History of Otmoor

This is an extract of Dunkins History of Oxfordshire.  John Dunkin (1792-1846) who was born in Bicester but spent most of his adult life as a bookseller, printer and stationer in Kent.



The Village Labourer
1760-1832: A Study in the Government of England before the Reform Bill
by J.L. and Barbara Hammond
Originally published 1911
New Edition, 1920.

Otmoor is described in Dunkin’s History of Oxfordshire, as a ‘dreary and extensive common.’ Tradition said that the tract of land was the gift of some mysterious lady ‘who gave as much ground as she could ride round while an oat-sheaf was burning, to the inhabitants of its vicinity for a public common,’ and hence came its name of Oatmoor, corrupted into Otmoor. Whatever the real origin of the name, which more prosaic persons connected with ‘Oc,’ a Celtic word for ‘water,’ this tract of land had been used as a ‘public common without stint… from remote antiquity.’ Lord Abingdon, indeed, as Lord of the Manor of Beckley, claimed and exercised the right of appointing a moor-driver, who at certain seasons drove all the cattle into Beckley, where those which were unidentified became Lord Abingdon’s property. Lord Abingdon also claimed rights of soil and of sport: these, like his other claim, were founded on prescription only, as there was no trace of any grant from the Crown.

The use to which Otmoor, in its original state, was put, is thus described by Dunkin. ‘Whilst this extensive piece of land remained unenclosed, the farmers of the several adjoining townships estimated the profits of a summer’s pasturage at 20s. per head, subject to the occasional loss of a beast by a peculiar distemper called the moor-evil. But the greatest benefit was reaped by the cottagers, many of whom turned out large numbers of geese, to which the coarse aquatic sward was well suited, and thereby brought up their families in comparative plenty.

‘Of late years, however, this dreary waste was surveyed with longing eyes by the surrounding landowners, most of whom wished to annex a portion of it to their estates, and in consequence spared no pains to recommend the enclosure as a measure beneficial to the country.’

The promoters of the enclosure credited themselves with far loftier motives: prominent among them being a desire to improve the morals of the poor. An advocate of the enclosure afterwards described the pitiable state of the poor in pre-enclosure days in these words: ‘In looking after a brood of goslings, a few rotten sheep, a skeleton of a cow or a mangy horse, they lost more than they might have gained by their day’s work, and acquired habits of idleness and dissipation and a dislike to honest labour, which has rendered them the riotous and lawless set of men which they have now shown themselves to be.’ A pious wish to second the intention of Providence was also a strong incentive: ‘God did not create the earth to lie waste for feeding a few geese, but to be cultivated by man, in the sweat of his brow.'(23*)

The first proposal for enclosure came to Parliament from George, Duke of Marlborough, and others on 11th March, 1801. The duke petitioned for the drainage and the allotment of the 4000 acres of Otmoor among the parishes concerned, namely Beckley (with Horton and Studley), Noke, Oddington, and Charlton (with Fencott and Moorcott). This petition was referred to a Committee, to consider amongst other things, whether the Standing Orders with reference to drainage Bills had been duly complied with. The Committee reported in favour of allowing the introduction of the Bill, but made this remarkable admission, that though the Standing Orders with respect to the affixing of notices on church doors had been complied with on Sunday, 3rd August, ‘it appeared to the Committee that on the following Sunday, the 10th of August, the Person employed to affix the like Notices was prevented from so doing at Beckley, Oddington and Charlton, by a Mob at each Place, but that he read the Notices to the Persons assembled, and afterwards threw them amongst them into the Church Yards of those Parishes.’ Notice was duly affixed that Sunday at Noke. The next Sunday matters were even worse, for no notices were allowed to be fixed in any parish.

The Bill that was introduced in spite of this local protest, was shipwrecked during its Committee stage by a petition from Alexander Croke, LL.D., Lord of the Manor of Studley with Whitecross Green, and from John Mackaness, Esq., who stated that as proprietors in the parish of Beckley, their interests had not been sufficiently considered.

The next application to Parliament was not made till 1814. In the interval various plans were propounded, and Arthur Young, in his Survey of Oxfordshire for the Board of Agriculture, published in 1809 (a work which Dunkin describes as supported by the farmers and their landlords and as having caught their strain), lamented the wretched state of the land. ‘I made various inquiries into the present value of it by rights of commonage; but could ascertain no more than the general fact, of its being to a very beggarly amount…. Upon the whole, the present produce must be quite contemptible, when compared with the benefit which would result from enclosing it. And I cannot but remark, that such a tract of waste land in summer, and covered the winter through with water, to remain in such a state, within five miles of Oxford and the Thames, in a kingdom that regularly imports to the amount of a million sterling in corn, and is almost periodically visited with apprehensions of want — is a scandal to the national policy…. If drained and enclosed, it is said that no difficulty would occur in letting it at 30s. per acre, and some assert even 40s.’ (p. 228).

When the new application was made in November 1814, it was again referred to a Committee, who again had to report turbulent behaviour in the district concerned. Notices had been fixed on all the church doors on 7th August, and on three doors on 14th August, ‘but it was found impracticable to affix the Notices on the Church doors of the other two Parishes on that day, owing to large Mobs, armed with every description of offensive weapons, having assembled for the prose of obstructing the persons who went to affix the Notices, and who were prevented by violence, and threats of immediate death, from approaching the Churches.'(24*) From the same cause no notices could be affixed on these two church doors on 21st or 28th August.

These local disturbances were not allowed to check the career of the Bill. It was read a first time on 21st February, and a second time on 7th March. But meanwhile some serious flaws had been discovered. The Duke of Marlborough and the Earl of Abingdon both petitioned against it. The Committee, however, were able to introduce amendments that satisfied both these powerful personages, and on 1st May Mr. Fane reported from the Committee that no persons had appeared for the said petitions, and that the parties concerned had consented to the satisfaction of the Committee, and had also consented ‘to the changing the Commissioners therein named.’ Before the Report had been passed, however, a petition was received on behalf of Alexander Croke,(25*) Esq., who was now in Nova Scotia, which made further amendments necessary, and the Committee was empowered to send for persons, papers and records. Meanwhile the humbler individuals whose future was imperiled were also bestirring themselves. They applied to the Keeper of the Records in the Augmentation Office for a report on the history of Otmoor. This Report, which is published at length by Dunkin,(26*) states that in spite of laborious research no mention of Otmoor could be found in any single record from the time of William the Conqueror to the present day. Even Doomsday Book contained no reference to it. Nowhere did it appear in what manor Otmoor was comprehended, nor was there any record that any of the lords of neighbouring manors had ever been made capable of enjoying any rights of common upon it. The custom of usage without stint, in fact, pointed to some grant before the memory of man, and made it unlikely that any lord of the manor had ever had absolute right of soil. Armed, no doubt, with this learned report, some ‘Freeholders, Landholders, Cottagers and Persons’ residing in four parishes sent up a petition asking to be heard against the Bill. But they were too late: their petition was ordered to lie on the Table, and the Bill passed the Commons the same day (26th June) and received the Royal Assent on 12th July.

The Act directed that one-sixteenth of the whole (which was stated to be over 4000 acres) should be given to the Lord of the Manor of Beckley, Lord Abingdon, in compensation of his rights of soil, and one-eighth as composition for all tithes. Thus Lord Abingdon received, to start with, about 750 acres. The residue was to be allotted among the various parishes, townships and hamlets, each allotment to be held as a common pasture for the township. So far, beyond the fact that Lord Abingdon had taken off more than a sixth part of their common pasture, and that the pasture was now divided up into different parts, it did not seem that the ordinary inhabitants were much affected. The sting lay in the arrangements for the future of these divided common pastures. ‘And if at any future time the major part in value of the several persons interested in such plot or parcels of land, should require a separate division of the said land, he (the commissioner) is directed to divide and allot the same among the several proprietors, in proportion to their individual rights and interests therein.’

We have, fortunately, a very clear statement of the way in which the ‘rights and interests’ of the poorer inhabitants of the Otmoor towns were regarded in the enclosure. These inhabitants, it must be remembered, had enjoyed rights of common without any stint from time immemorial, simply by virtue of living in the district. In a letter from ‘An Otmoor Proprietor’ to the Oxford papers in 1830, the writer (Sir Alexander Croke himself?), who was evidently a man of some local importance, explains that by the general rule of law a commoner is not entitled to turn on to the common more cattle than are sufficient to manure and stock the land to which the right of common is annexed. Accordingly, houses without land attached to them cannot, strictly speaking, claim a right of common. How then explain the state of affairs at Otmoor, where all the inhabitants, landed or landless, enjoyed the same rights? By prescription, he answers, mere houses do in point of fact sometimes acquire a right of common, but this right, though it may be said to be without stint, is in reality always liable to be stinted by law. Hence, when a common like Otmoor is enclosed, the allotments are made as elsewhere in proportion to the amount of land possessed by each commoner, whist a ‘proportionable share’ is thrown in to those who own mere houses. But even this share, he points out, does not necessarily belong to the person who has been exercising the right of common, unless he happens to own his own house. It belongs to his landlord, who alone is entitled to compensation. A superficial observer might perhaps think this a hardship, but in point of fact it is quite just. The tenants, occupying the houses, must have been paying a higher rent in consideration of the right attached to the houses, and they have always been liable to be turned out by the landlord at will. ‘They had no permanent interest, and it has been decided by the law that no man can have any right in any common, as belonging to a house, wherein he has no interest but only habitation: so that the poor, as such, had no right to the common whatever.’

The results of the Act, framed and administered on these lines, were described by Dunkin, writing in 1823, as follows: ‘It now only remains to notice the effect of the operation of this act. On the division of the land allotted to the respective townships, a certain portion was assigned to each cottager in lieu of his accustomed commonage, but the delivery of the allotment did not take place, unless the party to whom it was assigned paid his share of the expenses incurred in draining and dividing the waste: and he was also further directed to enclose the same with a fence. The poverty of the cottager in general prevented his compliance with these conditions, and he was necessitated to sell his share for any paltry sum that was offered. In the spring of 1819, several persons at Charlton and elsewhere made profitable speculations by purchasing these commons for £5 each, and afterwards prevailing on the commissioners to throw them into one lot; thus forming a valuable estate. In this way was Otmoor lost to the poor man, and awarded to the rich, under the specious idea of benefitting the public.’ The expenses of the Act, it may be mentioned, came to something between £20,000 and £30,000, or more than the fee-simple of the soil.

‘Enclosed Otmoor did not fulfil Arthur Young’s hopes:… instead of the expected improvement in the quality of the soil, it has been rendered almost totally worthless; a great proportion being at this moment over-rated at 5s. an acre yearly rent, few crops yielding any more than barely sufficient to pay for labour and seed.'(31*) This excess of expenses over profits was adduced by the ‘Otmoor proprietor,’ to whom we have already referred, as an frustration of the public-spirited self-sacrifice of the enclosers, who were paying out of their own pockets for a national benefit, and by making some, at any rate, of the land capable of cultivation, were enabling the poor to have ‘an honest employment, instead of losing their time in idleness and waste.’ But fifteen years of this ‘honest employment’ failed to reconcile the poor to their new position, and in 1830 they were able to express their feelings in a striking manner.

In the course of his drainage operations, the commissioner had made a new channel for the river Ray, at a higher level, with the disastrous result that the Ray overflowed into a valuable tract of low land above Otmoor. For two years the farmers of this tract suffered severe losses (one farmer was said to have lost £400 in that time), then they took the law into their own hands, and in June 1829 cut the embankments, so that the waters of the Ray again flowed over Otmoor and left their valuable land unharmed. Twenty-two farmers were indicted for felony for this act, but they were acquitted at the Assizes, under the direction of Mr. Justice Parke, on the grounds that the farmers had a right to abate the nuisance, and that the commissioner had exceeded his powers in making this new channel and embankment.

This judgment produced a profound impression on the Otmoor farmers and cottagers. They misread it to mean that all proceedings under the Enclosure Act were illegal and therefore null and void, and they determined to regain their lost privileges. Disturbances began at the end of August (28th August). For about a week, straggling parties of enthusiasts paraded the moor, cutting down fences here and there. A son of Sir Alexander Croke came out to one of these parties and ordered them to desist. He had a loaded pistol with him, and the moor-men, thinking, rightly or wrongly, that he was going to fire, wrested it from him and gave him a severe thrashing. Matters began to look serious: local sympathy with the rioters was so strong that special constables refused to be sworn in; the High Sheriff accordingly summoned the Oxfordshire Militia, and Lord Churchill’s troop of Yeomanry Cavalry was sent to Islip. But the inhabitants were not overawed. They determined to perambulate the bounds of Otmoor in full force, in accordance with the old custom. On Monday, 6th September, five hundred men, women and children assembled from the Otmoor towns, and they were joined by five hundred more from elsewhere. Armed with reap-hook, hatchets, bill-hooks and duckets, they marched in order round the seven-mile-long boundary of Otmoor, destroying all the fences on their way. By noon their work of destruction was finished. ‘A farmer in the neighbourhood who witnessed the scene gives a ludicrous description of the zeal and perseverance of the women and children as well as the men, and the ease and composure with which they waded through depths of mud and water and overcame every obstacle in their march. He adds that he did not hear any threatening expressions against any person or his property, and he does not believe any individuals present entertained any feeling or wish beyond the assertion of what they conceived (whether correctly or erroneously) to be their prescriptive and inalienable right, and of which they speak precisely as the freemen of Oxford would describe their right to Port Meadow.’

By the time the destruction of fences was complete, Lord Churchill’s troop of yeomanry came up to the destroying band: the Riot Act was read, but the moormen refused to disperse. Sixty or seventy of them were thereupon seized and examined, with the result that forty-four were sent off to Oxford Gaol in wagons, under an escort of yeomanry. Now it happened to be the day of St. Giles’ Fair, and the street of St. Giles, along which the yeomanry brought their prisoners, was crowded with countryfolk and townsfolk, most of whom held strong views on the Otmoor question. The men in the wagons raised the cry ‘Otmoor for ever,’ the crowd took it up, and attacked the yeomen with great violence, hurling brickbats, stones and stick at them from every side. The yeomen managed to get their prisoners as far as the turning down Beaumont Street, but there they were overpowered, and all forty-four prisoners escaped. At Otmoor itself peace now reigned. Through the broken fences cattle were turned in to graze on all the enclosures, and the villagers even appointed a herdsman to look after them. The inhabitants of the seven Otmoor towns formed an association called ‘the Otmoor Association,’ which boldly declared that ‘the Right of Common on Otmoor was always in the inhabitants, and that a non-resident proprietor had no Right of Common thereon,’ and determined to raise subscriptions for legal expenses in defence of their right, calling upon ‘the pecuniary aid of a liberal and benevolent public… to assist them in attempting to restore Otmoor once more to its original state.

Meanwhile the authorities who had lost their prisoners once, sent down a stronger force to take them next time, and although at the Oxford City Sessions a bill of indictment against William Price and others for riot in St. Giles and rescue of the prisoners was thrown out, at the County Sessions the Grand Jury found a true Bill against the same William Price and others for the same offence, and also against Cooper and others for riot at Otmoor. The prisoners were tried at the Oxford Assizes next month, before Mr. Justice Bosanquet and Sir John Patteson. The jury returned a verdict which shows the strength of public opinion. ‘We find the defendants guilty of having been present at an unlawful assembly on the 6th September at Otmoor, but it is the unanimous wish of the Jury to recommend all the parties to the merciful consideration of the Court.’ The judges responded to this appeal and the longest sentence inflicted was for months’ imprisonment

The original enclosure was now fifteen years old, but Otmoor was still in rebellion, and the Home Office Papers of the next two years contain frequent applications for troops from Lord Macclesfield, Lord-Lieutenant, Sir AlexanderCroke and other magistrates. Whenever there was a full moon, the patriots of the moor turned out and pulled down the fences. How strong was the local resentment of the overriding of all the rights and traditions of the commoners may be seen not only from the language of one magistrate writing to Lord Melbourne in January 1832: ‘all the towns in the neighborhood of Otmoor are more or less infected with the feelings of the most violent, and cannot at all be depended on:’ but also from a resolution passed by the magistrates at Oxford in February of that year, declaring that no constabulary force that the magistrates could raise would be equal to suppressing the Otmoor outrages, and asking for soldiers. The appeal ended with this significant warning: ‘Any force which Government may send down should not remain for a length of time together, but that to avoid the possibility of an undue connexion between the people and the Military, a succession of troops should be observed.’ So long and so bitter was the civil war roused by an enclosure which Parliament had sanctioned in absolute disregard of the opinions or the traditions or the circumstances of the mass of the people it affected.