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Oxfordshire Villages

Anne-Marie Ford    -    5 August 2017

Nettlebed in Oxfordshire was especially famous for brick-making, a skill that Gypsies offered and one that suited their lifestyle, for it was seasonal work. In an essay on The Natural History of Oxfordshire, published as early as 1677, Robert Plot remarks of Nettlebed brick:

About Nettlebed they make a sort of brick so very strong that whereas at most places they are unloaded by hand, I have seen these shot out of carts after a manner of stone, to mend highways, and yet none of these broke; but this I suppose must be ascribed to the nature of the clay, than to the skill of the artificer in making and burning them.

Brick making began by digging out the clay in the late autumn, then it was left over the colder months to be weathered in the winter frosts, which helped break it down. In the spring the clay was turned over and the stones and pebbles removed before further refinement, such as adding sand, left the clay suitable for brick making. After moulding in wooden moulds, which were coated with sand to prevent the clay from the sticking, the bricks were left to dry before firing. Many of the kilns were located on the commons, frequently the poorest land in the area. This meant that the topsoil was thin and therefore easy to strip away in order to dig out the clay; in addition there was local woodland, gorse or brush, for firing the kilns. This made the sites where the Gypsies often camped extremely suitable and the Travellers provided a ready workforce, some acting as sand-carriers, as well as brick makers and brick burners.

In addition to bricks and earthenware, the kilns were often used for lime burning, using any chalk found beneath the clay. Since lime was used to enrich the soil, farmers began to have small lime-kilns on their land, and Travellers were often useful employees, being able to act as casual agricultural labourers, as well as occasional lime-burners or brick makers.

Between Nettlebed and Woodcote Commons were beech woods and these local materials offered a plentiful supply of suitable wood for making and mending chairs. Chair-bottoming and chair mending were crafts that relied on the materials close to the common land and the skills required were to be frequently found amongst the Traveller population. Woodcote, as well as Nettlebed, was a popular stopping place for Gypsies, and as a result, returning year after year, they made sure of another income, for the local wild flowers were nurtured. In the spring, in particular, the Travellers would gather wild primroses, bluebells and snowdrops, and later in the year broom and heather, and formed these into bunches and bouquets to hawk locally, which was a common sight. The result of many decades of such cultivation, carpets of flowers can still be seen in woodland copses where the Gypsies had made a camping spot.

Baptismal records for Woodcote offer evidence of a significant Gypsy presence: On 28th July 1878, little Providence Beldam, the daughter of Thomas and Matilda (Talitha), Travellers, was baptised; William Loveridge, a licensed hawker, and his wife, Elizabeth, baptised a son, John Edward, at Woodcote on 11th November 1888; The gloriously named Pheazenta Fenner, daughter of Cornelius and Caroline, hawker, was baptised there on 19th September 1897; even as late as 1911 there are three baptisms of Gypsy children, on 8th January, Gilderoy Buckland, son of Henry and Rosina, hawker, is baptised, aged nine months, his parents “sojourning in Woodcote.” On 12th March the same year two other Gypsy couples baptised their children: Victoria, daughter of sojourners William and Agnes Smith, hawker, was baptised, along with the daughter of sojourners Joseph Doe and his wife, Lena, who baptised their daughter Britannia. The cleric’s note adds that Britannia had been born on 27th January 1911.

With the exception of Providence Beldam’s baptism, which occurs during the period around the horse fair held at Stokenchurch, the other children’s baptisms take place during a wintering out period, from autumn through to spring. Many of these Gypsy families would return year after year to a favoured spot, so becoming known to, and familiar with, the settled community. The woodland would give them the opportunity to make pegs and shovels, mend chairs and, together with the furze available on the commons at Woodcote, supply the local housewives with brooms and brushes.

The Gypsies and Travellers would frequently travel to Stokenchurch Common, close to the border between Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, where the horse fair was held every July. Stokenchurch Common was specifically, in 1861, reserved for the use of the pleasure and horse fairs, but the Gypsies frequently made a temporary home on the other Oxfordshire commons, as well as nearby Naphill Common. The surrounding area could always provide work, as there were brick works at Cadmore End, a few miles down the road and, of course, Stokenchurch was, like Woodcote, well known for its chair mending and making. The proximity to local woodlands furnished the basic material and rushes were brought in to provide the seating, the rush-weaving was often done as casual labour by women.

In the 1851 census an old lady, Rice Beldam, a widow of 74, is found camping at Stokenchurch, with her son, Lewis Beldam, and Providence Hearn, her granddaughter. The name Rice, unusual and significant, is found in the Hearn family and Rice Beldam is almost certainly the daughter of Royal and Sarah Hearn and the widow of Thomas. Rice is described in the census as a hawker, her son as a tinker. Ten years later the 1861 census description is a little more detailed. The family are found on Spriggs Common, Radnage, where Rice, who has managed to age 11 years, and is now 85, is a hawker of tin ware, Lewis a tin worker and Providence a lace maker. Making things for sale to the local inhabitants was clearly the means by which this tiny family survived. Rice regarded the Stokenchurch area as home. Her husband, Thomas Beldam, was buried there in 1839, “aged 61” and Rice was also laid to rest at Stokenchurch in 1869, claiming to be “93 years of age.”

Woodcote also offers evidence of social interaction of another kind between Gypsies and the settled communities during the nineteenth century. Victoria/Tiggy Smith, daughter of Gypsies Mark and Louisa Smith, does not seem to have formed a permanent union as an adult, although she did have a son, baptised as Job Smith at Hagbourne, Berkshire on 4th February 1875 and again, as Job Nelson Smith, at Goring Heath, Oxfordshire on 26th August that same year, son of William and Victoria, Gypsy. Tiggy is known to have travelled about with her twin brother, Albert, often living in the hedgerows around Woodcote. After Albert’s death she continued sojourning alone, and was well enough known to the local villagers that they were anxious about this poor, homeless woman and did their best to make sure she did not starve, or go without basic care. After her death her son, Job, known as Jack, settled amongst the local people. By this time, the late nineteenth century, such a sense of communal concern between Gypsies and villagers was not uncommon, nor was the idea of settling within the local community, as Jack subsequently did.

Copyright © 2017 Anne-Marie Ford