Witney borough: Economic history, agriculture

Pages 107-108

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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After the creation of the town Witney manor, encompassing the three rural townships, remained predominantly agricultural, with profits from rents and farming forming the bulk of the lord's income: in 1552 the manor was valued at just under £94 gross, compared with only £9 6s. 10¼d. received from the borough. (fn. 1) A considerable demesne farm, including up to 500 a. of arable in the early 13th century, was administered throughout the Middle Ages from the bishop's manor house near Witney church, with its extensive agricultural buildings; (fn. 2) from the 1390s the land was usually leased, though tenants such as the Brice family continued to farm it from the manor house until the 17th century, and agricultural buildings there remained in use by local farmers until the 19th. The demesne's extent and administration is discussed below: most of it lay west and south of the town in Curbridge township, perhaps because fields belonging to the pre-urban settlement of Witney had been taken into Curbridge at the borough's foundation, while detached woods in Hailey and Crawley townships were usually also kept in hand. (fn. 3)

In other respects, too, the town retained strong agricultural links until the 20th century. Several prominent medieval burgesses held assart land in Hailey and sometimes sizeable estates elsewhere, while in the 16th and 17th centuries many leading clothiers, woolmen, and fullers were sheep farmers on a significant scale: many held land in the townships, and in the 15th and 16th centuries were often implicated in piecemeal inclosure. (fn. 4) Other better-off townsmen supplemented their income by small-scale arable farming or stock-rearing, either in closes outside the town or in gardens and plots attached to their houses. The clothier Nicholas Ifield (d. 1587) left hops and fruit from his orchard as well as cattle and corn on a Somerset farm, while the wealthy tanner Thomas Taylor (d. 1583) had poultry and pigs in the inner and outer courts of his house, and a few cattle 'in the close'. (fn. 5) An averagely prosperous weaver, with goods (including his own loom) worth £31, left hay, corn, pigs, and 62 sheep in 1621, while a small clothier in 1638 had a close of wheat worth £6 and malt worth £1 5s., and in 1719 the wealthy blanket-maker John Wiggins had a ground of barley worth £18. (fn. 6) Butchers and innkeepers, too, often rented small pieces of meadow or pasture outside the town. (fn. 7) The pattern continued in the 19th century, when prominent townsmen such as the banker John Clinch (d. 1827), the dyers and coal merchants James and William Marriott, and, at Woodgreen, the currier Samuel Shuffrey were all involved in farming, (fn. 8) and until the 19th or 20th century barns, agricultural buildings, and grazing animals remained a feature of the town. (fn. 9) The demand for agricultural land was evidently recognized, a land agent in 1776 remarking that closes belonging to a Hailey farm would probably yield higher rents if 'let as separate grounds to Witney tradesmen'. (fn. 10)

Until the 19th century such opportunities were probably confined to better-off townsmen. None of the poorest inhabitants seem to have left crops or livestock, and the small Corn Street plots on which weavers' cottages were built in the 16th century had little land for gardening. (fn. 11) By the 1830s, however, allotments for paupers and landless factory workers were being promoted by philanthropic manufacturers, allegedly in the face of opposition from local farmers. In 1838 the blanket-maker John Early claimed that 'most of the men' had small allotments which could provide bread, cheese, and sometimes bacon, while two paupers whom he had set up on 2 a. of land each at £3 an acre, on the understanding that produce must be consumed or fed to their pigs, were said not to have required poor relief since. One, with three pigs, had accumulated wheat, barley, beans, and potatoes worth over £30; he and his family worked the land with a horse and cart lent by Early, who reported that the scheme was becoming 'more generally adopted'. (fn. 12)

Alongside those engaged in peripheral agriculture were full-time farmers resident in the town, but working land outside. A tenth of those for whom wills survive between the 16th and late 18th centuries called themselves husbandmen or yeomen, and a dozen or so farmers were still noted in the town in the mid 19th century, along with large numbers of agricultural and general labourers. Agricultural trades such as malting remained important into the 19th century, carried out on a commercial scale. (fn. 13) A Corn Exchange was built in 1863, and sale of corn and livestock at the fairs and weekly market continued in and around the market square until the 20th century. (fn. 14)


  • 1. PRO, E 318/28/1586, including income from fairs and borough courts; Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', 224. For agric. in the townships, below, Crawley; Curbridge; Hailey.
  • 2. Above, manor (manor ho.).
  • 3. Below, Crawley, Curbridge, and Hailey, econ. hist. Bury Croft (in Hailey township) was also demesne.
  • 4. Bampton Hund. R. 89–90; Witney Ct. Bks. pp. lii–liii, lix–lxvii, lxxxvii–xc; above (medieval trade and ind.; econ. life 1500–1800).
  • 5. PRO, PROB 11/71, ff. 174–5; Oxon. Inventories (ORS 44), p. 158.
  • 6. ORO, MSS Wills Oxon. 12/1/42, 60/4/27; PRO, PROB 3/18/164.
  • 7. Blenheim Mun., box 156, leases of 1725, 1739, 1740, 1746; above (econ. life 1500–1800: other trades).
  • 8. M. Bee, 'Clinch and Company, Brewers', Oxon. Local Hist. vol. 2, no. 3 (1985), 76; Plummer and Early, Blanket Makers, 150–2; PRO, HO 107/1731 (Hailey census, s.v. Woodgreen); Sale Cat., Freehold and Copyhold Estate at Witney and Hailey, 16 May 1895: copy in Bodl. GA Oxon. b 92 (35).
  • 9. Above, intro. (origin and devpt).
  • 10. Blenheim Mun., shelf A2, 1901 sched. bdle. 22, partics. of Merryfield farm Sept. 1776.
  • 11. Witney Ct. Bks. pp. l, lxxxviii; above, intro. (origins and devpt).
  • 12. Rep. Assistant Hand-Loom Weavers Commissioners (Parl Papers 1840 (639), xxiv), p. 552.
  • 13. ORO, MSS Wills Oxon., Witney wills and inventories; PRO, HO 107/1731; above (econ. life 1500–1800; ind. revolution 1800–1900).
  • 14. Above (mkts. and fairs); for Corn Exchange, above, intro. (bldgs).