Watlington Enclosures

Enclosures in Watlington: the gradual disappearance of the local Commons with successive Enclosures to their modern Recreational use. The impact this had on Impoverished Parishioners from Medieval times to the Victorian Era is often best observed in Records of their Misdemeanours & the harsh Punishments they received.

Enclosures in Watlington ~
In August 1549 William Boolar, a Catholic, of Watlington was sentenced to be Hanged in the Town for his part as a local Ringleader of the Oxfordshire Buckinghamshire Rising.  The Hanging was to take place on a Market Day, and Boolar’s Head was to be prominently displayed – a warning to the Watlington Population that the consequences of Insurrection would be swift & brutal.  The Oxfordshire Buckinghamshire Rising was one of a Series of Revolts which swept through the English Countryside that year. Causes of the disorder included economic distress as a result of the Enclosure of Common Land, along with Religious differences prompted in part by the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in June 1549.  In July, Rebels including Boolar killed Deer in the Parks of Sir John Williams at ThameRycote, just a few miles from Watlington Parish. They drank his Cellars dry and slaughtered his Sheep to feast on.  They did not hurt Williams – targeted because he had profited from the Dissolution of the Monasteries – but the killing of Deer & Sheep could be interpreted as a protest against Land Enclosures. The action then spread to Oxford itself and to the North of the County.  Local Landowners would have been on high alert for further trouble.  The Crown’s response to Rebellion in the Thames Valley so close to the Capital had to be quick & decisive.  Edward VI noted in his Diary “To Oxfordshire the Lord Grey of Wilton was sent with 1500 Horsemen & Footmen; whose coming with the assembling of the Gentlemen of the Countrie, did so abash the Rebels, that more than hauf of them ran their ways, and the other that tarried were some Slain some taken and some Hanged.”  Poet William Forrest, a Monk in Thame at the time of the Rising, later wrote of its suppression “Downe went the Crosse in every Countraye, Goddys Servauntes used with muche crudelytee, Dysmembred (like beastes) in th’open Highe waye.  Their Inwardyes pluckte oute and Hartis wheare they laye.

We do not know how many from Watlington Parish were involved in the Rising with the condemned man Boolar, or how many sympathised with the Uprising, but the Parish must have been alive with News of the Rebels and their Fate. Townspeople would have Witnessed the Crown’s Retaliation & Boolar’s Hanging.  The Rising came close to the end of a Period of early Enclosures of Common Land in England which had begun in the Medieval Period

Very little documentation associated with these Enclosures survives, but Watlington in South Oxfordshire was not immune from Enclosure during these Centuries.  Watlington is a typical long Chilterns Strip Parish stretching from the Vale of Oxford up into the Chiltern Hills, affording Residents a mix of Arable land, Upland Pasture & Woodland.  The Town of Watlington is at the foot of the Escarpment at the Spring Line.  There are the smaller Settlements of Christmas Common, Greenfield, & Seymour Green on the Hill above.  Until 1931 the Parish also included Warmscombe, separated from the rest of the Parish by a Strip of Land.  Records show that perhaps the 1st well-documented assault on Rights of Common in Watlington Parish came in the 13thC in 1272.  This was when Richard, Earl of Cornwall created a 40-acre Deer Park from Woodland on the Hill above the Town, where Freemen had previously held Rights of Hunting & Grazing.  The Park was a Status Symbol for Richard – its establishment required a Royal Licence, and it would have been expensive to create. It provided Richard, and subsequent Owners of the Park, with Sport and a source of Venison. Richard’s accounts in the late 13thC record Sales of Pasture in the Park, and the Leasing of Parkland for Pannage.  It is likely that these transactions were a response to, or pre-empted, disputes over the need for Land. The Park’s size was increased by another 20-acres in 1392.  The loss of Common Rights resulting from the creation of the Deer Park came at a time when Agricultural Resources were under increased pressure due to a Population explosion in England.  Between 1086 & 1300 the Population of England tripled from roughly 1.5M to between 4-5M people. This massive Population increase led to the Establishment of Villages and associated Agriculture on marginal Land.  Common Land came under pressure as the value of land increased in England, leading Owners to wrest it back.  Between 1315 & 1317 population pressure combined with appalling weather resulted in poor Harvests & the Great Famine, and Famine came again in 1321.  Some estimates put the Death Toll of the Great Famine at up to 25% of the Population, with the Peasantry inevitably suffering the worst.

On the heels of this Hunger came the Black Death in 1348 and Watlington is believed to have suffered badly from this Plague; Famine was to return in 1351 & 1369.  Famine & Plague depleted the Population resulting in a Labour Shortage, Rising Wages & Falling Rents.  In many cases this shortage of Labour was a good thing for the Rural Workforce – they could command a higher price for their Services, and change their circumstances for the better, moving to wherever they could find higher Wages & cheaper Rents.  Their Lords & Masters were left short-handed.  Rare surviving Manor Court Documents (quoted by Hassall, 1973) reflect the desertion of the Chilterns Countryside and attempts made by Landlords to stem Depopulation.

At Medieval Enclosures Rotherfield Peppard, a Village high in the Chilterns not far from Watlington, Court Records for 1351 State “occupied by Gilbert Bolle, 1=Virgate of Village Land called Kelette and ½ a Virgate once occupied by Robert Fairmere…because there are no Tenants.”  By 1355, Gilbert Bolle amongst others had still not returned.  Attempts were made to order Villeins back to their Lands – in Rotherfield Greys at the May 1355 Manor Court “The Jury present that William Seman, Villein of the Lady of the Manor, living at Rotherfield Greys (the next Parish) and Gilbert Bolle, living at Chesham, Bucks, are natives of the Lady but live outside her Lordship.  So their nearest Relations are ordered to make them come and live within the Lordship by the time of the next Court.”  
It is a logical assumption that similar Desertion was happening in Watlington.  In response to the new Economic pressures created by Famine & Plague, Landowners turned to Sheep-farming, which required less Labour, as a more profitable enterprise than Arable Farming.  Common Land & Fields were enclosed for this purpose.  The Black Death and subsequent Enclosures are thought to have been possible causes of the disappearance of 3-Settlements in the Watlington Parish in the Middle Ages.  The names of these Settlements were Ingham, Syresfield, & Watcombe.  The Victoria County History concludes that the Site of these Settlements is now unclear.  Some evidence points to Watcombe being located near Howe Hill, and it is very possible that Common Land, including Land on Howe Hill, associated with these Lost Settlements of the Watlington Parish disappeared at this time.  The Population of Warmscombe is thought to have fallen as a result of Sheep-farming.  Enclosing Common Land for Sheep-farming could result in the displacement of the poorest by depriving them of Employment & their Rights of Common.   Those who had not had the opportunity to leave the Land and better their Station in life would suffer. 
Writing in 151633-yrs before the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Rising, Thomas More railed against Enclosures resulting from Sheep-Farming in his famed work of Political Philosophy, ‘Utopia‘.  He wrote:-
“your Sheep that were wont to be so meek & tame, and so small eaters, now, as I heard say, be become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up, and swallow down the very men themselves. They consume, destroy & devour whole Fields, Houses & Cities. – Therefore that one covetous & unsatiable Cormorant and very Plague of his Native Country may compass about and Inclose many 1,000 acres of ground together within one Pale or Hedge, the Husbandmen be thrust out of their own, or else either by Coveyne & Fraud, or by violent Oppression they be put besides it, or by wrongs & injuries they be so wearied, that they be compelled to sell all: by one means therefore or by other, either by Hook or Crook they must needs depart away, poor, silly, wretched souls, men, women, husbands, wives, fatherless children, widows, woeful mothers, with their young babes & their whole Household small in substance and much in Number, as Husbandry requireth many hands. Away they trudge, I say, out of their known & accustomed Houses, finding no place to rest in. All their Household stuff, which is very little worth, though it might well abide the Sale, yet being suddenly thrust out, they be constrained to sell it for a thing of nought. And when they have wandered Abroad, till that be spent, what can they then else do but Steal, and then justly Pardy be Hanged, or else go about a Begging.”
Interestingly, we do have some evidence of unrest in Watlington in the later Medieval Period. On 25th August 1483 there is a report of a Riot in the Parish involving perhaps 100 Men, all well-armed with swords, staves and bows & arrows. The men committed a premeditated Ambush, assaulting a Party of Gentlemen & their Servants and making off with money & gold.  More research is needed to uncover the motivation of the Mob.  PyrtonHundredWhether Poverty resulting from Enclosures was partly to blame we cannot say.  The Victoria County History of Watlington states that there was a shortage of Pasture in the Parish, and we do know that Watlington’s Parishioners were Trespassing on to the Land of neighbouring Parishes with several cases recorded from Medieval Times onwards.  

In 1331, 22 people of Watlington were found Guilty of Trespassing into the neighbouring Parish of Stonor, including on to Pasture.  Records from 1363 show there were 16 instances of Trespass on to Stonor’s Pasture and, in 1393, 4 Watlington Tenants were found to have ventured on to Pasture in Stonor with large Flocks of between 40 & 100 Sheep each.  According to the Pyrton Court Rolls, in 1499 a William Gibson, a John Sallet & a Thomas Danby of Watlington were Fined for Trespassing with their Sheep at ‘Burned Heath‘.  In 1504, also from the Pyrton Court Rolls, the Sallets are still Trespassing, with Alicia Sallet of Watlington found to have grazed 600 Sheep on Town Field at Pyrton where she had no right.  In 1501 all the Tenants of Watlington were accused of grazing cattle & sheep on the Lord’s Common on the Hill in Pyrton Parish.


In 1517 a Group of Watlington Men broke into Shambridge Woods outside the Parish near Britwell Prior and Pastured their Cattle there.  Later still in 1754 at the Court Baron of Sir Edward Simeon of the Manor of Britwell Prior & Britwell Salome it was ordered that:
none of the Tenants or Inhabitants of Watlington shall drive any Sheep from Pegg’s Ear Mead’s End to Damask Lane upon Britwell Fallow Field upon pain of forfeiting for every default 10-Shillings.”  
Over a decade later in 1766 the same Court at Britwell declared again:
We do order that none of the Tenants or Inhabitants of Watlington should drive any Sheep from Pegg’s Ear Mead’s End to Damask Lane upon Britwell Fallow Field from Parsonage Path to Atmarsh upon pain of etc.- 10s”  
There had also been disputes over Watlington’s Rights of Common in the Woods at Maidensgrove.  In 1718 Dr Richard Rawlinson, compiling a History of Oxfordshire, wrote to Parish Priests in the County to inquire what they knew about the History of their patches.  A Robert Horn of Nettlebed returned the following information to Rawlinson:  There is also a Common called Minegrove belonging to (Pishill) Parish about 500-acres of Beech Scrubs.  Ye Lords are Thos Stonor & Edward Simmons, which Common is now in dispute between Watlington and ye Lords.” (Enright, 1951) Trespass & Unrest.


19thC Enclosures
The 18thC Maps give a clearer picture of where Commons were located. Pre-1815
Enclosure Maps of Watlington Parish show several Commons on the High Ground – on the Hill there were adjoining Commons at Christmas Common & Northend (Northend Common being in the neighbouring Parish of Turville); a Common adjacent to Greenfield Farm; one at Seymour Green; and Common Woodland at Maidensgrove.  Whilst some Enclosures had occurred down the Centuries, the most extensive Enclosures in  Watlington came with the Enclosure Act of 1815, which resulted in the Division & Enclosure of 1,535 acres in the Parish. These Enclosures marked the beginning of a new more efficient era in Agriculture and the end of long-held Rights of Common on the Commons at Christmas Common, Greenfield & Seymour Green.  Some small compensation for the Poor was made in the Act, but it marked the end of an era and heralded a fundamental change to Watlington’s Rural Economy.


Five years previously in 1810 the Common Woodland at Maidensgrove had already been Enclosed.  These Woods had provided Commoners with the Right of Estovers.  In compensation for this Enclosure, 41-acres of the Woods were to be Rented out and the yield spent on Fuel to be distributed amongst the Poor of the Parish, defined as those whose Lands were worth less than £10 per annum.  Trustees of the Charity, called the Poor’s Allotment Charity but known locally as the Coal Charity, were responsible for Leasing Land and using the income to buy Coal for the Poor.  Any Land left unleased was to be sown with Furze to be cut for Fuel19thC Enclosures, and the resultant loss of Commons, combined with other factors in placing downward pressure on Agricultural Labourers’ living standards.  Farmworkers’ wages were suffering the effects of the deflation of Agricultural prices, and an increase in the Labour Supply after the Demobilisation of 250,000 Troops at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Moreover, Employers were facing increased Rates because of an increased need for Poor Relief (partly as a result of Enclosures) and made further cuts to Wages to cover these increased costs.  

In Watlington there was an increase in Population from 1,479 in 1821 to 1,833 in 1831 and most of the additional Parishioners were Paupers.  Disentangling the extent to which the loss of Common Land and the ability to raise their own Livestock increased Poverty amongst Rural Labourers at this time, when so many other factors were at play, is difficult.  However, we can assume that loss of access to Common Land made them more dependent on Poor Relief in tough times.  A further threat to Labourers’ living standards was the introduction of Mechanisation into Farming in the form of Threshing Machines.  The Machines took Winter work away from Farm Workers and forced many to apply for Poor Relief.  

In 1830, there was Rioting & Burning near Greenfield Farm because of the Low Wages.  It seems highly likely that this disturbance was a part of a wider movement known as the Swing Riots.  Following a poor Harvest in 1830, the Swing Riots broke out across the Midlands and the South of England – the area where much recent Enclosure had occurred.  Agricultural workers rose up in protest in an attempt to better their Lot, wrecking Machines and burning Farm Property in the name of ‘Captain Swing‘, a character invented by the Rioters to embody their plight.  Captain Swing was a Tenant Farmer who was driven to Bankruptcy by recent Social & Political change. There were also riots & destruction at nearby Villages including Benson, NewingtonLittle Milton during this period.  The fate of the Rioters at Greenfield is not clear, but Swing Rioters were commonly Imprisoned or Transported to Australia. Many of them were aboard the Eliza which Sailed for Hobart from Portsmouth in February 1831.  There is a record of a Watlington-born man aboard this Ship, Joseph Ring, convicted of destroying a Threshing Machine at Little Milton.  Certainly, Transportation Records provide great insight into Rural Poverty in the 19thC.  We can find in these records stories of desperate people turning to crime to escape Hunger & the Workhouse in this Period.

Poverty, Crime & Enterprise
Most of those from Watlington Sentenced to Transportation had previous Convictions for theft, and had already served time in England’s overcrowded Prisons. However, their thefts were usually of food or clothing, and simply tell sad stories of desperation & grinding poverty amongst Rural Labourers.  Perhaps one of the saddest tales came to Court in 1832, when those bad Harvests had increased hunger.  Widower & father of 8, Benjamin Gearing of Watlington was charged with stealing 2 Quarters of Beans from a Watlington Barn and Transported to Hobart.  Five of his children were forced to enter Henley Workhouse, their mother being dead and their father Transported.  ln 1832 James & John Jarratt were charged with killing a Sheep belonging to Moses Wiggins of Watlington. JamesHulkWashroom was Transported and records show that an Ann Jarratt, aged 3, applied for Poor Relief following her father’s Transportation, and was Granted 1s week.  Another illustration of the Hunger which descended on Watlington during this Period was the case of John Smith who stole “several quantities of Grocery goods” from Watlington Grocer George Churchill in 1831, and for that was brought before Oxford Assizes and sentenced to be Transported for 7-yrs.  Ten years later Unemployment & Poverty were still causing Social problems, including Poaching, in the area. A Correspondent wrote to the Oxford Journal in 1842
It is deplorable to see so many able-bodied men sent to Crowd the County Gaol on a charge of Poaching and greatly to be feared that, in many instances, they are driven to commit their Crime for want of Employment.  What are our Surveyors about?  Our Roads are in a disgraceful State whilst scores of Unemployed are left to the alternative of starving or becoming the Inmates of a Gaol or Workhouse.
This reliance on Poaching & Poor Relief is well illustrated by the Rockall Family of Watlington.  In November 1835 a Daniel Rockall, aged 35, of Watlington Parish, his wife, and their 5 children aged between 1 & 10, applied to Henley Workhouse for Poor Relief.  Daniel was recorded as ill.  The Poor Law Union Granted the Family 3 gallons of bread & 2-lbs of mutton.  In early December they received further relief.  By the end of December 1835, Workhouse records reveal that Daniel was in Prison.  His wife & children were granted 2& 3 gallons of bread per week.  Over a decade later Rockall was still running risks to feed his family.  In February 1848 3 men from Christmas CommonWilliam Trendall, Daniel Rockall & Thomas Rockall – were fined for Poaching on Pyrton Common.  This was not the 1st time the Rockall name had been associated with Poaching. The loss of Commons in 1815 had reduced available Land where the Poor could trap or net Game, and the Introduction of the Game Laws in 1816 had increased the Penalties for Poaching. In 1818, just 3-yrs after the 1815 Enclosure Act, a Rockall, along with Richard & William Slatter were discovered by a Gamekeeper in Clare Copse on the Earl of Macclesfield’s Land armed with Pistols & Cutlasses. Their intent was to Poach pheasants, but on being approached, Richard Slatter aimed his gun at the Keeper and threatened to kill him.

Prison Hulks at Woolwich

For this, Richard was sentenced to 7-yrs Transportation, whilst William Slatter & Rockall received Sentences of 12-months Imprisonment with Hard Labour.  Between 1818 & 1821 Slatter was held in Prison Hulks, including the Justicia at Woolwich, awaiting Transportation. In January 1821 he was Pardoned, having never left British Shores. The Transportation Records also reveal a fascinating glimpse into the Maidensgrove Woods following their Enclosure.

We can surmise from the following that Parishioners would still gather Fuel from the local Woodlands which were not without Perils at this time. Hannah Randall lived in the 1st Cottage on the right on top of Howe Hill with her husband William, a Farm Labourer.  One July morning in 1844 she rose early to hang out her husband’s corduroy trousers on the washing line at the side of the Cottage.  She then went into the woods to gather kindling to boil a kettle.  She noticed a man coming alone up Howe Hill and he eventually passed her by, as she continued to gather wood.  A few minutes later she returned to her Cottage to find the trousers had disappeared from the washing line.  Bravely she gave chase to the man she had seen, running after him into “Maidensgrove Scrubs“.  As she pursued him she saw him throw something into the trees.  She caught up with him and accused him of the theft.  He proclaimed his innocence and tried to blame the theft on 2 men he said he had followed up the Hill, telling her he had seen them throw something into the trees. She certainly had not spotted those men so she recovered the trousers, and sought a Warrant for the man’s Arrest.  His name was William Towns and he pleaded Not Guilty to the theft, but the Judge believed Hannah’s version of events. Towns was sentenced to 7-yrs Transportation.  He died in Hobart in 1881.

But poverty didn’t only increase Crime – it also inspired families to seek alternative sources of Income.  We could argue that previously they had access to an Income through Grazing Rights on the Common – this was now gone. During the 19thC increasing numbers of women & children from the age of 5 were engaged in Lacemaking to make ends meet.  This was piece-work performed in the home and controlled by Lace Merchants who sold the Output in London.  This Cottage Industry was at its Peak in the early 19thC but was largely replaced by Industrial Manufacture in the latter half of the Century. There are reports of a Lacemaking School at Watlington attended by 30 or 40 girls in 1840, and even later in the Century in 1887 a Gazetteer entry by John Bartholomew describes Lacemaking as the Principal Industry of the Town, along with Brewing.  By the 1860s the Enclosure Movement had run its course in England and was coming up against increasing opposition from those who felt that there was a decreasing amount of Common Land to provide access to Open Space for Recreation & Health benefits to Britain’s increasingly Industrialised Society.  The Commons Preservation Society, the Aims of which were to protect Common Land & Public Rights of Way for all, was formed in 1864.  Founding Members of the Society included Sir Robert Hunter, Social Reformer Octavia Hill, Philosopher John Stuart Mill & William Morris. Hill & Hunter went on to develop the idea of a Trust to acquire places of Historic significance or Natural Beauty for the Benefit of the Nation.  Hill thought of naming the Trust ‘The Commons & Gardens Trust‘, but Hunter suggested the National Trust, and this came into being in 1895.  Enclosures decimated the Commons of Watlington and today there is only one surviving piece of Officially Registered Common Land in Watlington at the Chalk Pits, a 1.22 hectare Site, 1.25 km South East of the Town.  This Common is owned by SODC and Leased to Watlington Parish Council.  Chalk Quarried from the Pits would have been used in Road Construction & Building.  Many old Houses & Walls in the area include Chalk Stone or Clunch as it is known.

Common Land, Charity & Conservation
Today the Chalk Pits are a designated Local Nature Reserve incorporating Chalk Grassland, Scrub & Woodland.  The Site is cared for by Watlington Environment Group on behalf of the Parish Council. Watlington Chalk Pits are largely within the WatlingtonPyrton Hill Site of Special Scientific Interest.  The Parish continues to Benefit from the Poor’s Allotment Charity, formed after the Enclosure of Maidensgrove Woods.  Coals were distributed biannually from 1823 into the 1950s.  Into the late 20thC small cash sums were still being distributed at Christmas.   Then, in the 1990s theWatlingtonCottageHospitalHillRd coffers of the Charity were swelled by a large Bequest of Land & Buildings upon the death of a Resident of Pishill who had formerly been a Tenant of the Charity’s Land at Maidensgrove. Some of the proceeds from the Sale of this Bequest were used to buy the Site of the old Watlington Hospital – now the Watlington Care Home – on behalf of the Town. The Poor’s Allotment Charity changed its name to the Watlington Support Fund in 2005. The Fund, which amalgamated the Coal Charity with 2 smaller Charities, is used to provide Grants to those in hardship & distress, and to the sick, disabled & convalescent of the Parish in need of Financial Aid.  Watlington OS Map 1888

Although Watlington’s History has been one of decreasing Common Land, the Parish has been fortunate to Benefit from a significant Gift to the National Trust.  The Brett Family, previously of Watlington Park, made a succession of Gifts to the National Trust in the 20thC, resulting in National Trust Ownership of, and thus open access to, Watlington HillGreenfield Copse, Lower Dean Wood & Howe Wood. Greenfield Copse forms part of Watlington Park, which brings the Story of Enclosure full circle in the sense that the creation of Watlington Park in 1272 is where the Story of Enclosure in the Parish began.  This National Trust Land is a mosaic of Chalk Grassland habitat, Scrub & Woodland which supports a diversity of plants, insects & animals.  It includes a Nationally important Yew Wood, an abandoned Orchard & Beech Trees.  Now that Sheep no longer keep invasive Scrub away, Volunteers & the Trust maintain the Site, with the aid of deer, rabbits & ants.  So, with the Gift of Watlingon Hill to the National Trust, Watlington has in a sense regained Land for use by the People, albeit for leisure & conservation purposes rather than farming, survival & subsistence.  At this stage, we cannot accurately say exactly which parts of the Hill were used as Common Land prior to Medieval Enclosure, but that at least parts of it were Common is almost certain.  The last word must go to English Author & Dramatist, Mary Russell Mitford whose Poem entitled ‘Watlington Hill‘, published in 1812,  describes Coursing with Greyhounds on the Hill with a Party from Shirburn Castle. Her words contain an appreciation of the Landscape that visitors to Watlington Hill will identify with today.
If ye would have all hope can bring,
Take the first morn of early Spring!
If ye would warm your life-blood chill,
Go Course on Watlington’s fair Hill!”
“Leave we them all: to stand awhile
Upon the topmost brow,
And mark how many a length’ning mile
Watlington Hill the Landscape spreads below.”
With grateful thanks to Dr Mary Webb, Tim Horton & Robert Barber for their help and support in researching this Article.

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