A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 12, Wootton Hundred (South) Including Woodstock. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1990.
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SOUTH LEIGH, formerly a chapelry of Stanton Harcourt, lies 2 ½ miles (4 km.) south-east of Witney and 8 miles (13 km.) west of Oxford. (fn. 98) It was first mentioned in the late 12th century, by which time it had its own church; it was taxed separately from Stanton Harcourt by the 14th century and had its own churchwardens, overseers, and manorial officials by the 17th. It became a separate ecclesiastical parish in 1868. (fn. 99)
The ancient chapelry was compact in shape and comprised 2,074 a., (fn. 1) excluding two detached portions of Stanton Harcourt parish, the larger of which included Tar wood. They were incorporated into South Leigh civil parish in 1883, enlarging it to 2,365 a. (fn. 2) Parts of Stanton Harcourt (53 a.) and Cogges (878 a.) were added in 1932, and part of Ducklington (1,133 a.) in 1967, bringing the total area to 4,429 a. (1,793 ha.). (fn. 3)
The river Windrush cuts across the southwest corner of the parish. In the south the ancient boundaries followed Standlake brook, a tributary of the Windrush, and for a short distance in the north-east Chil brook and Limb brook, which flows through the parish from west to east; elsewhere they followed field boundaries. Parts of the boundary with Cogges, on the west, perhaps marked the line of a Roman or prehistoric trackway leading to the Windrush near Gill Mill in Cogges parish. (fn. 4) In the southeast, where the holdings of South Leigh and Stanton Harcourt tenants lay closely intermingled until the 18th century, there was no clearly defined boundary until 1773, when the inclosure commissioners partitioned Lies field and South Leigh down; (fn. 5) on the north the boundary between South Leigh heath and Eynsham heath was established earlier but appears similarly artificial, and in the 18th century was marked by fences and merestones. (fn. 6) The detached part of Stanton Harcourt around Tar wood was marked on the south by the Witney to Stanton Harcourt road, on the west by field boundaries, and on the east and north by the boundary of the wood itself. A smaller detached portion to the east, formerly woodland, was marked by field boundaries which survived in 1960 but have since largely disappeared. (fn. 7)
The parish lies mostly on the Oxford Clay, although in the south-west the river Windrush and its tributaries have left alluvial deposits which provided much of the meadowland. Smaller deposits of alluvium occur along Limb brook, and there is alluvium in the north of the parish along the minor streams which cut across the former heath. The north end of the village, including the church and former manor house, stands on a gravel terrace at the top of a slight incline, and there are further deposits of river gravels around Rushy common in the southwest and east of Tar wood in Lies field. (fn. 8) The height of the land varies from c. 70 m. in the Windrush valley to almost 100 m. in the extreme north-west near Hill Farm. In the western part of the parish two small hills at Church End and north of Tar Farm, on either side of Limb brook, reach 85 m.; that near Tar Farm may have given rise to the name Tar field, earlier Torre field or the Torre. (fn. 9) East of Tar wood in Lies field the land is flat and low-lying.
The main Witney-Oxford road, turnpiked in 1751, (fn. 10) cuts across the north-west tip of the parish. In the south a road from Witney to Stanton Harcourt, mentioned in 1616, (fn. 11) runs south-east. In the 18th and 19th centuries a branch road led from Chapel Bridge Bottom to Beard Mill and Northmoor along the southern side of South Leigh down, but had disappeared by 1900. (fn. 12) The village lies mostly along a second minor road from Witney and Cogges to Stanton Harcourt, which was connected with the surrounding fields and roads by a network of lanes and tracks. Moor Lane, running south-west from the village to Rushy common, existed by the 15th century, (fn. 13) and in 1774 the later footpath leading down the east side of Tar wood to the Stanton Harcourt road was a public road 60 ft. wide; (fn. 14) Green Lane, later a metalled road, ran from the east end of the village across the green to the Witney-Oxford road. Church End, once the centre of the village but later an isolated culde-sac, was connected with the former heath and Witney-Oxford road to the north by Church Lane; (fn. 15) Bonds Lane, named from a family holding land there in the late 18th and early 19th century, (fn. 16) ran from Church End to South Leigh green and retained some importance into the 20th century. (fn. 17) Hill Street or Hill Street Lane, running north from near Bartlett's Farm towards Hill Houses, and Clay Street, running from Home field, south of Witney road, into Cogges, were both mentioned from the 16th century; their names suggest some connexion with the possible Roman or prehistoric trackway running from the river Evenlode to the Windrush. (fn. 18)
The Witney Railway, a branch of the West Midland Railway, was opened in 1861, with a station in South Leigh at the east end of the village. (fn. 19) The company was later merged with the G.W.R. The line remained a single track, (fn. 20) and was closed to passengers in 1962 and to goods traffic in 1965; it had been dismantled by 1971. (fn. 21) In the late 19th century and early 20th South Leigh was linked by carrier service to Witney, (fn. 22) site of the nearest money order and telegraph office, although a post office had been opened in the village by 1870. (fn. 23) It was formerly in White Cottage opposite Moor Lane, but was later moved across the road to no. 76; it was closed in 1987. (fn. 24)
There are undated crop marks east of Tar wood in Lies field, and the discovery near Tar Farm of two lead coffins from the reign of Constantinus II points to a Romano-British presence in the southernmost part of the parish by the Windrush. (fn. 25) There is no evidence of early Anglo-Saxon settlement, and South Leigh was not named in Domesday Book; woodland recorded under Stanton Harcourt, however, probably lay in and around Tar wood, (fn. 26) which later field names show was once much more extensive. (fn. 27) In 1190 South Leigh was recorded as Stanton Lega, denoting a forest clearing colonized from Stanton Harcourt; (fn. 28) since it then formed part of an escheat worth £8 a year, was divided into yardlands and described as a vill, and had its own chapel, (fn. 29) its origins presumably date from the 11th century or earlier. Assarting continued throughout the 13th century, and not until the 16th century or the 17th was woodland in the chapelry reduced to its 20th-century proportions. Ward wood, north-east of the modern Tar wood, (fn. 30) was a pasture ground by 1654, (fn. 31) and Herle's wood, probably to be identified with c. 10 a. of woodland recorded on Stanton Wyard manor in the 14th century, (fn. 32) was pasture by 1677. (fn. 33) Eighteenth-century field-names such as Tar Ward Wood piece suggest that the medieval woodland once extended to South Leigh's eastern boundary, north of Lies field. (fn. 34)
In 1279 there were probably over 40 households in South Leigh, including unlisted free tenants; 31 villeins and 14 cottagers were mentioned, but of those c. 10 apparently lived in Hamstall in Stanton Harcourt parish. (fn. 35) Early 14th-century contraction was followed by serious mortalities during the Black Death, (fn. 36) and in 1377 only 91 persons over 14, some probably still living outside South Leigh, were assessed for the poll tax. (fn. 37) By the 16th century the population seems to have recovered, for 52 persons were assessed for subsidy c. 1524, (fn. 38) and 142 inhabitants of both sexes swore the Protestation oath in 1642. (fn. 39) Thirty-eight houses were assessed for hearth tax in 1662; of those the SOUTH LEIGH c. 1793 manor house was assessed on 6 hearths, another on 4, six on 3, and thirty on 1 or 2 hearths. (fn. 40) In 1738 there were said to be about 45 houses in South Leigh, (fn. 41) in 1759 and 1771 c. 50, (fn. 42) and in 1774 between 30 and 40. (fn. 43) In 1801 there were 41, housing 240 people. (fn. 44) In the earlier 19th century the population rose; by 1831 there were on average seven people to a house, the highest proportion in the area, and 60 people supported by the parish were living in adjoining parishes for want of houses. (fn. 45) After reaching a peak of 359 in 1851 the population declined sharply in the 1860s and 1870s, largely through emigration, (fn. 46) and continued to fall until the 1950s, despite the enlargement of the parish. After 1951 population increased, partly because of boundary changes but mostly because of the influx of non-agricultural commuters, and by 1981 had reached 402. (fn. 47)
The nucleus of the early village was presumably Church End, site of the church and former manor house. (fn. 48) Most later expansion took place further south along the road from Witney to Stanton Harcourt, which ran along the northern boundary of the open fields parallel to Limb brook, (fn. 49) and was described as the king's highway (regia via) in 1490. (fn. 50) By then there were houses on the south side of the present Station Road near Moor Lane, (fn. 51) and medieval pottery, possibly marking a farmstead site, has been found south of Kimber's brake by the Witney road. (fn. 52) Several cottages along Witney Road and Station Road date from the 17th century or earlier, amongst them Bartlett's (later Wayside Cottage), Shuttles, the Mason Arms inn, Homan's Farm, and (behind Station Farm) Gunns Cottage; in 1792 several other cottages or farmsteads, since destroyed, lay along or just off the same roads. By the mid 17th century there were isolated cottages, perhaps a squatter settlement, at Hill Houses in the north, bordering on the heath, and straggling over the parish boundary into Cogges. (fn. 53)
During the 18th century there was little change in the size or layout of the village, although consolidation of holdings, accelerated by inclosure, produced four or five large commercial farms by the 1790s. (fn. 54) Most were centred on existing homesteads, although Glebe Farm, later Tar Farm, was built on the new glebe allotment before 1830, originally standing on the Witney to Stanton Harcourt road c. 500 yd. south of its present site. (fn. 55) In the 1830s cottages were said to be thinly scattered up and down the village, and a general air of neatness prevailed; the lane to Church End was then flanked with hedgerow elms. (fn. 56) Margery Cross, the junction of Witney Road, Station Road, and the lane to Church End, was so called by the late 19th century, (fn. 57) but the name does not occur earlier and there is no evidence that there was ever any cross or monument.
Most of the early houses and cottages were built of local limestone with stone slate or thatch, an exception being the timber-framed former manor house at Church Farm, described below. (fn. 58) The stone-and-slate house later called South Leigh Manor, north-east of Station Farm, is 17th-century in origin, with a large, internal chimney stack; it probably acquired its name c. 1800, when it was temporarily occupied by a tenant who later rented manorial rights and part of the demesne. (fn. 59) About that time a new block was added to the east side of the south end, and a symmetrical south front was formed with lean-to additions at both ends and twostoreyed bay windows; before 1875 the house was divided into three separate tenements, but by 1947 was again a single dwelling. (fn. 60) Tar Wood House, a large stone-and-slate dwelling on the northern edge of Tar wood, built as a farmhouse in 1724 but much extended in the 19th century, lay outside the parish in Stanton Harcourt until 1883. (fn. 61)
During the 19th century the labour requirements of the new farms and rising population created an urgent need for more houses, and in the 1860s and 1870s Coningsby Charles Sibthorp, the owner of South Leigh, built several pairs of labourers' cottages, among them the group east of Moor Lane which includes Stow Cottage and the Halt (replacing earlier buildings), nos. 76-80, at Church End nos. 69-70, and beyond the station Blue Barn House. They were built of local stone with Broseley tiles, to a standard design by William Wilkinson of Oxford, and each contained three bedrooms, sitting room, kitchen, and offices. (fn. 62) Until then the village drew its water supply from scattered wells along Green Lane and Station Road, at Church End, and near Hill Farm, (fn. 63) but Sibthorp paid for the supply of piped water to the new cottages from a spring near Station Farm; the system terminated at the Mason Arms inn, however, and was still incomplete c. 1922. (fn. 64) The present Tar Farm and cottages date from c. 1877, (fn. 65) and Station Farm was apparently rebuilt about the same time, on the site of the earlier homestead. (fn. 66) The farmhouse at College Farm, east of the village near Tar wood, was built c. 1878 after Brasenose College bought part of the South Leigh estate: the earlier farmhouse, called Warners, was converted into cottages and farm buildings. (fn. 67) Other late 19th-century additions to the village included the Glebe House in 1871, Holyrood House, formerly St. James's College, c. 1875, the National school, later the village hall, in 1871, (fn. 68) and the Wesleyan chapel on Witney Road in 1876. (fn. 69)
There was a licensed alehouse in South Leigh by 1587, (fn. 70) and in the earlier 18th century there were two; in 1800 there was a public house at Hill Houses. (fn. 71) The Sibthorp Arms, mentioned in 1847, may already have been at its later site on Bonds Lane by 1792. (fn. 72) It closed c. 1879 when the present public house, renamed the Mason Arms after the new owner of South Leigh, was opened on the main village street. (fn. 73)
The opening of the station completed the shift of focus from Church End to Witney Road and Station Road, and following the closure of the Sibthorp Arms the buildings on Bonds Lane were converted into a keeper's lodge and cottages. (fn. 74) They were occupied until c. 1934 when they were demolished following a fire, and by 1946 the lane was an overgrown bridlepath. (fn. 75)
In the 20th century the largest addition to the village was the Lymbrook Close housing estate, begun in the late 1950s on pasture ground formerly called Birds Hay, north of Station Road. (fn. 76) Other houses were built near the Old Crossing, on Station Road, and, in particular, along Witney Road, and piecemeal building continued in 1986. The former Wesleyan chapel was converted into a private house c. 1970. (fn. 77) St. James's College, built as a preparatory school c. 1875, was an orphanage by 1923, and later a private tutoring college; after the Second World War it was temporarily occupied by nuns from Holy Trinity convent, Oxford. In 1956, renamed Holyrood House, it became a residential psychiatric home under ecclesiastical patronage, and in the late 1970s was taken over by Oxfordshire area health authority. The Glebe House, bought as an extension to the hospital in 1963, was sold in 1977. (fn. 78) South Leigh remained comparatively untouched by gravel extraction, but by 1922 there were gravel pits near Tar Farm in the south-west, still evident in 1960, and after 1947 pits were authorised south of the Windrush. (fn. 79)
Dylan Thomas, the poet, lived in South Leigh Manor from 1947 to 1949. (fn. 80) In the 16th century members of the Harcourt family lived in South Leigh, but apart from a brief period in the early 17th century there was no resident gentry thereafter. (fn. 81)
In the later 17th century inhabitants of neighbouring towns and villages used to congregate in South Leigh for two days of running, wrestling, and revelling during the mowing of an unspecified meadow. By 1692 the disturbance was so great that the inhabitants petitioned the justices of the peace to suppress the custom, which was of recent origin; it was ordered that no such meetings should be held on Sundays, and that the constable and tithingmen should arrest any disorderly persons. (fn. 82)