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The Parsons Years

Improvements in Village Life

Social historians make the distinction between an ‘open’ and a ‘closed’ village. The ‘open’ village is one where the land is freehold and the freeholders control the development of the village. A ’closed’ village on the other hand is one where the principal landowner controls such factors as where houses can be built and who can live in the village. The inhabitants of closed villages were generally more prosperous than open villages because there was more job security, though not security of tenure of the houses they lived in. There was also often a paternalistic occupant of the ‘big house’ who would keep an eye on the welfare of villagers.

Elsfield shows some of the characteristics of a closed village, since the land was owned by one family, the Norths. However, with an absentee landlord, Elsfield had none of the advantages which a closed village has. There was no wealthy lord of the Manor to dispense gifts and oversee the welfare of his employees. Nor did it have the advantages of an open village where land was available to be bought and built on and where people could use their initiative to develop a business or extend their premises.

From the time when Herbert and Louisa Parsons arrived in Elsfield, the village found itself with occupants of the Manor House who took an interest in the welfare of the inhabitants, provided gifts at Christmas and paid regular wages. Between 1862 and 1877,  Herbert Parsons bought Forest Farm, which was outside the parish and when the agricultural depression was in full force in 1886 bought the whole estate from the Norths.

A pump installed by Herbert Parsons in the Manor yard
A pump installed by Herbert Parsons
in the Manor yard

One of the matters Herbert Parsons turned his attention to was the water supply. To ensure a constant supply of water Herbert Parsons had a reservoir built and installed pumps throughout the village, about one pump to three or four houses, two in Manor yard and two in the house. The farms had their own supplies. Saturday evenings were busy times as the men fetched water in buckets slung on yokes to fill the coppers for washing. The pumps were wrapped with straw at the first signs of frost, to prevent them from being frozen and were still in use until piped water was installed in the late 1940s.

A common way of measuring the health of a community is by studying the mortality rate of young children and babies. In the decade 1841-1851 there were 22 deaths of children between the ages of nought and fourteen. This dropped in the following decade to ten and continued to fall until in the last decade of the century it was only four. The health of Elsfield residents therefore had significantly improved over the second half of the 19th century. Was this due to the installation of pumped water? If it is apparent that children were dying of diarrhoea and water borne diseases, then Herbert Parsons' water pumps would be life savers. Or was it due to improvements in the supply of food, since the twenty years from 1850 are considered the high point of English agriculture, which brought great prosperity for farmers and, as a consequence to their workers.

National studies have shown there were two danger periods for small children: in early Spring from respiratory diseases and in late summer from diarrhoea. This double peak does not show up in the Elsfield statistics, suggesting that the lack of pure drinking water was not the cause of the higher number of deaths. It seems likely that the improvement in health was due to better food.

The reason for the prosperity of farming, with agricultural production increasing by 70% was due to several causes. New types of cattle feed had been introduced, notably oilseed cake which meant cattle could be fattened up during the winter months. Drainage was improved, giving more cultivatable land. The earliest methods of draining fields had involved cutting either parallel or herringbone patterns of ditches across enclosures and packing them with brushwood or stones. Drain pipes were invented by John Reade in 1843 and the mole plough[1] by John Fowler in 1859, which must have been a great help in farming in Elsfield, since much of the low-lying land was very wet in winter. The first artificial fertilisers were invented by John Lawes in the 1840s: phosphate of lime, sulphate of potash, salts of magnesia and superphosphates, which greatly increased the yields. There was also a ready market for agricultural products due to the increase in urban population which ensured a steady market for agricultural products and increased access to markets via the railways, canals and a better road system.

There were three farms which appear to have been functioning as independent entities, the farmers leasing their land first from the Norths then after 1886 from Herbert Parsons: Home Farm, Church Farm, and Hill Farm. In the latter part of the 19th century Sescut Farm, down by the Cherwell and outside the village itself, and Forest Farm, the last house along the village street, were used to house farm workers, the cowman living at Forest Farm.

Geraldine Blanchett, daughter of the Rev Elkington
Geraldine Blanchett

An important source of information about Elsfield at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century is Ethel May Allam. Her recollections were recorded and published in a local history magazine Top Oxon. by the wife of the vicar of Islip, Geraldine Blanchett, herself the daughter of the one-time vicar of Elsfield, the Reverend Elkington. Ethel May had been born in the village and had been employed at one time as teacher of the infants at the school. Her father, William Elston, had come to the village as a groom at the Manor and had married Harriet Gammon, daughter of the local wheelwright and carpenter, Moses Gammon. Ethel May recalls that Mr Parsons sent his men with wagon and horses to fetch coal from the canal barges and that it usually ran to two tons of coal per cottage.

William Elston
William Elston

Mr Parsons kept a herd of cows which were milked morning and night. Two large buckets of milk were taken to the dairy and placed in pans for the cream to rise. These were skimmed and the cream was saved for butter which villagers were allowed to buy every Wednesday and Saturday at a shilling a pound. Making the butter was hard work. It took two hours of churning before it could be potted up and weighed, then all the equipment, the milk pans, the separator, the strainer and the milk buckets had to be scalded to ensure they were spotless.

The skimmed milk was given out every morning at eight o’clock and the children fetched it in cans. The housekeeper and cook, Mrs Huxley, was prompt on time, said May Allam, and she was not pleased if anyone was late and had to fetch her to the dairy again. Mrs Huxley is listed in the 1901 census as a cook, aged 58, from Flint.

There was a strict hierarchy among farm workers, with the men who worked with animals being above the farm labourers so the head dairyman and the head horseman would be paid more than others. In 1905, a horseman in Oxfordshire could expect to be paid between 14 and 16 shillings a week. A worksheet from the estate survives from 1901, towards the end of Herbert Parsons’ life. At this time there were 49 people working for him. In the week ending 4th January the carter’s work consisted of taking straw round to the various farms, carrying hurdles, litter, chaff and straw, for which he was paid 2s 2d a day. He made up his six day week by thrashing, to take home 13s 6d, rather less than the national average. The carter had a very long working day, having to be up at about four in the morning to groom, feed and water the horses ready for them to start working at seven o’clock. The carter’s day also finished after the other labourers’ because when the horses had finished working they had again to be groomed, fed and watered.

Carpenter's workshop alongside Tree Cottage
Carpenter's workshop alongside Tree Cottage

In that week fifty- four man days were spent on ploughing, 23 on thrashing, 30 with the sheep, 32 with dairy and beef cattle and unsurprisingly, given the number of animals, 30 days spent with dung, loading it into the dung cart, taking it to dung heaps, moving it, spreading it. There were seven days spent going to and from Oxford, taking corn and bringing coal.

As well as the farm workers Herbert Parsons also employed R. and F. Allum as carpenters, one paid 3s 4d a day and the other, presumably an apprentice, paid 2 shillings for a six day week. The mason, Mr Smith, also had a family member with him, paid 1s while he earned the rate for a skilled man, like the carpenter, 3s 4d. The smith also belonged to this higher earning group while the keeper was paid only 2s 2d, like the labourers, and his boy was paid 10d.

Pigs
Pigs

A stock list from 1912, shortly after Herbert Parsons’ death, shows that there were 481 sheep of varying ages, 69 cattle within the parish and more kept on land owned by the family outside the parish at Stowood and Folly Farm, at Gurdon’s Ground a family of pigs consisting of sow, boar, six little pigs and eight feeding pigs. The horses are listed by name: Captain, Rose, Violet and so on, thirty-five in all, with nine being kept at Lodge Farm, again outside the parish.

The estate remained in the Parsons family until 1919 though Herbert had died in 1911,and an estate labour sheet for the week ending 17th January when Herbert John, son of Herbert and Louisa, was managing the estate, shows a much less flourishing picture than that conveyed eighteen years earlier. The devastation wrought by the war is evident in the fact that the manpower to run the farms had halved. There were now only 25 people employed on the land three of them women who were paid 2s 6d, half the pay of the men who were now earning 5s or 5s 4d a day. One difference was that 4d a week was deducted for health insurance, which may account for the days now noted as 'ill' rather than absent, as in 1901. Colwell, the shepherd, was ill for the whole of that week and was paid 2s 6d for three of the five days he was ill. It is likely, too, that the large number of horses used in 1901 had been seriously depleted, since horses were used and died in large numbers on the battlefields. After the war they were sold off or, if too old or ill, shot. The number of days spent ploughing was reduced to 23 while thrashing took up 18 man days.

Throughout much of the 19th century some parishioners rented garden plots to grow vegetables which would supplement their meagre wages. An agreement between Richard Lock and Colonel North dated 10th October 1840 shows that the yearly rent for such a plot was five shillings paid quarterly. There were various conditions attached to the agreement: that the ground should be dug but not ploughed; that half the plot should grow wheat and the other vegetables; that the crops be rotated annually and that the ground be manured twice a year. The person renting the land was not allowed to sell what he produced. It had to be for his own use and he was not allowed to be drunk on the land. Richard Lock’s plot was number 18, so there must have been a substantial amount of land made over to garden plots. A later agreement between Colonel North and Joseph Lock on 1st July 1872 has the same terms but the rent has now doubled to ten shillings.

Gleaning
Gleaning

A further addition to the household income was from gleaning, which women and children in the village were allowed to do when the harvest had been gathered in. The gleaned corn would be bound into miniature sheaves and dropped into the linen bag carried by many of the gleaners. The corn thus collected would be added to any which the family had grown in their allotment and stored until it could be threshed. If the family had a pig or poultry they might be fed on the gleanings, but otherwise it could be ground into flour.



[1] A plough which can make an underground drainage channel.
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