Meetings reports for 2019-2020

The meetings in April, May, June and July 2020 were cancelled due to the COVID-19 crisis.

March 2020: Historic maps of Oxford – Nick Millea

On 9 March, Nick Millea, Bodleian Map Librarian, presented a fascinating selection of old and new maps of Oxford. They will be collected and described in the British Historic Towns Atlas Volume VII: Oxford, to be published in autumn 2020.

The famous early map by Ralph Agas (1578) gives a detailed ‘bird’s flight’ view of the city from the north. The original is darkened and worn, but the Bodleian also has Robert Whittlesey’s clear re-engraving made in 1728. On Agas’s map, the city centre still includes many gardens, and there is open country north of Broad Street.

David Loggan’s beautiful map of 1675 shows the city centre more crowded. Every building is depicted, again viewed from the north. Loggan included minute details, such as a (still existing) kink in the wall of Trinity College.

The noted antiquary Anthony Wood had in his collection an anonymous (and unexplained) map of ‘Oxforde as it now lyeth / Fortified by his Ma[jes]ties forces an. 1644’. It shows the Thames running southwards to ‘Abbington’, but flips the north and south of the city. Wood annotated it as ‘made very false’.

The Atlas will include specially prepared new maps, showing for example the halls which preceded the colleges, medieval inns, the (very complicated) city parish boundaries, watercourses, turnpike roads around Oxford, and the growth of the suburbs.

Answering questions after his talk, Nick Millea confirmed the existence of a very detailed map of Oxford prepared secretly by the General Staff of the Soviet military. Mysteriously, it identifies a sub-post office in Marston, and University College, but no other colleges or university buildings.

Before welcoming the speaker, Richard Dudding reported to members that the Berkshire Family Historian has recommended the Club’s latest book, Radley Manor and Village, as a ‘must for anyone with interests in Radley or indeed in manorial history generally’.

Sadly, but inevitably in the light of the advice about avoiding gatherings, the Club has cancelled the speaker meetings booked for 14 April and 11 May.

February 2020: Commonwealth War Graves Commission – Dick Richards

On 10 February, Dick Richards described the history and achievements of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It was founded, as the Imperial War Graves Commission, through the vision and determination of one man, Sir Fabian Ware. Working for the Red Cross, he arranged the recording of soldiers’ graves during the First World War. In 1917 the Imperial War Conference accepted his proposals for a permanent Commission.

Guided by distinguished professionals, including architect Edwin Lutyens, garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, and poet Rudyard Kipling, the Commission established its core principles:

  • burial close to the place of death
  • equality irrespective of rank or religion
  • uniform headstones
  • memorials giving the names of those with no grave
  • headstones, graves and memorials to be maintained in perpetuity.

Every CWGC cemetery aims to evoke the grass, flowers and peace of an enclosed country churchyard. The headstones are in straight lines in a standard size and format. Bereaved relatives could, initially for a fee of threepence halfpenny per letter, choose a short personal inscription. There is a Christian ‘cross of sacrifice’, a Stone of Remembrance to acknowledge those of other faiths or none, and a shelter containing a cabinet with a list of the graves and a visitors book.

The Commission is also responsible for individual graves in many parish graveyards (including Radley), and for memorials to those with no known grave, most notably the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial.

The Commission undertakes to maintain every cemetery in perpetuity, including, for example, the one in Hong Kong now surrounded by modern development, and, when it becomes possible, the restoration of its cemeteries in Iraq.

On Tuesday 19 May, at 6.30 pm, Dick Richards will give RHC members a guided tour of the CWGC cemetery at Botley. This includes the graves of soldiers who died in military hospitals in Oxford, many Polish and German soldiers, and, poignantly, the graves of two women: staff nurse Mabel Murray and aircraftwoman Glenys Harris.

On Monday 9 March Nick Millea will talk about the forthcoming Atlas of Historic Maps of Oxford.

January 2020: Post-war childhoon in a resettlement camp

On 13 January, a large audience braved the rain to hear Dr Hubert Zawadzki explain the history of the reluctant exiles in Polish resettlement camps in Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds, 1946 to 1970.

During World War II the government-in-exile of occupied Poland was based in London, and many Poles fought alongside the Allies. Following the Yalta conference in February 1945, the frontiers of Poland were drastically redrawn, and the Soviet Union installed a puppet communist government. Many Polish servicemen decided not to return.

From 1946, they could join the Polish Resettlement Corps, a unit of the British Army set up to help them prepare for civilian life in Britain. They, and if possible their families, were housed in former military camps, ill-adapted to the harsh winter of 1946-7.

From 1947 support was provided under the Polish Resettlement Act, including dedicated schooling for children, and training of adults for civilian jobs.

Hubert’s family were housed in a Nissen hut in Springhill Lodges camp (near Chipping Campden), with a coke stove and no running water. There was a communal kitchen, providing, for example, a soggy mash of cornflakes in hot milk. Initially there were misunderstandings: Hubert was nearly refused entry to the local primary school because he didn’t know the word ‘horse’ in English, and his mother initially took ‘public house’ to mean dom publiczny (i.e. brothel). Gradually matters improved: the camps became thriving communities with their own churches and festivals. A group photo survives of Hubert (in an unconventional white suit) on the occasion of his first communion. Most ex-servicemen became happily integrated into life in Britain, for example as doctors, or skilled labourers in post-war reconstruction, and gradually families moved out of the camps into their own housing.

Traces or ruins remain of many of the camps, including Springhill and, in Oxfordshire, Checkendon. There are commemorative plaques at Northwick Park (now a business centre) and Fairford. There is an excellent website with a list of all the camps, and many stories and photographs: polishresettlementcampsintheuk.co.uk

On 10 February Dick Richards will talk about the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

November 2019: Radley Large Wood – Richard Dudding

On 11 November, Richard Dudding unveiled many surprises in the history of Radley Large Wood: monks, deer, riots, a projected canal and a ‘mist of bluebells’.

The wood was Abingdon Abbey’s deer park, supplying the monks with venison, other game, timber, and fuel. It has the characteristic rounded shape of a woodland deer park, and traces remain of the ditches cleverly designed to make it easy for deer to jump in, but not get out again. In about 1260 the Abbey appointed ‘John Parcarious and his heirs’ as park keepers. But the Abbot seemed to fear that the Parker family would turn poachers. Two keys were simultaneously required to open the wood’s main gate: one held by the keeper, and one for the Abbey’s bailiff to check what the keeper was bringing out.

Around 1350, members of the Parker family were named as ringleaders of riots in Abingdon, and depredations in the deer park. The Abbey tightened the Parkers’ contract, requiring the keepers to swear an oath of loyalty to the Abbot. In 1387 the Abbey won a court case against King Richard II, who had claimed that he had the right to appoint the park keeper.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the Abbey’s estates were sold. In 1547, a survey included the ‘separate wood’ then known as ‘Radley Parke’, including 200-year old oaks and an underwood of ash and willow saplings, coppiced every 7 to 10 years.

In 1560, George Stonhouse bought Radley Manor. The Stonhouse family kept the Large Wood for timber and game, and made a separate ornamental deer park near the manor house. From 1671, the Game Laws entrenched hunting as a privilege of the gentry, and there were severe fines for poaching.

In 1795, Radley Manor passed to the Bowyer family, who were a bankruptcy waiting to happen. One of their disastrous ventures was a project for a canal from Bayworth quarry, taking a huge loop southwards into what is now north Abingdon, continuing northwards to Radley Large Wood, and then descending to the Thames at Sandford. The wide ditch still visible at the western edge of the wood could be the result of excavations for this canal.

In 1883 the third Sir George Bowyer died, the creditors pounced, and the estate was again for sale. In 1900 Josephine Dockar-Drysdale purchased it. In the economic depression of 1930, her son William could not find a buyer for the estate, including the wood, which was advertised as a ‘mist of bluebells’ which could make an ‘admirable timbered building estate’. In 1938 her grandson Bill set up a holiday camp for boys in the wood, later becoming a home for wartime evacuees. In the 1950s he opened a new camp, this time for family holidays. Pat Groser came from London to stay, and liked it so much that she moved in as secretary. Supporters of Halifax rugby league team made it a regular stopover on their journeys to the league final at Wembley.

The wood now includes three sylvan mobile home parks. The Parish Council’s adopted neighbourhood plan notes that the Council would oppose their conversion to other uses. The wood is classified as ‘ancient semi-natural woodland’, and hugely appreciated by local walkers. Sadly, its tranquillity might be threatened by one possible route of the proposed ‘expressway’. The church’s heating worked perfectly, and a large audience overflowed into the gallery. You can read more about the wood and Radley Manor in the History Club’s latest book, Radley Manor and Village, on sale in the village shop or from the Club’s website.

October 2019: Olive Gibbs, councillor and peace campaigner – Liz Woolley

On 14 October, noted Oxford historian Liz Woolley expounded highlights from the life of Olive Gibbs (1918-1995). Olive was born in a tenement block in Osney Lane, Oxford. In her autobiography Our Olive she described her father’s violent tyranny, and her childhood grudge that their flat had no upstairs: in stories, children always went to bed upstairs. According to her sons Andrew and Simon, Olive was ‘five foot cubed’. She won a scholarship to Milham Ford school, and achieved an excellent School Certificate. She wanted to become a journalist, but that was considered unsuitable for a woman. Instead, she became a librarian. Her boss thought she ‘had presence’. She thought him a ‘pompous ass’.

Olive’s political career began with a campaign against a planned wholesale closure of nursery schools. She was a city councillor for 30 years, and also a county councillor. She rebelled against the domination of politics by men who seemed ‘older than God’, and overcame bouts of depression and anxiety. In 1959, she refused to follow the local Labour party line, and opposed the plan to build a road through Christ Church Meadow. She and her husband Edmund Gibbs led the campaign for the demolition of the infamous Cutteslowe walls. Olive drove the successful opposition to the demolition of the Jericho quarter of Oxford. She championed wide educational opportunities at the (then) Oxford College of Further Education and Oxford Polytechnic.

At an RAF dance in August 1945, there were cheers for the bombing of Hiroshima. Olive wrote that she ‘alone remained slumped in my seat, pale and trembling’. She became a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and its chair 1964-1967. Andrew Smith, MP for East Oxford 1987-2017, once commented that he learnt from Olive all the good arguments against nuclear weapons.

A member’s comment after Liz Woolley’s talk noted the universal respect for Olive Gibbs, even among supporters of other parties.

This was the History Club’s first meeting in the parish church. The sound system worked notably well. The heating had failed, but the church is confident it will work properly for the next meeting: 7.30 pm on 11 November, a talk by Richard Dudding on ‘Radley Large Wood: monks, deer, riots, canal and bluebells’.

September 2019: Hanging and escapes at Oxford Castle – Mark Davies

On 9 September, after Radley History Club’s usual brisk annual general meeting, Oxford historian and narrow-boat resident Mark Davies narrated gruesome tales about crimes and punishments at Oxford castle and prison.

In the 17th century, the gaolers ran the prison as a money-making family business, and you could be imprisoned for making ‘saucy and rash comparisons’ between your wife and ‘the best wives in the town’. In 1650, Anne Green was hanged, falsely accused of killing her stillborn child. As usual, her body was cut down to be used by medical students. They noticed she wasn’t dead. She revived and lived on until 1662.

Jack Ketch – the brutal executioner of Charles II’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth – was so infamous that he figured in Punch and Judy shows. Mr Punch protested that if he, Punch, was cruel to have murdered, then Ketch would be cruel to hang him; and then tricked Ketch to put his head in the noose.

In 1752 Mary Blandy was hanged for poisoning her father with arsenic. She claimed to have trusted her suitor that the powder was a love potion to make her father less hostile towards the intended marriage. In 1761 they hanged Isaac Darkin, a handsome and silver-tongued highwayman whose ‘sufferings made a deep impression on the tender hearts of the ladies’. In 1776 rewards were offered for the apprehension of two young women who had escaped from the by then dilapidated prison.

From 1787 Daniel Harris began an enlightened policy aimed at rehabilitating the prisoners, putting them to work in the prison, and helping build the Oxford Canal. Harris went on to become the architect of Abingdon gaol.

Responding to a question after his talk, Mark Davies confirmed that, according to at least one source, in 1142 Empress Matilda escaped from a snow-bound Oxford Castle camouflaged in a white cloak.

All these stories and many more are in Mark’s book, Stories of Oxford Castle.

The Club’s next meeting will be a talk by Liz Woolley on ‘Olive Gibbs, Oxford politician and peace campaigner’, at 7.30 pm on Monday 14 October, at Radley Church – the Club’s new venue for its speaker meetings. The church’s sound system has a hearing loop, and there is step-free access.