Introduction to Witney and its townships

Pages 1-7

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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Figure 1:

West Oxfordshire parishes c.1880.

THIS volume concerns the industrial and market town of Witney in west Oxfordshire, and its rural townships of Crawley, Curbridge, and Hailey, an area of 7,182 a. (2,908 ha.) which, until the late 19th century, formed a single ecclesiastical and civil parish derived from a large late Anglo-Saxon estate. Like adjoining parishes to the west and south it belonged to Bampton hundred, whose origins, composition, and administrative history are discussed elsewhere. (fn. 1) The area straddles the Windrush valley, the land rising gently from around 80 m. on the valley floor at Witney to 105 m. near Curbridge, and to nearly 150 m. in the extreme north-east towards Ramsden; around Crawley the land rises from the river more steeply, and there is some lower ground in the south-west around Caswell. The geology is complex, comprising chiefly limestone stonebrash on the uplands, alluvial silts by the river, and areas of Kellaways and Oxford Clay in the east and south, (fn. 2) which provided varied soils and resources (Fig. 2).

Despite the parish's early cohesion as an estate and ecclesiastical unit, the river Windrush divided contrasting landscapes and settlement patterns: in the Roman period it separated the villa economy of the Cotswolds from smaller farming settlements further south, (fn. 3) and from the Middle Ages it divided woodland areas on the fringes of Wychwood Forest from more open champion country, dominated by nucleated villages and open fields. The part of Witney parish lying north of the river was included by the 13th century within the purlieus of Wychwood Forest, and contained the relatively dispersed woodland settlements of Crawley, Hailey, Delly End, Poffley End, and New Yatt, the last three all formerly within Hailey township. Until Wychwood's clearance in the 1850s Hailey and Crawley townships together retained some 550 a. of woodland, chiefly in Crawley, although, like the neighbouring parishes of Asthall and Minster Lovell, the area was also shaped by medieval assarting, which characterised Hailey in particular. South of the river the nucleated hamlet of Curbridge, surrounded by extensive open fields and with relatively little woodland, was more typical of the region generally, and indeed both Hailey and Crawley, despite their woodland characteristics, acquired open fields and practised mixed agriculture. A small medieval settlement at Caswell, on the parish's south-west boundary in Curbridge township, was deserted during the Middle Ages, probably following early inclosure for sheep farming, leaving only Caswell House. (fn. 4)

The Windrush valley as a whole was extensively occupied from Neolithic times, and later occupation included numerous Iron-Age settlements particularly on the river gravels, several small Romano-British settlements mostly south of the river, and Roman villas further upstream at Widford, Worsham, and Shakenoak (in Wilcote). Notable early remains within Witney parish included a Neolithic barrow near Crawley, the 1st-century Iron-Age earthwork known as the North Oxfordshire Grim's Ditch, which cuts across the parish's northern part, and the Roman Akeman Street, which traverses the parish's northern edge. Small RomanoBritish farming settlements existed near Curbridge and Witney, and a Roman roadside settlement existed along Akeman Street just over the north-east boundary. Early Anglo-Saxon settlement elsewhere along the Windrush valley is attested by pagan and Christian burial sites, and by the 9th or 10th century there may have been a minster at nearby Minster Lovell, besides those at Eynsham to the east and Bampton to the south. (fn. 5)

2. Geology and early settlement in the Witney area.

An estate centre on or near the site of the modern town of Witney existed by the 10th century, by which time the surrounding estate, including the northern woodland area, comprised a highly organized landscape. (fn. 6) The settlement's location at the junction of contrasting agricultural zones was presumably intentional. A church and a substantial manor house were built by the bishop of Winchester, as lord of Witney manor, in the early 12th century, probably replacing buildings on a different site, and a planned town and borough were created in probably the late 12th or early 13th century, also by an entrepreneurial bishop. Despite temporary setbacks the town prospered, particularly from the late 15th and early 16th century with the expansion of its long-established cloth industry, which benefited from a plentiful wool-supply, the presence of a fast-flowing river to power fulling mills, and good communications with Gloucestershire, London and Southampton. By the late 17th century the town was widely known for high-quality blankets, an industry with which it remained associated until the late 20th century; it nevertheless retained the range of trades and crafts typical of a small, prosperous market town, and by the 1660s had become the chief market and population centre for west Oxfordshire. Mechanization in the 19th century, delayed by problems in acquiring a railway, transformed the town both socially and economically, but only after the Second World War did new industries begin to threaten the blanket industry's pre-eminence and to alter the town's character further. From the 1960s those changes were accelerated by planning decisions to develop Witney as a major commercial, industrial, and residential centre, boosting the town's population from under 4,000 in the 1930s to over 20,000 by the end of the 20th century, when large-scale suburban expansion continued. By then the local blanket industry, still thriving in the 1960s, had collapsed, to be replaced by a variety of industries located mostly on new industrial estates. (fn. 7)

Witney's townships remained predominantly agricultural, pursuing mixed, largely open-field farming until inclosure in the late 18th and early 19th century. The valuable woodland was usually kept in hand by lords or lessees of Witney manor, and was exploited directly. Distinctive features included availability of sheep pasture, particularly in inclosed assarts in Hailey township and, from the later Middle Ages, in former demesne closes in Curbridge township: in the late 15th and early 16th century there was considerable piecemeal inclosure of assarted land, much of it by prominent woolmen based in the town. Out-workers for Witney industries, principally weavers, spinners, and (in the 19th century) glovers, were recorded in all three townships, but never outnumbered the predominant agricultural populations. The villages retained a distinct rural identity in the early 21st century, notwithstanding the increasing presence of commuters and the town's relentless expansion onto former agricultural land, including its absorption of Cogges to the east. Like most surrounding villages, the townships traditionally looked to Witney both for its market and for social diversion. (fn. 8)

Important medieval buildings, besides Witney church, include the excavated remains of the bishop of Winchester's manor house (the so-called bishop's 'palace'), the late 15th-century house at Caswell, built by prominent local woolmen, and a few smaller late medieval houses at Crawley, Hailey, and Poffley End. In contrast to nearby Burford virtually no medieval houses survive within the town, a reflection of its economic success from the 16th and 17th centuries, which seems to have resulted in an almost complete rebuilding. Few timber-framed buildings are known, perhaps because good local stone was always available: certainly the few surviving major medieval houses appear to have been stone-built from the outset. In the 17th-century Witney was described as a stone-built town, and thereafter stone and stone slate was common both in the town and in the villages, though thatch persisted into the 19th century.

Notable later buildings included, in the town, the former grammar school (1660), the Blanket Company's hall (1720–1), and the town hall (rebuilt 1785–6), together with 19th-century industrial buildings such as Witney Mills and Bridge Street Mills. Also of note are the large Methodist chapel and schools on High Street (1850–1), reflecting the prominence of Dissent within the town's social and religious life from the 17th century. The townships retain several substantial 17th- and 18th-century farmhouses, some of those in Hailey built on outlying assarts, and minor gentry houses include the so-called Hailey Manor at Delly End. Also of note is Hailey church (1868–9), an early and flamboyant work by the architect Clapton Crabb Rolfe, son of the then vicar. (fn. 9)

A feature of the rural landscape was Witney park, created by a bishop of Winchester in the 13th century on land in Curbridge township, west of the town. Though later inclosed, its outlines survived until the late 20th century when it was destroyed by housing development, its existence commemorated in the name Deer Park Road. (fn. 10)

Parish Boundaries and Acreage

In 1877 the parish comprised 7,182 a., including the rural townships of Crawley (1,128 a.), Curbridge (2,983 a.), and Hailey (2,879 a.). From the later 19th century the townships were counted as independent civil parishes, and their boundaries are described below. Witney borough, created within the pre-existing estate in probably the late 12th or early 13th century, covered 192 a. in 1877 and probably by the later Middle Ages; it, too, became a civil parish from the late 19th century, and from 1895 to 1974 formed an urban district. The town's area in 2003, following successive enlargements, was 2,278 a. (922 ha.). (fn. 11)

Anglo-Saxon and Later Boundaries (Figs. 3 and 5)

3. The Witney estate c. 1050: conjectural reconstruction. (Names from charter-boundaries in Roman type; later names in italics.)

The boundaries of the estate from which the ancient parish derived were described in grants of 969 and 1044. The estate, centred on a precursor of the town, may have been assembled only in the late 950s or 960s, perhaps for the king's 'minister' Aelfhelm, to whom King Eadgar gave it in 969; before that the area south of the river seems to have formed a separate unit, since a smaller estate at Curbridge was mentioned in the mid 950s. (fn. 12) If so, the Windrush may until then have formed both an estate and an ecclesiastical boundary, with the area to its north looking to a putative minster church at Minster Lovell, and the area to its south looking to Bampton. (fn. 13)

The 10th-century boundary description began on the west, and the 11th-century one on the east near Witney, (fn. 14) perhaps reflecting the settlement's growing importance. Like its 19th-century counterpart, (fn. 15) the late Saxon eastern boundary ran southwards down the Windrush along the east side of Fulney meadow, a name meaning 'foul' (or muddy) island, to a detached meadow belonging to Shilton; there it cut across to the river's western stream, running northwards past Ducklington to 'tidreding ford', to 'occan slaew' (Occa's slippery place), and to Witta's moor or marsh on Ducklington's northern boundary. (fn. 16) The south-eastern section thus brought within both estate and parish a tongue of valuable riverside meadow, although near Witney itself the boundary presumably excluded Langel common, which, despite being later claimed to lie within Witney manor, remained until 1898 an extraparochial meadow of 9 a. between two streams of the Windrush. (fn. 17) From Witta's moor the 10th-century boundary ran along the lower section of Colwell brook, continuing south-westwards to the old ditch, to 'fugel' or bird slade, and to a 'stone bridge' identified by excavation as a paved ford at the intersection of Ducklington's, Witney's, and Bampton's boundaries. (fn. 18) The same section in 1044 followed merely a 'new ditch', perhaps the modern boundary, though the later charter seems to have omitted several boundary points both here and elsewhere. From the ford, the 10th-century boundary ran to Lew slade (evidently Norton ditch) via the old way, horninga maere, and waerden hlinc, presumably roughly following the modern Lew-Curbridge boundary. The old way may have been the ancient Abingdon Lane, which formed part of the later parish boundary; alternatively the Abingdon Lane stretch may have been horninga maere, meaning boundary (or possibly mere) of the Hornings, (fn. 19) while the 'linch' may have been a small sliver of land south of Abingdon Lane just within the parish's south-west corner. (fn. 20) The zig-zag boundary between Lew and Curbridge heaths, established by 1767, (fn. 21) is difficult to reconcile with the charter, and perhaps followed from a later division of common pasture.

From the parish's south-west corner the 19th-century boundary ran northwards along Norton ditch to meet the modern Curbridge-Brize Norton road, which it followed westwards for a short stretch before running northwards through a belt of woodland by Coneygar pond. (fn. 22) Tyca's pit and dufan doppe (possibly 'pool or stream for diving fowl'), mentioned along this stretch in 969 and 1044 respectively, may have been pools near Black Moat, which was possibly the mythy (confluence?) mentioned in 1044: a stream still flows into the ditch at that point, though the term mythy could equally denote a lost road junction. Ceahhan mere (jackdaw's pond) and kettle-well lay further north, one of them perhaps at Coneygar pond. Leofstan's bridge or ford, mentioned in 1044, was perhaps where the Curbridge road crossed Norton ditch, and the 'headland' and 'kettle-acres', both denoting arable land, were perhaps north of Coneygar pond, where the 19th-century boundary made a short west turn. A 'little earthwork' between ceahhan mere and the headland in 969 is unidentified. From kettle-acres or kettle-well both the 10th-century boundary and its modern counterpart continued north-eastwards along Wood street, a road still running along Curbridge's north-west boundary in the 19th century, (fn. 23) as far as hawk's low or tumulus, a burial mound immediately south of the Windrush. (fn. 24) From there it ran northwards through woodland later divided between Minster Lovell and Crawley, and along a road called spon (or woodchipping) way, passing the 'willow-row', 'nut-cliff', Langley way, and the woodland clearings of high leigh (later Henley) and Spoonley as far as the parish's north-west corner.

4. An Anglo-Saxon boundary: St John's Lane (suga rode), between Hailey and Ramsden.

The 19th-century northern boundary followed Pay and St John's Lanes, before turning northwards up Blackbird Assarts Lane and making a detour around the Hays; in 969 Pay and St John's Lanes were called suga rode, probably denoting a marshy track, and Blackbird Assarts Lane was hunter's way, implying hunting in surrounding woodland. The detour around the Hays may have been similar but not identical in the 10th and 11th centuries, when the boundary from hunter's way ran towards wicham, a name recalling a minor Roman settlement along Akeman Street, (fn. 25) then passed by a hedge-bank (wyrtwala/wyrtruma) to ofling acre, presumably near the parish's north-east corner. From there it followed the 'old' or 'sheep' way and the 'straight boundary' to Cycga's stone, before following a 'green way' apparently down the later north-east boundary to Itchen's field (yccenes feld), where a stream intersects the Witney-Wilcote boundary south of Shakenoak Farm. (fn. 26) If the 'old way' was Akeman Street, the 10th-century estate may have included a small part of Wilcote immediately east of the Hays; alternatively, the 'way' may have run down the Hays' east side, with Cycga's stone marking the modern boundary's short eastward turn along the Hailey—Wilcote road.

From Itchen's field the 10th-century eastern boundary followed a hedgerow southwards to met sinc or 'mead sedge', evidently Madley brook, (fn. 27) which rises near the modern parish boundary's intersection with the Woodstock road. Allowing for later adjustments around New Yatt, therefore, the Anglo-Saxon boundary probably coincided with its 19th-century successor, which followed a continuous hedge dividing heathland in Witney and North Leigh. (fn. 28) Further south near Witney, the 10th- and 11th-century boundaries apparently both encompassed land later included in Cogges parish, the earlier boundary rejoining the Windrush via Ecgheard's hel (probably a nook or bend in the stream rather than a hill) and a hedge-bank, and the 11th-century one passing to the river directly along Madley brook. Adjustments in that area were made in 1219–20, when part of Grimesmead, immediately east of Bridge Street in Witney, was acquired from the prior of Cogges in exchange for rights in Cogges mill pond, (fn. 29) and by 1298 the boundary probably followed its later course along the Woodstock road, along field boundaries east of Woodgreen, and along tenement boundaries east of Bridge Street. (fn. 30) The 'place where the cnihtas lie', located on the eastern boundary at or south of Itchen's field in 1044, referred probably to early Saxon burials near Shakenoak Roman villa (in Wilcote), (fn. 31) which were also recalled in the medieval assart-name Knavenhale (later Navelands). (fn. 32)

The Boundaries of Wychwood Forest

Until the 1850s the parish's northern part was included in the royal Forest of Wychwood, forming a detached portion of outlying areas known as the Forest purlieus. (fn. 33) The Forest boundary, as described in 1298–1300, (fn. 34) partly coincided with that of the parish, running on the west along Crawley's woodland, where it followed several of the 10th- and 11th-century boundary points, on part of the north along suga rode or Pay and St John's Lanes, and on the east past forsakenhoke or Shakenoak. (fn. 35) Unidentified boundary points between suga rode and Shakenoak were possibly in Ramsden, and on the east the boundary made a short detour through North Leigh, though Grundesweleye, mentioned in the 1330s as an assart in Witney manor, lay presumably on the Witney boundary probably near New Yatt, as perhaps did Sullesleye or Snelleslye to its north. (fn. 36) A hedgerow between Sullesleye and Grundesweleye was probably part of that mentioned in the earlier boundary charters.

From Madley well and Madley brook the south-eastern Forest boundary followed the later parish boundary to Grimesmead, east of Bridge Street. The Forest's southern boundary was the river Windrush, which until the 950s may also have formed the estate boundary between Crawley and Hailey to the north, and Curbridge and Witney to the south. (fn. 37) Land south of the Windrush was reportedly brought into the Forest by Henry II, but was removed in the 1220s. (fn. 38)


  • 1. VCH Oxon. xiii. 1–5.
  • 2. OS Map 1:25000, sheet 180 (1999 edn); Geol. Surv. Map 1:50000 (solid and drift), sheet 236 (1982 edn).
  • 3. Allen, Mount House, 4–5.
  • 4. Below, Crawley; Curbridge; Hailey.
  • 5. Ibid.; Allen, Mount House, 4–6.
  • 6. Below (parish boundaries).
  • 7. Below, Witney borough.
  • 8. Below, Crawley; Curbridge; Hailey.
  • 9. Ibid.; below, Witney borough, intro. (buildings).
  • 10. Below, Curbridge, intro.; econ. hist.
  • 11. OS Area Bk. (1877); Census, 1801–1991; below Witney borough, intro.; below, Crawley; Curbridge; Hailey. For principal maps, below, Sources.
  • 12. Below, Witney borough, manor.
  • 13. As suggested in Allen, Mount House, 6.
  • 14. PN Oxon. (EPNS), ii. 489–90; for interpretations, some differing from that below, Grundy, Saxon Oxon. 76–85; M. Gelling, Signposts to the Past (1997 edn), 197, 202–6; T. J. Cooper, 'Saxon Bdy of Witney', Rec. Witney, 7 (Mar. 1980), 3–10; 9 (1980), 15–23; Blair, A-S Oxon. 131; unpubl. TS by J. Blair and West Oxon. Charter-Boundary Group, on which much of the following is based.
  • 15. OS Area Bk. (1877).
  • 16. Cf. ibid. s.v. Ducklington, Shilton, Witney; VCH Oxon. xiii. 6–7, 111; PN Oxon. (EPNS), ii. 333.
  • 17. Bodl. MS Top. Oxon. d 211, f. 75; Witney Ct. Bks. 95; Census, 1881–1901.
  • 18. J. Blair and A. Millard, 'An Anglo-Saxon Landmark Rediscovered', Oxoniensia, 57 (1992), 342–8.
  • 19. Cf. Gelling, Signposts, 204; VCH Oxon. xiii. 6–7, differing slightly from the current account.
  • 20. ORO, Curbridge tithe award and map, plot 28.
  • 21. Jefferys, Oxon. Map (1767).
  • 22. Minor boundary adjustments were made in that area between 1814 and 1883: Godson, Witney Map (1814–16); ORO, Curbridge tithe and incl. maps; OS Map 6", Oxon. XXXI (1883–4 edn).
  • 23. Godson, Witney map (1814–16).
  • 24. Below, Crawley, intro.
  • 25. Below, Hailey, intro. (settlement).
  • 26. Cf. VCH Oxon. Xii. 213–15, 296–7.
  • 27. K. Bailey, 'Reflections on an Oxon. Stream-Name', Oxoniensia, 54 (1989), 403–5.
  • 28. Blair, A-S Oxon. 132; ORO, Hailey tithe map. For New Yatt, below, Hailey, intro.; the boundary there was further adjusted in 1853.
  • 29. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/8, mm. 10d.–11; below, Witney borough, intro. (origin and devpt).
  • 30. Eynsham Cart. ii, p. 94; for possible re-routing of the Woodstock road in the 12th or 13th century, below, Witney borough, intro. (communications).
  • 31. A. C. Brodribb, A. R. Hands, and D. R. Walker, Excavations at Shakenoak, iii (Oxf. 1972), 136–7; Blair, A-S Oxon. 17, 32–33.
  • 32. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/89, mm. 8d.–9; ORO, Hailey tithe award and map.
  • 33. ORO, Wychwood incl. award, pp. 11–15; below, Crawley, econ. hist.
  • 34. Eynsham Cart. ii, p. 94; J. Y. Akerman, 'Ancient Limits of the Forest of Wychwood', Archaeologia, 37 (1857), 426, 435–7; cf. V. Wickham Steed, 'Bounds of Wychwood Forest', Top. Oxon. 7 (1961); 8 (1962).
  • 35. PN Oxon. (EPNS), ii. 322.
  • 36. For Grundesweleye, Hants RO, 11M59/B1/88, m. 10d.; 11M59/B1/92, m. 23 and d.; cf. VCH Oxon. xii. 215; B. Schumer, 'Bounds of Wychwood Forest', Top. Oxon. 20 (1975), 18–20, suggesting a location much further east.
  • 37. Above.
  • 38. Wickham Steed, 'Bounds of Wychwood Forest', Top. Oxon. 8 (1962).