly agitators from district to district. Moreover, they rely primarily on evidence from central government and national press sources, which convey a tone of anxious concern about general insurgency. When it comes to understanding the dynamics of rural resistance this external perspective is limiting. It becomes necessary, and, as this chapter aims to show, possible to look not only at a flashpoint like 21 November 1830 but at both the preceding and succeeding years of frequently tense transition from a local customary and communal culture, in which common field agriculture was the key activity, to an altered landscape of private interests, independent cultivation and changed social relationships. To take this perspective was one of the challenges which E.P. Thompson perceived on the first publication of Captain Swing, a study of which he wrote, ‘[it] raises time and again questions which demand the refinement of our historical methods … which will set local historians looking at their villages with far more subtle and complex questions in their minds; and which has placed all social historians in [the authors’] debt’.


These subtle and complex questions have been posed. As the work of the regeneration of historians since Hobsba wm and Rudé is increasingly demonstrating, rural resistance involved solidarities of greater complexity than any analysis based simply on monolithic views of class interest will allow. this study explores such alignments and identities through a local study. Its starting point is a re-examination of the events of November 1830. From detailed local evidence the communal context of what occurred emerges, as does its genesis in a very much longer process of actual and potential changes, some agreed, some fiercely contested. In this respect Benson is set alongside the adjoining south Oxfordshire parishes of Ewelme and Berrick Salome, all linked by experiences of surviving common fields, patterns of tenure, and late and contested parliamentary enclosure (or in the case of Ewelme, no parliamentary enclosure). The story thus stretches back into the late eighteenth century and continues into the 1860s (and in the case of Ewelme, into the early twentieth century). Under this sustained pressure to enclose, which persisted for over half a century, many realities were exposed. The evidence is clear that the customary community was a live, working entity. Its active survival reflected not a retrospectively rigid resistance to all change, but rather a capacity to accommodate internal change by local consensus. Just who were the parties to local consensus in this evolved form of customary culture was most apparent when that culture came under external threat. This study also illustrates the extent and effectiveness of opposition of enclosure, much of it prior to any formal parliamentary process. In this respect, the south Oxfordshire evidence amplifies the findings of J.M. Neeson for Northamptonshire and raises similar questions about the character of those communities which generated opposition to enclosure. The identity of those actively involved in opposition and their tactics in mobilizing both those above and below them in the social scale suggests the key role of local élites in the defence of custom (and of their own economic interest as they perceived it). Through all of this the continued effectiveness of common field farming is striking.



Thomas Newton, who was to prove a frequent catalyst in events in south Oxfordshire, had moved to the district in 1797, establishing himself at Crowmarsh Battle Farm. Here he refurbished the farmhouse and an impressive range of barns. He rapidly became known as an enterprising and assertive farmer whose practices were quoted by Arthur Young in his General View of the Agriculture of Oxfordshire (1813). Newton set about extending his landholding and his farming methods into the neighbouring parishes of Benson and Ewelme, which lie between the Thames and the Chiltern hills. this land was known for its fruitful soils, gravelly loams on which (as C.S. Read observed in his 1854 essay ‘On the farming of Oxfordshire’) ‘double cropping may be carried out in a manner which reflects the highest credit on the enlightened husbandmen of these localities’. The relative prosperity and effective farming of the area within a common field system of cultivation had been noticeable in the seventeenth century. Michael Havinden describes the continuing progress of south Oxfordshire farmers in the sometimes difficult period 1640-1730 and attributes it not only to the natural advantages of the terrain but also to the benefits of access to London, where wheat and barley found a ready market. Henley, Wallingford and Benson itself all had riverside wharves and malthouses. Moreover, the London to Gloucester road, turnpiked in 1736 and with links north to Oxford and Birmingham, ran less than a mile south of Ewelme and through the common fields to Bens on itself. Several large coaching inns and the elegant brick and sash-windowed façades bestowed on houses along the village street bear testimony to the prosperity and extensive employment which the coaching trade brought to Benson in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This good fortune was to be increasingly challenged from 1840 when the Great Western Railway opened with a station some five and a half miles away at Wallingford, but when Thomas Newton came to Benson he found a large village with a open landholding and social structure and flourishing common fields. As a correspondent to the Gentleman’s Magazine wrote of a visit to the village in June 1793, he was awakened at five in the morning by ‘the cowherd sounding his horn to rouse the milkmaids to be prepared on his return from the common pasture with the village cows’. Benson has no major resident landowners. Land tax assessment between 1785 and 1832 suggest the pattern of landholding. For example, in 1800, 92 units of property were assessed for the tax in Benson, although the actual number of proprietors was somewhat less, around 69. Allowing for absentee owners, the actual number of occupiers of property in the parish was around 50. This remained the case throughout the period and until Thomas Newton began his property accumulation, no one Benson owner or occupier held property paying more than 13-14 per cent of the parish’s tax. The largest single interest, some 21 per cent, was that of three members of the Shrubb family.


The field system which played such an important part in the lives of the local proprietors encompassed land in three parishes (estimated in 1829 as 1,203 acres in Benson, 461 in Berrick Salome and 428 in Ewelme) and was subject to extremely complex intercommoning and tithe arrangements. Benson had been the seat of a major royal manor at the time of Domesday. Its lands had extended over large parts of south Oxfordshire. When in 1628 Charles I came to sell the manor, it proved impossible to definitively unravel the linked property rights of the associated settlements in and around Benson. The tenants, who held in ancient demesne a hybrid state originally falling between villeinage and full free tenure, asserted their extensive rights of common in a survey of 1606. By 1800 the situation was hardly less complex. With some areas of land already in closes, as around Preston Crowmarsh, Fifield and Berrick Salome, there still remained extensive acreages of common arable and pasture run by local farmers, some of them with interests straddling the three parishes. There was no active manorial jurisdiction to intervene in their determinations. This was the complex scene into which Thomas Newton came. His first attempt to promote enclosure at Benson was in 1807, just one year after he fist embarked on accumulating landholding here. His name appears in the Benson land tax returns in 1806, assessed at £6 13s. 8d. of a parish total of £122 15s. 4d., a stake of 5.4 per cent in the local assessed property. Following the rebuttal of this 1807 enclosure proposal he added the outlying Potters Farm to his holding in 1815, bringing his stake to 10.4 per cent. In 1820 this increased to four holdings (26.9 per cent), in 1827, the year of his major push for an enclosure bill, to 28.9 per cent, and in 1828 to 30.7 per cent. By 1829 Thomas and his son Robert were taxed at £40 17s. 2d., representing one-third of the land tax assessment for Benson. In addition to this sizeable stake Newton had, in 1818, acquired the manor of Fifield. The lands of this small hamlet, within sight of the houses at the eastern end of Benson on the one hand and those of the western end of Ewelme on the other, included parts of the three parish system. In 1827 Thomas’s eldest son, Robert Aldworth Newton, then aged 29 and probably just married, moved into Fifield Manor, thus bracketing Benson with a Newton family presence on each side of the village.


It is clear that the expansion of the Newtons’ interests and T homas’s overt intention to enclose the local open fields met with considerable local resistance long before November 1830. Then notice which Thomas placed in Jackson’s Oxford Journal on 17 November 1827 was even blunter and less reassuring than that which appeared three years later. It informed ‘proprietors of lands and estates in the parish of … Benson … and all other persons whom it may concern’ that parliament would be petitioned to bring in a bill for ‘dividing and allotting all the open and common fields, common meadow, common pastures and commonable lands, and waste ground in the parish of … Benson’. This evoked a swift and highly-organized response. A meeting was held at the White Hart Inn in the centre of Benson and was attended by the principal farmers of the parish. An opposition committee was elected and resolutions passed that an Enclosure Act would not be beneficial, that it would greatly injure the local proprietors, that the waste land ‘in its present state is very valuable to the proprietors’, that the common fields of Benson were so intermixed with those of Ewelme and Berrick that no measure could succeed unless it dealt with all three parishes, and that it was essential that the measure should be opposed. John Franklin, Edward Shrubb and John Hutchings, all substantial farmers, Shrubb with principa l interests in Benson, Franklin in Ewelme and Hutchings in Berrick, were appointed to lease the opposition committee with the energetic help of George Eyre, a member of a leading Ewelme family who was a solicitor. Eyre’s letter to Magdalen College, Oxford, which had landholdings in the parish, vividly conveys the feeling at the time.


Having emphasized the representativeness of the meeting (nearly every proprietor or occupier of land in the three parishes being present except for ‘Ladies, persons residing out of the neighbourhood, or having only the most trifling quantity of the neighbourhood, or having only the most trifling quantity of land’), Eyre asserted that


not even a solitary individual present … was favourable to the intended measure … Mr Newton for the last quarter of a century has been endeavouring by every device that his own imagination could suggest to carry the intended measure.


These attempts dated September 1807 when Newton had first given notice of an intended application to parliament to introduce and Enclosure Bill. This had resulted in a similar protest meeting at the White Hart on 19 October of that year. In the light of unanimous opposition Newton had withdrawn his proposal. On the present occasion, ‘Mr N…. has been working in the most underhand manner and concealed his intention from his neighbours as long as he was able… and never even asked one of them if he had any objection to the application’. Eyre alleged that Newton had exceeded the bounds of truth to obtain support but that the arguments against enclosure were compelling:


Every Proprietor’s Estate in Benson is small, except Mr Newton’s, and it is well known that all small Estates are invariably much depreciated in value by an Inclosure … to say nothing about the Expenses, but the Expenses of allotting Benson would be enormous: there are Estates and Tenures of nearly every different sort and kind mentioned in the Book of Littleton … the boundaries of the Parish are very confused, its Lands strangely intermingled with those of Ewelme and Berrick, and its Common rights very intricate… the Bill … would greatly injure all the Proprietors excepting Mr Newton and completely extinguish those who have nothing but their Land to depend on.


Every Farmer is now able to cultivate his land as he pleases… and the only inconvenience is that of the Lands lying in small pieces; but it is better that the Proprietors should submit to this than to have it remedied at the Expense of their own ruin . There is no Waste Land in the Parish which is not very valuable to the Proprietors in its present state.


There is a large Heath in the parish of Benson – producing Furze, which the Poor enjoy the right of cutting, and this is very serviceable to them.


Mr Newton … is a large Proprietor and desirous of purchasing land; and proposes that the Bill should take power to sell the Waste Land now the Heath just mentioned adjoins his Estate, and several Proprietors should the measure be carried will be obliged to sell their Estates; as there is no Gentleman who has an estate of any consequence in the Parish… it is not probable there would be much competition for the Land… therefore Mr N. would have an opportunity of becoming the Purchaser on his own terms. Eyre ends his letter with an eloquent appeal to the College to oppose the intended application for a bill. Both the Bishop of Oxford, on grounds of injury to the proprietors and the local poor, and Lady Stapleton, the lady of the Manor, are unfavourable to the measure. Moreover, the College’s own holding is likely to depreciate in value. Finally, ‘it would be very much lamented were the notorious avarice of Mr Newton to involve a whole Parish in ruin’.


This highly organized mobilization of opposition to Newton’s enclosure ended in the rebuttal of his 1827 scheme , but there were to be regular November confrontations linked to the timing of parliamentary sessions in succeeding years. In 1829 opposition again went to work, this time having to marshal formal statements of assent, dissent or neutrality on the bill for presentation at Committee stage. The results are shown in Table 1. Only Newton and his son supported the proposal. In terms of people, the opposition was overwhelming. In terms of acreage, resistance at Ewelme, where as we shall see open field farming was most flexible and resilient, was emphatic, whilst in Benson and Berrick the lineup of acreage against Newton was impressive but potentially vulnerable in a system where neuters and doubters were weighed with assents. However, in 1829 the balance of opinion was clear and parliament rejected the bill.


There followed a period of constant vigilance on the part of the opposition and in October 1830 George Eyre was again writing to potential supporters with proof that the vicar of neighbouring Chalgrove in fact opposed an enclosure because it would be ‘injurious to my poorer neighbours’, despite claims to the contrary and troublesome visits from Mr Newton’s lawyers. Whilst acknowledging that a ‘separation of the three parishes and an allotment of lands’ might be desirable, Eyre reiterates that it was impossible to do so ‘with equ al justice to all parties and without occasioning expense or inconvenience’ whilst Mr Newton was the promoter. It was at this stage that Newton claimed that some of those who had signed against his bill the previous year had changed their minds and that he published his notice of 12 November with its references to drainage and improvement, to the consent of the respective owners, and to just and reasonable allowances in an enclosure. On to this cyclical pattern of November confrontations the mass protest of the Swing Riots was superimposed and gained local momentum.




At two o’clock on the morning of Sunday 21 November 1830, Thomas Newton was wakened at Crowmarsh Battle Farm by a group of around thirty labouring men demanding that he listen to their grievances. Newton claimed that they had been sent to destroy his threshing machines. Another account states that they wanted his promise never to attempt an enclosure of Benson. The faces of the men were disguised, although ‘some thought they knew… their voices’. They eventually departed, allegedly having been given money to spend on beer. William Carter, a labourer from Benson, was subsequently committed Oxford Gaol for extorting five shillings from Thomas Newton and threatening to break his threshing machine. At eleven o’clock that morning, a much larger crowd (one estimate put it at ‘upwards of 1,000 persons’) waited at Benson parish church for a copy of Newton’s notice of proposed enclosure to be affixed to the church door. When he failed to appear a throng of several hundred people mae their way to Newton’s farm, broke into the barn and destroyed a threshing machine. Newton promised to dismantle a machine at another of his farms the following day and not to attempt a local enclosure. He donated a barrel of beer at a neighbouring public house. The rioters subsequently called on Robert Newton, his eldest son, and ‘made him pledge himself never to attempt an inclosure, and he made them a present of money’. At nine-thirty p.m. Thomas Newton issued a formal notice that he would not proceed with the enclosure.


Meanwhile the crowd had moved on to break a threshing machine belonging to Mr Shrubb in Benson and another at Mr Eyre’s in Ewelme. These men were leaders of the local opposition to enclosure. The fact that they were victims of the rioters suggests that the disturbances were more than an expression of local enclosure grievances. Threshing machines, and the threat which they posed to winter employment, figure in all the accounts. Dissatisfaction about wages is mentions only once, in Quarter Sessions evidence against six men accused of breaking into Thomas Newton’s yard and not only threatening his machinery but demanding 2s. per day, and they would have it’. The Lord Lieutenant’s analysis, conveyed to the Home Secretary in a letter of 5 December, was that the trouble had been due to illdisposed men coming out of Berkshire and to accounts spread by the press. His enquiries of local magistrates indicated that people were not unhappy about wages; ‘most Parishes have taken measures to have the People employed’. Intriguingly Lord Macclesfield added that ‘I have reason however to think that there are some Farmers who at least would not discourage’ trouble. Certainly a local Benson correspondent stressed the general grievance on enclosure (‘the proposed inclosure is most unpopular with all classes for many miles around Benson’) and claimed that ‘the men were orderly in their conduct, except when they broke open several smithies to obtain sledgehammers.’ When it came to machine-breaking, he too pointed to men from Berkshire, who ‘impress into their service all the labouring people they meet with… The machine destroyers are headed by a man whom they implicitly obey and, after they have finished their work, he begs of the owner of the machine, and is satis fied with any trifle he may receive’. This report interestingly omits reference to the attacks on Shrubb and Eyre but ends, ‘The assemblage at the church was in no way encouraged by the farmers’.


Were the Benson rioters outsiders? The fact that only two of the ten names of those arrested for taking part are readily identifiable in local records and that, unlike the long-running and contemporary enclosure disturbances elsewhere in Oxfordshire at Otmoor, there was no continued violence, suggests that those singled out by the law were from outside the three parishes. The same is unlikely to be true of the hundreds who gathered during the day.


Thomas Newton was quick to seek the punishment of his attackers. The following day he presented himself to the Oxfordshire magistrates and made a sworn deposition of his account of events. He sought out and found alleged accomplices of the rioters who might be persuaded to give evidence at any subsequent trial under the terms of the reward scheme just announced by a government alarmed by the rapid spread of machine-breaking and incendiarism in the southern counties. Fifty pounds was offered for evidence leading to the conviction of a machine-breaker and £500 for that of an incendiary. A free pardon was offered to any accomplice who had not committed incendiarism but was willing t o give evidence. Within a week Lord Macclesfield was writing to the Home Office of the attack on Newton which ‘was attended with great atrocity and extortion of Money and severall Persons are in custody’. The Lord Lieutenant asked that an accomplice expected to give leading evidence be granted a pardon previous to his court appearance. Newton himself undertook to engage counsel and retained as his attorney Mr Croke, also Clerk of the Petty Sessions. Of the eight men convicted at the January Oxfordshire Quarter Sessions of breaking Newton’s threshing machines, four were sentenced to seven years’ transportation and four to twelve months’ imprisonment with hard labour. These were some of the severest punishment of the twenty-six convicted at these Sessions for machinery-breaking in the county, of whom a total of nine were to be transported for seven years and five imprisoned for twelve months. An accomplice giving evidence against Joseph Wheeler, a Benson rioter, at the subsequent Oxford Assizes was met by laughter and barracking in court. Undaunted, Newton pressed on to make the most of both informers and rewards. Mr Coke wrote on his behalf to the Home Office asking for an early confirmation of the convictions so that the maximum rewards could be claimed. Finally, Thomas Newton himself wrote to Lord Milvill:


I humbly and si ncerely thank you for your kind assistance to the agriculturalist by order of the King’s proclamation it was the wisest thing that could be done I can say it was the Salvation of the Nation… I have been the Prosecutor of nine men which broke my Thrashing Machine besides doing me a great deal more Dammage in pulling my barn down with the expenses of prosecutions I shall be a Loan [sic] of a great Deal more than Two Hundred Pounds as I… was the cause of thease men to be Convicted the Magistrates of the County of Oxford say the [sic] believe I am Entitled to the Rewards which you was so kind as to offer… My Lord I will not have one sixpence of these Rewards for my own private use. I hope my views will meet with your Approbation.


Newton’s intention was to invest the reward money in funds with the proceeds to benefit the worthy and compliant poor of Benson. He would give away coats and the residue on ‘the twenty-first day of November in every Year for Ever to such Honest Good Labourers of the Parish of Bensington which shall be thought most worthy of compassion’. He did so because ‘there was only one man in Bensington which came with the Mob to break my Thrashing Machine’. His intention to mark the anniversary of the riots so pointedly seems to have come to nought. There is no record of any resulting charity although his son Robert provided funds for an annually distributed dole after his death in 1879.


The Promises of 1830, made under duress, were not kept. On 20 November 1833 at the Crown Inn in Benson yet another ‘numerous meeting of the proprietors’ was held to express continued opposition to Mr Newton who had ‘abandoned his aforesaid notice but intimated his intention of renewing it next year’, and was seemingly undeterred by twenty-six years resistance. A committee of opposition was formed by George Parsons, John Hutchings, Thomas Weller, John Franklin, John Eyre and William Franklin, and


the Meeting expressed their regret that Mr Newton should live in continual warfare with his neighbours and be incessantly harassing and subjecting them to heavy Expenses by his vexatious Proceedings particularly now the difficulties of the times press so heavily upon them.


The balance of opinion so carefully weighed in acreages in 1829 was re-examined. Deaths in two Benson families, notably the Shrubbs, had converted some 306 acres from dissents to neuters and created a delicate balance which might be calculated just in favour of those opposed to enclosure. This proved the case and no Enclosure Act for Benson, Berrick Salome and Ewelme was successfully promoted until 1852. It took another eleven years to arrive at the final aw ard which implemented the Act. This is perhaps unsurprising given the established unpopularity of the measure. The practical and legal complexities of the property rights and rights of use which were to be replaced remained as intricate as ever. Although Thomas Newton did not live to see the Enclosure Act, his sons continued to farm actively in the area and their war of attrition, together with natural causes, inevitably changed the balance of acreage and of influence locally. The climate for agricultural ‘improvement’ and investment also changed, producing a surge of enclosure activity in Oxfordshire in the 1850s. All of these factors in eventual change deserve further detailed examination, a task beyond the scope and size of this chapter. One other factor in explaining such delayed and protracted change is clearly the vigorous viability of the existing agricultural system. This provided a workable way of life which was at the root of the effective resistance to enclosure. This was particularly apparent in Ewelme, which produced the highest proportions of resistance to enclosure, some of its most energetic leaders and, in the case of over half the parish, continued in open fields after 1863. The remaining part of this chapter will look at the balance of custom and change which sustained Ewelme in this seemingly conservative and tra ditional guise.




I recollect Mr Eyre had 7 yards at Woodlands… I have heard my Grandfather say it formerly used to be ploughed in three lands and a half – and that the ploughing it in three lands only would some time or other give rise to disputes… I have worked upon this Land… it appeared to me to be 7 times as wide as the yard – And I have no doubt whatever that I strided over the yard and found my Master had got his right quantity.


In the common Fields the occupiers of Lands require no Boundaries – for it is a Rule practised in these fields that all men’s Lands should be the same width in proportion to the estimated quantity – that is to say – if I have an acre and my neighbour has one Land – my land must be just twice the width of his – and in order to ascertain each Man has his proper quantity an occupier has nothing to do but run the furlong… that is by taki ng the entire width of the furlong – so that no Man can ever defraud his neighbour without his being able at any distance of time to set the mistake right.


So went the testimony of Henry Tidmarsh, an agricultural labourer from Ewelme, born locally in 1785 and called upon to give evidence of the working of the intercommoning fields following the passage of the 1852 Enclosure Act. Here custom in practice was epitomized as Tidmarsh quoted his own experience, that of this grandfather who had been ‘a small farmer occupying his own estate’ and a former fieldkeeper for Ewelme, and that of a succession of local shepherd. The intercommoning fields were ‘broke’ on the day after harvest, after which the sheep were ‘always penned anywhere promiscuously… and I have seen the Sheep frequently feeding in Newton’s fields between the Turnpike Road and Potters Farm’. The Eyres, who figured so largely in the opposition to Newton, seem to have exercised their common pasture rights to the full.


The heart of Ewelme’s farming lay not in the intercommoned fields, actively though they were exploited, but in the Home Parish, the 1,935 acres surrounding the village of Ewelme itself. Here a number of enclosures existed, close to the settlement and on land out to the east rising on the edge of the Chilterns at Ewelme Park. This left exten sive areas of arable open field arranged in strips. In 1783 this was husbanded in a considerably refined form of a three-field system. The course of husbandry was three crops and a fallow. The great open field on the east had been further divided into three, Grove Field, Middle Field and Gravel Pit Field, one of which was fallow each year and the other two cultivated. Each of the other two great fields was similarly divided into three. The capacity of the system to change further was proved in May 1788 when seven signatories ‘being one third in number and value of the occupiers of Lands and certain common field within the parish of Ewelme’ summoned a meeting at the Greyhound public house to alter the course of husbandry ‘according to such rules and regulations as shall be then approv’d of under the Act of Parliament 13 G 3rd’. This is the Act 13 Geo. III c. 81 of 1773 to which Gilbert Slater devotes a chapter of his The English Peasantry and the Enclosure of Common Fields (1907). The legislation provided for the improvement of open fields by the agreement of three-fourths of proprietors, enabling arable to be ‘ordered, fenced, cultivated or improved’. Agreements were binding for six years or two cycles of the crop rotation . Each year in May a field reeve or reeves were to be elected. Slater concludes that Hunmanby in the East Riding of Yorkshire was the only place where the Act was put into execution. However, it clearly enabled the farmers of Ewelme significantly to change and improve their farming practices by agreement and without recourse to parliamentary enclosure.


Who were the signatories to this move? A comparison of their names – Thomas and John Heath, John Lane, Richard Greenwood, Robert Tidmarsh, Richard Warner and Anne Leaver – with the governing élite of the late eighteenth-century village is instructive. Taking as the principal criteria for élite membership the holding of office as churchwarden or overseer of the poor together with a rateable value of £40 or more at the parish rating of 1785, four family names dominate. They are Batten, Lane, Heath and Greenwood, followed by Warner, Leaver and Eyre. The initiative in guarding and remaking custom rested with a relatively small group amongst a larger body of proprietors. Most of that group also dominated local office holding and held relatively large properties.


When anyone infringed upon this evolving custom reaction was sharp. This happened in April 1825 when John Eyre, John and William Franklin, M. Greenwood, James Warner, Jesse Leaver and Joseph Heath giving notice ‘immediately to throw open all the lands and grounds in your possession which have bee n enclosed or taken from the Waste and commonable Land or Ground’ in Ewelme, He was to cease encroachment and obstruction of rights of commons for ever for ‘unless you do so you will answer the contrary at your peril’. Thus the customary community resisted against its own members and not just to outsiders like Newton. However, this does not seem to have inhibited a willingness to change, for Slater cites the proprietors of Ewelme as making voluntary divisions of land under 4 and 5 Will. IV c. 30 (1834) which facilitated the exchange of intermixed lands.


At the tithe commutation of 1841 the accompanying map reveals a now familiar landscape with expensive open fields, strips and furlongs. Yet the data on land ownership and occupation are less predictable. Of the parish acreage of 2,348 acres 50.4 per cent was owned by one man. He was Sir John Cope, an absentee owner with estates elsewhere in Oxfordshire and Hampshire. Fifty-seven others owned property but only four(Eyre, Greenwood, Franklin and Freeman) to the tune of 100 acres or more. Forty people owned in the range four perches to ten acres. The main reality was a small number of large tenant farmers: Joseph, William and John Franklin between them ran 1,331 acres, or 56.7 per cent of the acreage of Ewelme. Joseph Heath accounted for a further 169 acres. The remaining thirty-f ive tenants were small operators by comparison with this. Control of land was local but polarized. The 1851 census enumerators’ books list eight farmers in Ewelme, farming 2,530 acres and employing 167 men. Of these, the three Franklins provided ninety-four jobs; 145 agricultural labourers lived in Ewelme, by far the largest occupational group in a total male population of 349. Whilst the landscape and farming practices of Ewelme appeared tenaciously traditional into the second half of the nineteenth century, there had been marked changes of organization and concentrations of influence within the local community.


The seemingly archaic aspect of Ewelme’s landscape did not prevent its largest landholding, the former Cope estate, being bought in 1875 by Thomas Taylor. He had been accumulating large areas of land between 1862 and 1876, spending over £177,000 on 4,850 acres of south Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, of which 2,490 acres lay in Ewelme. This included the three largest farms of the village, now tenanted by James Franklin, Thomas Franklin and Jane Orpwood. Their respective sizes, 280 acres, 452 acres and 386 acres, demonstrate the extent of polarization of landholding possible within a traditional field system. During Taylor’s ownership an application was made, in April 1879, to the Inclosure Commissioners for th e enclosure of 1,000 acres in Ewelme and Benson. Nothing seems to have come of this and the proposal disappears from the Commissioners’ reports. In 1884 an altered tithe apportionment was achieved, taking into account changes following the 1863 enclosure. By this time the agricultural depression was firmly established and Thomas Taylor was in trouble. Early in 1883 his Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire estates were valued when the sought to make them security for a £100,000 loan. The survey confirmed the natural advantages of the land, especially around the village of Ewelme where the soil was of ‘very fertile character growing good crops of corn and roots, is in a fair state of cultivation, and is first-rate sound sheep land’. However, the estate


as regards the arrangement of the Farms is exceedingly bad, several very large fields being divided into a great number of allotments, which are apportioned to the farms in the most promiscuous way… each tenant has to go over the land of others to get to his own… distances between the Homesteads and some of the outlying portions of the farms are so considerable that much time and labour are wasted in bringing home produce, carrying out manure and getting on the land to work. his evil might… easily be remedied by more judicious apportionment of the land… (when the exist ing leases expire)… and the rents could be increased.


Perhaps such freedom of action was more apparent than real. For example, rights of pasture were still being exercises on Ewelme Cow Common between 12 May and 11 October each year, and here the Taylor estate did not dominate. Thirteen properties had between them the right to graze fifty-eight cows. Of these, seven were Taylor’s tenants (with twenty-four cow commons) but five were not and had rights to thirty-four cow commons. So Ewelme passed into the twentieth century with ‘rather more than half this parish… legally in the condition of open common fields, and … besides a very extensive -cow-common-‘. Gilbert Slater, in 1907, confirmed that local farmers still enjoyed ‘certain rights of common and of shooting over one another’s land’ but added that no labourers enjoyed rights of common. Slater was clear that after the 1863 enclosure the commonable waste of the local field system had been lost to the poor and that, although allotments in consideration of these cottagers; rights had been made, in practice (just as George Eyre ordinary farms and ‘the poor simply lost their supply of fuel without any compensation’. Slater clearly felt that the central Enclosure Commissioners appointed to regulate the implementation of the General Enclosure Act of 1845, under the terms of which the local enclosure had been made, had failed in their duty not only to facilitate enclosure but ‘ to prevent any injury to the class least able to guard its own interests’. The fact that the Commissioners’ original Provisional Order for Benson, Berrick Salome and Ewelme in November 1852 had allotted just twelve acres for the labouring poor but that in the final settlement this was reduced to three of the 2,450 acres affected by the act suggests that Slater’s strictures were justified.




Slater wrote a hundred years after Thomas Newton’s first attempt to enclose Benson, Berrick and Ewelme. Virtually all the farming names Newton knew had disappeared, although Kelly’s Directory for 1915 lists eleven farmers in Benson, compared with nine in 1852. At Ewelme the number of farmers had dwindled, from seven to three. The Cow Common at Ewelme survived but from seven to three. The Cow Common at Ewelme survived but as a golf course. In Benson the former coaching inns offered hotel accommodation close to the leisure delights of the River Thames. At Gould’s Grove Farm, part of the `Newton holding, Jerome K. Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boa t, was in residence, although in 1910 the interest in the surrounding land remained with T.D. Newton whose address was Union Stockyards, Chicago, USA. Succeeding generations of Newtons apparently continued to seize commercial opportunities, even if they lay in a direction threatening to home agriculture. Locally, too, Newton’s successors were acting ‘on the basis of a cool, economic calculation’ as John Orr, surveying Oxfordshire agriculture in 1916, found. Crowmarsh Battle had been famous for its flock of Hampshire Down sheep. In 1897 all stock-keeping had been abandoned on economic grounds. Orr found Crowmarsh Battle out of step with other local farmers who had determinedly stayed with mixed farming, corn, sheep and bullocks. Nevertheless, Orr found that


to cross the district… is to be impressed by the achievements as well as by the possibilities of English agriculture. The appearance of the fields, with scarcely a fence, and with trees relegated so often to the neighbourhood of villages, to the banks of rivers, or on the roadside, suggests decks cleared for action. It is possible that these decks are not so fully manned as they once were… but progress is being made.


If some prospered in farming, what of the agricultural labourers? The census returns for Ewelme are telling. In 1851 the population had been 673, of whom 145 were agricultural labourers; in 1891 it was 540, of whom 86 were agricultural labourers. Not only had farming employment dwindled drastically but the age structure of the workforce had changed markedly from 38 farmworkers under 20, 56 aged 21-40, and 51 over 40 in 1851, top 16 under 20, 25 aged 21-40, and 45 over 41 (including 7 almsmen) in 1891. Overall population figures show Benson growing rapidly, by 45 per cent, in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, barely sustaining that growth in the middle years, and suffering absolute decline in numbers from 1871 onwards. In Ewelme there was more gradual growth, reaching a 41 per cent increase by 1871, and thereafter even more rapid decline than at Benson. It was in the 1870s too that many traditional farming names disappeared from local records. The communities suffered not just in numbers but in a decline in the vigour of village life, as at Benson, a distinctly open village, which


had once the reputation of being a very rough place. Fight were a frequent occurrence during the days of the old Benson Benefit Club… the great day was Whit Tuesday and it was a pleasant sight to see the old and young men in their blue ribbons marching behind the brass band down the village street to church. the day finished up by a large banquet of roast be ef and beer at the Crown. A small Fair was erected in the open space near the latter and here unfortunately some of the lively ones got out of hand as the day closed,m and fighting (minus glove) was the order of the day. I believe the old village police preferred to give this corner of Benson a wide berth at these exciting times.


The Benefit Club was dissolved around 1890.


This study has pursued the level of historical understanding to be gained from a close scrutiny of local evidence. Insights into the processes of rural change emerge at both specific and general levels of question and debate. The south Oxfordshire experience suggests that enclosure could be redundant, much delayed or partial as a mechanism of change. Factors in its late or incomplete implementation were absentee lordship, diversity of landholding, the complexity of existing rights, natural advantages of soil quality, access to markets and the capacity of the open-field system to survive by itself changing. Custom continued to provide a framework for this internal modernization, which was achieved by local consent. However, the parties to that customary consent were increasingly limited. Rural custom did adapt to changing contexts. Local élites of small and middling farmers played the key role. This was most apparent under the galvanizing effect of an outside pressure to change. The continuing gulf of attitudes and farming practice between the leaders of the customary community and the Newton family throughout the nineteenth century demonstrates the depth of difference,. Opposition to parliamentary enclosure was effective. Its full extent emerges only outside formal parliamentary procedures. The farmers of the common fields, with their influence and resource, were at the centre of opposition. They appealed both up and down the social scale for partners in consensus but neither their clerical, collegiate and landholding allies nor the numerous wage labourers already part of the local economy were full partners to the customary society. Men like Henry Tidmarsh, whose family slipped from small independent farmers to labourers in the early nineteenth century, were imbued with the custom of the common fields as a working system, yet played a diminishing role within it. The Swing Riots of 1830 provided an occasion to further local opposition to enclosure but also a rare chance for some insiders, boosted by outsiders, to air different grievances. It was in the 1870s that the viable customary society really began to disintegrate in south Oxfordshire. That these changes occurred in areas of early enclosure, recent enclosure and no enclosure suggests that wider economic shifts and agricultural depression lay at the root of this change.

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