History of Shilton

Shilton is a modest and undemonstrative village. For over seven hundred years it has practiced a well-bred reticence which makes it the despair of the compilers of such history as this. Documentary evidence is almost wholly lacking and for centuries at a time the very existence of the village goes unrecorded. Shilton's history is largely present history, its authorities the memories of its inhabitants, the stone of the buildings in which they live and work and the gardens which they tend with such relentless vigour.

That is what this booklet is chiefly about and it explains the limits and limitations of the material used. But since what is done. here will almost certainly never be done again there is. a case for gathering together by way of introduction what little is known of the early history of Shilton, the piecemeal and disconnected information Which punctuates the large silences of its past.

The first reference to Shilton occurs (in the form 'Sculfton) in a charter dated 25 January 1205. That this Shilton is declared by Ekwall (Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, 4th edn., Oxford 1960) to be in Berkshire is explained by an eccentricity of uncertain origin which allocated the church, churchyard and a portion of the adjoining vicarage to the county of Oxford, the rest of the village to Berkshire. This may derive from the charter of 1205; in that transaction King John made over the church and manor of Shilton together. with Great and Little Farringdon, Great and Little Coxwell, and Inglesham to the Cistercian house of Beaulieu, Hants., which had been founded six months earlier. At any rate, Shilton was not restored to Oxford until the middle of the nineteenth century. There is no doubt that an Oxfordshire Shilton named in an earlier charter (1044) does not refer to the present village; the boundaries cited in the charter locate it in the valley of the Windrush, south of Witney between Cogges and Ducklington; there is no evidence that a village ever existed there although the name Shilton Ham survives.

The royal grant of 1205 is probably responsible for the only considerable and identifiable archaeological remains in Shilton. In their exhaustive monograph on the barns of the abbey of Beaulieu (The Barns of the Abbey of Beaulieu at its Granges of Gt Coxwell & Beaulieu - St. Leonard’s (University of California Press, 1965), Horn and Born declare that of the estimated two to three thousand Cistercian barns once existing in England, only two certainly remain - those o£ Great Coxwell, Berkshire, which is intact, and Beaulieu-St. Leonard’s, Hampshire, which is ruinous. 'Both are former granges of Beaulieu. On the evidence of an ink sketch-plan in a scrap book in the Avery Library, Columbia University, New York, Horn and Born allow the possibility that a third example of a Cistercian barn may have existed substantially intact at Shilton as late as the middle of the nineteenth century.

That Horn and Born did not attempt to verify their conjecture is presumably explained by a note at the foot of the sketch, in the hand of F.S Waller (1832-1905) whose work it was, declaring "All now destroyed". In fact the barn existed and was still used for a barn until very recently (1970). It escaped recognition because with the loss at some time (probably by fire) of its high gabled pitched roof of stone slate and its timber-framed interior, and their replacement by a corrugated iron roof, it also lost the distinctive character of the medieval aisled barn. But the evidence for its identity is decisive. Although only the shell of the barn remains, the overall measurements are exactly those recorded in Waller's plan and the siting of the door openings is the same. The existence of an original timber-framed interior subdivided lengthwise into a nave and two aisles is confirmed by the survival of two masonry corbels on the inside of the south-west gable wall and their disposition is such as to leave no doubt that they were designed to carry the terminal truss required by the original framing shown in Waller's sketch plan:

The argument for this barn belonging to the abbey of Beaulieu (see Oxoniensia xxxvi, 1971) depends upon proof that it stood on the land in the manor .of Shilton granted by King John to the abbey.

There appears to be no documentary evidence but. there` is a presumptive case. The .barn. stands in the centre of the village on the north side of the brook (the Shill) and ford and .is part of the buildings of the former Manor. Farm. The present manor house is Victorian and stands on a hill overlooking. the farm. But in the middle of the group of farm buildings of which the barn is one stands a two-storey building, probably late medieval in date, known as the Old Manor; to the northeast of the barn-is- a large circular dovecote which is probably.-also medieval; to the south of -the barn parallel to the north bank of the stream, a few feet from and on the north side of it, is a long lagoon like stretch of water now used. for rearing. water-fowl but which would serve very well as a fish pond; on the opposite side of the stream is a steeply sloping field known as the Conyger. Thus the local associations are strongly manorial and the grouping just described contains all the elements of a self- sufficient domestic manorial economy.

When taken with the architectural evidence provided by Waller's nineteenth century drawings it is difficult not to accept that we have in Shilton a third example of an aisled Cistercian barn perhaps dating, as do those of Great Coxwell and Beaulieu-St. Leonard’s, from the thirteenth century.

Evidence of settlement in the same period outside the immediate precincts of the grange on the south side on the stream facing the ford appears in two pots excavated during the demolition in 1948 of some cottages in the garden of the house known as Pump Close; one is of thirteenth century date and of a type characteristic of West Oxfordshire in the period (and of which there is an example in the Ashmolean): the other may be dated late twelfth or early thirteenth century.

It was the Cistercian practice to settle in remote places where the terrain seldom lent itself to easy cultivation and their choice of Shilton was consistent with this. No doubt they introduced systematic farming to the village but with the steep-sided valley (the etymology of Shilton is 'village (tun) on a bank or ledge (scylf)') and the marshy bottoms it must always have been difficult. It seems likely that (in contrast to Great Coxwell, for example) the community never prospered. In the fourteenth century two hundred years after its colonisation Shilton boasted the lowest wages in Berkshire - 4s.4d a year for a driver and 4s.10d for the holder of a plough; at Coleshill just a few miles to the south the rates were 10s and 8s. respectively.

The silence of the Beaulieu records as to the Shilton grange's very existence (it is not among the nine granges of Beaulieu listed by R.A Donkin, 'The Cistercian Grange in England in the xii and xiii centuries', Studia Monastiaa vi, 1964, nor by Knowles and Hadcock, Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, 1953) tells the same story; the implication is that in Shilton the indefatigable Cistercians met their match.

On only one other occasion does Shilton emerge for a moment from its comfortable obscurity. In the late seventeenth century the Rev.Samuel Birch, one of the three vicars of Bampton, was ejected for non conformity - a charge that he always protested against. He removed to Shilton and there established a school which is notable in having had among its pupils Robert Harley (1661-1724), Speaker of the House of Commons, 1701-1705, Prime Minister 1710-14 and subsequently first Earl of Oxford. Some of Harley's letters to his mother from Shilton are extant in the Portland manuscripts from Welbeck Abbey, but on indefinite loan at the British Museum which also, of course, possesses Harley's own magnificent collection of manuscripts given by the Harley family in 1753 as one of the three foundation collections of the Museum. Birch's school must have had more than a local fame. Harley himself came of a Herefordshire family and other pupils were attracted from

parts as distant. No fewer than fourteen of Birch's pupils later became Members of Parliament and among Harley's contemporaries were Simon Harcourt (1661-1731) Lord Chancellor in Harley's ministry, later Viscount Harcourt, and Thomas Trevor (1658-1730) Lord Chief Justice. Birch died at Cote House near Bampton and was buried in Shilton.

With that solemn celebration of worldly dignities most villages would be pleased to end such an account as this. But it will hardly do for Shilton - 'silly Shilton' as it is affectionately called by the small world of which it chooses to be the centre. And who are those who live there to deny the name? There is, after all, a certain lack of seriousness about a village which manages to get itself into the wrong county and to stay there for several hundreds of years and which mislaid a Cistercian grange for longer than that. Better to end with an anecdote that does some justice to our idiosyncracies.

(Bodleian MS Top Oxon. e. 220 fols 15-16)

Shilton is situated not far from Burford and was about 1830 one of the most curious of villages, one part was in Oxfordshire and one part in Berkshire, and one part in no county at all, nor has been for hundreds of years. In one house a man could lie with one part of his body in one county and one part in another. The part that was in no County was called the Sworn Lanes. It was

a public house and two or three cottages and some land. The man as belonged to it used to carry on a roaring trade there as young women as were in trouble used to go there to be confined. At about this time a man told me that on a fine Sunday afternoon he had counted as many as 28 walking up and down the road, which I had some reason to believe as there was a case from our own village

which I knew. At this time of day the parishes was very particular as to where a child was born on account of making his home there; but at this place nobody could interfere so there came parties from all parts.

In our village there was a female living with a party and nobody could make out who she was. It transpired that a butler at the Hall had a connexion and since he was a married man with a family in London he moved her to the Lanes, as it was called. He used to visit her at night once a week, and as he used to go on one of the ponies there was but one way out, and that was in front of our house through my father's cow yard and we kept that locked at night. So he was beholden to me to leave it unlocked. One morning I locked the doors and he was forced to go in at the front gate of the Hall. I had a glass of wine often when I took the milk in of a night after that. This was done away with a few years later.

This is the testimony of Thoman Banting of Filkins, reminiscing about a number of West Oxfordshire villages towards the end of his life.

The Sworn Lanes of Banting's time is the Stonelands of ours and dark stories about a 'baby farm' there is part of the lore of the village. Where the brazen 'parties' exercised themselves to the scandal of the surrounding countryside and the relief of generations of parish beadles Shiltonians now exercise their dogs. It is a sad falling off.

There is a price to be paid for respectability and one does not betray one's affection for Shilton today by submitting that in comparison with the village of Banting's time it must be a dull and self-satisfied place.


These sites cover the ox18 area of Oxfordshire England, including  the following villages, OX18, Alvescot, Bampton, Black Bourton, Burford, Broadwell, Carterton, Clanfield, Kelmscott, Kencot, Langford, Lechlade, RAF Broadwell, Shilton, Parish Pump, Oxfordshire Events,


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