A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 14, Bampton Hundred (Part Two). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2004.
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Medieval Trade and Industry
During the earlier 13th century the recently founded borough, despite temporary setbacks, seems to have thrived. Fairs were founded in 1202 and 1231, the borough was extended in 1219–20, and there seems no doubt that by the 1270s Witney was a town in the fullest sense, notwithstanding its limited autonomy and uncertain borough status. (fn. 1) By the early 14th century some parts of its economy were apparently contracting, notably the local cloth industry and trade at the market and fairs; other evidence suggests continued prosperity within the town as a whole, however, and certainly an assertion that it ceased to be 'a centre of trade' and that the borough 'hardly deserves its name' (fn. 2) seems greatly exaggerated. Mid 14th-century plagues caused further economic difficulties, but from the mid 15th century the local cloth industry developed rapidly, with some leading clothiers operating on a national or international scale. More general resurgence of the town's population and economy followed, though possibly not until the early 16th century. (fn. 3)
The 13th-Century Borough
Slowly rising borough-rents throughout the 13th century, and the laying-out of 16 new burgage plots along Bridge Street in 1219–20, presumably reflected both steady demand and rising population. (fn. 4) The Bridge Street extension linked the borough with plots laid out in neighbouring Newland by the lord of Cogges about 1212–13, a venture presumably stimulated by Witney's early success; since Newland failed, however, expansion may by then have been reaching its limits. Certainly in 1220–1 the bailiff claimed a 20s. rent-allowance for burgesses who had 'withdrawn because of poverty', although no reason for their difficulties was given and the reversal appears to have been temporary. (fn. 5) New fairs in 1202 and 1231, and regular expenditure on market stalls and selds, suggest active involvement by the bishop of Winchester as lord, interrupted only by untypical leasing of borough income in 1225–6, 1231–2, and 1247–8. (fn. 6) By 1279 the borough's population probably exceeded a thousand, (fn. 7) many inhabitants, on surname evidence, apparently incomers from surrounding villages or rival towns: toponymics in or before the 1250s included Woodstock and Burford, Abingdon and Hungerford (both then in Berks.), Dunstable (Beds.), and Bridport (Dorset), while later 13th-century names included Norfolk, Northampton, St. Albans, Gloucester, and Brecon. Long-distance immigration was nevertheless probably limited. (fn. 8) All tenants held by burgage tenure, most commonly paying 6d. rent for a house and plot, although by the 1270s some house rents varied from as little as ½d. to 2s. 7d., with a few 3d. rents perhaps representing subdivided plots. (fn. 9) Rents for the new Bridge Street plots appear initially to have been 12d. for an acre-holding, but they were no longer clearly identifiable in 1279. (fn. 10)
Surnames provide almost the only evidence for the diversity of trades in the new borough. Thirteenth-century names, (fn. 11) combined with references to wool merchants and fulling mills, (fn. 12) suggest early textile manufacture and a dependent clothing trade (mercers, drapers, and tailors), together with some leatherworking (tanners, whit-tawyers, corvesers, cobblers), metal-working (ironmongers and smiths), buildingwork (masons, carpenters, slaters, and plumbers), and victualling and food production (bakers, salters, spicers, and vintners). Fines for brewing, baking, or ale-selling in contravention of manorial rules were imposed frequently by the borough court, no fewer than 17 alewives being fined in 1291. (fn. 13) In 1282 a Witney man owned property in 'la boucherie' (presumably the butchers' shambles) in Oxford, and shambles in Witney were recorded from the 14th century. (fn. 14) Other occupational surnames included Crocker (i.e. potter) and Cooper, and the names Tinker, Merchant, and Cornmonger indicate general trading. (fn. 15)
Many of those named from building trades were presumably employed in the frequent works at the bishop's manor house, (fn. 16) or in constructing the growing town; among them may have been the young Thomas of Witney (fl. 1300), an influential master mason who later worked at Winchester under the bishop's patronage. (fn. 17) Other inhabitants were employed presumably at the bishop's quarries near Corn Street and elsewhere, which in the 13th and 14th centuries provided slates and building-stone for work both at the manor house and outside the parish. (fn. 18) Names such as Butler, Porter, Barber, Woodward, Parker, Hayward, and Day (or dairyman) (fn. 19) suggest a group perhaps more directly dependent on the bishop for employment, involved in household and estate administration or in demesne agriculture. The frequent presence of the bishop and his retinue during the earlier 13th century presumably stimulated local trade, (fn. 20) but may not always have been entirely beneficial: allowances claimed for allegedly impoverished burgesses in 1220–1 coincided with a visit during that year, (fn. 21) and certainly royal visits to Witney or nearby Woodstock sometimes had detrimental effects. Prises demanded by the king or queen allegedly discouraged merchants from attending Witney market in the late 13th and early 14th century, (fn. 22) while raids at Witney manor house by royal retainers in 1300–1 and 1385–6 (fn. 23) may indicate wider disruption in the town, albeit temporary.
By the 1270s and probably earlier up to 700 a. of recently assarted land (fn. 24) in Hailey was held mostly by Witney burgesses. Since assarting, apparently on the bishop's initiative, seems to have been most intensive before the 1250s when the borough was becoming established, the intention may have been to supplement burgesses' income and to safeguard them against economic fluctuations; by the 1270s, however, the land was concentrated in the hands of only around 76 burgesses, about a third of the total, with much of it (some 305 a.) held by an emerging borough élite of around a dozen people. Among them were members of the long-established Hering, Lambert, Abingdon, and Standlake families, who often held several houses in the borough which they presumably sublet to less wealthy tradesmen. (fn. 25)
Among that leading group Roger Hering, who in 1279 had 11 houses and 45 a. of assart, was a wealthy wool merchant who also rented demesne pasture and local fulling mills. (fn. 26) The occupations of the others are unknown, though it seems likely that some were also prominent merchants or traders: Robert Lambert, who owned three houses and 20 a., was presumably descended from the William Lambert who helped secure a charter from the bishop in 1210–11, (fn. 27) while members of the Raulin family later rented the market and fair tolls. (fn. 28) Their accumulations of property clearly set them apart, but the importance of their assart holdings should probably not be exaggerated. Assarts changed hands frequently, meaning that few such accumulations were permanent, while even the largest holdings were little bigger than a peasant yardland and were held usually in small scattered parcels, presumably sublet to rural tenants. (fn. 29) Perhaps more important to such townspeople were estates acquired elsewhere, to supplement or consolidate commercial wealth: in the 14th century the Standlakes owned property in Cowley, Littlemore, and Iffley, together with land at Caswell, assarts in Hailey, and houses in Witney borough. (fn. 30)
Whatever the source of their income, early 14th-century subsidies confirm the presence of a small group of exceptionally prosperous townsmen. Out of 47 taxpayers in 1327 nearly 80 per cent were taxed on moveable goods worth £5 or less, but four paid on more than £10, and between them owned 40 per cent of the town's assessed wealth, Richard of Standlake alone paying on £30 or 12 per cent. (fn. 31) By contrast, a Witney burgess's chattels in 1238 were valued at under £7. (fn. 32)
The 14th and 15th Centuries
During the late 13th and early 14th century there appears to have been a marked decline in trade at Witney's market and fairs and in local cloth manufacture. Market and fair tolls, already variable during the earlier 13th century, fell steadily, and from 1305 they were leased, at first to William Raulin and later, with the borough rents, to the town bailiffs, making subsequent fluctuations in the town's economic fortunes difficult to trace in detail. The confirmation in 1317 of Witney's Ascension day fair, said then to be in abeyance, perhaps represented an attempt to boost flagging trade. (fn. 33) From the early 14th century several fulling mills fell out of use, (fn. 34) and increasing difficulty in finding takers for assart and demesne land may also reflect problems among some burgesses. (fn. 35) Nevertheless the borough as a whole seems to have continued to prosper, albeit with some setbacks and perhaps at a slower rate. Between 1316 and 1327 its total assessed wealth rose from £168 to £249, placing it well above its nearest rival Burford. (fn. 36) In 1334, when taxed (though not as a borough) on £179, it ranked below Oxford, Banbury, Chipping Norton, and Thame, but still above both Burford and Deddington (each just over £140), and far above both Woodstock and Eynsham (both under £45). (fn. 37)
Mid-century plagues, catastrophic in Witney's rural townships, clearly affected the borough, with some burgesses taking up vacant houses in the manor court and much of the Hailey assart-land remaining unlet for decades. (fn. 38) The borough's population, unlike that of the townships, seems nevertheless to have made a fairly swift partial recovery, (fn. 39) and overall the town's stagnation or contraction should probably not be exaggerated. Textile-manufacture and trade in wool evidently continued, albeit at a reduced level, (fn. 40) while occasional references to tanners, butchers, masons, carpenters, and quarrying suggest that a range of trades persisted. (fn. 41) Some tradesmen had wide horizons, a tanner's widow in 1412 owning property in London. (fn. 42) New fairs instituted in 1414 survived the medieval period despite evident difficulties in the late 15th and early 16th century, and the quality of the 14th- and 15th-century work in Witney church suggests prosperity, (fn. 43) although, as in the early 16th century, wealth may have been concentrated among a relatively few prominent merchants. (fn. 44)
From the mid 15th century the apparent growth of Witney's cloth industry, in part a response to national trends, probably helped to stimulate the town's economy more generally. (fn. 45) Goods imported from Southampton in the 1460s and 1470s included wine and oysters, (fn. 46) and by the 1480s the town had attracted a small group of foreign traders, the largest recorded in the county outside Oxford; among them were two corvesers, though the trades of the others were unrecorded. (fn. 47) The appearance in Witney of dominant wool merchants and clothiers may nevertheless have failed to revive general local trade much before the mid 16th century. In the late 15th century successive town bailiffs refused to pay the ancient rent for market and fair tolls, eventually forcing the bishop to write off their arrears, while in the early 16th century the market was still claimed to yield virtually nothing because of the 'poverty' of the burgesses. (fn. 48) That the bishop yielded to such claims suggests that they were not entirely fictitious, and that there may have been some delay before a more general upturn in the town's fortunes.
The Medieval Cloth Industry (fn. 49)
Witney possessed many of the natural prerequisites for cloth manufacture: sufficient water power to sustain numerous mills, including fulling mills; (fn. 50) an abundant water supply suitable for washing and dyeing; (fn. 51) an abundant supply of wool, both from the Cotswolds to the west and (until the 1460s) from the bishop's own demesne; (fn. 52) and good communications, particularly from the 15th century when the building of Newbridge and Abingdon bridge diverted the main London—Gloucester route along the borough's western edge. (fn. 53) Initial expansion of Witney's industry during the 13th century, coinciding with national trends and with the borough's early growth, was promoted in part by the bishop, who by the 1220s had invested in construction of at least three local fulling mills. Contraction of the industry during the 14th century was followed by marked acceleration from the mid 15th, probably stimulated in part by the expanding export market, and locally by availability of land for sheep farming, which seems to have attracted prominent merchants and producers. Rapid expansion continued into the 16th century, by which time cloth accounted for some 40 per cent of recorded occupations. (fn. 54)
A Witney weaver was mentioned in 1179–80, suggesting that cloth manufacture may have predated the borough. (fn. 55) By 1223 cloth was being produced in sufficient quantities to generate work for water-powered fulling mills: the bishop's accounts for 1223–4 recorded rents from fulling and corn mills at Waleys (now Farm) Mill just south of the borough, at Woodford (now Witney) Mill to its north, and from a third fulling mill near the site of the later New Mill in Hailey. (fn. 56) The bishop continued to lease two or three fulling mills for the rest of the 13th century, sometimes to individuals, and sometimes to groups of prominent burgesses such as Hugh Godhine, Thomas Bere, and the wool merchant Roger Hering, who jointly held Waleys and Woodford corn and fulling mills in the 1270s. (fn. 57) Surnames suggest the presence in the town of weavers, fullers, quilters, nappers, and dyers, (fn. 58) and similar names in some local villages may reflect work put out by Witney woolmen. (fn. 59)
By the end of the 13th century cloth manufacture appears to have been in decline: the bishop's profits from fulling fell, and between 1318 and 1328 there were no fulling mills at Witney, (fn. 60) with very few occupational surnames relating to cloth manufacture recorded in the lay subsidies of 1316 and 1327. (fn. 61) Demand for fulling had risen sufficiently by 1329 for the bishop to spend over £8 on rebuilding a fulling mill at Waleys (or Farm) Mill, though it remained the only fulling mill in Witney until 1459. (fn. 62) Cloth nevertheless continued to be manufactured: in 1394 John Ravens paid aulnage on three cloths in Witney, (fn. 63) while a few years earlier a packhorse carrying dyed woollen cloth 'of diverse colours' was stolen on the road between Witney and Godstow. (fn. 64) Both dyers and fullers were recorded in the early 15th century, a dyer in 1429 owing debts of £25 to a London skinner. (fn. 65)
Demand was presumably rising again by 1458–9, when the bishop, shortly before withdrawing from demesne farming at Witney, built a new fulling mill at Woodford Mills, granted on a 20-year lease the following year. By 1498 Waleys Mill comprised two fulling mills both leased to William Box, so that in all the manor contained three fulling mills as in the 13th century. (fn. 66) Woad, madder, and alum were imported from Southampton in significant quantities in the 1460s and early 1470s, (fn. 67) principally by the Southampton merchant Robert Blewet and by the Witney woolman Thomas Fermor or Ricards, who was typical of the sort of wool merchant and sheep farmer attracted to Witney during the later 15th century. The son of a Langford woolman and apparently of Welsh ancestry, Fermor leased former demesne land within Witney manor from the 1460s and later settled at Caswell, leaving at his death in 1485 money bequests of over £700 and lands in Witney, Hailey, Cogges, Burford, Filkins, Langford, and Chadlington. (fn. 68) Besides possibly exporting wool from Southampton (fn. 69) he evidently had an interest in manufacture, since in 1470–1 he and Blewet between them imported 58 balets of woad, together with alum, madder, wine, and oil: that year Witney ranked sixth among towns importing woad from Southampton, (fn. 70) although thereafter dye imports from Southampton ceased, supplies coming presumably from other ports and especially from London. (fn. 71) The overall impression is of steady acceleration in cloth manufacture at Witney during the later 15th century, coinciding with a rise in national cloth exports particularly after 1478. (fn. 72) Availability of land for sheep-farming, combined with Witney's other advantages, presumably increased the town's attractiveness to entrepreneurs such as Fermor, and it is notable that prominent Witney woolmen, clothiers, and demesne lessees, among them Fermor's relative Richard Wenman, were involved in piecemeal inclosure in the late 15th and early 16th century. (fn. 73)
Regular wool-supplies were facilitated both by the presence of wool merchants from the early 13th century and by the bishops' own demesne farming, particularly from the 1330s when sheep became increasingly important. (fn. 74) From 1370 the bishop used Witney as a collection centre for wool from his manors in the area, before transporting it to his manor at Wolvesey (Hants) and thence to export. (fn. 75) A new building at Witney in 1363 may have been a wool hall, (fn. 76) and certainly the bishop's officers must have been experienced at collecting, sorting, and packing wool. Wool merchants were mentioned throughout the Middle Ages. In 1268 the Witney burgess Roger Hering contracted to buy all Eynsham abbey's wool for the considerable sum of £170, and in 1272 William of Witney was licensed to export wool, though he seems to have been acting for a Winchester merchant. (fn. 77) Witney men mentioned at Hereford and at Bristol during the 13th century were possibly also woolmen, (fn. 78) while in 1378 a Witney man was conveying wool to a Lombard merchant at London via Henley. (fn. 79) Witney woolmen in the early 15th century included John Hood (fl. 1412–34), a subsidy commissioner and possibly a merchant of the Staple. (fn. 80) Richard Martin, a Witney woolman and butcher, had a debt with a London merchant in 1509, and may have been trading there; (fn. 81) by then, however, such people had been eclipsed at Witney by newcomers such as the Fermors and Wenmans, operating on a much larger scale. (fn. 82)