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The Twentieth Century


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In the space of two decades Oxford became a major industrial centre. William Morris, Lord Nuffield started car production at Cowley in 1913. In 1929 the MG sports car factory opened in Abingdon. In 1934 Morris sold 53,436 cars, 34% of British car sales. Together with Pressed Steel, which came to Oxford in 1926, over 11,000 people were employed in the Oxford motor industry by 1939. Workers, attracted by higher wages, were pulled in from large areas of rural Oxfordshire and further afield, including south-west England and south Wales. Commercial housing estates were built in Cowley and Headington, but by 1936 around 40% of the workforce lived outside the city, commuting to work. A similar pattern applied in Banbury, where the Northern Aluminium Co. Ltd factory, established in 1931, drew workers from surrounding villages. The coming of large-scale factories and working and living in separate places were watershed changes in the Oxfordshire experience.


Agriculture no longer dominated the county’s fortunes. Surveys of local farming in the 1930s generally make depressing reading. After the boost of government intervention 1914-21, with minimum prices, regulated wages and technical improvements to maintain national food supplies, there was a reversion for many farms to lack of investment. By 1939 63% of cultivated land was permanent pasture. Agricultural land sales in Oxfordshire 1919 to 1938 have been estimated at 160,000 acres. Pressure for urban development intensified, making Oxfordshire for one observer increasingly ‘rurban’. Countryside preservation was a growing issue. The Oxford Preservation Trust was formed in 1926. National legislation increased the powers of local authorities to intervene in planning, housing and public health. In 1928 the area of Oxford Borough was extended from 4719 to 8416 acres, largely to take in the newly industrialised areas. In 1932 the county’s local government was radically revised to meet development and rating needs and create larger areas for the provision of services. Click here for details.


In World War Two 4,100 bombs fell on the area of present Oxfordshire, killing 30 people, a limited direct toll. However, the impact of total war was pervasive in other ways. There was an increase from 5 military airfields in 1939 to some 30. The county played a major role in training and supply. The Ordnance Depot at Bicester was established in 1941-2, and that at Didcot extended. There were military and prisoner of war camps. New hospitals (e.g. the Churchill in Oxford) and more makeshift medical and welfare facilities were created. In 1941 the first clinical use of penicillin took place in Oxford. People and whole institutions, schools and government departments, were evacuated to the area. Industry, including Morris Motors, was turned to war production. Farming was centrally directed as never before. A return to arable production became vital. Amidst this emergency action, planning was already underway for post-war rural society, and Oxfordshire played a vital part in this. A 1944 survey Country Planning , and the subsequent film, 24 Square Miles, used the area between Banbury and Chipping Norton to analyse the problems of pre-war agriculture and the relatively deprived lives of country-dwellers, going on to propose a future where improved agriculture, new, small-scale industry and planned housing, educational, health and welfare facilities would be brought to the countryside. Mains gas, electricity and water, metalled roads, bus services and active citizenship would be enjoyed by all.


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Such thinking informed the post-war settlement of the 1945 Labour government. The 1944 Education Act, the 1947 Agriculture and Town and Country Planning Acts, and the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 all profoundly affected lives of those in the county. Aspirations were high, but resources were scarce. For example despite increased council house building, acute housing shortages into the 1950s  led to some people living in ex-military huts, as at the former USAF base at Mount Farm (later Berinsfield). Many places had no mains water or sewerage until the 1950s or 60s. These are realities it is easy to forget looking back from the relative comforts of 50 years later.


Farming developed with strong and continuing government involvement. Direct government purchase of produce ended in 1953 but annual price reviews, subsidies, funding for buildings, drainage, fertilisers and scientific advice continued. The emphasis on increased production was reflected in larger farms and mechanisation, changing the working landscape (e.g. by hedgerow removal) outside those areas now protected by planning. Less labour was needed; in Oxfordshire in 1951, 6116 males were employed in agriculture. By 1971 it was 2608. Arable cultivation intensified, from 59% of cultivated acreage in 1951 to 68% in 1971. By 2001, just 1.7% of the county’s jobs were in agriculture. By contrast the motor industry continued to grow and employed 28,500 people in 1973, with many linked enterprises, like Smith’s at Witney and Automotive Products at Banbury. Capturing this phase of recent local history is important and rewarding, different from earlier periods because of the direct surviving connections, and especially challenging because of that. Abingdon MG works closed in 1980, AP in 1985, the last part of Smith’s in 2001, and the Cowley Assembly plant was cleared for the Oxford Business park in 1994. Other more traditional Oxfordshire industries also disappeared, among them Morlands and Brakspears breweries, and blankets from Witney in 2002.


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Different employments, in and out of the county, now occupy a growing population, of 607,300 in 2001, still 83% white. The county area was extended significantly for the first time since the 11th century when, as part of national local government reforms in 1974, the Vale of White Horse was added to Oxfordshire. Since 1981 78,000 new houses have been built, chiefly in Oxford and designated towns. In the same period the number of cars in the county has risen 78%, to over 300,000. Half the population live in areas now designated as outside towns (places under 10,000 population), with 22% in Oxford and 24% in other towns. Railway cut backs by the 1960s have produced a network nearer to the mid-Victorian. The biggest transport developments have been the M4 (built 1965-71) and the M40 (built 1971-91), each of which has generated its ‘corridor’ of neighbouring business and housing development and controversies over traffic and planning. Leading sectors for jobs are now education (public and private, including Oxford Brookes University, re-designated as such in 1992); government (local and national), health services and research; printing and publishing; defence establishments; science industries and research (an early post-war feature at Harwell and Culham, now also at the Diamond Light Source, opened in 2007, Howbery Park and elsewhere), hi-tech industries (many spin-outs from university innovation), motor production (in smaller and international guise, through BMW producing a new Mini on the former Pressed Steel site with a workforce of some 4,000, and through many locally-based racing and rallying teams), and commercial and service industries (Milton Park estate opened in 1987; Bicester Village shopping village, near the M40 in 1995). Though still considered a rural county and associated with traditional ways (not least in literature, TV and sometimes cliché), Oxfordshire in 2010 is enormously changed in historical terms, even if measured only over the last 100 or even 60 years.

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