A History of Didcot by Brian Lingham
Welcome to section on Didcot's History, written by local historian, Brian Lingham. If you have any photos of Didcot from both the recent and distant past then please get in touch as we would really like to add them to this page. Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Didcot has a remote antiquity, one that stretches back over the past two thousand or more years. At the time of the Roman Conquest, the future parish was probably an area of part farmland, wood and marsh, but the greater emphasis was on marsh; which comprised practically half of the future Didcot. This marshland, which covered the low-lying land to the north of the modern railway, stretched from Sutton Courtenay in the west, (where it was known as Sutton Moor, a wild and desolate place, in later centuries), to Didcot, known simply as the Marsh, and further east as East Hagbourne Marsh. It continued on to Fulscott and the Moretons. It was this marsh that decided that the first and all subsequent settlements should be sited on a well-watered wooded ridge that arose from the marsh. It's very probable that Didcot is one of the earliest settlements in this immediate area.
Today, the parish church (which sits on the highest point) and the houses and streets of the old village still straddle the southern incline of that ridge. The first settlement was Iron Age in origin, which after the conquest became Romano-British; though it is impossible to say how large or for how long this community existed. The evidence of pottery found seems to suggest an existence to the second and third centuries. Several hundred-pottery shards have been found plus other material, a coffin, coins and a bronze brooch in a field that lies immediately east of the church.
A Saxon settlement including a Manor followed, dating to the 7th or 8th centuries. This farm or early village, however, was called Wibaldeston or 'Wigbald's farm', not Didcot; and it is this place name that appears in the entry in the Domesday Inquest of 1086. The name passed from use in about 1200 in favour of Didcot. Therefore Didcot is probably a late Saxon name, being derived from 'Dydda's or Dudda's cot' or cottage, and very probably post-dates the Norman Conquest. The village, until recent times, up to the end of the 19th century, was known as Dudcot or Dudcote.
After the Norman Conquest Didcot passed to Henry de Ferrers, one of William the Conqueror's chief barons. He, in turn, gave Didcot to Nigel de Albini, his son in law, who was Lord of the Honour of Cainhoe, in Bedfordshire. Nigel held this great Honour, which was centred on the castle at Cainhoe. Nigel's grandson, Robert, who held the Honour in 1140, became a supporter of King Stephen during that most bloody and ferocious civil war between Queen Matilda and the latter. The Upper Thames valley, owing to the strategic value of the castles at Wallingford and Oxford, became an important military centre. Didcot, and most other local villages, suffered heavily during the course of this war. One authority dates the nave walls of All Saints' church to c1160; and it may well be that the church mentioned in Domesday, and the village were destroyed during the course of the war. The explanation lies in the military situation of the area: Wallingford Castle was held by Brien Fitzcount for Queen Matilda, and to maintain the castle in a position of strength the surrounding countryside had to be raided for supplies. The castle was also besieged several times, living at Didcot before 1300 could be hazardous!
In 1006 the Danes raided up through the Upper Thames Valley sacking Abingdon; then there was the Conquest with its violent changes; in 1214 Wallingford Castle was held under arms for King John during the troubles with his Barons. Later, in 1265, defeated Montfortians, (followers of Simon de Montfort) fleeing from the Battle of Evesham, raided several manors, including Didcot, for supplies.
In 1155, Robert de Albini, for the heinous crime of throwing and hitting the future Henry II with a stone at the siege of Bedford Castle, was forced to give up Didcot, which was then granted to Hugh de Mara, a minor baron. He received the manor for services rendered to Queen Matilda and her son, Henry II, during the same war. His family held the manor until c 1237 when it passed to Andrew le Blunt, the son of a rich London merchant who married the de Mara heiress, Elena. After the death of Andrew in 1257, the widow married David de Uffington, who later was one of the Montfortians mentioned above. He, after Evesham, became a rebel and outlaw, being the leader of one of the great bands that roamed and raided southern England. One historian considers that the legend of Robin Hood was born of these troubled times, based on the exploits of these outlaw bands, especially those of Adam Gurdon and De Uffington.
The Stonor Family
The manor by 1300, and after the death of de Uffington, had passed to Hugh le Blunt, Andrew's second son. He, too, was a soldier, serving in the campaigns of Edward I in Wales and Scotland; and fought at Bannockburn in 1314. Hugh sold the manor in 1317 to the Stonor family of Stonor Park, Oxfordshire, but continued as the Stonor's tenant. The same family, now as Camoys, (Lord Camoys) still live at Stonor Park.
The Stonor's owned Didcot from 1317 to 1671; and it was the they who were responsible for many of the decisively important events that shaped Didcot's history during the 14th to 17th centuries. The first of these was the abolition of villeinage or serfdom, which by 1417 had disappeared from Didcot. This development did not happen at any one point but was phased out gradually during the second half of the 14th century. The Black Death was probably a factor as it reduced the population of Didcot by about half.
The landscape of Didcot during this early period was completely different from that of today. Instead of the modern enclosed fields, there were three large open areas, known as West, South and North Fields. The land was farmed communally, divided into acre or half acre strips. West Field lay to west of Foxhall Road, South Field between Lydalls Road and Broadway, and bordered in the west by Foxhall Road and ended near Riches Sidings. North Field was sited north of the present railway. To the west of North Field lay the common meadow, where winter hay was grown. Didcot's common was the Marsh, an area of 183 acres, where the tenants of the manor communally grazed their cattle. This lay between North Field, and the Abingdon Road. On the Down Ridge beyond Abingdon Road was sited Didcot's wood, the Hadden.
Many of today's roads were laid down originally as access roads to these differing parts of the manor, Foxhall Road, for instance was both the connection from the village to the King's Highway (today's Wantage Road-Broadway) and to the Common Meadow, that part of the road then known then as the Medway. Lydalls Road connected the village to North Field, the Marsh and to the Haddon. Park Road and Hagbourne-New Road also were earlier access roads to the East Hagbourne's open fields.
The 16th century was thus another period of great change for Didcot as wholesale enclosure of much of this open land and commons took place, and it was the Stonor's, Sir Walter in 1539 and Sir Francis in 1611-12, who were mainly responsible. Then there was Rice Griffin, another lord of the manor, it was he, in 1597, who enclosed Didcot Marsh; and Sir Francis was responsible for the enclosure of North Field. Sir Walter had earlier enclosed a large area of land called The Frith; this lay next to the Meadow.
It was, therefore, in the best interests of these lords to enclose as much of this land as possible, thereby gaining rent for its use. The former fields (now the site of the Ladygrove Housing Estate) to the north of the railway were the result of those 16th and 17th century enclosures. But the villagers did not take too kindly to the enclosures, and reacted strongly, with an outcome in 1539 and 1597, of conflict and violence. The two incidents eventually came to notice of the Court of Star Chamber, at Westminster.
Amid these times of economic upheaval and uncertainty, a yeoman class emerged made of a limited number of prosperous tenant farmers. These men, such as Edward Dew, were ably astute, fully equipped to make the most of the opportunities that enclosure and the times presented. This class, after 1550, consisted of the families of the Dews, Sawyers or Sayers, Blakes, Champes, Taylors, Tyrrolds, Smiths and Boulters. Several of these families, one after the other, rose to pre-eminence over the following three centuries, the Dews in the early 17th, the Sayers in the late 17th, the Blakes in the 18th and the Taylors during the 19th centuries. And it was they who built the majority of the period houses of old Didcot, which still exist today. Manor and Smiths Farmhouses in Foxhall Road were built respectively by the Blakes and Taylors. Monumental inscriptions to several members of these families are found in All Saints Church (right).
Didcot has a slight connection with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Robert Wintour, one of the conspirators, held a mortgage on the manor. After his impeachment and execution, the mortgage and Didcot were forfeited under feudal law by the Crown though Sir Francis Stonor.
English Civil War
The Civil War also touched Didcot, especially after the two Battles of Newbury, for the parish register records that the death rate rose dramatically during 1643 and 1645. Again, as at the time of the Civil War of the 12th century, Didcot and the surrounding villages, found themselves right in the middle, between the Parliamentarians and Royalist forces at Wallingford Castle and Abingdon, with cavalry troops, from both sides, pillaging the villages for supplies. In May 1644, the Earl of Essex with an army of 10,000 then on his way to capture Oxford from the Royalists, camped at East Hagbourne and it is very probable that some of these men were quartered in Didcot village.
The Stonor's were and are one of the great Catholic families of England. But devotion to the old faith after the Reformation of the 16th century and during the early 17th century was dangerous, unlawful and highly expensive. Their crime was recusancy, or failure to obey the religious laws of the State, was punishable by fines and imprisonment. Thus, the fines owed by their wilful refusal to adhere to the law became impossibly heavy. From 1610-1620, and especially during the Commonwealth, the manor of Didcot, generally, was held by the State, seized in lieu of fines. The process of converting land tenures, from earlier copyholds (i.e. held by a copy of the entry in the manorial court rolls) to leases was certainly started as early as c1610. After the Restoration the Stonor's regained control and finally finished the process of selling off the freehold to land and houses, to their former leasehold tenants, the Blakes and Sayers and by outsiders such as Robert Lydall and Robert Jennings.
This large-scale sale of land had three decided results: first, it destroyed the manor as a viable organisation, which afterwards had little say in the affairs of the parish (though afterwards there were still lords of the manor); secondly, it removed the small tenant farmer from Didcot; leaving only large landowners; and, thirdly, it was ultimately responsible for the creation, especially after c1720, of a working class which eventually comprised nearly 90% of the population. The next 170 years passed without notable incident.
In 1841 Didcot was separated from its medieval past, when the open field system was enclosed. The three great open fields, its meadow and common had existed in roughly the same form since Saxon times. The seven landowners divided up Didcot between them; even removing the trees from Hadden wood, which from c1600 and up to that time had been Didcot's common. As usual, the group to suffer most was the working class for they lost the right to gather wood from the Hadden, a right which was converted into a coal charity, a very poor substitute. This charity still exists.
Another event, which occurred at the same time, but one that was far more decisive in the long term was the arrival of the Great Western Railway, laid down through Didcot in 1839. But the decisive act was not the laying down of the line but the siting at Didcot of the Branch Junction to Oxford and the erection of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's covered station of 1844. It was these two events that established Didcot as an important junction and created the basic conditions for future growth. Without them, Didcot would still be a small village.
The railway soon created Didcot's first housing problem as the railwaymen and their families began the search for accommodation. This need, and its satisfaction, was responsible indirectly for an alteration in the physical appearance of the village when many of the earlier half-timbered cottages were demolished to make way for brick-built Victorian tenements. This occurred during the decades 1840-1870. The two hotels at the station were also built during the 1850's. But this limited housing provision did not ease the problem, which still existed in the 1860's.
However, if a need exists, there is always someone ready to satisfy the demand. Such a man was Stephen Dixon, an East Hagbourne farmer. It was he that began the urban housing development of Didcot New Town or North Hagbourne, which later became known as Northbourne. This had previously been anticipated in 1863 by the building of two terraces of five cottages known respectively as Marsh Cottages and Railway Terrace, sited next to former Marsh Bridge.
The first eight houses of Northbourne were built in 1868 on land sold by Stephen Dixon. These fronted the south side of what was then known as Wallingford Road, now Lower Broadway, between High Street and Mereland Road. Then came two large groups of cottages in Church Street, built c 1870-71 by Dixon, one of which, on the south side, was called 'Dixon's Row'. The other streets were laid down in the 1870's and 80's and given the modern road names in 1897. In 1880, the Northbourne development consisted of 65 houses; of which Dixon owned 20, the other 45 by 15 owners of whom the largest owned eight. By 1900, Northbourne was practically complete within the confines of its eight streets.
By 1910, the demand for houses no longer existed. This must be the explanation for the abandonment during that decade of two large housing schemes, one of which was to have covered all the land between Foxhall Road and Station Road.
A 1913 survey of the Wallingford Rural District Council area found that a housing need existed in the villages rather than at Didcot. However, the 1914-18 War, and the subsequent establishment of the Army Barracks and Ordnance Depot soon upset this happy state.
The Army Influx
Before the arrival of the Army the physical appearance of Didcot was this: the Railway Station, and the hotels and other buildings immediately opposite; the Provender Store (now demolished) and the two lines; then to the south-west the ancient village of Didcot; down the west side of Station Hill or Road were the GWR houses and north of them the terrace of cottages known as the 'Barracks' (now the site of a supermarket) opposite to the old 'White Hart'. Each was separated from the other by farmland. On the other side of the Wallingford Road, then situated in the parish of East Hagbourne, was Northbourne, which in turn was separated by farmland from East and West Hagbourne. There were no other large groups of buildings except for the odd barn or the Wheatsheaf Inn.
The influx of workers brought to Didcot by the Army in droves during the First World War was soon to alter this quiet rural appearance, and in a drastic way. Thus it was the Army, and not the Railway, that fashioned the modern Didcot we know today. Growth emanating from the Railway had practically ceased by 1914. Before the outbreak of war, the Railway was the main employer with agriculture the secondary source. The Army soon became the third and in time the largest employer, especially during the inter-war years. This influx quickly created another acute housing crisis.
The Wallingford Rural District Council, responding to the demand in the years 1920-27, erected a large estate, that of Wessex, Kynaston, Vicarage, St. Peter's, and St. Andrew's Roads. Then, in 1928-29 came the first of the large private estates, the Georgetown Garden City Estate, originally erected for Army employees and centred on Foxhall and Wantage Roads and Glyn Avenue. Other private housing followed in the early 1930's: the Norreys Road, Park Close Estate; Colbourne, Park and Wantage Roads; the Aldworth Estates of Oxford Crescent, Abingdon Terrace, Collingwood and Drake Avenues; The Vestas of Bowness Road etc; Sherwood Road, Pixton Close and the Haydon Road Estate. This sudden population increase soon brought an extension of those commercial services that people in the modern world expect and demand - schools, shops and entertainment.
Before 1925, Broadway west of Station Road was a quiet residential road. Most shops were located in Northbourne, at the Station or in the old village. The establishment of the Broadway as Didcot's shopping centre began in the mid 1920's and gathered momentum during the early 30's. One of the first shops in the upper part of the road was a tin shack, known as 'Annie Barber's', this was followed by the shop later known as 'Hows', now one half of Peacock's Store. The main period of building was between 1933-37 when the Broadway Arcade, Jenkins, Currys, the Co-op, Smiths and Boots Corner were built. The first cinema was erected in 1927 and replaced by the present one (Coronet Bingo Hall) in 1933. There was an increase in the number of clubs and public houses. The Marlborough Club, Royal Oak, Wallingford Arms and the new White Hart (now Broadways) were erected between 1927 and 1935.
Spiritual and educational needs were not neglected during the urban development of the 30's. Before 1868 the only churches in the immediate area were All Saints' at Didcot and St. Andrew's at East Hagbourne. With the building of Northbourne, the earlier St. Peter's Church, the primitive Methodist chapel (on the site of Lay's former shop), in 1868 and the Weslyan church in 1903 were established. Baptist and Catholic churches followed. There had been a school at Didcot from 1847 in the old Rectory Cottages in Lydall's Road, which was replaced in 1896 by Manor School. Then the Didcot Senior Mixed School in late 1931 and the Senior Boys' School in Hagbourne Field in 1935 were established. The earlier church school, in Church Street, Northbourne was erected in 1877 and later demolished in 1970s.
The erection of Northbourne had presented some difficulties, especially with the management of local government. The development was not generically part of village, Didcot or East Hagbourne. The railwaymen and their families could not share in the traditions of these-villages, nor were they culturally linked. The common culture that the railwaymen with their families shared together was that of the city and its life. They had, for instance, no respect for the squire, the lord of the manor or the local clergy, Rector or Vicar. Consequently, these relative newcomers were disliked heartily by villagers from all adjacent villages. Superficially, of course, Northbourne was linked through the railway to Didcot; and felt a greater affinity towards that parish rather than to East Hagbourne. This anomaly was finally resolved in 1935, after several false starts, when parts of the parishes of East and West Hagbourne were amalgamated with Didcot, and its boundaries were extended south to their present limit.
The war years were relatively uneventful, the town was little affected by direct acts of war. No bombs fell, despite the proximity of the two Depots, Army and RAF, and the fighter airfields at Harwell and Abingdon; although there was one raid in November 1940 on the Milton Depot.
Didcot and the surrounding area became a refuge for hundreds of evacuees from London during the war years. There was once again a large influx of troops and four temporary camps were established in the area around the old cinema, for their accommodation. The ending of the war did not ease the problem as many elected to stay on at Didcot. These early post-war years also saw the establishment of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. Housing, once again, became the problem of the Wallingford Rural District Council during the period 1945-55.
The first of the many post-war housing estates were all public, those of Sinodun Road, The Croft, Newlands Avenue, Fairacres Road, Queensway, Barnes Road, Glebe Road and Edinburgh Drive, all built between 1947and the early 1950s. Large-scale private building was restricted due to the scarcity of building licences and materials so it was not until the mid 1950's that the first of these estates were built, Meadow Way in 1956. But other, even larger, estates followed in the years 1959 to 1965, Brasenose, Loyd, Cockcroft and Portway. A development of the 1970's was the Fleetway Estate. As in the 1930's this further population increases brought improvements to the Broadway Shopping centre. By 1962 this had been remodelled with many of the earlier residential houses replaced by the modern shops.
Commenced during the 1960's, and completed, in the early 1970s, was the Didcot Power Station for the CEGB. The 200 OMW coal-fired station: its chimneys and cooling towers serve as a distant beacon for the weary homecoming traveller.
The future for Didcot is even more growth with planned developments to south west and north of the town. With these people and houses has come fresh commercial development such as the Orchard Centre, and improved services, both public and private.