A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 13, Bampton Hundred (Part One). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1996.
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YELFORD, one of Oxfordshire's smallest rural parishes until it was included in 1932 in the civil parish of Hardwick-with-Yelford, (fn. 1) lies 3 miles (4.75 km.) south of Witney and 3 miles east of Bampton, (fn. 2) The village, noted for its seclusion, (fn. 3) is accessible by a single narrow lane. In 1876 the parish contained 336 a., (fn. 4) but its medieval extent was greater, the eastern part being lost to Hardwick (then in Ducklington parish) for reasons discussed below. This article treats the history of the area covered by the medieval parish.
Before the mid 16th century, probably in response to severe depopulation in the later Middle Ages, Yelford's west part became an inclosed estate in single ownership, leaving other holdings to the east in open fields cropped with the fields of Hardwick. That reorganization seems to have been forgotten by the early 17th century when there was confusion over parish boundaries, including assertions that there were two Yelfords, West and East, the former belonging in some way to Bampton, the latter to Hardwick. (fn. 5) Evidently the tenants of Yelford's residual open fields, for taxation and other purposes, had become the responsibility of Hardwick's officers, while the inclosed estate, held entirely by the Hastings family, was assessed independently; disputes with Hardwick's officers seem to have arisen after John Hastings, usually taxed only for his inclosed estate, acquired some open-field land with the Walwyn family's Yelford estate in the mid 16th century. (fn. 6)
The division of Yelford for civil purposes persisted: the inclosed estate, which in 1625, excluding land outside the parish, comprised c. 310 a. worked from Yelford Manor, (fn. 7) came to be regarded as the whole parish, and although much of the open-field land immediately to the east continued to be worked from the only other farmhouse in the village (later College Farm) (fn. 8) both the house and attached estate were regarded as 'in another district', that is Hardwick. (fn. 9) Early 19th-century censuses and Yelford's tithe award of 1848 maintained that distinction, (fn. 10) so Yelford's boundaries in 1848 were those of the inclosed estate of 1625. (fn. 11) Although in 1852 the tithe commissioners declared c. 213 a. of Hardwick tithable to Yelford (fn. 12) no changes were made to parish boundaries. Minor discrepancies between Yelford's boundaries in 1876 and those of the inclosed estate of 1625 resulted from an agreement at the inclosure of Hardwick in 1853 that some old inclosures should be re-allotted. (fn. 13)
The medieval parish probably comprised some 550 a., its eastern part largely represented in later times by a section of Hardwick's open fields called Yelford field: (fn. 14) most strips there were attached to holdings in Yelford, (fn. 15) and after inclosure in the mid 19th century the new fields in that area remained tithable to Yelford. (fn. 16) Yelford field, and probably the ancient parish, was bounded on the north and north-east by Boys wood and Home wood on a line which in 958 seems to have marked the limits of an important estate centred on Ducklington, and was later a boundary of Standlake. (fn. 17) On the east the boundary of Yelford field and perhaps of the early parish ran from the southern tip of Home wood probably down the shallow declivity west of Westfield Farm; (fn. 18) it met, near the beginning of Brighthampton Cut, the small stream which, bisecting Yelford, formed the eastern edge of the inclosed estate of 1625, and of Yelford as defined in the 19th century. (fn. 19) The southern and western boundaries of the ancient parish were those of the inclosed estate, and of the surviving Hardwickwith-Yelford. Westward from Brighthampton Cut the boundary with Shifford and Aston follows a watercourse which once bordered an ancient road or 'way', mentioned as Shifford's boundary in 1005; (fn. 20) the road, surviving in 1625, was suppressed shortly afterwards. (fn. 21) Yelford's north-western boundary with Ducklington, from a point on Aston's boundary south of Claywell Farm to Boys wood, is marked by a ditch, probably the dyke on Ducklington's boundary in 958 which led towards the boundary with Aston. On the north Yelford's boundary followed the southern edge of Boys wood, probably the Ducklington boundary in 958 and later that of Standlake. (fn. 22)
The southern part of the early parish, including the village site, lies on river alluvium at a height of c. 65 m.; gravel deposits cover the higher ground in the north of the parish at Rickless Hill (87 m.) and near Home wood (c. 90 m.), and Oxford clay the hill slopes. (fn. 23) The problem of flooding, not entirely solved by extensive drainage works in the area in the mid 19th century, (fn. 24) probably accounted in part for the two early moated sites in the village. (fn. 25) Water was obtained from shallow wells, and in a field north of the village there was an unfailing spring, Taberwell or Taperwell, reputedly both holy and medicinal, which from the 1950s was piped to Yelford Manor and the adjacent farm buildings. (fn. 26) Isolated cottages on the Hardwick road were similarly supplied from another ancient spring, Stockwell, in a field to the north. (fn. 27)
A lane links Yelford with Hardwick to the east and the Witney-Aston road to the west. Until the inclosure of Hardwick in 1853 the route to Hardwick ran further north, following the line of the surviving bridleway from the north end of the village towards Ducklington before branching north-eastwards to skirt the southern edge of Home wood. (fn. 28) An ancient lane from Brighthampton to Yelford, crossing the open fields between the later Westfield Farm and Brighthampton Cut, was abandoned at inclosure in 1853. In 1629 it joined the village street roughly opposite Rectory Cottage, although a section near that junction seems to have been realigned before the 19th century. (fn. 29) The lane formed part of an ancient route running south-eastwards to the river Thames, and a section south-east of Yelford was still called Abingdon Lane in 1839, although by then reduced to a fieldpath. (fn. 30) The lane leading west from Yelford in the early 17th century joined another ancient lane from Brighthampton which formed Yelford's south-west boundary; both lanes were dangerous and unsuitable for carts in 1629, and that on the boundary seems to have fallen out of use. (fn. 31) Perhaps in the later 18th century the village street seems to have been replaced or supplemented, at least for carts, by an east-west road which passed north of Yelford Manor and along the lower slopes of Rickless Hill before turning south to join the old route at the parish boundary. (fn. 32) By 1876, presumably after drainage work, the old route had been restored. (fn. 33) By then the village street south of College Farm had been realigned slightly to the west, perhaps destroying part of Yelford Manor's moat. (fn. 34) At inclosure in 1853 a straight road to Hardwick was laid out, and an occupation road from Boys wood to Brighthampton provided access to the newly inclosed fields. (fn. 35)
In fields immediately south-west of Home wood, within the bounds of the probable ancient parish, there are abundant signs of undated prehistoric settlements; crop marks and pottery finds indicate Romano-British settlement, and early-Saxon huts have been identified. (fn. 36) Romano-British pottery was also found on the north side of Rickless Hill. (fn. 37) An Anglo-Saxon burial ground, probably of the 7th century, was discovered in 1857 west of Westfield Farm on the perimeter of the ancient parish. (fn. 38) An indication of early settlement in Yelford village was 12th- century pottery found beneath the hall of Yelford Manor. (fn. 39)
The place name, of which the early forms included Aieleforde, Eleford, and Eilesford, incorporates the Saxon personal name Aegel, (fn. 40) also associated with Elm Bank ditch on Ducklington's western boundary, which in 958 was Aeglesuuillan broce (the brook of Aegel's spring). (fn. 41) The ford was perhaps on the small, unnamed stream which, rising on the edge of Boys wood, runs through the village towards the river Thames; an early 14th-century inhabitant was Ralph at Ford. (fn. 42)
The village comprises only the church, the former rectory house (Rectory Cottage), a notable timber-framed manor house (Yelford Manor), a large 19th-century stone farmhouse (College Farm), (fn. 43) and a few modern houses. In the 1920s Yelford was noted for its setting 'in the midst of giant trees', (fn. 44) but most were elms which perished in the 1970s. In the early Middle Ages some 10-12 house-holds were recorded in Yelford and in 1327 there were 16 taxpayers. (fn. 45) Depopulation, probably the result of plague, reduced Yelford to two or three taxable house-holds by the 16th century. There are signs of abandoned house sites in a field on the north side of the village, (fn. 46) and others in fields west of the church. (fn. 47) The complete rebuilding of Yelford Manor and, unusually, of the church in the later 15th century may reflect extensive dereliction. In 1542 five men were mustered and six (in three families) were assessed for subsidy. (fn. 48) In the early 17th century usually two families were assessed, (fn. 49) and in the 18th century there were only the three houses mentioned above and perhaps, as later, a cottage attached to College Farm. (fn. 50) Yelford's recorded early 19th-century population of 16 or 17 people excluded the College Farm site. (fn. 51) On census day in 1851 the recorded population (17) was artificially high because both the departing tenant of Yelford Manor and his successor were present with their families; enumerated with Hardwick were the inhabitants of College Farm and its cottage, and an isolated cottage (Clarke's cottage) in a field towards Home wood, bringing Yelford's population effectively to over 30. (fn. 52) Before 1871 a pair of cottages was built for College farm on the Hardwick road; (fn. 53) Clarke's cottage was abandoned in the late 19th century or early 20th when the well failed. (fn. 54) In 1891 there were 12 people in Rectory Cottage and Yelford Manor, and a further 14 in College Farm and the cottages. (fn. 55) There was no expansion until, from the 1970s, a few detached houses were built in the village.