A Description of Oxfordshire (1868)


The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland - 1868

OXFORDSHIRE, an inland county of England, lying in the S. part of the island. It is situated between 51° 28', and 52° 10' N. lat., and between 0° 50', and 1° 44' W. long. It is bounded on the S. by Berkshire and the river Thames, on the E. by Buckinghamshire, on the N.E. by Northamptonshire and the river Cherwell, on the N.W. by Warwickshire, and on the W. by Gloucestershire. In form it approaches a quadrilateral figure, and extends in length about 50 miles from N. to S., and in breadth about 30 miles in its widest part. It is about 180 miles in circuit, and comprises an area of 756 square miles, or about 472,887 statute acres, inhabited by a population of 172,266, according to the census of 1861, against 170,459 in 1851, showing an increase of 1,827 in the decennial period. In the earliest period of our history this district belonged to the two Celtic nations, the Catyeuchlani and the Dobuni; of whom the former held the eastern, and the latter the western parts. The Dobuni were subject to the Catyeuchlani, and speedily submitted to the Romans on their arrival under Aulus Plotius, the Proprætor. Under the Roman dominion it was included in that division of the island which was named Flavia Cæsariensis. The whole county is intersected by ancient roads, many of which are of Roman origin. After the withdrawal of the Romans, the county became part of the kingdom of Mercia under the Saxons, who called it Oxenfordscyre. It contained many Danish settlements in various parts from the 9th to the 11th century. When the kingdom was divided in 1016 between Canute and Edmund Ironside, this county appears to have been included in Canute's share; and about this time two great councils, or assemblies of English and Danes, were held at Oxford, At the time of the Norman conquest, Oxfordshire was included in the earldom of Gurth, the brother of Harold. In the reign of Richard II., Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was defeated at Radcot Bridge, near Bampton, by the insurgent nobles in 1387. A great conflict took place in the wars of the Roses in 1469, near Banbury, when the Earl of Pembroke, commander of the Yorkists, was defeated, and taken by the northern Lancastrians, under Robin of Redesdale. During the Great Rebellion, Oxfordshire was the scene of some of the severest struggles. The University, like that of Cambridge, took the king's side, and testified its devotion by giving up its plate for the royal service. Abingdon, in the adjoining county of Berkshire, was the headquarters of the Parliamentarians, from whence they frequently sallied forth and harassed the besieged city of Oxford. The surface of this county is mostly level, or gently undulating. In the W. a long range of hills runs in a northerly direction from the left bank of the Evenlode to Chipping Norton, and thence eastward towards Deddington. On the S. the southern projection of the county is occupied by the Chiltern hills, extending across it from Buckinghamshire to Berkshire. Nettlebed Hill, 2 miles E. of Nuffield, rises to an elevation of 820 feet, while Nuffield Common is 757 feet high. Broom Hill, the most north-western point in the county, is 836 feet high. The Chiltern hills were formerly covered by a forest of beech-trees, which has to a large extent disappeared, and the surface thus cleared has been converted into arable land, or into extensive sheepwalks. Another range of hills lies to the E. of Oxford, between the Cherwell and the Thames, the highest of which, Shotover Hill, rises to an elevation of 599 feet, and commands an extensive prospect over the city and university of Oxford. The principal rivers of this county are the Isis, the Cherwell, the Evenlode, the Thame, and the Windrush. The Isis enters Oxfordshire from Gloucestershire at Lechlade, where the navigation commences, vessels of 90 tons being able to reach this point. After a very sinuous course it passes Oxford, where it receives the Cherwell, and finally leaves the shire at Henley. The Cherwell, rising in Northamptonshire, enters the county near Claydon, about 9 miles from its source, and after flowing for 30 miles in a southerly direction past Banbury, reaches Oxford, where its waters unite with those of the Isis. This stream is not navigable, but it receives several small tributaries in its course, such as the Sorbrook, the Ray, and others. The Evenlode, rising in Worcestershire, flows for 22 miles in a south-easterly direction through Oxfordshire, and falls into the Isis near Ensham. The Thame has its source in Buckinghamshire, and enters this county near the town of Thame, and after skirting the border for some distance, flows through the county till it joins the Thames at Dorchester. The Windrush rises in the Cotswold Hills, and, entering Oxfordshire, passes by Witney and Burford, and finally falls into the Isis. The Oxford canal, the only one in the shire, enters it some distance N. of Banbury, and follows the valley of the Cherwell to Oxford, where it unites with the Isis. By means of this canal and the Isis, Oxfordshire possesses communication by water with every part of England. The climate of this county, though generally considered healthy, is rather colder than other southern parts of England. The elevated land in the north-western part, near the Chiltern hills, is particularly bleak and exposed. The soil is various, but the greater part of the land is comparatively fertile. The stonebrash district, extending from the borders of Gloucestershire to the N. of Oxford and Witney, is inferior in fertility to the red loam district, being formed of sandstone and decomposed chalk. The low-lying lands in the river valleys are mostly covered with luxuriant herbage, and afford good pasture for large herds of cattle. A great portion of the soil is under cultivation as arable land, and produces large crops of turnips, wheat, beans, clover, and barley. The cows kept on the Oxfordshire farms are of various breeds, the Alderney and Devonshire being the most common. The breeds of sheep are chiefly the Southdown and Leicester, and crosses between these and the Cotswold. Oxfordshire is divided for civil purposes into 14 hundreds, as follows-viz: Bampton, Banbury, Binfield, Bloxam, Central and East Bullingdon, Chadlington, Dorchester, Ewelme, Langtree, Lewknor, Pirton, Ploughley, Thame, Wootton, together with the city and liberties of Oxford. The county contains about 273 parishes, and forms the archdeaconry of Oxford, in the diocese of Canterbury, and has 11 market towns-viz: Oxford, the county town and seat of a university, Banbury, Woodstook, Bicester, Chipping Norton, Thame, Witney, Henley, Bampton, Burford, and Watlington. The county is divided into nine Poor-law Unions-viz: those of Bampton, Banbury, Bicester, Chipping Norton, Headington, Henley, Thaipe, Witney, and Woodstock. There are seven County-Court districts-Oxford, Banbury, Woodstock, Bicester, Chipping Norton, Thame, and Witney. Oxfordshire is in the home military district and the Oxford circuit. The assizes are held at Oxford, where the county gaol and house of correction stand. Quarter sessions are held at Oxford and Banbury. Three representatives are returned to parliament by the county, two by the University, two by the city of Oxford, and one by Woodstock. The county election takes place at Oxford. The local government is vested in a lordlieutenant, and custos, high sheriff, about 40 deputy-lieutenants, and 160 magistrates. The University has separate jurisdiction over its own members, and also exercises a superiority over the city of Oxford, which has a separate court of quarter sessions. Oxfordshire is not the seat of any important manufactures. Blankets are made at Witney, shag at Banbury, and gloves and polished steel at Woodstock. Some lace-making is also carried on by the country women. There is a large printing establishment at Oxford, a great number of erudite books being annually printed by the University press. The chief railway in this shire is the Great Western, which, leaving its main trunk at Didcot, passes through Oxford on its way to Birmingham. Lines are now open from Oxford to Evesham, Worcester, Droitwich, Kidderminster, Dudley, and Wolverhampton. The London and North-Western has a branch-line from Bletchley to Oxford, and a line has been lately opened from Thame through Shotover Hill to Oxford, running into the Great Western a little below Iffley. The principal roads are the following-viz: the road which enters the county at Henley-upon-Thames, running through Bensington and Dorchester to Oxford, and thence, by Burford and Witney, into Gloucestershire; the road which enters the shire near Stoken church, and runs by Tetworth and Shotover to Oxford, and thence by Woodstock and Chipping Norton to Gloucestershire; and the road to Birmingham, which, entering Oxfordshire between Aylesbury and Bicester, runs through Bicester and Banbury into Warwickshire. This county contains several ruins of -castles and religious edifices of the Anglo-Norman period, though none of them are of any great extent. Scarcely any traces are now extant of Oxford and Banbury Castles beside the mounds on which the keeps formerly stood, while Dorchester Castle has totally vanished. Slight ruins of Bampton Castle still exist. Broughton Castle, near Banbury, is surrounded by a deep and wide moat, crossed by a bridge, supported upon two arches. Several other portions, beside the old tower over the gateway, are still standing, to which some later buildings have been added. Other castellated mansions are Castleton, near Chipping Norton, the High Lodge at Woodstock, Asthall, near Witney, and in Holton Park, between Oxford and Stoken Church. There is a kitchen at Stanton Harcourt, near Bampton, resembling the Abbots' kitchen at Glastonbury. Minster Lovel House, near Witney, still preserves some traces of its formerly extensive pile. The principal ancient roads were Icknield Street, which passed by Watlington to Goring, on the banks of the Thames; Akeman-street, which passed by Bicester, Woodstock, Witney, and Burford; a road, running from Dorchester northward to Alchester; another in a north-westerly direction from London to Alchester; and, lastly, one which crossed the Chiltern hills from Henley to Wallingford. Dorchester, on the Thames, was probably the Dorocina of Richard of Cirencester. Traces still exist of Roman camps near Chadlington and Kiddington, of which the latter is in excellent preservation. At Stonesfield, Steeple Aston, and elsewhere in this county, remains of tesselated pavements, &c., have been exhumed. There are several memorials of the Saxon and Danish periods in the earthworks and encampments traceable in different parts of the county. The works at Dyke Hill, near Dorchester, consist of a double entrenchment, three-quarters of a mile in length. The vallum of the camp at Knollbury Banks, near Chadlington, is very steep, and is composed of rubble stone, cemented and coated with turf. At Mongewell, on the Thames, below Wallingford, is a high ridgeway, extending in the direction of Nuffield, near which the bank becomes double, with a deep trench between. It is called Grime's Dyke, or popularly, Devil's Ditch. There are several barrows in Oxfordshire, chiefly on the north-western side. The most important monastic remains are traces of Ensham and Oseney Abbeys, the Nunnery of Godstow, where the Fair Rosamond, mistress of Henry II., was educated; Goring Nunnery, and the Priories of Gogges and Minster-Lovell. Oxfordshire is rich in examples of church architecture; as, for instance, Dorchester church, and Oxford cathedral, together with most of the college chapels at Oxford. Among the lesser churches, many of which are partly Norman, may be named those at Burford, Cassington, Chipping Norton, Cuddesden, Hanborough, Hardwicke, Henley, Heythrop, Idbury, Iffley, Mongewell, Great Tew, Thame, and Westwell. The seats of the nobility and gentry in this county are very numerous, of which the following are most deserving of attention: -Blenheim, the seat of the Duke of Marlborough; Shirburn Castle, of the Earl of Macclesfield; Cuddesden Palace, of the Bishop of Oxford; Ditchley Hall, of Viscount Dillon; Broughton Castle, of Lord Saye and Sele; and Stonor Park, of Lord Camoys. 

[The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868) Transcribed by Colin Hinson ©2003]