A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 5, Bullingdon Hundred. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1957.
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The cottages and farm-houses of Elsfield form a single gently descending street, with the manorhouse half-way down and the church, the vicarage, and the thatched school-house at the bottom. The street runs at a height of about three hundred feet above sea-level, along a spur of the hills which circle round from Beckley and Stowood to Forest Hill and Shotover. Close to the village on the west and south the escarpment drops sharply about a hundred feet, so that the manor-house has a clear view westwards across to the Cotswolds, and the vicarage looks down on Oxford, about three miles away to the south. The vicarage is early Victorian; there are a few new houses among the others; and some slate-roofed 19th-century cottages at the top of the village contrast with the thatched stone buildings lower down; but in the main the village looks much as it did in the 17th century. The manor-house, which rises sheer from the road, is mainly Victorian and later in date, with some earlier portions. It has been much enlarged, and the original building may have stood on the other side of the road, where the square stone pigeon-house remains. Perhaps the greatest change in the appearance of the village came when the street was given a metalled surface: in 1819, and probably much later, it was grass. (fn. 1)
Elsfield has kept its beauty because it is still purely agricultural, and the landowners have resisted the temptation to allow new houses to be built there to relieve the congestion of Oxford and its suburbs. The parish has an area of 1,296 acres (of which 1 acre was in Headington until 1929), (fn. 2) very nearly equal to that of Marston, its neighbour to the southwest, of which the history and economy have been strikingly different. At Elsfield the hill-top consists mostly of good sandy soil, with patches of infertile stonebrash; the lower levels are Oxford Clay. At the north-west corner a tongue of land about half a mile wide runs down to the River Cherwell, to include in the parish Sescut Farm, where there was formerly the manorial water-mill, and the meadows about it. The parish thus takes in the land which could conveniently be cultivated from a settlement in the dry, sheltered and central position occupied by the village, together with this appendage for the mill. The village street is on the way from Oxford to Beckley, which was referred to from the 13th century to the 17th as the 'Portway', the way to the town, (fn. 3) but no road of any importance runs through the parish except that the Oxford northern bypass road cuts off a minute part of the south-west corner. The old coaching-road from London to Worcester through Wheatley and Islip passes outside the parish within a few hundred yards of the northern boundary. Except for a salient of one field this part of the boundary runs fairly straight across the plateau in front of Stowood, rising to a height of 370 or 380 ft. ascending from the Cherwell on one side and dropping down on the other to the Bayswater Brook. It follows the brook to its mouth, and the brook separates it first from Headington and then from Marston. (fn. 4)
Elsfield never had any family of note other than the occupants of the manor-house. Although the 14th-century Gilbert of Elsfield has a right to be mentioned as a local worthy, there are only two figures in this class who are sufficiently distinct to require any notice here. The first was Francis Wise, the curate, who was also Radcliffe librarian in Oxford, and enjoyed a certain reputation in his lifetime as a philologist and antiquary. (fn. 5) He is best remembered now for the pleasing story of Dr. Johnson's visit to him in 1754. It was not only the scholar that attracted Johnson and other visitors to Elsfield; they also delighted in the singular but, we are assured, tasteful manner in which he had laid out the grounds of his house. They are now the groves and lawns on the hillside below the manor-house. Wise made them from the rough, leasing the land and apparently the house as it was then, from the Norths. He managed to crowd into them not only ponds and cascades, but scale-models of a triumphal arch, a pyramid, a Druid temple, and the tower of Babel. He built a stable in imitation of 'a Norman religious structure', and his successor moved a cross 'from the rude chamber of quadrupeds' to a position over the porch of the church. Francis Wise seems indeed narrowly to have missed qualifying for inclusion among the 18th-century eccentrics. (fn. 6)
The other name is recent and famous in two continents. John Buchan (fn. 7) settled in the manor-house soon after the end of the First World War, and in spite of his ceaseless and ubiquitous activity he was never long away from his home on the hill. When, as Governor-General of Canada, with the title of Baron Tweedsmuir, he died in Ottawa in 1940, his body was brought across the Atlantic in a battleship to be buried in Elsfield churchyard, where his epitaph runs:
Qui musas coluit patriae servivit amicis Dilectum innumeris hic sua terra tenet.
In 1086 ELSFIELD was part of the great fee of Robert d'Oilly, of whom it was held by Turstin son of Rolf, a Norman who had much property in Buckinghamshire. (fn. 8) The overlordship followed the descent of Waterperry, (fn. 9) passing from the d'Oilly family in the 13th century to Hugh de Plescy (d. 1292) (fn. 10), who was overlord in 1279. (fn. 11) His son Hugh witnessed a grant of land in Elsfield in about 1300, (fn. 12) and his son, another Hugh, held Elsfield at his death in 1349. (fn. 13) After this the descent of the overlordship is uncertain: in 1471 the manor was held of Alice, Duchess of Suffolk, but her right might have been derived from the Stratford mesne tenancy. (fn. 14) Turstin, the Domesday tenant, was succeeded both in Buckinghamshire and here by the Stratford family. (fn. 15) Probably by the late 12th century and certainly by 1242 they had subinfeudated part of Elsfield but they apparently retained a fifth of the manor in their own hands. William de Stratford granted property in Elsfield to St. Frideswide's in the late 12th century and his son William in about 1220 gave the canons a fifth of the manor, comprising all his lands there. (fn. 16) This was confirmed by his son John, but not all the Stratfords' rights in Elsfield were surrendered, for a William de Stratford was mesne tenant in 1242, 1254, and 1279. (fn. 17) No Stratford holding was mentioned when Hugh de Plescy died in 1349, but in 1398 the manor was said to be held of the heirs of William Stratford. (fn. 18)
Hugh son of William of Elsfield granted away lands in Elsfield in the late 12th and early 13th century. (fn. 19) John of Elsfield, probably his nephew, (fn. 20) held ½ knight's fee in Elsfield of William of Stratford in 1242. (fn. 21) In 1254 Elsfield was said to comprise 5 hides of which John of Elsfield held 4 and St. Frideswide's 1. They both held of William de Stratford and the St. Frideswide's portion was held as 1/5 knight's fee although in 1242 it was held in free alms. (fn. 22) In 1279 John of Elsfield, presumably a different man, held four-fifths of the manor and had granted a life-tenancy of it to Margery de Bolehuth or Rillehitch. (fn. 23) In 1304 John of Elsfield settled the manor on his son Gilbert, subject to a life-tenancy for himself. (fn. 24) Gilbert was lord by 1316 (fn. 25) and settled the manor on himself and his wife Joan in 1323. (fn. 26) In 1327 he received a grant of free warren and licence to impark his wood at Elsfield. (fn. 27) The manor was held in 1350 by Joan of Elsfield, presumably Gilbert's widow, (fn. 28) and in 1369 by Thomas of Elsfield. Thomas made an exchange with the canons of St. Frideswide's in that year by which he gave them 74 acres of arable, with wood, meadow, and pasture, from his demesne, and they surrendered to him their fifth of the manor and all its appurtenant rights. (fn. 29) The manor thus became united in the possession of the Elsfields. In 1471 it was said that William of Elsfield, who died seised of the manor in 1398, was the son of Gilbert and Joan who held it in 1323, (fn. 30) so that he may have been a younger brother of Thomas. William left two coheirs. The first was a granddaughter, Joan, who was the daughter of his daughter Anne and had become the wife of John Hore. The other, also named Joan, was the surviving, and presumably younger, daughter of William of Elsfield. She was married to Thomas Loundres. (fn. 31) Nothing more is heard of this Joan, and the future of the manor belonged to John Hore's descendants. He came from Childerley near Cambridge, where the 15th-century chapel of his family's moated manor-house may still be seen. His son Gilbert died in 1453, leaving a son and heir, John, (fn. 32) who lived until 1471, leaving only an infant daughter, Edith. (fn. 33) Edith married twice. Her first husband was Thomas Fulthorpe of Barnard Castle (co. Dur.), who was alive in 1516; (fn. 34) the second, Rowland, son of Henry Pudsey of Barford and Bolton in Yorkshire, the son and heir of Sir John Pudsey, also came from the north, but his family acquired property in Worcestershire, and the Elsfield branch of the Pudseys were the descendants of William Pudsey of Langley (Warws.). (fn. 35) The Elizabethan and Caroline heralds do not indeed seem to have been very successful in working out this genealogy; but in any case nothing survives from the 16th-century Pudseys except a string of names and dates. Robert, who died in 1558, had two daughters besides his son and heir, George, born in 1541. (fn. 36) His widow, Eleanor, whose maiden name was Mountford, afterwards married Robert Sylvester, who became trustee for the family properties in Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, and Berkshire. He and his wife had to defend two chancery suits, one brought by George, when he came of age, the other by a tenant. (fn. 37) In 1596 George Pudsey of Elsfield was accused of offering to be the leader of a conspiracy in Oxfordshire, which appears to have been a poor men's attempt at protest against inclosures. The lord lieutenant was ordered to arrest Pudsey, but there is no evidence to show whether the charge against him was true. (fn. 38) George lived until 1625 and had several children, of whom Richard succeeded him. He was born in 1580, married Mary Lowe, and died in 1638. His widow married Henry Brett, and during her widowhood endowed small charities for the poor of Elsfield and Marston. Michael Pudsey, who died in 1645 at the age of 84, was presumably a younger son of George. (fn. 39) About this time the annals of the Pudseys become more diversified. In 1655, when Oliver Cromwell was Protector, the alien son-in-law of Michael Pudsey successfully petitioned for free denization. He was a jeweller, by name Christopher Riddell, alias Roshe, born at Zwickau near Leipzig; he had come from Germany as a Protestant refugee and lived in the parish of St. James, Clerkenwell. (fn. 40) If this suggests Puritan leanings in the family, they had been left behind by 1672 when another George Pudsey was head of the family. He was a stalwart Tory, who became a freeman of the city of Oxford, and three times unsuccessfully stood for Parliament there. After his last failure, in 1681, he was knighted when King Charles II came to the Oxford Parliament. He became Recorder of Oxford in 1683 and a serjeant-at-law in 1685, and was eventually returned to the House of Commons under James II. His legal career perhaps implies that his rents were not sufficient to support a public man, and more than once he raised money on mortgages. (fn. 41) Perhaps he spent too much money; for that or some other reason, soon after his death, which occurred in 1688, his son, the Revd. Thomas Pudsey, sold Elsfield to Francis, Lord Guilford, (fn. 42) and so ended a period of at least 500 years in which the manor had passed only by inheritance. The descent in the noble family of North followed the title of Guilford. (fn. 43)
Herbert Parsons, who leased the manor from the then Lord North from 1855, and bought it outright in 1886, belonged to the private banking firm of Parsons, Thomson & Co., of the Old Bank, Oxford. He died in 1911 and was succeeded by his son of the same name, who sold Elsfield in 1919. His daughter, Miss Mary Jane Parsons, lived on at the Home Farm House until she died in 1941. The manor and lands were bought from Parsons by Christ Church, which soon after sold the manorhouse with the adjoining lands to John Buchan. His widow, Susan Lady Tweedsmuir, left it in 1953, when it was bought by the Hon. Mrs. Lane. The rest of the estate was still owned by Christ Church in 1954.
Economic and Social History. (fn. 44)
The known evidence regarding the settlement begins in Anglo-Saxon times. (fn. 45) The name appears to be an Old English name of a common type, meaning the field of Elesa or Ella. (fn. 46) In 1086 Elsfield was assessed at 5 hides. There was arable land for 8 ploughs, 3 being in demesne, 18 'acres' of meadow, and 24 of pasture. Twenty-six inhabitants are enumerated: 2 serfs, 11 villeins, 7 bordars, and 6 'others'. At the beginning of the Conqueror's reign Elsfield was worth £4 a year, at the time of Domesday, £5. (fn. 47) The rise in value is rather high for Oxfordshire, and if we had to give a reason for this we might perhaps attribute it to the clearing of woodlands.
Domesday mentions wood in Elsfield 3 furlongs in length and 3 in breadth. Perhaps the modern wood in the northern part of the parish is a remnant of this; but there were other parts where clearing went on in the Middle Ages. The cultivated land immediately round the village must itself be an early clearing. Marston, Headington, part of Wood Eaton, and the high ground to the north of Elsfield were in the Forest of Stowood, so that Elsfield was almost surrounded by the forest but there is no direct evidence that it was ever included in it. In 1279 the king's foresters, however, were liable to be called upon to agree with the canons' bailiffs on the estimation of the canons' share of wood cut in that wood which still stands at the present day. (fn. 48) Like the other adjacent villages Elsfield had common rights in the forest, for some of which it made payments: in 1363, for instance, 12s. for pasturing eight swine. The foresters, on their side, had rights of pasture on the manor. (fn. 49) When Stowood was disafforested in 1661 Elsfield was granted 20 acres of land as compensation for the loss of its rights. In practice this meant a share of the rent of the Forest Farm, which lies just outside the parish on the Wood Eaton side, and was added to the Elsfield estate by the Parsons family in the 19th century. The disafforestation came at the end of a long process of encroachment and break-up, during which woods were felled both in the forest and outside. Early in the 13th century a purlieu was made between Wood Eaton and Elsfield. In this case it is evident that there was also a rearrangement at least of the rights of common of pasture over this strip of ground which ran down from the Islip road to the Cherwell, so that the landlords had farming reasons for marking out the tract; but it seems also clear that it was in some way taken out of the forest. (fn. 50) Some fifty years later the field-names on the Stowood border included 'le breche'—the clearing— and the 'hurnes' or corners of one or more 'breches'. In various ways the proximity of the forest made a difference to the life of the Elsfield villagers. There was some poaching of deer; naturally we cannot guess how much. (fn. 51) In the time of Charles I there was timber-stealing in Stowood, and in the yard of an Elsfield man who owned a team of horses one of the king's broad-arrow trees was found 'with the arrow-head upon it'. (fn. 52)
For nearly a hundred years from the time of Domesday we know little or nothing of what went on in Elsfield. By the 13th century there were several free tenements there, (fn. 53) including the property which Studley Priory had received from William de Stratford and Hugh of Elsfield, (fn. 54) and the holdings of St. Frideswide's which included lands acquired from various persons as well as a fifth of the manor itself. (fn. 55) By 1279 part of these lands were subinfeudated to free tenants. The demesne of fourfifths of the manor was reckoned as 4 carucates, together with 10 acres of meadow and 36 acres of wood. The customary tenants held 8 virgates and there were also 24 cottars. They all did works or paid rent at the will of the lord, and the cottars also paid a fixed rent in kind. The three tenants at Sescut were in a special position, not being liable for labour-service except at harvest-time. Sescut was, and for long after remained, more or less cut off from the rest of Elsfield by marsh. Adjoining it to the north towards Wood Eaton, was the meadow of Roworth which had been unjustly fenced in, to the detriment of all the inhabitants, to whom it used to be common. (fn. 56)
In 1369, when St. Frideswide's received specified lands instead of its fifth share of the manor, the 74 acres of arable which were given to the priory lay in three approximately equal portions, possibly indicating the existence of three open fields. The lands in 'Lechesplace' were valued at 4d. an acre, those in East Wood towards Marston marsh at 3d. an acre, and those in 'le Breche' at 2d. or even less because they always lay at pasture. The 7 acres of meadow they received lay next to Wood Eaton meadow—presumably on the river bank in the north-east of the parish. The 43 acres of pasture they received, and which they still held at the Dissolution, were said to be swamped nearly the whole year and the 36 acres of wood were wasted and lay in common since it could not be inclosed. (fn. 57) From this time we have little or no information about the agricultural affairs of the place until the 16th century. In 1516 a leaseholder of the manor converted 30 acres of arable—presumably already inclosed—to pasture, probably for sheep. (fn. 58) After the dissolution of St. Frideswide's its lands were not all kept together for the new foundation of Christ Church. Amongst that which came into the market was a close of 43 acres of pasture in the low-lying part of Elsfield parish. This was bought by a group of London speculators, who sold it with the rectories of Headington and Marston and other items to Sir John Brome. (fn. 59) By 1643 it had come into the hands of a yeoman family named Bolt of Marston, and they sold it in 1677 to George Pudsey, then lord of the manor of Elsfield. (fn. 60) This seems to have been the last purchase of a series by which the Pudseys, who had held the manor since the 16th century, secured all the land in Elsfield except for the glebe. Earlier in the 17th century they had bought the former Studley Priory estate from the Croke family, who had acquired it at the Dissolution. (fn. 61) In 1629 and 1630 there were 8 customary tenants—possibly the same number as in 1279, but two of them held for 99-year terms. There were 10 tenants by indenture, for what term is not stated, and 14 cottagers. (fn. 62) There were some considerable relics of the open-field system in the time of Charles II; (fn. 63) but in 1692, when Sir George Pudsey had died, and his estate had been bought for Francis, Lord Guilford, then a minor, it had disappeared altogether. (fn. 64) The date is interesting because the reign of William III saw many manors of the smaller gentry absorbed by great landowners. Sir George Pudsey, whose career has been noticed already, (fn. 65) may have spent more than he could afford; he raised money several times by mortgaging his land, and he may have used some of this money for the capital outlay of inclosing. (fn. 66) Whether he was extravagant or not, the times were unfavourable for his class, and his family had to relinquish Elsfield almost as soon as their hold on it was complete.
The Norths, the family of Lord Guilford, held it among their great possessions for nearly 200 years. Seated at Wroxton, beyond Banbury, they were absentee landlords, and to them Elsfield, we may suppose, signified mainly the quarterly rents which it yielded. In the early 18th century it brought in somewhere about £1,500 a year, or slightly more than a pound an acre; but there were normally substantial arrears of unpaid rent. The number of tenants varied a little from year to year, but there was one farm worth more than £100, others with rents from £65 to £16 of which the number fell in 1715–24 from nine to seven. There were only three or four smaller tenants, including one who paid £1 6s. 3d. for the fishing-rights in the Cherwell. (fn. 67) The village had become a community of less than a dozen farmers, and the married labourers lived in cottages, all except one of which were let with the farms.
Towards the end of the 18th century Elsfield was described as a village with a great appearance of poverty. In 1792 the poor-rate was 1s. 9d.; in 1795, 2s. 3d., and in 1796, 4s. The cottages were mostly rent-free and there was generally free wood. Work could be obtained in the winter; in summer there was harvesting. The women earned money by spinning. (fn. 68) In 1801, the population was returned as 175; but there is no reason to suppose that it fluctuated more in the days of the Norths than it must have done through the changes of numbers in particular households. Numbers have remained curiously constant throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1931 there were 12 fewer and in 1921 1 fewer than in 1801; the highest figure, in 1821 in the day of the corn-laws and the old poor-law, was only 188, and the lowest, in 1901, was as much as 150. It can scarcely have been less than 100 at the time of Domesday, before the clearances of the woodlands and the draining of marshes. The principal change in the later years of the Norths seems to have been the continued throwing together of farms, so that there came to be still fewer farmers, each of them cultivating more land: in 1771 and in 1825 there were five (fn. 69) and by 1851 there were only four of them. (fn. 70) But the number of hands required for cultivation did not diminish. The village crafts had perhaps grown in importance. The census of 1851 enumerated a mason, two sawyers, a cabinetmaker, a laundress, and a milliner, besides a shopkeeper and a fruit-dealer.
During these two centuries there were ups and downs of prosperity, but there seem to have been no major changes of economic structure except for the poor-law and the increase in the size of the farms. Between 1862 and 1877, mostly in 1876, Herbert Parsons, who held the lease of the manor from Lord North, rounded off the Elsfield estate by buying out the various co-proprietors of the Forest Farm which adjoined it. (fn. 71) In 1886, when the full force of the agricultural depression had made itself felt in Oxfordshire, and even landowners like the Norths with their gross rent-roll of £12,000 a year, were hard hit, Parsons bought the estate outright.
Since changing hands for the last time, when Christ Church bought it in 1919, Elsfield has been less disturbed by the revolution around it than might have been thought possible. The Pilgrim Trust and the Oxford Preservation Trust have protected the famous view of Oxford. The estatemanagement has been deliberately conservative. There are still 4 farms and except for 4 cottages put up since 1947 there has been no building. There is no inn, and there seems never to have been any. Some of the inhabitants have found employment far afield, but, except for mechanization, and for the disappearance of one or two craftsmen, there has been no change in the kinds of employment available. Good farming has warded off even the ill effects of agricultural fluctuations, and it is proper to mention here W. F. Watts, who rented Hill Farm from 1919 to 1944 and was succeeded there by one of his sons. Watts, who came from the Cotswolds, was a man of the same stamp as Adams of Wadley and Hobbs of Kelmscott, and was a well-known exhibitor of Oxford Down sheep and of dairy cattle.
The church of Elsfield was in existence by 1122, when it was granted by Henry I to St. Frideswide's, (fn. 72) and perhaps earlier, since the canons of St. Frideswide's claimed that the church of Elsfield was given to them by King Ethelred in his foundation charter of 1004. The canons held that it was one of the chapels included with Headington when the king granted the rights of a free minster there; in later times, since it was exempt from the jurisdiction of the archdeacon, it was part of the peculiar of Headington. Ethelred's charter, however, does not mention Elsfield church, (fn. 73) and the relevant part of the charter is suspect as a later edition. (fn. 74) The church was referred to as a chapel throughout the 12th century, but there is no other evidence for its dependence on any other church at that period. In the later part of the century, as confirmation of Henry I's grant, Hugh of Elsfield made a grant of the chapel to St. Frideswide's. (fn. 75) The church remained appropriated to St. Frideswide's until the Dissolution, when it passed in turn to Cardinal College and to Henry VIII's College. (fn. 76) After being assigned to Cardinal Pole by Act of Parliament it was granted by the Crown to Thomas Reve and George Evelyn in 1560 (fn. 77). By 1582 both rectory and advowson had passed into the hands of the lord of the manor, (fn. 78) where they have since remained. (fn. 79)
Two-thirds of the tithes of the manorial demesne were granted by Robert d'Oilly in the 11th century to the church of St. George in Oxford castle and passed with the church to Oseney Abbey. (fn. 80) In 1221 Oseney remitted to St. Frideswide's 2s. rent hitherto paid in respect of tithes. (fn. 81) Oseney appears to have continued to claim its two-thirds of the demesne tithes, though they were not mentioned in 1535. (fn. 82)
A vicarage was ordained by the bishop between 1215 and 1235. The whole church was then valued at 8 marks of which the vicar's share was to be 5 marks, and was to consist of altar-offerings, all the small tithes, part of the tithes of corn and hay, an acre of land, and the buildings where the chaplain had been living. (fn. 83) In 1291 the church was worth £4 13s. 4d. (fn. 84) In 1296, however, the vicar's living had been diminished for some years owing to a succession of bad harvests, and the prior and convent agreed to give him 3 quarters of corn a year. This was to stop if the vicarage regained its former value, (fn. 85) but it may have become permanent since in 1535, when the rectory was valued at £6, the sum of 66s. 8d. was deducted from this in augmentation of the vicarage, which was itself worth £6 8s. (fn. 86) Although there was a properly endowed vicarage, it appears that by the 18th century the cure was being served by stipendiary curates. Francis Wise performed the services at Elsfield from 1726 to 1767: at his appointment by Francis, Lord Guilford the living was referred to as a donative, and Wise himself described it in 1759 as a stipendiary curacy; he was paid £20 a year by Lord North, he was Rector of Rotherfield Greys, and he lived in Oxford and later at what is now Elsfield manor-house. (fn. 87) Though there had been a parsonage house in 1669 there was no house for the 18th-century clergy. (fn. 88) After Wise's death in 1767 the cure was served from Oxford by Dr. Gilbert Parker (d. 1795), Rector of Oddington. (fn. 89) There may have been non-resident vicars, but there is no evidence about them and the stipend of the officiating clergy was paid by the North family. In 1804 a vicar was presented by the Earl of Guilford, (fn. 90) but in 1808 the parish was being served by a curate who lived at Noke. This curate's income was made up of £16 in lieu of tithes and £20 by way of gift, both paid by the Earl of Guilford, and £4 from Queen Anne's Bounty. (fn. 91) In 1806 the rights of the vicarage were said to have shrunk since 1669. (fn. 92) In 1808 and 1825 there was still no parsonage house, (fn. 93) but one had been built by 1851. (fn. 94) Richard Gordon, who became vicar in 1832, resided in the parish. (fn. 95) In 1954 the net value of the vicarage was £480. (fn. 96)
There is little to say about the church life of the village. In 1584 the churchwardens were ordered by the archdeacon in his court to provide within a month a convenient seat for the minister near the screen and the door on the north side of the church. (fn. 97) In 1738 Francis Wise held two services on Sundays, catechized in Lent, and held three communionservices a year, for about 20 communicants. He reported that one farmer's wife was a papist, but that her children were being brought up in the Church of England. (fn. 98) Dr. Gilbert Parker gave the sacrament at first three times and later four times a year, the numbers rising from about 20 to 30 people 'or nearly' and then falling again. He complained of three newcomers, brothers who rented a farm, who were rigid Anabaptists but were seen in church now and then. Worse were two masons who absented themselves incorrigibly. The churchwardens did not care to prosecute them. 'Their motive seems to be chiefly stupid obstinacy and perverseness. There are too many more, in this little hamlet, like them.' (fn. 99) In 1808 the curate returned the number of communicants as averaging 100 over the past three years. (fn. 100)
A change came in the church life of the village when Richard Gordon became vicar in 1832 and lived in Elsfield. He held the living in plurality with Marston from 1849, but he devoted most of his attention to Elsfield, (fn. 101) where he preached twice on Sundays, held six communion-services a year, catechized on Sundays and sometimes on weekdays, and visited the village school. In the 1850's he returned the number of communicants as about 25, and the number attending church as about 80: he thought this number bore a fair proportion to the population. (fn. 102)
The church of ST. THOMAS OF CANTERBURY consists of nave and chancel, with a south porch and a bell-cote on the west gable. The earliest surviving work, dating from about 1170–80, is the chancel arch, while the font, which is of a plain tub-shape on a square base may date from before 1200. The church was rebuilt in the 13th century, and the new building was consecrated in 1273 by Reynold, Bishop of Cloyne, (fn. 103) and dedicated to St. Thomas of Canterbury: the old dedication is unknown. From this rebuilding there remain the trefoiled piscina and, no doubt, considerable portions of the walls. The lancet windows on the north and south sides of the chancel, and the low side window on the south are more or less faithful restorations of what was there before. At some date there was an aisle on the north side of the nave; two large arches and one small one which formed its arcade are built into the north wall of the nave, and traces of them were visible until 1849. In the 14th and 15th centuries alterations were made to some of the windows. The east window of the chancel is in the style of the 14th century, and the lower part of the window in the south-west corner of the chancel was blocked up at an uncertain date, and one end of the sill perhaps used as a bookrest. Both the screen and the pulpit with its hour-glass stand are Jacobean. The bell-cote is modern, and it is owing to the fierce restorations of 1849 and 1859 that the general appearance of the church is strikingly Early English. (fn. 104) The stained-glass memorial to the Revd. Richard Gordon in the east window was inserted in 1878, and the mosaic reredos also dates from the late 19th century. The monument of Michael Pudsey (d. 1645) incorporates the tombstone of John of Cheltenham, Abbot of Eynsham (1317–30), the old inscription having been left unchanged. (fn. 105)
A medieval bell inscribed Sancta Maria Ora pro Nobis was in use until the 19th century, when it was replaced by one made by W. Taylor of Oxford (1846). The other bell now in use is dated 1654 and inscribed 'Michael Derbie made me'. (fn. 106) The vestments listed in 1553 included '3 vestyments, 2 of tawny sylke and the other of blew myxt with whytt and lynett', and 2 copes of dark tawny silk. There were also a cross and two candlesticks of latten, a chalice of silver and a pyx of tin. The vestments and most of the other items listed seem not to have survived the confiscations following this inquiry. (fn. 107) There is now no old plate: the present silver chalice, paten, and flagon were given in 1859, while a tankard flagon and alms dish are both inscribed 'Ben. Steel, Wm. Butler Church W 1768'. (fn. 108)
The surviving parish registers begin in 1686, and there are volumes of churchwardens' accounts from 1697.
Except for the individuals mentioned above and for others in more recent times who have been connected with Roman Catholic or Protestant Nonconformist bodies in Oxford, amongst whom have been some of the most notable residents, there is no record of nonconformity in Elsfield.
In 1818 there was no school in the parish, (fn. 109) but some of the children went to Stowood, where they were educated at the expense of Mrs. Oglander, who at that time lived at Elsfield Manor. By 1833 a school for 26 children was founded, 18 of whom were supported by private charity. (fn. 110) Accommodation has remained unaltered. By 1854 the elder children of the village were attending Marston school, (fn. 111) and throughout the second half of the 19th century the average attendance at Elsfield school was about 30. In 1953 there were 20 pupils. The elder children went to Senior or Grammar schools at Gosford Hill or Oxford. (fn. 112)
The only ancient local charity is that founded by the will of Mary Brett, whose monument is in the church, in 1650. Part of the rent from the charity cottage at Marston (q.v.) is distributed to the poor of Elsfield. The trust deed, said to be a copy of the original dated 1650, ordered that 30s. should be paid annually at Easter to the poor of Elsfield. In 1796 an entry in the parish register stated that great abuses had crept in, owing to the fact that the rent had not been paid and the charity money not distributed. The cottage was rebuilt in 1797 and again in 1819, part of the cost being defrayed from the charity money. During this time £4 to £5 was raised by public subscription and distributed annually. In 1824 a rent of £9 15s. was collected, of which £9 2s. was to be distributed to the poor. (fn. 113) In 1939 the charity was worth £10 a year. (fn. 114)
The Calcutt fund worth £5 a year was distributed in 1939 between a school-treat fund and a coal club. (fn. 115)