WHEATLEY Village History

Wheatley’s Early Days

Portion of Map of Oxfordshire
Portion of Map of Oxfordshire, Published for R. Davis, 1797

Reprinted from Wheatley Records, 956—1956, by agreement with the Oxfordshire Record Society.

The earliest settlement at Wheatley was originally on the high, downlike ground to the south of the present village, and Roman dwellings and Saxon burials have been found on both sides of Coombe wood. The memory of the upland settlement lingered until Elizabeth l’s reign, for Old Wheatley is marked on an estate map of All Souls. The valley settlement, originally part of the parish of Cuddesdon, was included in its boundaries as described in a charter of 956 and remained so until Wheatley became a separate parish nearly nine centuries later. From the time of St. Aethelwold until the dissolution of the monasteries the rents of Wheatley helped sustain the monks of Abingdon.

Archaeological remains suggest that in both Roman and Saxon times Cuddesdon and Wheatley formed separate communities, and air photography shows that Cuddesdon brook forms a marked natural boundary between them. Wheatley is not distinguished in Domesday Book, but it is a separate manor in the Inquisitions Post Mortem and was held separately from Cuddesdon by the service of castle guard at Windsor. In the Hundred Rolls and the subsidy rolls Wheatley and Cuddesdon are distinguished as vills and in the 1 7th century Wheatley had separate overseers of the poor; their records survive, alone in the county, for the Civil War. One aspect of Wheatley’s history is its growth in population and wealth compared with the mother parish and its gradual attainment of parochial independence. Indeed, prior to its inclusion in the Bullingdon rural district on its formation, Wheatley had an Urban District Council and the Bullingdon Hundred Court used to be held at Wheatley. The population not only grew but sent out more migrants than its neighbours, so that the name Wheatley is now more widely spread as a surname than are the names of larger places in Oxfordshire.

The name of Wheatley occurs in the ‘Chronicle of Abingdon’ in a charter granted by Henry I and means the ‘clearing (leah) where wheat is grown’.

The present village is situated where a Wheatley bridge is an early nineteenth century geological fault brings an outcrop of coralline stone into close juxtaposition with heavy clay. Wheatley has grown on the dry stone and has avoided the neighbouring Kimmeridge clay, a classical example of geological control. This unusual combination is reflected in the association of dry-stone walls and quickset hedges alongside the local architecture of stone walls and red tiled roofs and in sister industries of quarries and kilns. These have provided the stones of Merton, Windsor and Abingdon with other colleges, castles and ecclesiastical buildings; and also bricks for North Oxford and Didcot.

Wheatley grew up by the side of an important cross-country route which ignored the existence of Oxford and was called a “street” in 956 as if it had been paved. Wheatley lies west of the point where this route crossed the Thame at a ford to surmount a barrier of high ground and reach in some six miles a passage over the river Ray at Islip. This position made Wheatley an important post on the road from London to South Wales, and it is marked accordingly on many maps which omit as insignificant the old road to Oxford. Traffic fostered the rise of taverns, malsters, wheelwrights and smiths and brought into the village many strangers.

Wheatley bridge is an early nineteenth century successor of a bridge which is named the ‘pons de Harpesford’ in 1 228-9, though it already existed in Henry II’s reign. The increasing use of this road, familiar nowadays, was enough in the thirteenth century to prompt reconstruction in stone in 1286, and the appearance of the bridge has been recorded by Leland. This busy crossing was probably the major cause of the migration from the original settlement on the hill at Coombe, a development paralleled elsewhere in the period. Occasional finds of casting counters are tangible remains of mercantile traffic, apart from the royal cavalcades which passed between Westminster and Woodstock.

A riverside position on the eastern approaches to royalist headquarters made Wheatley often figure in civil war records as a scene of skirmishes; it was a frontier point in the Treaty of Uxbridge and overcrowded billets brought typhus. Henry V’s torchlight procession over Shotover to Oxford, the transit of Queen Elizabeth in pomp or as a prisoner princess hurrying past a sympathetic populace in 1554, and the reception of Charles II by militia and gentry on his way to open the Oxford parliament in 1681 were forgotten; but Cromwell’s name is more deeply imprinted in local memory than that of any other ruler.

Proximity to Oxford meant little until the 20th century. Wheatley was midway between Oxford and Thame and at times had its own cattle market. The shops were well stocked, the village tailors served the neighbouring gentry, and the inadequacy of acres to support a large agricultural population was offset by the presence of various trades such as fellmonger, cooper, tobacco-pipe-maker and the processing of ochre and timber. The road to Oxford was unimportant except as a place for pillage, and apart from the sermons of graduate curates in the chapel of ease, the transit of university men in the coaches and Oxford’s proximity as a market for meat, the main link with the university city was the rough village sports which attracted the more dissolute undergraduates in the early 19th century. After the railway came in 1864 the Oxford road was almost deserted except by tramps, until the internal combustion engine brought to Wheatley residents who work in Oxford and like to drive with the sun behind them.

High ground separates Oxford from the Thame. Traffic must surmount this, and at various times different routes have seemed best, sometimes by-passing Wheatley High Street on the south, sometimes on the north. One way from the bridge to Shotover is shown on an Elizabethan map at All Souls as skirting the southern edge of the parish, and the Ridgeway past the old windmill is called the Old Turnpike in a mid-l9th century sale catalogue.

An important forgotten road left the present A40 just west of the bridge by the ‘Plough Inn’ to approach the east of the old village, past the former ‘Crown’ coaching inn, by the cul-de-sac which was called Muddy Lane until the Council inaccurately renamed it Roman Road. Another forgotten road is marked on the Elizabethan map and has left its imprint on the village in the curves of Kiln Lane and West Field Road. These converge in a cul-de-sac at the west end of the village but used to lead into a way across West Field to Forest Hill.

Church Road, called the Backside even after the church was built on its present site above the old village, enabled wheeled traffic to avoid the brook along the High Street. Its influence on trade is reflected by the inn signs, at the upper ends of the back gardens of the ‘King and Queen’ and the ‘White Hart’. The houses along Church Road are therefore later than the original ones in the High Street, where the 17th century nucleus of the village lined a road which had only been adequate for packhorse traffic.

W. 0. Hassall

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