A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 16. Originally published by Boydell & Brewer for the Institute of Historical Research, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2011.
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From the Middle Ages to the 19th century Henley's success rested on its key position in the road- and river-transport network, most importantly in relation to London and London's extensive hinterland. The west–east road from Oxford, Abingdon and Dorchester, descending the Chilterns dip slope just west of the town, was a main route to the capital from central Oxfordshire and the Midlands, and beyond there from the West Country and Wales. A bridge carried it across the Thames probably by the 1170s, almost certainly replacing an earlier ford. Intersecting north–south routes linked Henley with neighbouring towns such as Great Marlow, High Wycombe, and Reading, and with more distant ports such as Southampton. Most crucial of all was Henley's riverside location at a point which, by the later Middle Ages, was effectively the head of navigation, the point beyond which large-scale river transport seems no longer to have been commercially viable. That combination, along with the marketing pull of the growing capital, formed the basis of Henley's medieval role as an entrepôt and trans-shipment point, funnelling grain and other foodstuffs into the growing metropolis, and a variety of goods in the opposite direction. With the restoration of regular navigation to Oxford and beyond in the 17th and 18th centuries, Henley lost some of its primacy. Nevertheless it continued to benefit from its advantageous combination of road and river transport until at least the 1830s, continuing as an inland port and developing as a coaching centre.
In 1839–40 the Great Western railway line from London to Reading left Henley stranded, destroying the river and coaching trades and initiating a period of decline in the town. With the belated construction of a branch line to Henley in 1857, however, the railway took over many of the earlier functions of both river and road, conveying the heavy bulk goods formerly transported by barge, and above all facilitating the town's transformation into a social and (later) commuting centre. The railway's survival into the early 21st century, albeit with much-reduced services, reflected the town's continuing popularity with commuters and day trippers, and as a tourist, service, and shopping centre. Henley also continued to benefit from its long-established road connections, which were enhanced in the 1960s and 1970s by construction of the M4 and M40 motorways. (fn. 1) Congestion in and around the town remained a problem, accentuated by the continuing need for east–west traffic to cross the narrow 18th-century bridge, and the lack of any major north–south route linking the motorways. Construction of a bypass and the building of a second bridge north or south of Henley was considered in 1929, and in 1971 there were abortive proposals for a bypass from the Fair Mile to Remenham Hill, via a tunnel under the Thames. (fn. 2) A report in 1993 concluded that, in the absence of major road building, the problem was 'unlikely to be overcome in any fundamental way'. (fn. 3)
Roads, Bridge, and Coaching
The road from Dorchester and Wallingford, which enters modern Henley along the Fair Mile, is almost certainly of Roman or earlier origin, and is discussed above. (fn. 4) In the Roman period it may have crossed the river near Phyllis Court, where piles and traces of a buried road have been reported, although investigation in 1996 found no corroborating evidence. (fn. 5) The Marlow–Reading road must have also pre-dated the planned town, (fn. 6) and a road from Goring, mentioned in 1353, passed probably through Rotherfield Greys to enter Henley along Gravel Hill and the market place. (fn. 7) The sale of considerable demesne produce through Henley in the Middle Ages suggests a serviceable network of lesser medieval roads as well, stretching across the Chilterns. (fn. 8)
The building of Henley bridge reinforced the importance of the Dorchester–London road, which, despite the centrality of water transport for heavy goods, remained a crucial link both westwards and with the capital. (fn. 9) By the mid 17th century the favoured route eastwards was through Maidenhead and Slough; (fn. 10) a light chariot could complete the journey to London in half a day in the 1640s, (fn. 11) although stage coaches in the late 17th and early 18th century possibly took nearer eight hours, and laden waggons longer. (fn. 12) Travel on all such roads could be hazardous, particularly along stretches passing through woodland. In 1254 and 1262, following a spate of robberies and murders, the road from Maidenhead was ordered to be widened and neighbouring trees cut back, an injunction repeated almost verbatim in 1634. (fn. 13) Robberies on the roads from Nuffield and Watlington were mentioned in the 1530s and 1540s, (fn. 14) and highwaymen remained an occasional threat in the 1790s. (fn. 15) Lesser roads were frequently blocked in winter, both by snow and by flooding. In 1787 roads around Fawley were impassable for several days, and twenty years earlier a stranded traveller had to shelter in a snow-bound carriage abandoned beyond Nettlebed. (fn. 16)
The Early Bridge
The earliest evidence of a bridge is the remains of two stone arches abutting the existing structure at either end, one (on the Berkshire side) excavated in 1985, and the other forming part of the cellars of the Angel Inn. Both have been dated on stylistic grounds to the late 12th century, suggesting that the bridge may have been built when the planned town was first laid out. (fn. 17) It certainly existed by 1225, when the king granted custody of it at pleasure. (fn. 18)
The 12th-century bridge may have been entirely stone-built. A large masonry block discovered on the riverbed in midstream, with diagonal tooling similar to that in the end arches, has been interpreted as part of an ashlar-faced cut-water, and in the mid 16th century Leland reported that stone foundations remained visible beneath the bridge at low water. By then, however, the main span was of timber, and may have been for some time. (fn. 19) In the 1690s, the timber structure still linked two surviving stone arches at the Berkshire end with one at the Henley end (Plates 3–4). The bridge's importance to the town was reflected in numerous grants of property and rents towards its upkeep from the late 13th and early 14th century, the origin of the 'bridge rents' held by the town guild and later by the corporation, and administered by town officers known as bridgemen. (fn. 20) A hermit authorized to collect alms in 1496 may have been primarily responsible for the nearby chapel of St Anne rather than for the bridge itself. (fn. 21)
A ferry was supplied during repairs in 1554–5, (fn. 22) and in the Civil War the bridge suffered serious damage. In January 1643 Parliamentary troops entering the town were delayed because 'the bridge was not quite laid down', (fn. 23) and in 1645 a rate was charged on the inhabitants after it was 'broken down by military forces'. (fn. 24) In 1712 it was again 'very slight and ... frequently down', and by 1719 the timber part had been rebuilt and the stone arches at the east end destroyed, presumably leaving only the surviving buried arch. (fn. 25) Over the following decades the timber structure was repeatedly damaged by floods and, though patched up, seems to have become increasingly unstable. During major repairs in 1754–6 the corporation again supplied a ferry, and in 1774 the bridge was allegedly 'carried away'. (fn. 26) It had been repaired by early 1777, and though 'decayed and ruinous' remained in use until its demolition c. 1785, during construction of the existing stone bridge along its north side. (fn. 27) By then the bridge's aesthetic as well as structural shortcomings were concerning some local gentry. In 1769 Sambrooke Freeman of Fawley Court arranged for it to be covered with boards representing a bridge at Florence, probably the 16th-century Ponte Santa Trinita. (fn. 28)
Turnpikes and the New Bridge
From the early 18th century the chief roads through Henley were gradually improved. (fn. 29) The road from Maidenhead, 'indirect, unlevel and woody' in the 1670s, (fn. 30) was turnpiked in 1718, followed by the Henley–Dorchester road in 1735–6 and the Marlow–Reading road (which connected with the road to Bath) in 1768. (fn. 31) Access through the town was subsequently improved by the demolition of ancient buildings along the middle of Hart Street: (fn. 32) before then, traffic from Oxford to London reportedly passed along New Street and down the riverside, which often flooded. (fn. 33) The steep gradient from Henley bridge up Remenham Hill, on the Maidenhead road, was substantially reduced in 1768 by construction of a cutting and embankment, the engineering overseen by the Congregationalist minister of Henley, Humphrey Gainsborough. Presumably the scheme was instigated by the turnpike trustees, though General Henry Seymour Conway of nearby Park Place may have been involved. Around 1763 he had already improved the Henley–Wargrave road (part of the route from London to Bath) by building a stone bridge over the Happy Valley, a picturesque combe on his estate. (fn. 34) The perceived importance of such improvements was reflected in membership of the trusts: that for the Dorchester turnpike included the mayor and corporation of Henley and Gislingham Cooper, then lord of Henley, along with other leading townsmen and landowners. (fn. 35) Shortly before 1820 Cooper's successor Strickland Freeman diverted a stretch of the Marlow road on the town's northern edge at his own expense, building two classical lodges on either side possibly for use as toll houses. (fn. 36) The alteration improved a difficult junction outside the Bell Inn, (fn. 37) although Freeman's motives were probably aesthetic as much as practical.
The decision to build a new stone bridge, financed by tolls rather than from the increasingly inadequate bridge rents, was taken by November 1780, when the corporation ordered the town clerk to prepare a petition to parliament. An Act was secured the following year, establishing a bridge commission with widespread powers; the new bridge was to be erected 'as near as may be on the north side of the present bridge', with 'liberty to erect a toll gate' and provision for lighting, watching, and paving. (fn. 38) The initiative led to protracted wrangling between the corporation and local gentry, who demanded representation on the commission: Sambrooke Freeman even procured his own design, and pressed for the bridge to be moved to the end of New Street. His proposal was successfully challenged on the grounds that it would divert traffic from the trading area and seriously prejudice the town's market, serving no purpose but to improve the view from Freeman's house at Fawley Court. William Hayward of Shrewsbury was engaged as architect in September 1781, possibly with Conway's support, and work began early in 1782, soon after John Townsend of Oxford was contracted as builder. The span was complete by summer 1785, when a fence was installed 'to prevent cattle and passengers going over at night time'; lamps and a toll house were added soon after, and the bridge was officially finished in April 1786. Carved heads of Thamesis and Isis on the keystones of the central arch were provided by Conway's daughter, the sculptress Anne Damer (d. 1828), and Conway himself continued to take a close interest in the bridge's design. The old bridge, abutting the new one on its south side, was retained until c. 1785, and then sold off piecemeal. (fn. 39) Further road improvements within the town, involving street widening and removal of obstructions, followed over the next few decades, reinforced by the Bridge Act and its successors. (fn. 40)
The bridge remained a toll bridge until 1873, some of the proceeds being diverted to improve street lighting and paving along the main route through the town. The tolls' removal was delayed by a catastrophic fall in revenue following the opening of the Great Western railway in 1840, which prompted the commissioners to half the number of street lights which they maintained. (fn. 41) Of the main turnpike routes, the Dorchester road was disturnpiked in 1873 and the Reading–Hatfield road in 1881. (fn. 42)
Coaching and Carriers
Commercial coaching was established in Henley by 1668, when the Henley coachman John Hathaway (d. 1700) issued a trade token featuring a man driving a two-horse carriage. By 1681 his coaches ran to London three times a week, and at his retirement in 1694 he owned two coaches and nine horses. Another coachman (John Alleway) operated a six-horse service to London from the White Hart by 1717, running three times a week in summer and twice a week the rest of the year. (fn. 43) By the 1790s there were daily return services to London from the White Hart except on Sundays, and several other daily London coaches passed through the town in both directions. Destinations westwards included places as far afield as Holyhead and Shrewsbury, Birmingham and Liverpool, Cheltenham and Gloucester, Worcester, Stroud, and Cirencester, as well as nearer towns such as Wallingford, Wantage, and Abingdon. (fn. 44) Coaches between Oxford and London seem to have followed the Stokenchurch–Beaconsfield route in the 17th century, thus bypassing Henley, (fn. 45) but by the late 18th several passed through Henley every day, partly to avoid the heavy waggons using the Stokenchurch turnpike. (fn. 46) The town reached its zenith as a coaching centre in the 1820s and 1830s, when numerous services linking London with the west and north of England stopped there day and night. The principal coaching inns, as earlier, were the White Hart, the Catherine Wheel, the Red Lion, and the Bull, together with the Bell at Northfield End. (fn. 47) By then most were associated with particular services: Richard Taylor's London-bound 'Henley Machine', for instance, transferred from the Bull to the White Hart in 1783. (fn. 48)
Operators vied with each other to provide speed and comfort. A 'neat and elegant post-coach upon an entire new construction', operating from the Catherine Wheel, was advertized in 1780, while a new five-hour post-chaise service to London from the Bull was introduced the following year. (fn. 49) The increasing volume of traffic brought new dangers: in 1767 a child was killed by a post chaize leaving the Red Lion, and in 1787 the corporation threatened to prosecute coachmen and others who drove through the town 'at a very furious rate, thereby creating great danger both to themselves, the passengers ... and the foot passengers along the streets'. (fn. 50) Commercial coaching traffic was supplemented by private vehicles, (fn. 51) and coaches could be hired, as when Caroline Powys rented a post chaise from a Henley coach-maker in 1805 for a family trip to Staffordshire. (fn. 52) Despite the improvements, however, in the 1820s the standard journey to London could still take five hours, one of the factors which prompted the London-based banker George Grote to sell his country estate at Badgemore c. 1831. (fn. 53)
Commercial carriers in Henley are ill-recorded before the 18th century, but almost certainly operated earlier. None were mentioned in directories of the 1630s, though some of those running between London and Oxfordshire towns west of Henley may have passed through. (fn. 54) In 1768 a Henley woman continued her late husband's carrying business between Henley and London, and in 1775 a Benson man's stage-waggon and carts, operated for many years between London, Henley, and Abingdon, were sold at the Bear. (fn. 55) In the 1790s there were two locally-run London stage-waggons a week, supplemented by services linking London (via Henley) with a dozen other towns including Oxford, Witney, Abingdon, Cirencester, Gloucester, and Hereford. (fn. 56)
The opening in 1839–40 of railway stations at Twyford and Reading had an immediate effect on coaching. By 1847 there was only a single daily coach-service to London from the Red Lion, along with daily omnibus services to the stations and a twice-weekly service to Marlow and High Wycombe from the White Hart. By 1854 only the omnibus services remained, and both those closed in 1857 with the opening of Henley station. (fn. 57) Carrying services to surrounding towns and villages lasted longer. In 1864 there were services several days a week to (among other places) Hambleden, Marlow, Wycombe, Reading, Stoke Row, and Watlington, and in the 1930s carriers still ran regular motor services to Reading, Wargrave, Twyford, and surrounding villages, and a daily service to London. (fn. 58) A motorized bus service to Oxford was proposed in 1905, (fn. 59) and by 1920 there were daily bus services to Reading and Marlow. (fn. 60) Bus services to Oxford and elsewhere continued in the early 21st century.
The Thames was a major transport route by the late Anglo-Saxon period, (fn. 61) and in the early 13th century there still seems to have been regular and long-established trade from the Thames estuary to Oxford and beyond. Merchandize was shipped downriver from Radcot to London during John's reign, (fn. 62) while a royal grant of 1205 suggests regular traffic and a well-established system of tolls between London and Oxford. Timber for building work at Oxford was similarly shipped upstream from Reading in 1235. (fn. 63) Presumably Henley participated in this trade from the town's foundation, and by the mid 13th century it was a trans-shipment point for wine and other goods sent from London to Reading, Oxford, and Woodstock. (fn. 64) The Henley–Dorchester road cut off a large loop in the river, and for some journeys this evidently made westwards transport by road more cost-effective, giving Henley a natural advantage. (fn. 65) Grain bound for London was regularly transferred from road to river at Henley by the 1280s, a pattern which continued throughout the Middle Ages; (fn. 66) possibly it was established as early as 1208–9, when several of the bishop of Winchester's Thames valley manors exported grain to the capital by river. (fn. 67) Henley's right to salt tolls, recorded in 1297, suggests early involvement in the Droitwich salt network as well, with consignments conveyed presumably along the well-established salt ways and then transferred to boats. (fn. 68)
From around 1300 Henley's position as a trans-shipment point was reinforced by navigational difficulties further upstream. Navigation as far as Oxford remained possible until the mid 15th century, but from the early 14th century regular and large-scale commercial traffic beyond Henley seems to have become increasingly rare, as a proliferation of mill-ponds, weirs, and other obstructions made upriver transport less cost-effective. Resulting neglect of locks and weirs, combined with Oxford and Wallingford's economic decline in the later Middle Ages, exacerbated the cost differentials, making Henley a significant 'break point' of the sort identified on some other river systems. (fn. 69) By 1295 the cost of shipping wheat to London from Reading was almost twice that from Henley, presumably reflecting the deterioration of navigation even on this short five-mile stretch, (fn. 70) and from the late 13th century Cuxham manor habitually sold its grain through Henley despite being geographically closer to upstream Wallingford. (fn. 71) In the 1470s the upstream journey from London to Henley took 4–5 days in good conditions, and the downstream journey presumably rather less. (fn. 72)
Henley's primacy was undermined in the early 17th century by the work of the Oxford-Burcot Commission, which reopened the river to Oxford for large-scale commercial traffic. Nonetheless Henley continued to participate in the river trade and to derive considerable benefit from it, based on increasing demand from London. (fn. 73) In 1767 nearly 9,000 tons (15 per cent) of the goods passing upstream from London were landed in Henley, rising to 11,000 tons (or 18 per cent) in 1780–1, while in 1789–90 nearly 15,000 tons of the downstream traffic (23 per cent) was shipped from there. (fn. 74) Improvements to Henley's roads in the mid 18th century were accompanied by improvements to campshots, and in the 1780s at least one Henley wharf had a crane. (fn. 75) The opening of the Thames and Severn canal in 1789 and of the Oxford canal a year later increased river traffic in both directions, (fn. 76) although not all navigational improvements in the late 18th century helped the town. Abortive proposals c. 1770 for a canal from Reading to below Maidenhead would have left Henley catastrophically isolated, and were strongly opposed, (fn. 77) while the Thames Commissioners' belated construction of 22 new pound locks between 1772 and 1797 decreased transport costs to Reading by up to 40 per cent. (fn. 78) Probably as a result, the upstream tonnage offloaded at Henley declined markedly from the 1780s, to be overtaken in some years by Wallingford. Reading remained the most important offloading point, handling (with Newbury) over 21,000 tons in 1788–9, compared with only 5,300 tons at Henley. (fn. 79)
Despite such improvements river transport remained as unpredictable as a century earlier, when in dry seasons barges upstream from Henley could sometimes be grounded for a month. (fn. 80) In the 1790s the three or four-day journey from London to Marlow (requiring eight or more tow-horses) could occasionally still take a week, and the nine-day journey to Oxford up to two months, (fn. 81) while in February 1795 ice and snow prevented coal supplies reaching Henley from London. (fn. 82) Barges sometimes foundered losing all or part of their cargo, (fn. 83) and in 1793 a parliamentary committee castigated the Thames Commissioners for their slow progress in implementing improvements, which was said to be damaging trade (including coal imports) through the Thames and Severn canal. During the summer months perishable goods such as cheese were still transported overland to London, while meat and livestock always went by road. (fn. 84)
The opening of the railway to Reading and Twyford in 1839–40 severely undermined the river trade, (fn. 85) and though a weekly barge still plied between Henley and Lambeth in the early 1880s, (fn. 86) from 1857 most bulk goods were transported on Henley's new branch line. In 1893, when a national increase in railway goods-rates prompted a local re-examination of water transport, there was insufficient demand to reintroduce even a weekly barge. (fn. 87) By then the river was administered as much for pleasure and sport as for commerce, Henley's annual regatta being only the largest and most prestigious of several events along its length. (fn. 88)
A railway through Henley was proposed in 1833, as part of an intended line from Tring to Basingstoke. Before plans were submitted to Parliament the Great Western Railway opened a separate line from London to Twyford (1839) and Reading (1840), which, despite strong support from Henley residents, entirely bypassed the town. (fn. 89) Road tolls collected at Henley bridge immediately fell sharply, though a stage-coach service to London briefly continued, and omnibus services from Henley to Twyford and Reading stations were established by 1842. (fn. 90)
Plans to extend the GWR line to Henley were delayed by financial difficulties and by wrangles over rival schemes, and by 1852 traders and townspeople were becoming anxious. A public meeting in October that year was well attended by local gentry and landowners, by leading townsmen and businessmen including the brewer W. H. Brakspear, and by local farmers and corn dealers, who collectively authorized a deputation headed by Lord Camoys (of Stonor Park) to place pressure on the company. The GWR agreed to press on with a branch line if the town contributed £15,000 of the cost, of which half was raised in £50 shares when a subscription list was opened the following week. Work began in 1855, and the line was completed in June 1857 in time for the regatta, its opening marked by celebrations and a public breakfast in the town. The station, originally planned for Friday Street or Market Place, was built on the town's southern fringe within Rotherfield Greys parish, with a new, gated approach road (Station Road) developed by the GWR. The line was converted from broad to standard gauge in 1876, following complaints at the inconvenience of having to transfer goods at Twyford from narrow- to broad-gauge trucks. It remained a single track until 1896–8, when it was doubled to accommodate steadily rising demand. (fn. 91) A scheme in 1897–8 to extend the line to Marlow was dropped following opposition by wealthy inhabitants and the boating lobby, though some in the town clearly felt that an opportunity had been missed. (fn. 92)
From the outset the railway's proponents emphasized the importance of passenger traffic, particularly in connection with London commuting and the regatta, which was just beginning to help lift Henley out of its early 19th-century doldrums. (fn. 93) By 1868 there were regularly eight passenger trains a day to Twyford, with four on Sundays, and during regatta week the line carried thousands of passengers from London and elsewhere on special trains. For the 1902 regatta there were 26 or more daily services from Paddington, and others from Windsor, Didcot, and Oxford, which together carried over 35,000 people; passenger trains had priority, with goods trains held back as necessary. Improvements to the regular timetable were made in 1896 following a deputation led by Lord Camoys, and in 1900 new express trains reduced the London journey-time to 50 minutes. Excursion specials, bringing trippers into Henley as well as out, were common by the early 20th century. The station itself was extended and improved in 1891 and again in 1903–4, when a new booking office and turntable were constructed. (fn. 94)
The line also provided for goods traffic, taking over some of the earlier functions of river transport. Imports far exceeded exports, reflecting Henley's lack of major industry: most important was coal, supplied to local breweries and the gas company as well as to domestic users, while Brakspears' Brewery brought in hops, barrels, spirits, and crates. Exports included milk for London, timber, and livestock, with more general merchandize passing both ways. Early goods facilities included a high-quality brick goods-shed in gothic style, and in the 1870s Toomer's coal merchants built a coal wharf at the station, for which new sidings were provided in 1876. The premises were replaced following the station's redevelopment in 1903. (fn. 95) In that latter year some 42,000 tons of goods passed through the station, including over 21,000 tons of coal and 17,000 of 'general merchandize'. The station also handled some 240 head of livestock. (fn. 96)
By the Second World War both passenger numbers and goods tonnage were starting to decline, reflecting a general increase in road and private transport. Usage was still substantial in 1938, however, when Henley station handled some 32,000 tons of goods, 89,000 passengers, and 57,000 parcels. Livestock transport remained negligible, although an agricultural feed store was erected near the station in 1936. Following the Second World War traffic declined further, and in 1961, despite some small recoveries since 1955, the branch reverted to a single line. The Beeching report of 1963 led to removal of goods sidings and demolition of buildings, and part of the former yard was subsequently built on; surviving early station buildings were controversially demolished in 1975, leaving only a nondescript modern ticket office. Regular through-services to London ended around the same time, (fn. 97) but were reinstated at peak times in 1993. The line remained open in 2010, with regular trains to the main-line station at Twyford. (fn. 98)
Henley (along with nearby Nettlebed) was listed as a post town in 1673, (fn. 99) but no postmasters are known before 1708 when payments were received from George Harrison, probably an innholder. (fn. 100) By the 1790s the post office opened daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and in the 1820s–30s there were daily deliveries from London, Gloucester, and Reading; (fn. 101) in 1828 the foot messenger was commended for his exertions in delivering from Reading during recent floods. (fn. 102) By 1852 it was a money order office, and by 1876 a telegraph office. (fn. 103) In the 1820s it was sited on the north side of Market Place, moving in 1895 to purpose-built premises at the junction of Reading Road and Friday Street, and in 1922 to another new building opposite. (fn. 104) By 1870 there was a separate post office on the west side of Duke Street, and by 1897 another one at Northfield End; (fn. 105) in the 1980s there were sub-offices at Northfield End, Reading Road, and Greys Road. (fn. 106)