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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.


Agriculture remained the mainstay of Oxfordshire life. In 1750 most farming was still mixed, but dominated by arable and most often organised in open fields, communally regulated and associated with complex common rights of pasture and other uses. Areas like Wychwood, Otmoor and the Chilterns retained their distinctive patterns of land use. Despite pre-1750 improvements to farming practices in the  traditional arable areas which covered most of the county, and the degree of production already being undertaken for outside, commercial markets, many historians see the period 1750-1850 as one of agricultural revolution. Spurred by great growth in demand and higher prices, and with market advantages protected by prolonged wartime conditions (1790s to 1815), rural change accelerated and deepened. It produced a revolution which fundamentally changed the countryside. Now there were separate, consolidated farms, held in severalty (individual legal ownership) with previous shared common rights extinguished. This was a new landscape of smaller, regularly-shaped fields, enclosed by hedges or walls, and served by designated networks of roads and tracks. Production was managed in response to outside markets, often from new buildings developed on the recently-created farms. The resulting rural society was essentially tripartite: relatively few landowners (some resident, some absentee), tenant farmers (operating under modernised leases), and the mass of rural workers (the majority now waged, day labourers rather than small, family farmers, cottagers or commoners).


Oxfordshire is prime territory for the study of this ‘revolution’, one of the most important phases of English and local history. Questions include how increases in production were achieved technically (for example, by improved  rotations, new crops, development of livestock breeds, as well as by putting more land to the plough), and how revolutionary, rapid or wholesale changes actually were (for example, disappearance of small farmers, rises in output and income, or extinction of customary social structures). The transformations wrought by parliamentary enclosure offer particularly dramatic occasions to investigate changes. Oxfordshire was one of the counties most affected. Between 1758 and 1882, 190 parliamentary enclosure acts were passed for the county, affecting 51% of its acreage. However, a third of parishes had no parliamentary enclosure. By 1885, 96% of Berkshire was enclosed, 35% of the county having been enclosed by parliamentary acts between 1723 and 1885, but the rest changed either before 1600 or by non-parliamentary means between 1600 and 1885. For more on enclosure see here


The population of Oxfordshire rose faster in the first half of the 19th century than at any time before. This continued a trend discernible from parish registers since the mid-18th century. They show a rise in baptisms, both legitimate and illegitimate, and that people were marrying younger. The decennial national censuses, introduced in 1801, provide more definite population numbers for the first time, a turning point in terms of evidence. In 1801, Oxfordshire’s population was 111,977; in 1851 it was 170,434. This rise of 52.2% compares with that for England and Wales of 101.6%, and would have been greater but for out-migration to other counties. Opportunities to adjust to pressure of numbers by moving to new livelihoods elsewhere in the county were limited, with only Oxford, Banbury, Witney and Chipping Norton having any manufacturing. The decade of peak growth was 1811-21, during which Oxfordshire’s population grew by 16.2%.


Local parishes struggled to cope with the repercussions of agricultural and population changes. In many places there were now more people than jobs. Widows, orphans, the chronically sick and down right unfortunate had to be cared for too. Parishes in Oxfordshire and Berkshire were amongst those developing elaborate local initiatives to try and respond. Subsidised wages, work schemes, assisted emigration, allotments, and parish workhouses (sometimes contracted out) produced provision likened by some historians to local, mini-welfare states. Debate, nationally and locally, was fierce as the crisis deepened from the 1790s. The writing was on the wall for the parish system as a means of delivering poor relief and local government more generally, whether on grounds of economic efficiency and affordability or moral values. When finally, in 1834, the New Poor Law was enacted it was a major step in dismantling the patterns of parish government created in the 16th century, and in replacing them by uniform and standard organisations and practices determined by central government. The symbol of this was the Union workhouse, the only place in which the able-bodied poor were now supposed to receive publicly-funded relief, in conditions deterrent enough to turn them away from such dependence.

How far this theory applied in practice is one of the intriguing issues for local studies of the period. So, too, is the degree of class antagonisms to be found. Resistance to enclosure, most famously on Otmoor, the Swing Riots (both in the 1830s), and agricultural trade unionism in the 1870s are the most obvious signs.

Another major change was in the balance between rural and town populations within the county. In 1801 some 10.6% of Oxfordshire people lived in Oxford; by 1901 some 27% did so. The city, extending into suburban parishes (St Ebbes, St Thomas, St Giles, St Clement, Headington and Iffley), grew in population by 114% between 1801 and 1851, and by nearly 80% in 1851 to 1901. It combined the functions of a market and county town with providing goods and services to the University, whose student numbers were increasing considerably from the 1850s and which also brought industrial-scale printing, publishing and papermaking in its train.

Oxford was unique amongst Oxfordshire towns. To see their 19th-century fortunes view here.  Only Abingdon and Banbury exceeded 5,000 in population and sustained growth through the 19th century. Banbury typifies urban development built on longstanding market functions. Between 1801 and 1851 its population (now including suburbs) grew by 115%. The town’s produce and cattle markets continued strongly. Processing industries (milling, brewing) flourished. Transport links by canal (to the Midlands coalfields), converging road routes, and multiple railway lines developed. The railway helped agricultural implement manufacture to grow into an industry with national and international markets. Goods and services, legal and medical institutions and professionals, secondary schooling, administrative units (Poor Law Union, district councils), local and parliamentary politics, and newspapers were concentrated in Banbury. In 1843 the town was ‘metropolis’ to 140 places within a 10 mile radius by carrier’s cart. Most local towns were smaller and less diverse, although important to hinterlands of surrounding villages. The experience of Wallingford was typical (see Wallingfords of England). Such communities tended to grow to the mid-century, but then stagnated or actually declined in size. Another group were barely towns; with populations of 1,000 to 1,500 in 1801 most saw modest growth to 1831, then stalled before seeing absolute decline in numbers by the end of the century. This was a profile also exhibited by many villages; the average growth of rural parishes 1801-1851 was 39%, whilst 1851-1901 it was -13%. These bare statistics mirror hard times for the late 19th century county.


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Oxfordshire had little industry that made the transition from a local, domestic phase to large-scale manufacturing. Exceptions were Witney blankets (power looms were introduced in the 1850s), tweed at Chipping Norton (its grand mill of 1872, and acrimonious pay dispute of 1913-4 seemingly more at home in Lancashire than Oxfordshire), agricultural engineering (Samuelson’s) at Banbury, and large paper mills near Oxford. Domestic industries, based on ‘putting out’ (where an entrepreneur supplied materials to local workers and marketed the finished articles), tended to be over taken by the development of factory-production elsewhere or changes in fashion as happened to plush weaving in north Oxfordshire. Gloving, centred on Charlbury and Woodstock, was an exception, providing work for 2,573 men and women in 1851 and around 2,000 women and 200 men in 1900. Many enterprises remained small, but their impact on communities where just a few extra jobs might enable local people to stay, could be considerable. Quarrying was a specialism of Taynton, Milton under Wychwood, and Hornton, and stone slates of Stonesfield. Elsewhere brick and clay was worked. At Hook Norton jobs at the brewery (established 1849), and the ironstone workings (opened 1889 after the opening of the Banbury-Cheltenham railway made their product viable), helped sustain the village population.


Roads, rivers and canals, and railways developed during this period in ways decisive for the fortunes of many places in Oxfordshire. The network of major roads, turnpiked from the 18th century, supported important coaching routes, links to London, Bath, Gloucester, south Wales, and the Midlands. Staging places along the way, thoroughfare towns and villages like Abingdon and Burford, Dorchester and Benson, provided horses, refreshment and accommodation, and had jobs for ostlers, servants, blacksmiths, coachmakers and others. When this trade was lost prosperity shrank, as at Burford when the coach route to Cheltenham was diverted in 1812 along a new road to the south. At Burford the result was a fossilised townscape, which became an advantage later in the century when its picturesque lack of development began to attract the tourists who have since given Oxfordshire’s economy a major new direction.


The Thames was a working river, with wharves, and trading and processing premises in towns and villages, bringing fuel and goods, grain and timber in and out. The county’s only major canal was completed in 1790, when the Oxford Canal reached Oxford, via Banbury, and also attracted to its banks coal and boat yards and wharves. From the 1840s both waterways and coach routes were increasingly overshadowed by the railways. The Great Western Railway was opened in 1840-1, cutting across the Vale of White Horse, ignoring The Great Western Railway was opened in 1840-1, cutting across the Vale of White Horse, ignoring existing towns on its way to Bristol. A branch, reached Oxford in 1844, from a new junction at Didcot, which rapidly became a town on the back of the railway. The Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton line opened in 1853, through Charlbury and the Evenlode valley. A network of branchlines developed

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subsequently, and contemporary guides described each town or village in relation to the nearest railway station. The contribution of the railways to local economic life was considerable. Of 7 towns in decline by 1900, 3 had no convenient rail connection and 2 only recent links. For maps of Oxfordshire’s railway network in the 1860s and 1920s view here. 


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The face of Oxfordshire was also changing. The relative quiet of the 18th century was replaced 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.

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