Chipping Norton’s History of Battles, Bigamy and Bizarreness

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Chipping Norton. What does the name mean to you? Most people would probably mention the cluster of famous millionaires associated with the town despite not living here, or the fact that aspirin was discovered nearby. Unsuprisingly there’s a lot more to be said of Chippy – the town has been the backdrop of a jaw dropping amount of fighting, crime and scandal, even by Oxfordshire’s fascinatingly nasty standards.

Chipping Norton is full of… ILLEGAL MARRIAGES

When you find yourself reading the news and feeling overwhelmingly depressed it’s important to remember that there’s nothing really ever new under the sun, and that people have been acting terribly and making stupid decisions since time began. Chipping Norton has been the setting for more than its fair share of dodgy choices, and luckily for us the newspapers of the day reported on two of the most interesting.

The first story is that of a scandalous elopement. In 1874 a Magistrate at Chipping Norton tried Mr William Timms (56), a wealthy farmer, for “feloniously marrying” Annie Sophia Turner, the 16 year old daughter of one of his friends. The exact details of the affair are lost to history, but we do know that on the night of October the 1st, Annie vanished from her home, only contacting her worried parents a week later with a brief postcard, asking their forgiveness. It eventually transpired that she had eloped with Mr Timms, married him, and was currently living on his farm. He was soon arrested on the request of her father, although he was acquitted of any crime. It’s unknown where their relationship went then, but I doubt they had a happy future – the newspaper makes it clear that Annie was the sole heir to a great fortune, and it was widely assumed that Mr Timms was doing his best to get hold of it.

A artist's impression of the Turner family fortune.

An artist’s impression of the Turner family fortune.

Another interesting love affair to find its way to the attention of Chipping Norton’s magistrates was a case of overt bigamy. In the early 1890s  Mr John Morgan, an upholsterer living in Wales, decided to escape his dysfunctional relationship with his wife Gertrude by moving to Chipping Norton, supposedly with her agreement. Here he met Laura Byron, and under the fake name of Harry Wilson, married her and fathered several children. His secret was eventually outed by his first wife, and in 1900 he was taken to court. In the course of the trial a local councillor spoke up in favour of his character, and his new wife protested that he had been “kind in every way” to her and the children. The judge sympathised with the situation of the accused, and passed a deliberately lenient sentence as a result. It’s hard to say from just reading newspaper reports, but I believe that he really did find love in Chipping Norton, even if the whole marriage thing was a bit off. The trial didn’t break them up either, as the 1901 census shows them still living together in New Street.

An artist’s impression of bigamy.

There’s one last point of interest about marriages in Chippy. It used to be that if a man was known to regularly beat his wife, local people would often carry out what was known as Skimmetting, where they would throw wheat husks over their doorstep to indicate that a thrashing had been done there. This sort of thing happened all over Oxfordshire in different forms, with the last recorded incident taking place in Eynsham in the 1930s.

Chipping Norton is full of… WAR

These stories must have been rather unpleasant for the protagonists, but at least nobody actually died. That isn’t the case for this section – Chippy locals have been involved in wars across the world, and the town itself has actually played host to one particularly nasty battle. Local History is awesome, but that doesn’t stop it from being rather bleak at times.

One important warrior associated with the town was Ernulf de Hesdin, one of the Knights who helped William the Conqueror subdue England in 1066. As a reward for his support, he was made Lord of Chipping Norton, a wealthy area at the time, and it’s believed he built a Motte and Bailey Castle in the town to help him hang onto it. He didn’t get to enjoy the town’s charms for too long though – he was eventually implicated in a rebellion against King William, and ended up leaving the country and joining the First Crusade in its journey to the Middle East, where he was slain in the fighting near the city of Antioch.

The Crusades. Bad for nearly everyone.

The Crusades. Bad for nearly everyone.

His son didn’t have a better time of it when he grew up, as he was killed defending Shrewsbury Castle against the forces of King Stephen in The Anarchy. Ah well.

At least those battles took place far away from the town, during the English Civil War Chippy was in an unfortunate position near a county boundary, meaning that the shifting fortunes of war brought the town under the control of both sides at different times, along with the associated burden of feeding and supplying their armies. In addition to losing food and livestock, soldiers also ended up looting the townspeople of their valuables. A Royalist newssheet recorded one incident where a local woman (unwisely) decided to hit back – apparently when a tired and hungry Roundhead unit filed through the town she shouted “God bless the Cavaliers!” The newssheet records that she was beaten, stripped and dragged behind a cart down New Street and up the Worchester Road until she was eventually abandoned two miles away from the town. It’s worth pointing out this comes from a Royalist source and may just be propaganda, but it’s indicative of the brutal effect the Civil War had on the area.

The English Civil War. Also bad for nearly everyone.

The English Civil War. Also bad for nearly everyone.

This account of the war puts the residents of Chipping Norton very much on the back foot, but there’s a notable moment in Chippy’s history when the town was at the heart of the action. In 1549 the Government (under Edward VI) ruled that all churches must start using Protestant prayer books (written in English) rather than the older Catholic ones (written in Latin) – this was a little controversial, and Oxfordshire decided to kick off. People rose up in rebellion, and with reinforcements from the surrounding counties, swept through to Woodstock. Word arrived that Lord Grey of Wilton (noted military badass) was on his way with over one thousand German mercenaries, so the rebels retreated to a camp in Chipping Norton, at which point the town’s Vicar Henry Joyce joined the group’s leadership.

It didn’t take long for Lord Grey and his mercenaries to arrive, and as with most battles pitching poorly armed peasants against professional soldiers, it ended in a massacre. Most of the rebels fled, but 200 were taken prisoner and marched to Witney for trial. Most were actually pardoned, but the leadership were treated with shocking brutality. Some were hung, drawn and quartered, with their heads being displayed in public places to intimidate the populace. The clergy who were involved received a special punishment, and the vicar Henry Joyce was hung from the top of Chipping Norton’s church until dead. This was undertaken on a market day, to increase the amount of people present to witness the act. Horrid.

Don't go getting any ideas now.

I think it’s nicer without a dead rebel vicar.

It’s hard to imagine how people in Chippy must have felt in the face of such violence, but at least the experience was relatively brief – the two World Wars would leave far deeper scars. Men from the town would fight in almost every theatre of the First World War; in addition to the battlefields of France and Belgium, Chippy men would die as far away as Iraq and Azerbaijan. John Henry Margetts, son of Harry and Emily Margetts of 178 New Street, was a professional soldier who served in India before the war. He was captured by the Turkish in the Siege of Kut in Iraq in 1916, and died of disease after a forced march to a prison camp.

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John Henry Margetts, sporting a particularly soldierly moustache.

Locals didn’t just serve in the army, Frederick Hake drowned during the naval Battle of Jutland, and Herbert Simms, whose father was elected as the town’s Mayor three times, joined the fledgling air force and was  shot down over the North Sea in 1916. His body was recovered and buried in Chipping Norton cemetery.

The Second World War took another huge toll on the Chippy’s male population, but it also affected the town in entirely new ways. The spectre of aerial bombardment was present, and although the town wasn’t bombed directly, the nearby RAF Chipping Norton airfield was, and the local borough officially recorded being hit by 23 high explosive bombs. In 1942 a training plane from the town’s airfield and a Wellington Bomber collided in mid-air, sending the burning wreckage of the bomber colliding into the town itself. All of the aircrew were killed.

The story of Chippy’s war concerns more than just bombs and bullets; it transformed the very faces of the town’s population. In 1939, when the war broke out, 321 evacuated children from West Ham, London arrived at the station, gas masks in tow.

West Ham officially recorded INSERT NUMBER of bombs in the war. These are some lucky kids.

West Ham recorded over 1500 bombs during the war. These are some lucky kids.

Thousands of soldiers were also accommodated in the town, including some Americans in 1943. When the war started to turn in the Allies’ favour, POWs were transported to the UK, 450 of which were interned at a POW camp just off the Burford Road. They were used to help with local agricultural work, so the sight of Germans and Italians working the fields quickly became a familiar one.

Chipping Norton is full of… BIZARRE CRIMES

It’s to be expected that a community should face a certain quantity of crime, but Chippy has seen a great deal of especially bizarre offences through the years. Some were notable in their nastiness, but most were just weirdly amusing.

A lot of trouble seemed to come from easily offended juries. In 1757 local man Thomas Crutch was presented to the jury because he had been milking his cows in the public market place. It was deemed “very offensive to the inhabitants” of Chipping Norton.

Ban this sick filth.

Ban this sick filth.

A jury in 1815 said that they had noticed “the increasing evil arising from the number of lewd and base girls that frequent the streets in the evening.”, and in 1821 it was ordered that pub landlords were “not to suffer any profuse drinking, tippling or disorderly persons in their houses, particularly on the Lord’s Day.” What a boring bunch.

One occasion that did deserve to be met with moral condemnation was the local election in 1754. The British Democratic system used to be even less fair than it is today, with candidates regularly holding massive feasts to win over voters, and often just openly buying votes. The 1754 election was especially dodgy in this part of Oxfordshire, as it was the first year that the Tory Party had to contest an election since 1710, as the Whig Party had decided to put up two candidates. On the 1st February, in an effort to gain an edge, the Whigs paid for supporters to eat and drink at eight different pubs in the town. After the feasts were consumed, the Whigs allegedly paid for a group of ruffians to attack the White Hart (the building between Boots and Barclays) where the Tories were hosting their own feast. They succeeded in smashing some windows and burning the pub sign, but didn’t manage to get inside. The Tories ended up winning the election, but after the votes were contested the (Whig dominated) House of Commons ruled that the Whig candidate actually won. Democracy is a beautiful thing.

Smashing pub windows was the 18th century equivalent of signing an online petition.

Chippy wasn’t just home to priggish juries and political silliness though – one of the most interesting highwaymen in English history was from the town. James Hind was born in 1616, and was educated in the local grammar school. His life of crime started with a trip to London, when a drunken spree ended with Hind spending some time in prison, alongside highwayman Thomas Allen. They obviously got along, because upon their release they teamed up and robbed their way around the country, although Hind still found time to marry a Chipping Norton girl, Margaret Rowland. Hind was apparently a man of principle, as well as occasionally giving money to the poor, he was considered to be kind to his victims. When he was robbing a farmer near Wantage the man protested that he was holding all of his savings, as he was on his way to buy his family a cow. Hind replied that he needed that money now, but if the farmer returned to the exact spot in two weeks Hind would give him enough dosh for two cows. There’s no actual evidence that he did, but I like to think that he kept his promise.

This apparent commitment to personal principle sent our highwayman on a strange path when the English Civil War entered his life. After personally witnessing the beheading of Charles I, Hind threw his energies against the Parliamentarians. He gave himself the title of Captain, and eventually fought for the future King Charles II at the Battle of Worchester. Throughout the war, and even after it had ended, Hind specifically tried to rob Parliamentarians. On one famous occasion, he and his partner James Allen tried to attack Oliver Cromwell himself, but a malfunctioning pistol scuppered their efforts, and Allen was captured by Cromwell’s guards, eventually being executed. Our Captain James Hind escaped due to some nifty horsemanship, but his lucky eventually run out – in 1652 he was seized himself and was hung, drawn and quartered on the 29th of September, the poor bloke.

So what is there to conclude Chipping Norton’s chequered past? Nothing much, it just affirms the unavoidable truth that life is an incredible mix of wonderful eccentricity and awful, awful suffering. If you want to leave this article on a happier note though, look of this picture from 1897. To celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, an army of locals prepared a mountain of buns, cake and tea for 5000 patriotic hungry citizens to enjoy. Sometimes Local History is Delicious.

Local History is Delicious

Credit to Chipping Norton Museum for supplying the picture.

Will Hazell

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  1. Brilliant read, full of interesting history of the town

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