There is no evidence of any permanent Settlement at Britwell in Prehistoric or Roman times, although an ancient Trackway, the Icknield Way, crossed the Parish and Roman Pottery has been found near the Church. Several Urns from the Roman Period were found in 1849. The Site, however, near the Spring Level of the Chilterns, well drained, and with a light soil, would obviously be attractive. Anglo-Saxon Settlers cultivated the land here and were called the Dwellers in the ‘feld’ or field, i.e. the land to the west of the Wooded Slopes of the Chilterns. An early form of the name is ‘Brutuwylle‘ and the etymology ‘Bryttawella‘, ‘Briton’s‘ Well, has been suggested, which would point to an early date for the Settlement; on the other hand the name of the Stream that flows near the Church in the North-east of the Parish may be contained in the 1st element. The Gift of part of Britwell’s land in the 10th century to Christ Church, Canterbury, introduced a complicated Tenurial pattern and divided the Township into 2 Parishes with 2 Churches. There was, however, only one Village of Britwell for both Parishes and one Field System, an example of the vitality of the Ancient Organisation of the Vill. Although the Feudal and Ecclesiastical History of Britwell Prior belongs to another Hundred, Ewelme, where Christ Church had its main Oxfordshire Manor of Newington, its Economic History cannot easily be separated from that of Britwell Salome.
Domesday Book Entry
“Amalric holds of Milo 5 hides in Brutewell. Land for 3 Ploughs. Now in Demesne one Plough and 2 Serfs and 7 Villeins with one Bordar have one Plough. There are 7 acres of Meadow. Underwood 3 Furlongs in length and one in breadth. It was and is worth 3 li.[pounds] Wlstan held it freely. From the 5 hides of this land Amalric has rendered neither geld nor anything else. In the same Ville William holds one hide of Milo, land for one Plough. There are 2 Villeins and 6 acres of Coppice. It was and is worth 10s.”
In 1086 there were 2 Lords of Britwell Salome, Aumary and William, but this was probably a recent arrangement. On Aumary’s 5-hide estate there was land for 3 Ploughs, but it was not apparently fully cultivated as there was only 1 Plough with 2 Serfs on the Demesne, and 7 Villani and 1 Bordar had another. Seven acres of Meadow are recorded and Underwood (3 x 1 Furlong). A smaller Estate, assessed at 1 hide and held by William, had land for 1 Plough. No Plough-teams are recorded and as there were only 2 Villani the Demesne, if it existed at all, must have been very small. The 6 acres of Coppice recorded were presumably in Demesne. In addition to these 4 Plough-lands, which may be reckoned roughly as about 320 to 360 field acres, there was that part of the Vill’s land which belonged to Christ Church Priory, Canterbury. This was probably described under the Archbishop’s Oxfordshire Manor at Newington which had land for 18 Ploughs. If any progress had taken place in the Cultivation of Britwell’s land since the Conquest it must have been on the Priory’s land, the value of which increased as a whole from £11 to £15. Both the other Estates showed no increase on their respective pre-Conquest values of £3 and 10s. During the 12th century William’s holding was taken over by Aumary de Sulham and in the 13th century, there were therefore only 2 large Estates in the Britwells. In 1220 the Sulham Estate was estimated at 2½ carucates, and in 1224 it could apparently be valued at 44 marks, for Aumary Fitz Robert agreed to give all his land in Britwell to Henry Bucuinte, a wealthy London Merchant if he could not repay that sum.
The Account of Britwell Salome in the Hundred Rolls is incomplete. The Christ Church part of the Ancient Township of Britwell was duly recorded and it was stated that the Priory held the ‘Hamlet of Britwell‘, then no doubt a detached Settlement and not as now a part of the Village of Britwell Salome. The omission may have arisen through some confusion with the Earl of Cornwall’s Fees in the neighbouring ‘Brictewell‘ (Brightwell Baldwin), which were entered under their respective Lords Thomas Huscarl and Reynold de Bracy. There were some 550 field acres in the Priory’s Lordship of Britwell Prior: it had 100 acres of Arable, 3 acres of Pasture, 10 acres of Wood, and 2 Virgates (about 50 field acres), the gift of a certain Sybil, in its Home Farm. In marked contrast to Brightwell Baldwin, there were no Freemen recorded on the Priory’s Estates: Villeins held the rest of the land, consisting of 14 Virgater Holdings at a standard rent of 4s a year while a Cottage was held for 1s a year. They owed the same Labour Services as Virgaters on the Priory’s Estate at Newington. No week-work seems to have been exacted, but they had to Plough 1 acre in the Spring, and went to Spring and Winter Boon-Ploughings, and to 2 Autumn Boons with 2 men; they cut and carried the Grain and Carted Produce to a market in Oxfordshire. In return they had Common in the Lord’s Pasture from August to mid-Lent and had ‘husbote‘ and ‘heybote‘, i.e. rights to gather wood, and they were given food at certain times when they worked.
The Priory’s Court Rolls of this time show how their Estate was managed. The Oxfordshire Manors were administered with their Sussex ones, but Local Courts were held at Newington and Suitors from Britwell attended. The Tithing Man was responsible for the Appearance of men in his Tithing and for their Conduct: in 1318 William le Pronte and his Tithing were fined for not producing a man; at a later Court when the offender had still not appeared William’s Cow was impounded for Surety. The Office of Tithing Man was not popular and Tenants paid to be exempt from it. Courts regulated works, safeguarded the Lord’s Rights and settled Minor disputes. At Britwell in 1285 and 1318 fines were imposed for marrying or for transferring Land without a Licence, and for destroying the Priory’s Trees. The Priory had the Assize of Ale and the ‘Tastors‘ Presented some Britwell people at most Courts, usually women, who were fined about 6d. Fines to take up land were paid at the Courts and one Britwell man paid 13s 4d to enter on a Virgate.
A 1317 Britwell Grant shows a traditional Field System with intermingled strips: a 9½-acre holding in Watlington and Britwell Salome was distributed in 7 parcels of a ½ acre each and two of 1 rod each in Britwell Field. The same Grant mentioned the Mill Way and there was perhaps a Mill on the Sulham Estates.
The 1st indication of the number of Tenants in the Sulham Manor (by now in the hands of the Malyns family) comes from the Tax Lists of the early 14th century when there were 9 Contributors in Britwell Salome and between 7 and 11 in Britwell Prior. The highest Contributions were paid by the Manorial Lords. In 1306 the Prior of Canterbury paid 5s. 9d and 2 Tenants in Britwell Salome 4s 4d and 4s 1d to the Tax of a 30th. In 1316 the Lord of Britwell Salome, Henry de Malyns, paid 8s, 3 times as much as the 3 next highest Contributors; the remaining 5 averaged payments of 1/7th of the Lord’s. Seven of the 11 Contributors on the Priory land paid 2s or over. In 1327 Britwell Salome was included under Henton, another Malyns Manor; the Lord, Edmund de Malyns, paid the highest amount again, about 1½ times more than the next Contributors. The 2 small Parishes together contributed about as much as one moderate-sized Parish in the Chiltern area: some 26s in 1306 and 36s by 1344.
There is little evidence for 15th-century conditions and nothing to show whether the Priory retained a Home Farm at Britwell or whether, as on other Estates, it let out the land. In the 16th century after the Dissolution of the Priory, Britwell Prior came into Lay hands. The Tax Assessments of the 16th century suggest that the little Wealth there was evenly distributed among Britwell Taxpayers. Eight people contributed to the 1523 Subsidy for Britwell Salome and their total contribution was only £1 5s 10d. In 1558 the Britwell returns were included with Adwell and Chinnor, but none of the 6 persons identified as Britwell Contributors paid on goods valued at over £10. In 1577 Britwell Prior was assessed at almost twice as much as Britwell Salome and, of the 7 Contributors from the 2 Parishes, 3 paid on £8 worth of goods and 4 on £3 to £4. Many of the Yeomen Farmers were comfortably off and Founded Families which remained in the Village for several Centuries: William White, for example, who paid the highest Contribution in 1523 and died in 1527, left to his children and godchildren Bequests in household goods and money valued at £115 6s 6d. He had evidently followed the traditional Oxfordshire practice of mixed farming, for he left Farm equipment, a Cart and Plough, to one son and Sheep to another. A Richard White paid Tax on £6 worth of goods in 1558.
In Mediaeval times, the Tenants on a Manor were totally subordinate to the Lord of the Manor, and when from time to time he held Open Court, they would all have to come along, place their hands between his, and swear Homage to him – to be his men forever, Obeying all his Orders, Fighting for him as necessary. This image of pure loyalty and submission slipped over the years, and Lords mostly never bothered to attend their Courts, which became purely Business affairs, every 6 or 12 months. The Business of the Court was to report the death of any Copyhold Tenant and state who his natural heirs were; Surrendering a Tenancy to be passed on, or being Admitted to one; paying Rents and Dues etc., to report any infringement of the Rights of one Tenant by the Lord or by another Tenant (stopping up Streams, blocking Paths, encroaching on another’s Land or on the Common Ground, running sheep or cattle on Pasture before the set date, and so on). By the 17th Century, the Lord rarely attended, but operated through a Steward, either his direct Employee or a Local Lawyer appointed to handle his affairs. The Tenants too did not all bother to attend Court, though they had either to send an Excuse (essoin) or pay a few pence for a while. By the mid 18th century even this fine ceased. Those who did come were generally either those with direct Business (reporting death, claiming Admission to land, etc.) or the sort of people who always come (usually the older, less directly working men). These Tenants who actually attended Court formed the Homage, though often a less loyal and submissive bunch you would go a long way to find. They spoke on Rights and Customs and often enforced their views on the Steward, especially if he was an Outsider who didn’t know ‘Custom of the Manor, zur, from time of me grandfer and his grandfer’. They were there to see fair play, or enjoy the fun of a Fight. If there was a major dispute, off they went to London as Witnesses.
A more remarkable example of the concentration of Land in the hands of a Yeoman Family is given by the Adeanes, a Family which seems to have come from Newnham Murren, 1st to Brightwell Baldwin and then to Britwell Salome by the mid-16th century. John Adeane on his death in 1566 left 2 Freeholds in Watlington and a Copyhold Farm in Britwell Salome to his son Ralph; his moveable goods were valued at £73 19s 4d; Ralph (d.1608) was able to purchase the Manor of Britwell Salome and leave moveable goods valued at £289; and his son John (d.1614) left substantial Legacies to 6 of his children and the Poor. Ralph Adeane’s Will, dated 1603, probably shows on what the Family’s prosperity was founded: he was a sheep-farmer, keeping 90 sheep on Henry Adeane’s land in Britwell Salome and other sheep with one Gregory of Tetsworth. The Gregorys, who succeeded the Adeanes as Lords of the Manor, came from a 15th-century Yeoman Family of Cuxham. In 1665 Edmund Gregory was living in the largest house in the Parish. He, too, had sheep on his farm, but he also grew barley, wheat, peas, and hay, and had poultry and cows. This family, however, seems to have died out in the Parish in the 18th century and their place was taken by the Stopes, who had owned and occupied several large farms in both Britwell Salome and Britwell Prior from the 17th century.
Britwell Prior was almost all owned by the Simeons: they were non-resident from the 17th until the 18th century and their part of the Open fields was Farmed by Tenants. Sir James Simeon’s Account Book of the late 17th century shows that their holdings in Britwell Prior and Minigrove (an Estate in Pishill) together yielded some £204 in a half year, about a 3rd of the Family’s total Rents from its Oxfordshire Estates.
The Taxable Population in the 17th century was small. In 1665 8 were Taxed in Britwell Salome though 13 householders had been listed in 1662; 3 were Taxed in Britwell Prior in 1665. The Population was clearly small too: in 1685 the Parson stated that there were 20 houses in the Joint Village, and the Compton Census estimated 57 adults in Britwell Salome, an estimate which perhaps also included Britwell Prior, and in the early 18th century 24 male inhabitants (i.e. all those over 12 years of age) attended the Ewelme Honour Court for Britwell Salome. In 1738 there were still only 20 houses, but by 1768 there had been a decided increase when the incumbent recorded 30 houses and 32 families. In 1808 the Clerical Return gave 30 families and about 130 individuals, while the Official Census of 1811 gave 221 for both Parishes.
The 1st large-scale Inclosures of Britwell Field were not made until the 19th century, although there had been a considerable amount of piecemeal Inclosure. A 1635 description of the Glebe shows that the 2 Britwells shared 4 Fields: West Field, East Field, Hill Field, and Cuddenden (later Cuddington). A 1685 account indicates that there had been some consolidation of Strips, but that land was still distributed in some parcels of 1 to 10 acres. Some of the 14th-century field names were still in use: ‘Cudyndune‘, so called in 1317; ‘Peggsyre‘ and ‘Myllway‘, which occur in 1317 as ‘Pegesheye‘ and ‘Mullweye‘. The 17th-century ‘Chalfield‘ (19th-century Chalfhill) was recorded in the 13th century as ‘Chalchulle‘, the name of the neighbouring Watlington Field.
By the time of Parliamentary Inclosure in 1845 there were some 424 acres of ‘old Inclosure’ in Britwell field. There are scattered references in the 17th century to the process: Mr Stone of Brightwell Baldwin, for example, had taken one Close out of Britwell field into his Wood called Ashleys; Sir James Simeon of Britwell Prior also had various Closes; Robert White had part of an acre fenced by a hedge, and a Yeoman Farmer John Spire, the elder, left by Will in 1692 a Pasture Close of 4 acres, lying between John Stone’s Close on one side and the ‘slib field‘ on the other. In addition, there was no doubt the usual number of small Closes that normally adjoin the houses in a Village.
Mid-18th-century Court Rolls for a joint Court held by the Lords of the Manors show how the Open fields of the 2 Britwells were administered. At a Court held in 1754 there were 12 Homagers present. Among the Ordinances issued were those stating that the wheat field was ‘not to be brook‘ until Bartholomew Tide (24thAug), and the ‘gratton‘ field not until Michaelmas (29th Sept), under penalty of 10s.; and that Watlington men were not to drive their sheep on to Britwell Fallow Field. There was the usual trouble over Boundaries, which generally characterized Open-field Farming. It was said that the Boundary Marks had been Ploughed up within the last 19 years and the Court ordered that the Boundary Stones were to be fixed and that no Tenant under penalty of 10s. was to Plough up the land within 1 foot on each side of them; the Homage was ‘to set out the mere baulks‘ and to lay them down as Common Land once again; no cows were to be kept on them. On 18th May each year, the Homage were to inspect the Fields for encroachments. Transfers of Holdings also took place in the Court. Two years’ Quit-rent, it may be noted, was the Customary payment for a Relief on entering a Holding.
Wheat and barley were the chief crops, but considerable quantities of oats, beans, and peas were grown by the 18th century. Husbandry courses could be varied by agreements between Tenants. In 1763, for example, land next to the Woodway was sown ‘contrary to the usual course‘. In 1769 Tenants made an important change in Husbandry and agreed to sow grass seeds, corn, or vetches in 1/3rd of the Fallow Field each year, and thus vary the 3-course system, whereby East Field, West Field, and Hill Field with Cuddington had been completely Fallow once every 3 years.
In 1754 there were still only 10 Freeholders in Britwell Salome Parish and one in Britwell Prior. There were no Families of note in Britwell Salome, but Britwell Prior had the Simeons; the other inhabitants were either Farmers or Labourers. The Land-Tax Assessments of the late 18th century show that there was no predominant landowner in Britwell Salome, but that the Welds owned well over 5/6ths of Britwell Prior, a difference which probably reflects the Medieval History of the 2 parishes. None of the Lords of the Manor was Resident at this time since the Welds, heirs of the Simeons, resided only intermittently, and there were in fact only 4 Owner-occupiers assessed in Britwell Salome and none in Britwell Prior. In the 1780‘s most of the land in both Parishes was in the hands of 3 local farmers: Thomas Hussey and later his son John Hussey occupied several estates in Britwell Salome, Moses West in both Parishes, and John Stopes owned land in Britwell Salome and occupied almost the whole of the Weld Property in Britwell Prior. Various changes in family fortunes altered this picture over the years: by 1825, 11 of the 21 Owners assessed in Britwell Salome occupied their own land, and the Hussey and Stopes Estates had been broken up. There was, nevertheless, a tendency towards the formation of large Farms. By 1826 there were 3 such Farms in Britwell Prior and by 1832 Richard Newton, the Tenant of one of them since 1825, had taken over the largest Estate in Britwell Salome as well.
Both Parishes were Inclosed in 1845 when 1,125 acres (157a of it Common and Waste) were allotted. The Commissioners sold 53 acres for £1,145 to meet the cost of Inclosure. They bought out Manorial Rights in Commons and Waste by allotting 2¾ acres each to the 2 Lords of Britwell Salome and 1¾ acre to the Lord of Britwell Prior; these allotments were equivalent to 1/16 of the Commons and Waste. They allotted 17 acres to the Rectory of Britwell Salome, 20 to the Incumbent of Britwell Prior, and 40 for Commonable Lands to the Rectory of Ibstone (Bucks). The largest allotment of 330 acres, of which more than half was in Britwell Prior, was made to Richard Newton, one of the Lords of Britwell Salome. The other Lords of Britwell Salome and Britwell Prior received 80 acres and 50 acres respectively. Three other fair-sized areas, 98 and 128 acres in Britwell Salome and 179 acres in Britwell Prior, as well as one of 42 acres were allotted. The rest of the land (75a) was divided into 25 small parcels of land; 6 of these were held by persons holding certain Offices or already holding Allotments, leaving 19 Smallholders, one of them, Lord Camoys, for land in Britwell Prior belonging to Stonor Manor. The Commissioners also allotted 1½ acre for a Common Recreation Ground for the 2 Parishes on Britwell Hill.
The Tithe awards of 1845 and 1846 give a detailed picture of the use of the land of the 2 Parishes at that time. There were some 720 Arable acres in Britwell Salome and 440 acres in Britwell Prior. A larger proportion of Britwell Prior was Meadow and Pasture, some 143 acres compared with 113 acres in Britwell Salome. There were 100 acres of Woodland and Plantation in the former and only 15 acres in the latter. The pattern of Land Ownership had not changed greatly, probably because Inclosure had only confirmed the trends to large Estates which were typical in this area in the 19th and 20th centuries and which were well adapted to the Chiltern Slopes. There were 35 different Owners in Britwell Salome, only 12 of them Owner-occupiers, and 17 in Britwell Prior, of which 8 were Owner-occupiers. Richard Newton farmed some 400 acres in the 2 Parishes, John Stopes farmed 200 acres in Britwell Prior, and there were 2 other Tenant Farmers with 126 acres and 137 acres respectively in Britwell Salome. Six other Farmers in the Parishes had between 30 to 85 acres each, but there were about 30 people with less than an acre apiece.
The pattern has remained much the same in the 20th century. In 1913 there were about 35 Owners and 30 Occupiers, somewhat fewer than in the mid 19th century; 8 were now Owner-occupiers. There was one large Farm with over 500 acres in the United Parish, another of about 300 acres and 3 Holdings of 50 to 100 acres. Modern farming has been mixed, mainly Arable with barley and wheat as the chief crops. Mr Richard Roadnight’s Priory Farm is well known as a model of advanced mechanised farming. In 1957 it comprised 2,300 acres on the Chilterns, almost 2/3rds of it given over to Arable; there were 500 head of Frisian cattle, 400 ewes, a large flock of poultry, 100 sows, and a pedigree herd of Landrace pigs.
Most Britwell people in the 19th century were still Labourers or Farmers with a few Craftsmen as in previous centuries. In 1851 there were 9 farmers in the 2 Parishes, employing from 3 to 40 labourers according to the size of the Farm; the occupant of Britwell House was described as a Farmer and Soap-perfumer; there was a Builder employing 4 men, and the Stevenses, iron-founders in the Village since the 1830s at least, employed 3 men. Other Craftsmen were a Blacksmith, Chairmaker, Shoemaker, Carpenter, and Machine-maker. The Schoolmistress was married to a Journeyman Carpenter.
John Stevens owned 3 houses. Two of these were let (one to a Joseph Stevens) and the other he lives in himself. The one that was let to Joseph Stevens is “Canary Cottage“. It is now a fairly character-less, pale brick Cottage that used to be covered with a yellow creeper (hence its name) and had a Thatched Roof. The house that John lived in himself was, at that time called “Elm Tree Cottage“. It is now called “The Old Post Office“. John Stevens is a son of Thomas Stevens (and that Joseph Stevens is his younger brother. John Stevens an Iron Founder and Joseph a Baker and Grocer. Next door to The Old Post Office is a house built of a mixture of brick and flint, as are most of the houses in Britwell Salome, but The Old Post Office is mostly of brick. If, as is likely, it was built in the 18th century, then brick was regarded as a far more `upmarket’ material to stone or flint. As John was the eldest son in the family it is highly possible that “Elm Tree Cottage” was inherited from his father who may also have lived in the house with his wife, Elizabeth.
The Population increased to 314 in 1851 when there were 55 houses in Britwell Salome and 6 in Britwell Prior. A decline set in after this date and there have not been as many inhabitants since. Britwell Prior was merged in Britwell Salome in 1912, and in 1921 the United Parish was the 4th smallest in the Henley Union with a population of only 156. In 1931 there were 110 people; in 1951 there were still only 165 people and 50 Private houses.