Social Character & The Life of the Comunity – The Middle Ages
Late Anglo-Saxon Benson was an important Royal Estate Centre, almost certainly with an associated Royal Residence. Its far-flung Estate accommodated Demesne workers, villani, and other dependants, and Royal Officials were probably numerous, including several settled before 1086 on Land hived off from the main complex. Its decline as a Royal Centre may have begun with the Foundation of the Royal Burh at Wallingford in the 9thC, and though King Stephen visited with his Army during the 12thC Anarchy, no later Kings are known to have stayed in Benson. Any Royal Residence was presumably abandoned, the Manor itself being used for Intermittent Grants to Royal Kinsmen & favourites.
Benson’s status as Ancient Royal Demesne was nevertheless reflected in its Medieval Social Structure, which by the 1270s was dominated by Free ‘Sokemen’ – a term rarely used in Oxfordshire even on Royal Manors. Not all of them had large Landholdings, and some (like unfree Villeins) owed light labour Services as well as rents. Nevertheless they were aware of their Legal privileges, and sometimes invoked their special Status in Land Disputes. The Manors ‘Base’ or Customary Tenants (concentrated in Warborough with just a few in Benson) also claimed Legal privileges, but were considerably less Free, owing Labour Services, payments for the right to marry, and Heriot or Relief (later a quarter of their rent) when Tenancies passed to an Heir. Widows enjoyed life Tenure, but unusually Tenancies passed by Custom to the youngest son. Benson’s outlying Hamlets had more conventional Social structures dominated by unfree Peasants, while all the Settlements (Benson included) had a substratum of poorer Cottagers, Labourers & Servants. Benson (with Warborough & Shillingford) was further distinguished by a relatively high proportion of Craftsmen & Traders, and of migrants from neighbouring Parishes.
Some Sokemen were substantial people enmeshed in a complex pattern of Land Tenure, which was reflected in a lively Land Market. The Rastwolds (Established by 1206) remained prominent throughout the Middle Ages, Witnessing Land Grants with neighbours such as the Salemans, Cotels, Palmers & Ravenings, serving in local Royal administration, and acquiring Crowmarsh Gifford manor. One of their 13thC Holdings had 21 sub-Tenants, and a relative was among the Group of prominent Freeholders who rented the Manor and Demesne from the Earl of Cornwall from c.1244. Another Rastwold (assessed on Goods worth £4) was among Benson’s better-off Taxpayers in 1327, although 6 other Inhabitants paid more, and one (Elias of Pishill) was assessed on £15. Surprisingly the Crowmarsh half-Yardlander John at Forthey was assessed on £5, suggesting that wealth was not entirely tied to Legal Status or nominal size of Holding.
Despite the Crown’s limited presence, Royal & Honourial Officers retained influence through Manor Courts & Rent collection. The Steward & Constable of Wallingford sought Arrears from the Benson Demesne Lessees on the Black Prince’s behalf in 1351, while in 1389 the Benson Freeholder William Shaldeston (as Bailiff of Benson Manor) was in dispute with the Crown’s Manorial Steward John Rede and his fellow Tenant Sir Hugh Wolf. A later William Shaldeston accounted for the Crown’s Manorial Revenues after the Demesne Lease ended in 1438. Lesser Royal Officials mentioned from the 13thC included a Benson man given custody of the King’s Swans in 1377, while Benson Landholders such as John de Alveton and the James’s (though Resident elsewhere) were deeply involved in local Administration. Crown interference included forced Grain purchases and forced Accommodation of the King’s men (both recorded at Preston Crowmarsh), while local Conflict occasionally arose with the powerful Lords to whom the Crown Granted Benson Manor, in particular Engelard de Cigogné (Cigoney) an Alien Royal Favourite in 1219 (d. c.1244).
As elsewhere the Black Death weakened Manorial Authority, prompting Battle Abbeys withdrawal from direct Management at Preston Crowmarsh and, in the 15thC, the freeing of some at least of its Customary Tenants. On Benson Manor, too, several Customary Holdings passed to Freeholders before 1438, after Tenants refused to pay pre-Black Death rents. Established Families such as the Cotels, Salemans, Palmers & Wolfriches remained in the 1370s, but already relative Newcomers such as the Shaldestons, Wolfs, Everards, & (by the 1430s) the Merryweathers featured prominently amongst leading Tenants. By the 16thC none of the prominent 13thC families remained in either Benson or Preston Crowmarsh.
The Parish’s scattered Settlement probably Militated against a fully shared identity, despite the common Focus of Benson Village & Church. Roke and Crowmarsh formed distinct Communities reinforced by their separate Lordships, and Ecclesiastically & Socially many Roke Tenants probably looked (as later) to Berrick or Ewelme. The Medieval bynames ‘of Mogpits‘ and ‘of Oakley‘ suggest a separate identity amongst those living in the Chiltern Foothills, and in the 1550s a Tenant of Turner’s Court made Bequests not only to Benson Church (where he was buried), but to those of Nuffield, Crowmarsh Gifford & Newnham Murren. Prominent Families such as the Rastwolds looked also to Dorchester, where Ralph Rastwold (d.1383) donated an inscribed Bell to the Abbey.
The Crown’s sale of Benson Manor in 1628 probably had limited Local impact. The new Lords were non-Resident and, though Manor Courts continued, most Land in Benson was already effectively Freehold, leaving Farmers & Landholders relatively Free of Manorial interference. By the late 18thC (when the Stapletons reasserted some of their Ancient Manorial Rights) most of the former Quitrents were long in Arrears, and attempts to gather them met with mixed results. Long before then Benson was emerging as a classic ‘Open’ Parish, reflected in its increasingly fragmented Land Ownership, its largely Independent Body of Farmers, Traders & Craftsmen, its self-Governance through the Vestry, and its Social & Commercial Links across a wide area, which from the late 17thC were reinforced by Coaching.
As elsewhere the Period saw the emergence of larger Farms & prosperous Yeoman Farmers, including successive Tenants of Fifield Manor, Turner’s Court, and Crowmarsh Battle Farm. Such people occupied increasingly comfortable & well-furnished houses, employed Farm Labour & Domestic Servants, and exercised influence through the Vestry and through Parish & Manorial Offices. Thomas Freeman (fl.1604–20) held Manor Courts for Preston Crowmarsh in his own name and, like some of his descendants, called himself Gentleman. A namesake in 1662 occupied a Benson House with 2 Halls and a Parlour, its Furnishings including cupboards, books, and a looking glass. Gentry Families such as the Machens were considerably wealthier, and though some still Farmed on a large scale others (like John Wise in 1692) mostly Leased their Land. Other of the Village’s more substantial inhabitants were those associated with Coaching, primarily the Innkeepers but also, by the 18thC, leading Coach-Masters & Coach Builders. More traditional Craftsmen were generally less wealthy, while a Benson Labourer in 1651 left possessions worth under £3.
Some lesser Inhabitants moved between Villages regularly in the late 16thC, and a Welsh Immigrant was mentioned in 1555. By contrast prominent Farming Families such as the Merryweathers, Barretts, & Gibbs’s frequently stayed in Benson for several Generations. 17thC Wills suggest widespread Social & Trade Links in Berks & South-east Oxon, as well as over the Chilterns around Henley, Wycombe & London. Coaching extended such Contacts and brought a constant stream of Visitors, increasing the Villages appeal to the prosperous Outsiders who, by the 1760s, were being targeted by Advertisements for Brick-built Houses close to the River and the London Road. One such was George Davis of Goulds Grove (who moved from Ducklington in 1785), and while Benson could never compete with major Coaching Centres such as Henley, through its Inns, Services, and buildings it nonetheless met the needs of a sophisticated Coaching Clientele. Inns provided not only Food & Lodging but venues for local Scieties & Meetings, and in 1765 the White Hart kennelled some of the Duke of Marlborough’s Foxhounds.
Communal Entertainment is poorly documented, though Rogation Week Festivities (13th May) were mentioned in 1609, a Midsummer Church Ale in 1623, and Cricket from 1778. Hunting & Shooting (overseen in the 18thC by numerous Gamekeepers) were popular with Landowners, prompting occasional Poaching. Public Morality was enforced in the 17thC by the Church Courts and to a lesser extent by Manor Courts, which in 1635 ordered the reinstatement of Preston Crowmarsh’s Stocks. More serious misdemeanours (including occasional Thefts, Assaults & Arson) went before the Magistrates, and in 1756 Benson participated in a subscription anti-Crime Scheme. Roke’s early Association with Protestant Dissent reflected its peripheral Location between Benson & Berrick, although the Hamlet also housed some of the Parish’s most prosperous & prominent Farmers. Its Michaelmas Village Feast (mentioned in the 1860s) may have been long established. (The Feast of St Michael on 29th September)
During the Civil War, Benson suffered the disruption typical of the area, accentuated by its position on the London–Oxford Road and its proximity to the Royalist Garrison at Wallingford. Charles I held a Court at Benson in November 1642, probably in the Red Lion or White Hart, and Royalist Troops were Quartered in the Parish during 1643, evidently bringing disease. Grain for Oxford was requisitioned from Benson and neighbouring Villages the following year, when the Parish also hosted Parliamentary Commissioners negotiating with the King. Inhabitants’ Allegiances are generally unrecorded, though John Machen was in Arms for the King at Wallingford & Oxford, and the moderate Parliamentarian Ralph Verney (non-Resident Lord of Preston Crowmarsh) spent 10-yrs in Exile, his consequent Financial difficulties contributing to the Inclosure & Sale of his Crowmarsh Estate. Most Benson Voters in the 1690s were Tories, though the controversial Poll of 1754 was more divided.
Early 19thC Benson remained a predominantly Agricultural Parish, though with a sizeable body of Craftsmen, Shopkeepers, and others associated with Coaching. Its open character and alleged roughness were criticised in 1832 by the Curate C H. Cox, who claimed that the population was ‘principally of the Lower Class, Postboys, Horsekeepers, et id omni genus (and all that sort), whose morals are not bettered by the existence of 14 Beershops & Public Houses – or the Leniency of a distant Magistracy, and over whom the Clergyman alone has any Control’. In fact the largest single Group in the 1840s–50s was still Agricultural Labourers, while the Village also contained nearly 30 people of Independent Means, some very substantial Farmers, a Solicitor, Excise Officer, and Bookseller, and nearly 50 Domestic Servants employed by the Parish’s better-off Inhabitants. Over 2/3rds of the Population still came from Benson or contiguous Parishes, with a smattering (c.3%) from Wallingford. Others were from a range of places in Oxon, Berks, Bucks, and further afield, including a few (c.2%) from London & Middesex. The proportion of Children was reportedly ‘very large, few of the poorer Families having less than 7 to 10.
Social Conflict erupted during the Swing Riots of 1830, when several 100 Labourers (some of them possibly Outsiders) gathered at Thomas Newton’s Crowmarsh Battle Farm and subsequently smashed Threshing Machines. Opposition to Newton’s protracted Inclosure Campaigns was not predominantly Class-based, however, with fellow Farmers & Local Clergy repeatedly condemning his ‘Avarice’ & ‘continual Warfare with his Neighbours’, and occasionally raising the likely impact on Smallholders and the Poor. Gradually attitudes shifted: the long-term opponent George Eyre decided by 1842 that Inclosure was ‘highly beneficial’, while the Curate G L Parsons claimed that it would promote ‘moral improvement’, the traditional Common-Field System tempting ‘Farmers to encroach on and to act unfairly by each other, and – the poor to steal and do injury with impunity’. In reality Inclosure probably increased the Poverty of the Labouring Population in a Parish still suffering from the end of Coaching, even though by mid-Century Anglican Clergy were reporting harmonious Social Relations and a ‘moral condition … above average’. Concerns remained about Roke, which was viewed as a hotbed of Dissent and acquired a reputation for Roughness. Agricultural Trade Union activity in Benson was mentioned in 1873, and the prominent Socialist Joseph Lane was born to a Benson Cordwainer in 1851.
A Friendly Society was founded in 1831, open to ‘Labourers, Servants, Mechanics, Manufacturers, Tradesmen, and other Industrial Classes’ from Benson & neighbouring places. Club Feast days (ending with a Banquet & Fair at the Three Horseshoes & later at the Crown) were sometimes raucous affairs, provoking Police intervention in 1890. As a dividing rather than permanent Society the Club was controversially closed in 1892, to be succeeded until 1895 by a Benson Benefit Society based at the National School. Thame Brass Band played at the 1839 Club Feast, but from the 1880s a Benson Band and the Berrick & Roke Temperance Band (started in 1882) were mentioned regularly. Wider Social activities included Sporting Events, fundraising Concerts in the National Schools, Horticultural and other Shows (many of them held in the Grounds of Colne House), and celebrations of National Events such as Empire Day, all encouraged by the Vicar and the Village Elite. Leading Families such as the Powells, Shrubbs & Newtons were commemorated in the Parish Church, where the Newtons built a Family Vault, although a few other leading Farmers and Tradesmen were Dissenters. Parish Government was dominated as earlier by prominent Farmers, Tradesmen, Gentry & Professionals.
By the early 20thC there were attempts to develop Riverside Tourism, exploiting Benson’s Setting and its continuing Range of Facilities. An Advertisement for the Crown (aimed at visitors to Oxford, Reading & Henley) called it ‘an old-fashioned Hostelry in one of the most healthy & picturesque Villages on the Thames’, and listed Fishing, access to Pleasure Steamers and Electric Launches, provision for Motorists, and nearby Hunting, Shooting & Golf. By the 1930s Tourist Buses stopped regularly at the Roundhouse Tea Room in Castle Square, while a 1950s Guide Book complimented the new landing stage and riverside pleasure gardens. Even so Tourism remained relatively small-scale. Farming continued, but by WW1 falling Agricultural Employment was already changing the Parish’s character. Thereafter Private Motor Transport opened the Village to a diverse Range of Incomers working elsewhere, attracted by affordable housing in an above-average sized Village: by 1965 c.36% of Families in Benson and Preston Crowmarsh had arrived within the last 15-yrs, albeit from within a fairly small area. Late 20thC expansion altered Benson’s character further, threatening but never fully undermining its Village status. Surveyed in 1992, most Residents still enjoyed the feeling of living within a Village Community, and wished to limit further growth.
A WW1 Memorial near Castle Square (recording 45 names) was unveiled in 1920, and during WW2 the adjacent Airfield (opened in 1939) played a Key Role in reconnaissance Operations. Some RAF Personnel were Billeted around Benson, Preston Crowmarsh, and at Fifield Manor, while the Airfield itself (patrolled with help from the local Home Guard) experienced Losses in Action and suffered occasional Raids, with 27 Service casualties buried in the Cemetery opposite the Church. Pill Boxes were constructed along the Thames, and the Parish briefly Accommodated Refugees & Evacuees. The RAF Stations post-War expansion boosted the Population and initially helped to maintain local Trades & Services, including Cafes & Pubs. Gradually, however, it became more self-contained, and in 1977 reportedly had a very limited impact on Village life. Station Commanders continued to seek dialogue with the Community, and in 2013 an RAF Banner was hung in the Church.
Clubs & Facilities expanded with the Village, those in the 1920s including a Village Hall opened in 1923, a Women’s Institute (founded 1926), a Scout Group, a Choral Society, a County Council Library, and Football, Cricket & Swimming Clubs. Facilities at Rivermead Gardens (by the former Wharf) were developed from 1943, and Playing Fields at Sunnyside on the Villages Northern edge were opened by the Parish Council in 1953, replacing a 4-a. Recreation Ground laid out at Inclosure but bisected by the 1942 Bypass. A Nursing Association proposed in 1905 continued in 1927, and Doctors from Dorchester held daily Surgeries in Benson from c.1924 until 1953, when the village acquired a resident GP. A purpose-built surgery on Mill Lane followed in 1958. By 1977 over 30 local organisations included youth and sports clubs, an over-6os club, and the Bensington Society, formed in 1972 to promote ‘Public Interest in Benson’s History, Architecture & Amenities’. A purpose-built Day Centre opened in 1982, a new Village Hall at Sunnyside in 1988, and a Sports Pavilion in 1996.
Social Facilities in the Hamlets were largely confined to Public Houses, of which the Swan at Preston Crowmarsh (opened by 1786) closed in 1961, and the Horse & Harrow at Rokemarsh (opened by 1876) in 1990. Roke lost its Shop and a long-standing Beerhouse by the 1960s, though the Home Sweet Home Pub (so called by 1853) remains. So too did the Benson & Roke Band, whose corrugated-Iron Hall in Roke (erected in 1923) was rebuilt in 2001. Boundary changes in 1992 cemented Roke & Rokemarsh’s long-standing Social Connections with Berrick, whose facilities they shared, although many inhabitants worked outside the Parish. Roke Feast, which c.1900 featured Swingboats, Side Shows, & Donkey Rides, ended in the early 20thC.
Charities & Poor Relief
Despite one-off bequests to the poor, Benson Parish acquired only 2 Endowed Charities before the 19thC. John Blackmail (d. 1625), non-resident owner of Fifield and Preston Crowmarsh, charged 205. on an estate at Wasing (Berks.), of which 3s. 4d. went to the vicar in return for administering the charity, with the rest distributed in alms on St Thomas’s day (21 December). John Merryweather (d. 1633) of Twerton near Bath left £200 to purchase land, the annual profits to be distributed in clothing amongst the poor of Benson and Wokingham (Berks.). Both gifts benefited the entire parish and were sometimes combined, providing clothes for 14 people in 1753, although Blackmail’s gift was temporarily lost c.1790– 1823. (fn. 627) In addition Roke’s inhabitants shared in John Wall’s Chalgrove and Berrick Salome charity, (fn. 628) and in 1679 Francis Bisley (formerly of Roke) left 12 a. for the benefit of poor Quakers belonging to the Warborough or Henley meetings. (fn. 629) Poor householders also benefited from commons and furze-cutting rights. (fn. 630)
In 1813 the charities yielded under £6, and as elsewhere the bulk of the parish’s mounting poor relief came from compulsory rates. In line with national trends expenditure rose from £170 in the 1770s to £681 in 1803 and £1,719 in 1821, the figures (partly reflecting Benson’s size) being generally amongst the highest in Ewelme hundred. Costs per head of population were slightly less exceptional, but even so the number of people receiving temporary relief rose from 30 to perhaps 174 between 1803 and 1815, notwithstanding a fall from 80 to 63 for those on permanent relief. (fn. 631) Parish cottages on Brook Street (part of the church estate) were called a ‘workhouse’ by 1797, (fn. 632) although as no workhouse was mentioned in Parliamentary reports they were perhaps used primarily for pauper accommodation. Costs fell slightly during the 1820s, but by 1831 again exceeded £1,600, reflecting continuing agricultural difficulties. (fn. 633)
Primary responsibility passed in 1835 to the new Wallingford Poor Law Union, whose workhouse accommodated seven Benson people in 1851. (fn. 634) The former Benson workhouse was let to the farmer Robert Newton for conversion into six cottages. (fn. 635) Complaints about Benson’s high poor rates persisted, (fn. 636) and as earlier the vestry challenged removal orders, set rates, and nominated overseers, who were often supplemented by a paid assistant overseer. (fn. 637) In 1856 it also provided a pall for the poor. (fn. 638) New bread charities were established by the London-based coachmaker Thomas Smith (d. 1812) and by Robert Newton (d. 1879), who each left stock producing c.£5 a year, (fn. 639) while in 1905 Mary Ann Corsellis (née Powell), widow of a Benson solicitor, left £200 to fund a clothing charity to be known as Powell’s Gift. (fn. 640) Other initiatives included the Friendly Society started in 1831, (fn. 641) a soup kitchen committee mentioned 1884–95, and coal and clothing clubs mentioned c.1862–1929. (fn. 642) The charities were reorganized under a 1924 Charity Commission Scheme, (fn. 643) and in 1979 the combined Bensington Charities (registered in 1974) produced £31 a year. They were de-registered in 2012 after remaining funds were used up. (fn. 644)