Witney borough: Roman catholicism

Pages 144-145

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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Despite hints of religious conservatism in the mid 16th century, there is no evidence of a strong recusant tradition in the town either then or later. (fn. 1) In 1549 Oxfordshire gentry met at Witney to coordinate suppression of the Prayer Book rebellion, which had spread to Oxfordshire from the West Country, but no Witney townsmen seem to have been implicated, and in 1577 only five recusants were reported there. (fn. 2) Among them was Thomas Wenman of Witney Park, related to the prominent recusant family of Fermor. (fn. 3) Two or three members of the recusant Tempest family lived at Witney in the early 17th century, and in 1641 Francis Rathbone, one of a recusant gentry family from Brize Norton, refused to sign the Protestation oath. (fn. 4)

Later recusants, never from more than three or four families at a time, seem mostly to have been tradespeople of lower status, associated probably with a group centred on the Greenwood family's manor house at Brize Norton: a priest from there tried to proselytize in Witney in the 1750s, but was stopped by the rector. (fn. 5) In 1767 ten out of twelve recusants recorded in Witney were women, including a shopkeeper, mantua-maker, publican, and tailor's wife. (fn. 6) Two or three Catholic families remained in 1802, when the Brize Norton group was in decline, but by 1808 there were none. (fn. 7) Despite Witney's generally tolerant and ecumenical tone, (fn. 8) strong Protestant Dissent may have prolonged anti-Catholic feeling among some inhabitants. In 1837 the Roman Catholic Thomas Stonor, encouraged to stand for parliament by several leading townsmen, was nevertheless warned to expect 'bigoted cries of No Popery', (fn. 9) while in 1850 a public meeting in Witney to petition against establishment of Roman Catholic dioceses was attended by Anglican, Wesleyan and Congregationalist clergy. (fn. 10)

In the late 19th century an apparently short-lived mission in Witney was established with a bequest from Daniel Hanley, Oxford's first Roman Catholic mayor: a room supplied by the station master was furnished with fittings from a defunct oratory at Ham Court in Bampton, with mass celebrated on a monthly basis by visiting priests from Oxford and, later, from Buckland (then Berks.). (fn. 11) An oratory served by a visiting priest from Summertown or Begbroke was established before 1915 at No. 1 Church Green, and during the First World War masses were celebrated in the former workhouse chapel for Portuguese prisoners of war helping to construct Witney aerodrome. (fn. 12) A Roman Catholic church, dedicated to St Hugh of Lincoln, was established about 1930 in the former Anglican schoolroom at West End, a small, plain, stone building erected in 1881; at first it was served from Eynsham but from 1948 it had its own priest, living at No. 1 Church Green. By the 1970s it was too small, and in 1975, after many years' fundraising, it was replaced by a new church at the foot of Tower Hill, with sittings for over 300 and an attached presbytery. The dedication was to Our Lady and St Hugh. (fn. 13)

The Convent of the Sisters of Charity opened in Curbridge Road in 1959, those resident undertaking pastoral work, or teaching in the nearby Catholic primary school. (fn. 14)


  • 1. Above, church (pastoral care); below, protestant nonconf.
  • 2. VCH Oxon. ii. 35; Recusant Roll, 1577 (Cath. Rec. Soc. 12), 114.
  • 3. For Wenmans, below, Curbridge, estates (Caswell); Oxon. Visit. 178–9; for the Fermors, VCH Oxon. vi. 299. No other Witney Wenmans were recusants.
  • 4. H. E. Salter, 'Oxon. Recusants', OAS Rep. (1924), 24–5, 28–9; Protestation Rtns and Tax Assess. 29–33; cf. B. Stapleton, Oxon. Catholic Missions (1906), 73–4. Brize Norton is reserved for treatment in a future volume.
  • 5. ORO, Cal. QS, ix, pp. 397, 585–604; ibid. MSS Oxf. Dioc. d 557, f. 160; d 560, f. 191; d 563, f. 183; Secker's Visit. 174.
  • 6. Retn Papists, 1767 (Cath. Rec. Soc., occas. publn. no. 2, 1989), ii. 118.
  • 7. ORO, MSS Oxf. Dioc. d 567, ff. 171–2; d 707, f. 204.
  • 8. Below, protestant nonconf.
  • 9. Oxf. Chron. 8 July 1837, p. 3; cf. VCH Oxon. iv. 257.
  • 10. Oxf. Chron. 23 Nov. 1850; for the background, G. I. T. Machin, Politics and the Churches in Gt Britain 1832–68 (1977), 209 sqq.
  • 11. Stapleton, Cath. Missions, 173, 176; VCH Oxon. iv. 258.
  • 12. Kelly's Dir. Oxon. (1915 and later edns); C. and J. Gott, Bk. of Witney (1986 edn), 62.
  • 13. Kelly's Dir. Oxon. (1931 and later edns); Gott, Bk. of Witney, 62–3 (wrongly giving opening of St Hugh's as 1933); Oxf. Mail, 28 Feb., 29 Oct. 1975; above, intro. (eccl. bldgs).
  • 14. Gott, Bk. of Witney, 62–3; below, educ.