Historical description of Oxfordshire, England

Map of Oxfordshire

Oxfordshire, Oxford, or Oxon, an inland county, chiefly within the basin of the Thames. It is bounded on the NW and the N by Warwickshire, on the NE by Northamptonshire, on the E by Bucks, on the SE, the S, and the SW by Berks, on the W by Gloucestershire. Its outline is exceedingly irregular; commences, on the N, in an apex, at the Three Shire Stone; expands irregularly southward till it attains a breadth of 34 miles; contracts suddenly at the middle, and for about 8 miles in the vicinity of Oxford, to a mean breadth of 7 miles; and stretches thence south-south-eastward with a maximum breadth of about 12 miles. Its boundary, over most of the contact with Northamptonshire, is the river Cherwell—over all the long contact with Berks, is the Isis or Thames; but almost everywhere else, is artificial. Its greatest length, from NNW to SSE, is 50 miles; its greatest breadth, as already noted, is 34 miles; its circuit is about 180 miles—of which about 55 is along the Isis or Thames; and its area is 483,614 acres. The population, which has steadily increased during the 19th century, was in 1801, 111,977; in 1821, 138,224; in 1841, 163,127; in 1861, 170,944; in 1881,179,650; and in 1891, 185,669. The northern section is prevailingly flat, wants sufficient sylvan embellishment, is disfigured by stone fences, and fatigues the eye by rude monotony. The central section, excepting an elevated platform E of Oxford, is also flat, yet has a profusion of wood, a luxuriousness of hedgerows, and a wealth of general cultivation which give it a pleasing aspect. The elevated platform E of Oxford rises in the immediate vicinity of the city, stretches away between the valleys of the Cherwell and the Thames, and attains its highest elevation in Beckley Hill. The south-eastern section is crossed by the Chiltern Hills, exhibits a charming contour, with fine diversity of hill and vale, and attains its greatest altitudes on Nuffield Common and Nettlebed Hill, respectively 757 and 820 feet high. The rivers are popularly said to be threescore and ten; two trivial ones in the extreme N belong to the systems of the Ouse and the Warwickshire Avon; the chief one, more than equal to all the rest, is the Isis or Thames; and the principal of the others, all flowing to the Isis or the Thames, are the Windrush, the Evenlode, the Cherwell, and the Thame.

The northern section of the county, to the aggregate of nearly one-half of the entire area, consists of lias rocks— sand, upper lias clay, marlstone, and lower lias clay and lime; the central section, to the extent of about one-third of the entire area, consists of lower oolite rocks—cornbrash, forest marble, Bradford clay, Bath oolite, fullers' earth, and inferior oolite; the southern section, to a considerable extent, consists of middle oolite rocks—coral rag, calcareous grit, and Oxford clay; and the south-eastern section consists partly of upper oolite rocks—Portland limestone, sandstone, Kimmeridge clay—and partly of chalk rocks. Very fine marl is often found at a small depth, and has been advantageously used as a manure. Oolitic sandstone is quarried in several places, particularly near Burford, and was the building material of St Paul's Cathedral in London and of not a few other noted structures. The grey oolite limestone of Stonesfield abounds in fossils, and is so worked as to be used as a roofing-slate. The forest marble of Wychwood is occasionally worked as a coarse marble. A very fine ochre, of true yellow colour, very weighty, and said to be the best in the world, is obtained at Shotover Hill, near Oxford. The clays of the Oxford clay formation were formerly used with some success in pottery, but are now little used. A land spring is at Assendon, and chalybeate springs are at Cornbury, Ewelme, and near Goring.

The soils are very various. Mr Arthur Young, who assumed the area to be 474,836 acres, distributed it into 79,635 acres of red land, 164,023 of stonebrash, 64,778 of Chiltern chalk, and 166,400 of miscellaneous soils. The red land is in the northern section, consists principally of rich and very fertile loam, and is deep, sound, and friable. The stonebrash prevails chiefly in the central section, consists of the detritus of the subjacent rocks, including many fragments of them, and is generally a loose, dry, friable sand or loam. The Chiltern chalk lies in the south-eastern section, has a very considerable intermixture of flint, mostly brown, rough, crusty, and honeycombed, and is of various depths, and generally sound and dry. The miscellaneous soils are of all sorts, from loose sand to heavy clay, pass into one another by very irregular transitions, and range from fertile loam to either poor sand or stiff retentive clay. Georgical improvement has been extensive and various, and has converted a large aggregate of wastes into fruitful fields. Husbandry, in a general view, has made great progress, and now entitles Oxfordshire to a respectable rank among agricultural counties. The course of crops, on the lighter soils, is the four-year Norfolk rotation, usually lengthened to six years with pulse and oats, or with crops of equivalent character; and, on the heavier soils, which have been drained and lie on irretentive subsoils, it is the convertible system, or such as divides the whole arable land into moieties under artificial grass and under rotation crops, and usually consists of first turnips or other roots, next barley or oats, next three or more years of clover and grass seeds, next wheat, and finally beans. Barley usually yields about 7 qrs. per acre, and clover 1 1/2 ton. Other crops, in peculiar situations or under peculiar circumstances, are sainfoin, lentils, rape, chicory, and rhubarb. Meadows and pastures, along the banks of the streams, are of large aggregate extent, have been pronounced the greatest glory of Oxfordshire, and are devoted chiefly to the dairy. The average weekly produce of butter, from the richer pastures, has been estimated at from 5 to 6 Ibs. per cow. The short-horned cows, the Ayrshires, the Devonshires, and the Aldemeys are used for the dairy, and so many other breeds, pure and crossed, occur either for the dairy or for fattening as to make the bovine stock of Oxfordshire almost a menagerie of everything good or curious in the kingdom. The sheep are chiefly Southdowns, Leicesters, and crosses between these and the Cotswolds. Hogs are chiefly of the Berkshire breed, and are kept for brawn and sausages. Natural woods occupy a considerable area, especially in the S, and plantations are numerous. Estates for the most part are of moderate size, and farms generally range from 100 to 300 acres, and are held either on lease, or from seven to fourteen years, or mostly at will.

According to the census returns issued in 1893, the chief occupations of the people of the county were:—Professional, 3600 males and 2602 females; domestic, 1756 males and 14,097 females; commercial, 5515 males and 109 females; agricultural, 20,758 males and 466 females; fishing, 14 males; industrial, 24,826 males and 7479 females; and "unoccupied," including retired business men, pensioners, those living on their own means, and others not specified, 11,700 males and 50,203 females; or a total in the county of 68,169 males and 74,956 females. The number of men employed in the leading industries was as follows:—Agricultural labourers, 14,151; general labourers, 4260; gardeners and nurserymen, 2127; and farmers, 1719. The chief occupations of women were—domestic service, with a total of 11,171; millinery and dressmaking, 2388; glove-making, 1136. There were also in the county 186 blind persons, 187 deaf, 109 deaf and dumb, and 843 mentally deranged.

The manufactures are neither numerous nor important. Blankets are made at Witney; plush, shag, girths, and agricultural implements, at Banbury; leather gloves and delicate steel chains at Woodstock; woollen girths, horse-cloths, and tweeds at Chipping Norton; and lace by females at Watlington and other places in the SE. Turning and chair-making are carried on to a moderate extent at Stokenchurch and Chinnor, near Tetsworth.

The navigations comprise only the Oxford Canal and the river Thames; but the former gives communication to the Severn, the Mersey, the Wash, and the Trent, while the latter brings up vessels of considerable burden to Oxford, and takes up small river craft to the highest point of the river's impingement on the county. One line of railway, the main trunk of the Great Western, curves round the south-eastern boundary; runs about 3 1/4 miles within the border between Basildon and Moulsford, and goes thence westward within Berks at distances varying from 2 to 11 1/2 miles S of the boundary. Another line, leaving the former at Maidenhead, comes into Oxfordshire a little ESE of Thame, and goes past that town and westward to Oxford city. Another line, only 4 1/2 miles long, and leaving the first at Twyford, runs 2 1/2 miles northward within the SE border to Henley-on-Thames. Another line leaves the first at Moulsford and goes north-east by northward to Wallingford. Another line, leaving the first at Didcot and going northward, crosses a small wing of the county 2 miles wide, immediately N of Appleford, to the vicinity of a short branch westward to Abingdon; proceeds thence within Berks to the Isis contiguous to Oxford city, and crosses to the W station at Oxford. Another line, belonging to the London and North-Western system, continuous with the last, goes northward to the vicinity of Water Eaton; proceeds thence north-north-eastward, past Islip, to Bicester, and goes thence north-eastward into Bucks and towards Bletchley. Another line, belonging to the Great Western railway, deflects from the preceding 1 1/2 mile N of Oxford; goes northward up the valley of the Cherwell, past Hampton Gray, Tackley, Lower Heyford, and Somerton, to the vicinity of Clifton ; passes there into the Northamptonshire border, but still proceeds northward up the valley of the Cherwell to the vicinity of Banbury; re-enters Oxfordshire 1^ mile N of 140 Banbury; proceeds, past Cropredy, to the N boundary of the county, and passes away toward Birmingham. Another line, also belonging to the Great Western railway, deflects from the preceding in the vicinity of Woolvercot, 2^ miles NNW of Oxford; goes north-westward past Hanborough, Charlbury, and Shipton-under-Wychwood; is crossed near the W boundary by a line coming from Bourton-on-the-Water, and going north-eastward to Chipping Norton, and passes into Gloucestershire toward Worcester. Another line, forming part of the Great Western system, leaves the last a little NW of Woolverton; has connection eastward with the line to Bicester and toward Bletchley, and goes westward past Cassington and Ensham to Witney. Another branch of the Great Western railway crosses the northern part of the county from Chipping Norton Junction on the W by way of Chipping Norton, Hook Norton, and Adderbury to King's Sutton Junction. These railways give connection with the whole of the Great Western, the London and North-Western, the London and South-Western, and the South-Eastern systems. The roads are amply ramified and good, and they have an aggregate length of about 1520 miles.

The administrative county contains 273 entire civil parishes and parts of 10 others, and the county borough of Oxford contains 15 entire civil parishes and parts of 8 others. The ancient county contains 2 3 4 ecclesiastical parishes or districts and parts of 10 others, and the county borough of Oxford contains 15 entire civil parishes and parts of 8 others. The administrative county includes the four municipal boroughs of Banbury, Chipping Norton, Henley-on-Thames, and Wood-stock, and the city and county borough of Oxford. The administrative county has one court of quarter sessions and is divided into ten petty sessional divisions. The boroughs of Banbnry, Henley-on-Thames, and Oxford have separate commissions of the peace, and Banbury and Oxford have in addition separate courts of quarter sessions. For parliamentary purposes the ancient county is divided into the Northern or Banbury, the Mid or Woodstock, and the Southern or Henley divisions. It also includes part of the parliamentary borough of Oxford city.

Oxfordshire is governed by a lord-lieutenant and custos rotulorum, a high sheriff, and a county council consisting of 15 aldermen and 45 councillors. The county is in the home military district and in the Oxford judicial circuit. The assizes and quarter sessions are held at Oxford.

The county town is Oxford; other towns are—Banbury, Burford, Chipping Norton, Bicester, Thame, Henley-on-Thames, Watlington, Woodstock, and Witney; and the smaller towns, villages, and hamlets amount to about 450. The chief seats are—Blenheim Palace, Shirburn Castle, Cuddesden Palace, Ditchley House, Broughton Castle, Bletchington Park, Cornbury Park, Middleton Park, Stonor Park, Tusmore House, Wroxton Abbey, Langford House, Grey's Court, Kirtlington Park, Shipton Court, Swift's House, Adwell House, Aston House, Badgemore, Baldon House, Barton Abbey, Bicester Priory, Bloxham Grove, Bolney Court, Braziers House, Brightwell Park, Caversfield House, Caversham Park, Chastleton House, Cokethorpe Park, Combe Park, Crowsley Park, Culham House, Eynsham Hall, Fyfield House, Glympton Park, Harpsden Court, Henley Park, Heathfield House, Holton Park, Howbery Park, Kiddington Hall, Maple Durham House, Newington House, North Aston Hall, Nuneham Park, Phyllis Court, Konsham Park, Sandford Park, Sarsden House, Shelswell Park, Shiplake House, Shipton Lodge, Shotover Park, Stratton Andley Hall, Swalcliffe Park, Swerford Park, Swyncombe House, Thame Park, Waterperry, The Warren, Waterstock House, Watlington Park, and Wykham Park.

The territory now forming Oxfordshire was inhabited by the ancient British Dobuni; was included by the Romans in their Flavia Cæsariensis; became part of the Saxon kingdom of Mercia, and in the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries was settled by many Danes. The Dobuni long resisted the Saxons, fought several great battles with them, are supposed not to have been finally subjugated by them till the time of Penda, and became lost in the mixed race known as Wiccii. The Danes, in the course of effecting their settlement, ravaged every part of Oxfordshire, and during their long contests with the Saxons repeatedly made its territory the seat of war. Oxfordshire seems to have been apportioned to Canute at the division of England between him and Edmund Ironside, and Oxford in 1015 and 1018 was the scene of great councils of the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons. Subsequent events, till the Wars of the Roses, were connected chiefly with the city or castle of Oxford, and have been noticed in our article on Oxford. In 1387 the insurgent nobles defeated the Earl of Oxford at Radcotbridge, in the vicinity of Bampton. In 1469 the Earl of Pembroke, at the head of the army of Edward IV., marched against an army of 15,000 insurgents; fought them at Danesmoor, in the vicinity of Banbury, and was defeated, captured, and put to death. In the Civil Wars of Charles I. the contending armies traversed Oxfordshire from one extremity to the other, and whether under the banner of the king or under that of the parliament made heavy exactions and devastations. In 1642, on the eve of the battle of Edge Hill, the king encamped on the banks of the Cherwell, between Edgecot and Cropredy. In April, 1643, the Parliamentarians fought a smart skirmish with a Royalist force under Prince Rupert at Caversham Bridge, and about two months later they were twice beaten by Prince Rupert near Thame and near Watlington. In 1644 a battle was fought at Cropredy Bridge, in which Sir William Waller was defeated, and after which the king drew off his troops to Deddington. In 1645 Cromwell defeated a body of Royalist cavalry at Islip Bridge, and compelled Colonel Windebank, who occupied Bletchingdon House with a garrison of 200 men, to surrender. Others events are noticed in the articles Banbury, Chalgrove, Oxford, and Woodstock.

Ancient British remains are the Rollrich stones near Chipping Norton, the Devil's Quoits at Stanton Harcourt, the Hoarstone cromlech at Enstone, some barrows, and several very curious coins. The Roman Icknield Street crossed the county from NE to SW, entering it at Chinnor and leaving it at Goring on the Thames; Akeman Street, entered at Ambrosden, passed through Chesterton, Kirtlington, Blenheim Park, and Stonesfield to Astall, and there crossed the Evenlode into Gloucestershire; a vicinal way went from Dorchester northward into Northamptonshire; other vicinal ways went from Dorchester, and another coming from London traversed the SE wing from the N vicinity of Henley to Wallingford. A curious Roman vallum, with an embankment 2 1/2 miles long, known as Grime's Dyke or the Devil's Ditch, extends between Mongewell and Nuffield. The Roman station Durocina was at Dorchester. Fine tessellated Roman pavements have been found at Great Tew, Stonesfield, and Steeple Aston. Roman camps are at Chadlington and Kiddington; and Saxon or Danish camps are at Astall, Britwell, and Bensington. Mediaeval castles or baronial mansions have left remains at Bampton, Broughton, Woodstock, Astall, Castleton, Holton Park, Caswell, Swinbrook, Minster Lovell, Stanton Harcourt, Fritwell, and Maple Durham. Great monastic remains are at Oxford, Ensham, Godstow, Goring, Cogges, and Minster Lovell; and interesting ancient churches, or portions of them, are at Oxford, Iffley, Kidlington, Ewelrne, Adderbury, Bloxham, Broughton, Burford, Chipping Norton, Dorchester, Great Tew, Shiplake, Twinbrook, Stanton Harcourt, and Witney.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England and Wales, 1894-5