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Oxfordshire experienced modernisation in many different ways. Some changed the county directly - physically, institutionally, socially, culturally and economically. Others, like factory-based industry, were significant because they were largely absent.
The face of Oxfordshire was also changing. The relative quiet of the 18th century wasreplaced by revival, reform, restoration and variety, a powerful mix which impinged on everyone, participant or recipient. In Oxfordshire and west Berkshire religious re-activation is strongly apparent from the 1830s. The Church of England was under great internal and external pressure to reform. Structures were modernised; Berkshire became part of Oxford diocese in 1836, as did Bucks in 1845. At parish level, clerical absenteeism or pluralism was disappearing in favour of a resident priest, living in his parsonage, ensuring the fabric of the church was fit for increasingly regular services, and pastorally active in all aspects of the life of his parishioners including schools, ideally with a wife and family to add to his example and impact. The fact that Oxford was after 1833 the national focus for fierce controversies within Anglicanism, posing Tractarian and High Church against Evangelical or Low Church, and Broad Church, added to the intensity. Legislation of 1828 and 1829 had finally given Protestant Dissenters and Roman Catholics full civil rights and this official pluralism saw other denominations assert themselves alongside Anglicanism. In the village of Dorchester between 1837 and 1848, Baptist and Primitive Methodist chapels and a Roman Catholic church were built and the restoration of the decayed parish church begun. There was institutional rivalry, but the depth of emotion and overwhelmingly working-class participation especially in local Primitive Methodism, suggest real religious awakening at a difficult time of general change and transition. In 1851, Oxfordshire had 257 Anglican and 8 Roman Catholic churches and 240 chapels or meeting houses. Estimates, based on the religious census of that year, suggest that some 64% of the population attended worship, just under two-thirds of them at Anglican churches.
During the 19th century the educational experience of Oxfordshire children was transformed. From an uneven mix of old, endowed schools together with some charity, day and Sunday schools, and private establishments there was, by 1902, universal provision of state-funded elementary schools for children aged 5 to 13. This enormous shift happened in gradual stages, beginning with provision through energetic voluntarism, chiefly of religious denominations. Elements of state funding, then inspection and regulation were added from the 1830s, culminating in Forster’s Act of 1870, providing for universal education from 5 to 10 years. Existing religious schools were subsumed into this, but where insufficient local places were available School Boards, locally elected and undenominational, were to be set up. Oxfordshire’s schooling was heavily dominated by the Church of England; in 1858, of 403 public day schools, 370 were Anglican, 28 Nonconformist, and 5 Roman Catholic. This continued after 1870, with a spurt of school building and extension to avoid secular school boards, only 25 of which were formed in Oxfordshire. The limited and limiting education of the village schools is recorded in log books and by Flora Thompson. The regime gradually widened, locally and nationally, fee-paying was abolished and the leaving age raised to 13. As to secondary schooling, in 1924 only 5% of Oxfordshire children were selected to go to one of the 6 county secondary schools. These were run by the County Council, designated a local education authority by the 1902 Education Act. For a case study chronology of 19thcentury schooling in an Oxfordshire village view here.
Reform of old ways and the creation of new ones for organising central aspects of local life is a constant theme in local history of this period. Poor law unions, school boards, local education authorities, changed ecclesiastical boundaries and common field systems have already been encountered. From the 1830s solutions were often determined by national legislation, implemented through some combination of central department and local body, elected by ratepayers. Such measures re-drew the map of local government, at county, district and parish level. View here for a chronology of developments. Sometimes called the ‘local state’ these relationships are frequently recorded in telling detail from both ends of the relationship. Parliamentary papers and departmental records become prime material for local studies. Nor were ‘private’ institutions immune from investigation, the abolition of corruption and the introduction of proper practices. The University of Oxford was the subject of Royal Commissions in 1854, 1871 and 1919. During this period it was opened to non-Anglicans, reformed its finances, introduced new curricula and subjects, and from 1870 began to add new colleges, including the first for women, and central buildings like the Examination Schools (1876-82), the scene of the rigorous testing of succeeding generations of students.
Oxfordshire by 1911 had 15,128 males employed in agriculture; in 1871 it had been 23,220. In 1902 its agricultural wages were the lowest in England, 14s6d a week. The smaller and aging workforce was the ongoing consequence of agricultural depression, beginning in the mid-1870s but particularly lengthy and deep in a county with labour surpluses and few alternative employments. Contemporaries noted out migration (especially of the young and bright), decaying farm buildings and housing, and a switch to grass from arable. A rare positive was the growth of dairying with produce sent to Oxford, Reading, London and the Midlands along the ‘Milky Way’, as the farmers of the Cherwell valley called the railway. The towns reflected the improvements of the age, paving and lighting, town hall, railway station, cattle market, corn exchange, places of worship, library, workhouse, hospital, police station, courts, although the weaker had shrunk and could sustain fewer modern features. Village appearance and character varied, particularly influenced by the degree of control exercised by landed estate or church. Increasingly, the county was the resort of new residents, seeking a house in the country, or tourists to the Cotswolds, the University city, or Henley, which as an inland resort within reach of cities and with a railway station, found a new lease of life. This was a pocket of relative prosperity in a much changed landscape and society, often picturesque but, in many towns and communities, poor.