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The Parsons Years

View the Oxford Times article on the Parsons Family >>
June 2011 issue, pp. 31-35 (free registration)

The Parsons Family:




Road through Elsfield
Road through Elsfield

During the course of the 19th century increasing urbanisation created a profound nostalgia among the middle classes for the countryside of their childhood where they could perhaps, as Lowe expresses it, “re-create a sense of community and human solidarity from the dislocation and fragmentation wrought by industrialisation”. The bourgeoisie of nineteenth century England, having made their money in industry or banking, began to take on the values of the gentry, where wealth was not the only motivator, but where an appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of the countryside was important and where a love of Nature was presented, in literature at least, as a transcendental experience which fed people’s spiritual needs.

Herbert Parsons who was a partner in the Old Bank in the High Street in Oxford, and who moved to Elsfield in the middle of the nineteenth century may or may not have appreciated the beauties of Nature but he was certainly in love with country living. He and his wife Louisa, moved into Elsfield Manor in the 1850s soon after their marriage in 1851, leasing the property from the North family, who owned the parish but were absentee landlords. Both Herbert Parsons and his wife came from banking families. Louisa was Herbert’s first cousin, having been born a Thomson and the Thomson and Parsons families ran the Old Bank, in the High Street in Oxford, having been associated with it since 1776, when a certain John Parsons, a mercer, teamed up with another mercer, William Fletcher of Broad Street, to provide banking services to their customers. The Thomson family, also living in Broad Street, had a variety of trades including cabinet making and gun smithing. They seem to have become involved in the banking business through marriage and inheritance. In the 19th century much of the bank’s business was with the university colleges but a large part of their personal fortunes came from investment in the Oxford Canal Navigation Company.

Herbert Parsons
Herbert Parsons

Herbert Parsons of Elsfield Manor was the grandson of John Parsons, mayor of Oxford 1788-1809 and the great nephew of the master of Balliol. There was much intermarrying of the Thomson and Parsons families. When Herbert married his first cousin in 1851, he was following his father John’s example for John had married Elizabeth Thomson. Herbert and Louisa’s son was also to follow the family pattern in 1904 by marrying another Thomson, Mabel Mary.

Unsurprisingly, considering his family connections, Herbert was a graduate of Balliol College but seems to have entered the banking profession reluctantly. His father’s diary of 1849 records that he was often late for work, didn’t join in the family prayers before breakfast and if at home in the evening, would often not speak and dozed the evening away. On 4th April of that year his father noted that “Herbert not here till eleven, told him he ought to have been earlier, answered me very improperly”.

Louisa Parsons
Louisa Parsons

Herbert was much closer to his uncle Guy Thomson, the father of his future wife. They were both keen on country pursuits, shooting and going hunting together. His father considered that he spent days "dangling about with the Thomsons", one reason no doubt being his interest in Louisa.

When he married and moved to Elsfield in the early 1850s he seems to have settled down, becoming a pillar of the community whose generosity was much appreciated. By 1860, the vicar at the time, the Reverend Gordon, expressed that appreciation in a letter to Colonel North, the member of the North family who dealt with Elsfield matters. In a letter concerning the school finances he says that Herbert Parsons, "of whose increasing kindness and liberality to Elsfield it is impossible to speak too highly" will contribute £6 towards the running of the school.

Mary Jane Parsons
Mary Jane Parsons

In his book The Old Bank, Oxford, Bradburn comments that “the way of life desired by the partners of the Old Bank was that of quiet country gentlemen, and the descendants of the founders achieved this by the middle of the 19th century”. Herbert Parsons certainly fits the bill and between them, Herbert and his wife, through their liberality brought prosperity to the village of Elsfield, in many respects rescuing it from what it had been: a downtrodden collection of cottages straggling along the road, described in a document drawn up for the North family in 1825.

The two Parsons children were born at the Manor, Mary Jane in 1855 and Herbert John, known as John, in 1857. Mary Jane seems to have spent her whole life largely within the confines of the village, being educated at home while her older brother went away to school, though having finished his education, he too joined the bank. John lived at the Manor until he married in January 1904, when the school children were given a day off and all the village invited to see the wedding presents.


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