Last time then we heard about the hard lives of the majority of the people of Victorian Swyncombe, and the remarkable stability of the social structures of which they were part. However, not everything in even a parish as closed and controlled as Swyncombe was under the thumb of the squierarchy, and nor was remote little Swyncombe immune from the wider winds of change. This episode we’ll start by looking at some of the ways in which a smidge of difference and entrepreneurial spirit bloomed, and how religion became an area of conflict during Victoria’s reign, even in this rural parish. Next time, we’ll go on to the colder economic winds that arrive later in the century. I am afraid to say that there’s really not much more in the way of boddice-ripping or half-naked buff bloke scything stuff than we have had so far, but maybe there is come leavening of the bread of stability, structure, hierarchy and deference.
So, there are some signs in the parish of a little more entrepreneurialism outside the main source of Swyncombe’s daily bread, farming. I don’t know if it’s a co-incidence, but this appears to happen at the margins of the Parish – in the north-east corner at Russell’s Water, and Park Corner, at the southern edge next to Nettlebed parish. I may be pushing things here but hear me out on this edge versus centre theme, court versus country you might say. Close to Swyncombe manor, at the centre, you seem to get the establishment kind of stuff; the Anglican church of St Botolphs, the Rectory; the farms there – Coates, lower, and home farm – are often kept in hand by the squire, the school is at Cookley Green the hamlet closest to the Manor. The Hamlets of Russell’s Water and Park Corner are hardly shock cities, but it is there, at the edges of the parish where you get the small amount of rural businesses that do exist and, as we will come to – Non Conformist Chapels. It’s the latter, really, where such conflict as we do see come about.
Traditionally, the main sources of conflict in rural parishes appear in the quarterly session of the petty courts, the Magistrate courts presided over by the Gentry of Oxfordshire in the form of JPs. They normally come from three sources – Poaching, petty theft and Alcohol. Of none, it has to be said, do we see much sign of conflict at Swyncombe in the certificates of conviction – though that of course does not mean poaching wasn’t happening, and in fact you can almost guarantee it was. The gaming laws were a running sore between the elite and the elited against, especially under the bloody code of Georgian England – and although the Victorian laws become steadily less vicious, it’s still a bone of contention. But maybe the Swyncombe poachers were very good and never got caught by the Gamey, or maybe the inhabitants didn’t dare rock the boat in such a high controlled atmosphere. Because although I did have a very pleasant trawl through the conviction certificates of the Quarter sessions, I didn’t come up with very much, though it’s easy to miss them. In 1850, one Thomas Church gets caught searching for game in the woods and is fined £1 and threatened with a month in the chokey if he doesn’t pay up – and incidentally has to pay 15s to the guy who grassed him up, William Johnson. I’d like to have been a fly on the wall when that happened. Thomas Church was obviously unimpressed with his conviction, since he gets done again in 1857.
It seems as though the inhabitants of the Oxfordshire vale settlements look up with hungry and envious eyes to the woods on the Chiltern hills of Swyncombe; one John Stanmore from Watlington also gets caught taking game. But that’s about it, it’s thin gruel and there’s nothing about violent crime that survives in the record, or the often ubiquitous beer regulation infringements. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, again, but I guess what you might get in your closed parish, given the risk of retribution from the squire in a variety of social and economic ways is a low level of criminal activity. Maybe not worth the risk if you can be chucked out of your tied cottage and be forced to take the family elsewhere to look for work as a result of taking the odd pheasant.
On that question of social control, one of the resources that often gets used in Victorian rural history is a work of fiction, which is quite unusual and reflects on the quality of that bit of those novels. You may know them – it’s called the Lark rises to Candleford series by Flora Thompson. The series charts the gradual disintegration of agrarian society under the pressure of the arrival of the modern world and is, usefully for us, set in an Oxfordshire landscape as well, though in North Oxfordshire. Well one of the quotes I often see used is this one, in which the citizens are celebrating the freedoms of their villages, where their cottages are mainly owned by varying individuals from the town, and therefore has no one dominant squire. They compared it to folk they knew elsewhere, with similar levels of social control as ours in Swyncombe
Some labourers in other villages worked on farms or estates where they had their cottages rent free; but the hamlet people did not envy them, for ‘stands to reason’ they said ‘they’ve allus got to do just what they be told, or out they goes, neck and crop, bag and baggage’. A shilling, or even two shillings a week, they felt, was not too much to pay for the freedom to live and vote as they liked and go to church or chapel or neither as they preferred.
As I have mentioned, then, the parish was not simply a social and economic unit, it was a moral entity too. While the labourers in an open parish like Candleford enjoyed thinking and behaving as they chose, the elite of the parishes felt very differently about such freedoms; they thought it was dangerous. Here is a quote from a real person, the Reverend James Foster who had carried out one of those endless Victorian social inquiries. I am pretty sure the reverend Foster would have looked critically at Candleford, but might well have approved of Swyncombe
It is impossible to exaggerate the ill effects of such a state of things in every aspect – physical, social, economical, moral, intellectual…socially nothing can be more wretched than the condition of ‘open’ parishes like Docking in Norfolk and South Cerney in Gloucestershire.
In many, most, the moral leaderships was set by the Anglican Squireson – that potent combination of Squire plus Parson. Squireson – geddit? In the 18th century these two might indeed frequently have been one and the same. Some very bright spark somewhere described the church of England as the Tory party at prayer. I wish I knew who said this thing; some mention Disraeli, but then Dizzy is a man to whom quotes get attached like sticky willie after a hot summers walk through an overgrown English footpath, so it’s not a reliable attribution I don’t think. As with many over simplifications, the phrase works because it has a core of truth to it. The Tory party at prayer reflects that the Anglican church generally supported the status quo and hierarchy.
Furthermore, religion and the church was still a very central part of most people’s lives, and the period we are in is one of ferment, ladies and Gents, ferment. The Church was coming off a very bad period in its history, about which society was in something of a pother. The Georgian church had been characterised by pluralism and absenteeism, rectors with multiple parishes, living the high life on the tithes, spending their lives huntin’ shootin’ & fishin’, often in some grand place far away from where they should have been, on the parish, while at best employing some poor, underfunded, under fed, under regarded curate to do the actual work. In the minds of many, it’s not just that religious fervour was absent, the moral guidance and social support were lacking too; the church appeared to have become part and partner with the elite hierarchy which sat on the shoulders of working people and ordered their lives according to their desires. The church was not, as it surely must be, the defender of the poor and downtrodden, it had become the tool of the establishment.
Now, in this horrid summary is involved the sweeping aside of many fine hardworking rectors and curates and passionate people, so the alarm of gross generalisation is wailing as I write and speak. But nine the less, as a generalisation it has a sad amount of truth – and certainly contemporaries thought there was a problem. And into this situation had burst the late Georgian evangelical Anglican movement of John Wesley, so, the religious body was far from dead, it had vitality yet. But by the 1830’s there were still many problems with the established church, people were worried, and what follows was a blizzard of reform. Some of that was very organisational. For example the tithe system was a mess a real running sore, the poor curate or vicar had to go around removing pigs and produce in payment non conformists were paying for something they didn’t use, who paid what was all messed up; and so in the 1830s it was reformed, and it’s why in 1839 we know so much about who owned what in Swyncombe, because the tithes system was thoroughly investigated, rationalised and reformed.
The Victorian age was also a period of intense religious revival in more ways than one, and one of those was within the established church. This is maybe the last period, could I posit – and it’s always good to have at least one solid posit before breakfast each day – that religion was a matter for the collective moral leadership of the community, before secularism takes over by the end of the century, the idea takes over that really religion was a private matter for each person and their maker.
Swyncombe was part of that religious revival. It lay in the diocese of Oxford, and the good bishop of Oxford was a man called Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, the son of William Wilberforce, yes that William Wilberforce. He was a vigorous religious reformer and High Churchman, and yet to his ever-lasting credit in my strangely prejudiced eyes, stood apart from the Tractarian Oxford Movement which did so much damage to the fabric of our churches. So strongly did Bishop Wilberforce object to the Tracterians, that the arch offender Cardinal Newman refused to receive any more contributions from him. And there can be fewer recommendations higher than that. Have I now demonstrated my bias clearly enough against the grand pomposity of the Oxford movement? It’s an obscure prejudice, I have to admit, but in the words of that great moral philosopher, explorer and social anthropologist James Tiberius Kirk, our fears and quirks are what make us what we are, we should hold them close. Or I think he said something like that.
Anyway enough already about Soapy Sam Wilberforce, and James Tiberius, but it’s just important that you know that behind the rectors of Swyncombe lay the driving vigour and revivalism of Wilberforce. Now if Swyncombe was a stable society dominated by its better-off sort, gentry and gentrified farmer, it was also blessed with active, conscientious and, importantly, long lived clergymen in the 19th Century. We can start with William Woodruff, Rector from 1801 to 1826, who left a charitable legacy still being distributed to school children of the poor by the end of our period. Then we have Henry Napier, a Scot, who is rector all the way through from 1826 to 1872; Rowland Smith takes us through another 20 years to 1892, and then Charles Irwin an extraordinary 56 years, through two World Wars to 1948. So if there’s one word, it’s stability with a capital ‘St’. Napier didn’t always see eye to eye with the Ruck Keenes but in a sense he is in the same social strata, although I think Charles Ruck Keene casually refers to him as a ‘poor Scot’ somewhere. Napier’s income is of course a fraction of Charles’, but at £400 a year it’s decent enough, and a handsome level above the average.
The rectory house sits cheek by Ruck Keene Jowl in the Swyncombe Manor group, and Henry Napier had quite a large household at the 1851 census of 11, though probably unnaturally so due to visitors. He had a core of servants, the Winfield family from Ewelme, Henry, Emma and 16 year old daughter Ann. Napier records Henry as a ‘House servant and Gentleman’, so this appears to be a household relationship of a very traditional kind, one almost between equals and friends. And then there’s a long list if Winfield visitors, children, who maybe would not be there long time. But the stitck, the zeitgeist I want to leave with you might be summed up by the word ‘genteel’. Henry Napier’s household was of a similar social class to the Ruck Keenes and farmers, because it is that of a gentleman. And it’s a similar situation half a century later with the Rector Charles Irwin in 1901; Charles was born in Hong Kong, and lives with his brother who is a land agent, presumably, though not certainly, helping the Ruck Keenes, and a couple of live-in in servants.
Napier, interestingly enough, like so many clergymen, was a keen antiquarian, and created one of the surprisingly large number of historical works relating to the frankly nationally irrelevant parish of Swyncombe, a substantial book of Historical notices. There is a bibliography, as mentioned, in the post of pictures, maps, data tables and resources that accompanies this series at the historyofengland.co.uk, and also a link to the actual work, for it is digitised and out of copyright.
One of Bishop Wilberforce’s mantras was ‘Live in your Parish; live for your parish’. In 1810, 46% of clergy in England and Wales was non resident, did not live on the parish they served, and as we said earlier this was seen as a major problem, for obvious reasons. The campaign to put this right worked surprisingly well, and by 1850 only 15% of clergy were non-resident, so tick, job done. But the rectors of Swyncombe needed no encouragement – since the days of Woodruff in 1801, they were already signed up.
But more worries about the state of the church came to a head in the early 1850s, and if you are a Victorian and worry about something what do you do? Well, you might turn to Gin, but more normally – you would measure it. To know your enemy and deal with it, it’s important to know everything, down to their inside leg measurements. So on one day in 1851, every parish in the country was told to send back the answers to a questionnaire about their parish and church attendance. Well, The Good Bishop Wilberforce’s head exploded, and he fought the survey it tooth, and he fought the survey nail, claimed that those dashed non conformists would inflate their numbers and make the honest Anglican church look pants. Though I don’t suppose the word for even a single pant ever crossed Samuel’s lips to be fair. It would present a distorted view howled Wilberforce, should I say, then. He was thinking pants deep down though, I bet. Pants.
Anyway, enough about pants, what it means is that we have a snapshot of the state of religion in the parish, and indeed England and Wales, from 1851 and actually we have Bishop visitation responses from 1866 and other visitations too for the parish. The picture is a positive one generally for Swyncombe, if ever so slightly smug, though not without its issues. When the 1851 Church and Chapel census was completed, Swyncombe was basically dominated by the Anglican church; you tend to get different levels of attendance and engagement of congregations in parishes with only one church, such as Swyncombe at the time, to the responses you get where there is a choice of churches – mixed provision as it were, in terms of a choice between non conformist chapels and the Anglican church. So in mixed parishes, the level of engagement with the Anglican church tends to be lower; but the total engagement with attending religious services is higher. It’s a bit like putting supermarkets in the same place if I can be crude about it – turns out not to be a zero sum game, turns out you can increase market size by offering choice.
With that in mind, it is worth me noting that evaluating often inconsistent returns from the census is something of a tricky game, apples and oranges wise; but in Swyncombe, it indicates a regular attendance of 37% of the population at church. This feels a little low for the time; but which for the current Rector in 2020 would give their eye teeth. To give you a frame of reference; in unmixed parishes, the national average was 48% attendance; in mixed total attendance 62%, because as we said before choice increased total attendance; but reduces the attendance at the Anglican church to just 33%. The National average was 58% of the population attending religious services regularly.
So Swyncombe’s record seems a little low for an unmixed parish – it should have expected 48% of people to go to church regularly. But there are three considerations I would like you to bear in mind. One of them involves an anecdote, for which I apologise in advance.
First is that although Swyncombe in 1851 was outwardly served only by only one Church, it might in fact have secretly been a mixed parish. Of which more later – no plot spoilers here! The second involves my anecdote. I shall not be brief.
One sunny spring day in 2022, Stephen Mileson, proper historian, author of Peasant Perceptions of Landscape in south Oxfordshire, and one time guest of the History of England podcast, came to Swyncombe asking for help. Stephen has this delightfully nutty but insightful model where he traces the reach over the parish population of the church bells calling the faithful to prayer. To do that, someone must ring for an hour, while various people run like blue-arsed flies over the countryside recording how much or little they can hear the bells at various points. I was of course Quasimodo on this and hawled on the rope of the 14th century bell at St Botolph’s Swyncome marked ‘Jesus is a special name’ just for interest’s sake, and was forced to explain why I was so engaged to multiple visitors actually because it was a nice day for a walk. Various people including Mark, Son Henry and Stephen himself did the countryside legging and recording, and Henry used his bike and was bravely injured in the cause of historical research when he fell off said bike. Now St Botolph’s is set at the bottom of a bowl shaped valley in the parish, it had no tower, and it won’t surprise you to learn that not many people in the parish as a whole can hear the bells; the unhearing include the larger hamlets, part of Cookley green, none Park Corner nor Russell’s Water can hear. Swyncombe’s dispersed settlement does not help attendance – the church at Pishill is easier to get to from Russell’s Water for example. Anyway, Stephen then very kindly spent a few hours with us walking the parish with us giving us landscape insights which was fascinating. He then introduced us to someone from the BeeB, who came another day to record the sounds of medieval England in 1155 for a Radio 4 programme which no doubt went viral. As I rang the bell, the sound was joined by the roar of a diesel hedge cutter right on schedule, so not sure the recording would have matched closely to those expected by England’s new king of that year, Henry II, I could be wrong. Incidentally, as I close the file on this anecdote, file 82 subsection 3 stardate 8375, I should note that although it might seem that life in Swyncombe is a little sleepy, let me reassure you that this formed just a short break in the endless cycle of illegal raves, champagne cocktail chandelier swinging parties and acid house. My point though is that church attendance was not helped by dispersed settlement.
Thirdly, Swyncombe with its active and resident rectors was on an upward trend, with congregations apparently regularly reaching 90, and on occasion it’s claimed 290 which would be extraordinary. It is in fact pretty clear that the church formed a central part in parish life, and the Rector was an influential figure.
Some of this comes out in the visitation returns; a visitation is a Bishop’s enquiry of his diocese, whether in person or questionnaire. In 1866 for example, Napier smugly remarked that the Churchwardens ‘do what I wish them’. Napier is able to talk about an active profile of education and catechising in which the church is involved, and the regular involvement of the scholars, as they were called, i.e. children at school, in the church.
We should talk about education in the parish then also, because it is in a sense part of this moral entity of the parish; education was of course about functional skills, but it was also about teaching the right social attitudes and religion. It is also an expression of the paternalism of the establishment; educating the parish poor was the traditional duty of the elite. In brief, Victorian Swyncombe saw significant changes in Education; a Sunday school was established in 1817, a Church of England school in 1830, and in 1846 Ruck Keene established what he described as an ‘industrial school’ to teach useful agricultural and functional skills. To be fair, this is pretty enlightened of the family; he provided space and employment for young people on Home farm, and this strand of education was funded by the family and kept separate from church involvement.
It did, however, have a moral and social objective too. One was to keep young children away from working in the fields – in which as we have seen he was singularly unsuccessful, as villagers decided for themselves to send their children to the fields and woods to make a bit of extra cash when possible. But there is also the thing about women, on which let me circle round a bit.
There are many things about which to get upset when looking at the attitudes of the past, if one is given to indulging in presentism and what I believe E P Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’, the tendency for intellectuals of the present to judge the people of the past as irredeemably stupid, barbaric and misguided. Generally, I am quite good I think of resisting presentism, an since it’s the destroyer of any sort of understanding of the past, I certainly try. But when it comes to Victorian attitudes to women it is very, very difficult. Not sure why there is that one thing, because of course it doesn’t affect me so much, but I suppose it’s partly because it’s so clearly articulated. I could go on about this, but here is one relevant quote from 1877 from Henry Broadhurst, secretary of the T.U.C. Speaking at the Trades Union Congress
They [the men] had the future of their country and their children to consider, and it was their duty as men and husbands to use their utmost efforts to bring about a condition of things, where their wives would be in their proper sphere at home, instead of being dragged into competition for livelihood against the great and strong men of the world.
There are many far worse quotes about the attributes of men and women of course, which I will not inflict you, but I choose this quote to revisit that point I have made about the reducing opportunities for women working in agriculture. Attendance at school was in fact one way that the removal of girls from work was to be achieved. It’s interesting that girls’ attendance at the Swyncombe schools was higher and longer than the boys; at ages 5-11, 77% of boys attended and 86% of girls; at 10-14, the percentage of boys fell to just 26%, while 45% of the girls continued to go. But the killer was revealed from the Ruck Keene mouth in that parliamentary committee again. He’s talking about the employment of children, and the importance of stopping it, which of course seems reasonable, but part of his reasoning reveals why women were finding it increasingly impossible to find paid work. Stopping field work, says Charles
It is still more important in the ease of females, and I believe the field employment is most prejudicial to the character of females and with young girls where there is not even the excuse of profit attached to their labour. The constitutional objections, though great in themselves, are slight compared to the coarse habits contracted by association in the fields with those of the other sex.
It’s a fair point, no one likes a coarse habit after all. So, once again, the elite of the parish are there to enforce their view of how people should behave, as well as providing an education; and social attitudes increasingly wished to remove women particularly from field work – Ruck Keene was not an outlier in his views.
Final couple of points about Education; firstly, this is a time of successive national reform, with the 1870 Education Acts in particular and compulsory education is being progressively introduced; it’s interesting that Ruck Keene’s instincts are all about private and locally funded provision, he’s a dyed in the wool Victorian conservative who sees little reason why a big state should mandate and fund these things. But state provision was of course the way things were going, so in 1878 the School was replaced by a Nationally funded Anglican Primary school in a new building in Cookley Green.
Very last point about education is that to a degree the school personnel also formed part of the establishment, and shows the similar profile of stability and longevity; Robert Holland lives at Russell’s Water, and runs the school for decades. Social status wise, Robert Holland is a different order of magnitude than the Rector, so below gentry and Famer, but he and Ann have a handsome enough household, a family of 9; and his aged, widowed father lives in, another example of extended households with kin at home. Interestingly, his attitudes to boys and girls seem to mirror those we have just talked about; his eldest daughter Mary is 15 in 1851, and is still at school. His eldest lad, Joseph, is 13, and already a ploughboy. In 1901, the School master is one William Dent, a young man of 29, along with his wife Celia who also teaches at the school; they have a lad of 1, and Mabel, a 16 year old live in servant. So you get the picture – it’s genteel light. There’s also a school teacher called Alice Martin, 40 years old, living on her own.
Returning to religion, then, the religious revival of which we have spoken however, was not just a matter only for the Anglican church. It was also a matter for non-conformism, for dissenters. And in 1854, the snake entered the garden of Eden. Well I suspect that is an inappropriate metaphor, but hey, it’s done. To go forward with this story, let us go back to Shropshire in 1807.
As you may or may not know, Methodism was already sweeping the country and through the work of John Wesley had inspired many with his inspirational preaching; by 1791 his brand of the Anglican church had garnered 450,000 adherents. 4 years after his death though, the Methodists had split from the Church of England and were thereby officially dissenters. They organised themselves into Circuits, and in the Chiltern Hills and Oxfordshire vale they joined a long tradition of dissent. Then in 1807 in Shropshire came a new movement – the Primitive Methodists. They started by preaching in the open air, or in peoples’ cottages, and they were a particularly great success in rural areas, and spread out from Shropshire into Derbyshire and onwards. They were from the start more radical than the Methodists; by 1811 they’d already been ejected from the Methodist movement. They followed no liturgy; although they organised themselves into circuits, of bishops would they have none, and relied on Elders – Presbyters. They appealed particularly strongly to ordinary labourers and families. They were, from the start, an affront to the established Anglican church.
There was also a relationship between PM and radicalism, though the extent of this is questioned; it’s not necessarily a 1-2-1 relationship, but there’s a strong tendency towards radicalism among PMs. George Edwards, a leader of Norfolk labourers, learned painfully and slowly to read the bible, and came to the conclusion that
The social conditions of the people were not as God intended they should be
Which is a Good point. A young Oxfordshire farm boy, Joseph Ashby looked around him at the tender age of 13 and arrived at a conclusion that
The labourers who could and dared make claims for themselves and their children were the Primitive Methodists
Primitive Methodists challenged the local dominance of the Anglican church, but also as their congregations and organisers tended to be drawn from lower social orders, labourers, traders, blacksmiths – they therefore challenged the social order. This was particularly true in their earlier stages of set up, in their ‘heroic’ stages as it’s been called. The PMs have been described by one historian as ‘one of the churches of the disinherited’. The church was not tied to physical locations – they met in fields, cottages, Barns – wherever they could find. They were naturally therefore seen as subversive, sort of the illegal raves of the 19th century, with God rather than Ecstasy. For many, Primitive Methodism offered ordinary people a way of dealing with changing economic and social circumstances of the difficult 1830s, while at the same time, asserting themselves against the dead hand of the imposed morality of the elite, a way of keeping their independence and self-determination.
Men are not equal said the preacher…! Our neighbours on the farms and in the great houses be lucky and selfish and proud and they expect you and me to put up with a lot of nonsense
So from the difficult times of the early century, they PM’s began arriving in Oxfordshire. It was not an easy start; in Dorchester, down in the vale from Swyncombe, a chapel was established in 1839, but it was done in the teeth of often violent opposition
The missionaries … for some time … were stoned both as they entered and left the village on Sabbath mornings. On one occasion Mrs Wheeldon was hit on the eye with a stone …. and another member had two of his teeth knocked out with a stone. A number of young persons of the baser sort were encouraged in their savage treatment of preachers by some of the higher classes
Despite this, chapels spread through the county; they would reach a high water mark of 71 in Oxfordshire. They joined a good long tradition of dissent in the rural parishes of the Chilterns; there was already a Methodist chapel at Russell’s Water, in the Pishill part, set there in 1831; The congregationalists had been at Nettlebed since the civil war; Ewelme had Weslyian Methodist and Primitive Methodist chapels, and Watlington, well Watlington was a hot bed of radical dissent – Wesleyan Methodist, Independents, and Primitive Methodist. And in 1854, a chapel was established at Park Corner.
Now that’s the first we’ve heard of it; but very probably there would have signs locally of meetings and camps. It’s said that PM chapels followed Methodist chapels around, and you can imagine that fertile ground for one would presumably be fertile ground for the other, so the establishment of the Wesleyan chapel at Russell’s water would also have encouraged the development of a congregation before the PM chapel could be built at Park Corner.
For once, we actually do have some voices on this from Swyncombe. Bishop Wilberforce and the Reverend Napier in Swyncombe were painfully aware of the dangers as they saw it of the Primitives. They called them Ranters, a sign of their contempt. In 1850 the Primitive Methodist Magazine reported on camp meetings of the year and had a report from Park Corner and the ‘mission’ there; 1850, so several years ahead of the chapel actually being built, so there would have been a history of meetings.
At Park Corner we have had to withstand warm opposition from the clergyman and his adherents who wish to drive us from the village. Some of our members, whose children attend the church school have been told the privilege of attending that school must be denied the parents of those who encourage our people. The clergyman’s wife told one of our members that she has committed a dreadful crime by allowing one of our preachers to baptise a child instead of taking it to the church where its sins could have been taken away in baptism administered by a properly ordained minister; and if she did not attend to that which she had omitted the child, in case of death, must be denied Christian burial and the lady would moreover do all she could to have our friend turned out of her home
Well wow. Discord comes to the sleepy parish of Swyncombe! Major stuff, the forces of reaction. Incidentally let me make the point from earlier – in the 1851 census returns, Swyncombe should effectively be viewed as a mixed parish – because locals would have already been attending PM Camps and open air meetings.
Anyway despite the firm opposition, the Chapel was established 4 years later in 1854. There are some records in the Oxfordshire archives though fewer than I’d like, but it’s possible to piece together some of the people who made it happen and who kept the chapel going until the 1930s when it was finally converted into a house. From where second world war pilot Bart would walk down to the pub at Nettlebed everyday in a straight line, and walk back in a…well, in a line, considerably less straight, as it happens, but that’s a different story.
A couple of things about the new congregation present themselves immediately. Firstly, this is a team effort and not restricted to the people of Swyncombe parish; and secondly, those people came from a smorgasbord of social backgrounds. The person who made the report in the magazine in 1850 was one G Blackwell, in Wallingford; Wallingford was the head office of the local circuit. When the chapel was built it required a debt of £70, underwritten by a ‘Gentleman’ in Wallingford. We don’t know who the original trustees were. But I had a hack at looking up the names of the general secretary and folks who signed the minutes and account books by searching the censuses of neighbouring parishes; and surprisingly did find some stuff. The prime mover seems to have been one Henry Eggleton, from Brightwell parish at the bottom of Swyncombe Downs, who described himself as an itinerant preacher and Carpenter. In 1870 the re-registration of the chapel was made by Edmund Rawlings, a dissenting minister at Watlington; by 1883 it was time for a new team of trustees. There were three farmers from Park Corner – David Summerfield, Dan West and George Collett; the farms around Park Corner were generally the little biddy 40 acre things, Digberry, Darkwood and Chears, so not the top of the social tree. There were two labourers, William Norris and John Morgan. There are Potters, shoemakers, blacksmiths and labourers from Nettlebed and Ewelme. By 1901 the regular large donations for which special note is made in the annual accounts come from four labouring family in the Swyncombe parish – Deane, Norris, Morgan and Berry.
So this in the context of staid little Swyncombe is quite radical. There is social mixing going on here – a right old range of backgrounds, and in a position of some authority. There is a network created outside the confines of the parish. Now as we have seen, the labouring classes probably had that already through their constant moving for work, the sky-high migration levels, kinship networks; but here is something new. Here is a community of interest, just as farmers had, through agricultural societies; a network of interest not restricted to the parish or social group. There may well be others; this is the golden age of regional newspapers for example, and for a period until the late 1870s Rural trades unions flourish; there’s no record of such subversion in Swyncombe, but let’s suppose the existence of one network of interest might well allow of another we can’t see.
I’m going to go out on one here a little then, and use the word liminal. Given the relatively low level of rural crafts and trade n Swyncombe, it’s pushing it a bit, but as I said earlier, such dissent or social challenge as there was, happened on the margins of the parish – Russells Water and Park Corner. There are in fact two places where Beer is sold; and yes, you guessed it – by families in RW and PC. There is one carrier – The Hayes family, at Park Corner, who runs the local service Nettlebed to Watlington. There is nothing at the centre, Swyncombe manor you might expect, but Cockley Green seems like an omission there are plenty of people living there. What takes place at Cookley is official – the school, the parish meetings, the Post office. The two chapels are at the edges – the Established Church is at the centre. Such openness that comes to Swyncombe is at the edges.
Right that’s it for this, the penultimate episode of Victorian rural life; religion has once more demonstrated it’s relationship to both continuity and conservatism on the one hand, and to change and radicalism on the other. Next time, we’ll bring the series to an end. The cold winds of economic depression sweep through England, and Oxfordshire in particular; and bring a deal of social change with them. Plus I’ll round up by trying to trace the life of one family of the parish, the Wixens of Park corner.
Until then everyone, thank you for listening, thanks a million for being members. Good luck, and have a great week.