History of Didcot

by Brian Lingham

Roman & Saxon background

Didcot has a remote antiquity, one that stretches back over the past two thousand or more years. At the time of the Roman Conquest, the future parish was probably an area of part farmland, wood and marsh, but the greater emphasis was on marsh; which comprised practically half of the future Didcot. Today, the parish church (which sits on the highest point) and the houses and streets of the old village still straddle the southern incline of that ridge. The first settlement was Iron Age in origin, which after the Conquest became Romano-British. A Saxon settlement followed, dating to the 7th or 8th centuries. This fortified farm or early village, however, was called Wibaldeston or 'Wigbald's farm’, not Didcot; and it is this place-name that appears in the entry in the Domesday Inquest. Didcot in Saxon was derived from 'Dydda's or Dudda's cot' or cottage. The village, until recent times, up to the end of the 19th century, was known as Dudcot or Dudcote.

The Norman Period

In 1006 the Danes raided up through the Upper Thames Valley sacking Abingdon; then there was the Conquest in 1066 with its violent changes. After the Norman Conquest Dyyda passed to Henry de Ferrers, one of William the Conqueror's chief barons. In 1140 there was a civil war between Queen Matilda and the King Steven and this whole area including the castles at Wallingford and Oxford, became an important military centre. One authority dates the nave walls of All Saints’ church to circa 1160; and the village Didcot was destroyed during the course of the war. In 1155, Robert de Albini, for the heinous crime of throwing and hitting the future Henry II with a stone at the siege of Bedford Castle, was forced to give up Didcot, which was then granted to Hugh de Mara, a minor baron. He received the manor for services rendered to Queen Matilda and her son, Henry II, during the same war. In 1214 Wallingford Castle was held under arms for King John during the troubles with his Barons; and later, in 1265, defeated Montfortians (followers of Simon de Montfort) fleeing from the Battle of Evesham raided several manors, including Didcot, for supplies. His family held the manor until c1237 when it passed to Andrew le Blunt, the son of a rich London merchant who married the de Mara heiress, Elena. After the death of Andrew in 1257, the widow married David de Uffington, who later was one of the Montfortians mentioned above. He, after Evesham, became a rebel and outlaw, being the leader of one of the great bands that roamed and raided southern England. One historian considers that the legend of Robin Hood was born of these troubled times, based on the exploits of these outlaw bands, especially those of Adam Gurdon and De Uffington. The manor by 1300, and after the death of de Uffington, passed to Hugh le Blunt, Andrew's second son. He too, was a soldier, serving in the campaigns of Edward I in Wales and Scotland; and fought at Bannockburn in 1314. Hugh sold the manor in 1317 to the Stonor family of Stonor Park, Oxfordshire, but continued as the Stonor’s tenant, and was resident here in 1327. The same family, now as Camoys, (Lord Camoys) still lives at Stonor Park.

Didcot in the Middle Ages

The Stonors owned Didcot from 1317 to 1671; and it was the Stonors who were responsible for many of the decisively important events that have shaped Didcot's history during the 14th to 17th centuries. The first of these was the abolition of villeinage or serfdom, which by 1417 had disappeared from Didcot. This development did not happen at any one point but was phased out gradually during the second half of the 14th century. The Black Death was probably a factor as it reduced the population by a half. This great pandemic also destroyed much of the population in surrounding villages.
The first Stonor to hold Didcot was John le Stonor, Lord Chief Justice of England, and a prominent member of Edward III's Government. Didcot, now a part of the large Stonor estates, passed to his son John, and then to their various successors during the next 150 years. None held the same position of power and influence in national affairs, as did the first John, being more active in local rather than central government.
The 16th century was another period of great change for Didcot when wholesale enclosure took place, and it was the Stonors, Sir Walter in 1539 and Sir Francis in 1611-12, who were mainly responsible. Then there was Rice Griffin, another lord of the manor who in 1597 also enclosed a large area of land the marsh (that area north of the railway), which up to then had been Didcot’s common land.
In the middle ages and the early part of the 16th century only a small part, less than a third, of the manor was under cultivation, the rest was still the marsh and wood of earlier times used freely by the villagers as common grazing land. Thus, it was in the best interest of these lords to enclose as much of this land as possible, and this they did, thereby gaining rent for its use. The former fields (now the site of the Ladygrove Housing Estate) to the north of the railway were the result of those 16th and 17th century enclosures. But the villagers did not take too kindly to the enclosure, and reacted strongly, with an outcome in 1539 at least, of conflict and violence. The affair eventually came for judgement at the Court of Star Chamber, at Westminster.
Amid these times of economic upheaval and uncertainty, a yeoman class emerged made of a limited number of prosperous tenant farmers. These men, such as Edward Dew, were ably astute, fully equipped to make the most of the opportunities that enclosure and the times presented. This class, after 1550, consisted of the families of the Dews, Sayers, Blakes, Champes, Taylors, Tyrrolds, Smiths and Boulters. Several of these families, one after the other, rose to pre-eminence over the following three centuries- the Dews in the early 17th, the Sayers in the late 17th, the Blakes in the 18th and the Taylors during the 19th centuries. And it was they who built the majority of these period houses, which remain standing in Didcot today. Manor and Smiths Farmhouses in Foxhall Road were built respectively by the Blakes and Taylors. Monumental inscriptions to several members of these families are to found in All Saints Church.

The Gun-Powder Plot

Didcot has a slight connection with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Robert Wintour, one of the conspirators, held a mortgage on the manor. After his impeachment and execution, the mortgage and Didcot were forfeited under feudal law by the Crown- though Sir Francis Stonor, who was the mortgagee, still owned Didcot. He presumably redeemed the mortgage, regaining Didcot by 1611.

The Civil War Struggle

The Civil War also touched Didcot, especially after the two Battles of Newbury, for the parish register records that the death rate rose dramatically during 1643 and 1645. In May 1644, the Earl of Essex with an army of 10,000 then on his way to capture Abingdon from the Royalists, camped at East Hagbourne and it is very probably that some of these men were quartered in Didcot village.
The Stonors were and are one of the great. Catholic families of England. But devotion to the old faith after the Reformation of the 16th century and during the early 17th century was dangerous, unlawful and highly expensive. Their crime was recusancy -or failure to obey the religious laws of the State - was punishable by fines and imprisonment. Thus, the fines owed by their willful refusal to adhere to the law became impossibly heavy. From 1630, and especially during the Commonwealth, the manor of Didcot, generally, was held by the State- seized in lieu of fines. After the Restoration the Stonors regained control and immediately began selling the freehold of land formerly held by copyhold tenure, to their former tenants, the Blakes and Sayers and by outsiders such as Robert Lydall and Robert Jennings. This large-scale sale of land had three decided results: first, it destroyed the manor as a viable organisation, which afterwards had little say in the affairs of the parish (though afterwards there were still lords of the manor); secondly, it removed the small tenant farmer from Didcot; leaving only large landowners; and, thirdly, it was ultimately responsible for the creation, especially after c1720, of a working class which eventually comprised nearly 85% of the population.

Victorian and Modern Didcot

The next two centuries passed by relatively troublefree. The rich became richer and the poor poorer. The lords of the manor to follow the Stonors were the Cawleys, Wrights Blakes, Bakers and Lords Overstone and Wantage. It is believed that the Loyd family of Lockinge sold this title, quite recently.
In 1841 Didcot was separated from its mediaeval past, when the open field system was enclosed. The three great open fields, its meadow and common had existed in roughly the same form since Saxon times. The seven landowners divided up Didcot between them; even removing the trees from Hadden wood, which from c1600 and up to that time had been Didcot's common. As usual, the group to suffer most was the working class for they lost the right to gather wood from the Hadden, a right which was converted into a coal charity- a very poor substitute. This charity still exists.

The coming of the railway 1839

Another event, which occurred at the same time, but one that was far more decisive in the long term. This was the arrival of the Great Western Railway, laid down through Didcot in 1839. But the decisive act was not the laying down of the line but the siting at Didcot of the Branch Junction to Oxford and the erection of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's covered station of 1844. It was these two events, that established Didcot as an important junction which created the basic conditions for the future growth. Without them Didcot would stiIl be a small village.
The railway soon created Didcot's first housing problem as the railwaymen and their families began the search for accommodation. This need, and its satisfaction, was responsible indirectly for an alteration in the physical appearance of the village when many of the earlier half-timbered cottages were demolished to make way for brick-built Victorian tenements. This occurred during the decades 1840-1870. The two hotels at the station were also built during the 1850's. But this limited housing provision did not ease the problem, which still existed in the 1860's.
If a demand exists, however, there is always someone ready to satisfy a need. Such a man was Stephen Dixon, an East Hagbourne farmer. It was he that began the urban housing development of Didcot New Town or North Hagbourne, which later became known as Northbourne. This had previously been anticipated in 1863 by the building of two terraces of five cottages known respectively as Marsh Cottages and Railway Terrace, sited next to former Marsh Bridge.

The expansion of Didcot

The first eight houses of Northbourne were built in 1868 on land sold by Stephen Dixon. These fronted the south side of what was then known as Wallingford Road- now Lower Broadway- between High Street and Mereland Road. Then came two large groups of cottages in Church Street, built c1870-71 by Dixon, one of which, on the south side, was called 'Dixon's Row’.
The other streets were laid down in the 1870's and 80's and given the modern road names in 1897. In 1880, the Northbourne development consisted of 65 houses; of which Dixon owned 20, the other 45 by 15 owners of whom the largest owned eight. By 1900, Northbourne was practically complete within the confines of its eight streets. By 1910, the demand for houses no longer existed. This must be the explanation for the abandonment during that decade of two large housing schemes, one of which was to have covered all the land between Foxhall Road and Station Road.

Arrival of the Army and the Great War

A 1913 survey of the Wallingford Rural District Council area found that a housing need existed in the villages rather than at Didcot. However, the 1914-18 War, and the subsequent establishment of the Army Barracks and Ordnance Depot soon upset this happy state.
Before the arrival of the Army the physical appearance of Didcot was this: the Railway Station, and the hotels and other buildings immediately opposite; the Provender Store (now demolished) and the two lines; then to the south-west the ancient village of Didcot; down the west side of Station Hill or Road were the GWR houses and north of them the terrace of cottages known as the 'Barracks’ (now the site of a supermarket) opposite to the old 'White Hart’ Each was separated from the other by farmland. On the other side of the Wallingford Road, then situated in the parish of East Hagbourne, was Northbourne, which in turn was separated by farmland from East and West Hagbourne. There were no other large groups of buildings except for the odd barn or the Wheatsheaf Inn.
The influx of workers brought to Didcot by the Army in droves during the First World War was soon to alter this quiet rural appearance- and in a drastic way. Thus it was the Army, and not the Railway-, that fashioned the modern Didcot we know today. Growth emanating from the Railway had practically ceased by 1914. Before the outbreak of war, the Railway was the main employer with agriculture the secondary source. The Army soon became the third and in time the 'largest- especially during the inter-war years. This influx quickly created another acute housing crisis.

Housing boom in Didcot in the 1930's

The Wallingford Rural District Council, responding to the demand in the years 1920-27, erected a large estate - that of Wessex, Kynaston, Vicarage, St. Peter's, and St. Andrew's Roads. Then, in 1928-29 came the first of the large private estates, the Georgetown Garden City Estate, originally erected for Army employees and centred on Foxhall and Wantage Roads and Glyn Avenue. Other private housing followed in the early 1930's: the Norreys Road-Park Close Estate; Colbourne, Park and Wantage Roads; the Aldworth Estates of Oxford Crescent, Abingdon Terrace, Collingwood and Drake Avenues; The Vestas of Bowness Road etc.; Sherwood Road, Pixton Close and the Haydon Road Estate. This sudden population increase soon brought an extension of those commercial services that people in the modern world expect and demand- schools, shops and entertainment. Before 1925, Broadway west of Station Road was a quiet residential road. Most shops were located in Northbourne, at the Station or in the old village The establishment of the Broadway as Didcot's shopping centre began in the mid-1920’s and gathered momentum during the early 30's. One of the first shops in the upper part of the road was a tin shack, known as 'Annie Barber's', this was followed by the shop later known as 'Hows', now one half of Peacock's Store. The main building period was between 1933-37 when the Broadway Arcade, Jenkins, Currys, the Co-op, Smiths and Boots Corner were built. The first cinema was erected in 1927 and replaced by the present one in 1933. There was an increase in the number of clubs and public houses. The Marlborough Club, Royal Oak, Wallingford Arms and the new White Hart (now Broadways) were erected between 1927 and 1935.
Nor were spiritual or educational needs neglected. Before 1868 the only churches in the immediate area were All Saints' at Didcot and St. Andrew's at East Hagbourne. With the building of Northbourne, the earlier St. Peter's Church, the primitive Methodist chapel (on the site of Lay's former shop), in 1868 and the Weslyan church in 1903 were established. Baptist and Catholic churches followed. There had been a school at Didcot from 1847 in the old Rectory Cottages in Lydall's Road, which was replaced in 1896 by Manor School. Then came the Didcot Senior Mixed school in the late 1931 and the Senior Boys' School in Hagbourne Field in 1935. The earlier church school, in Church Street, Northbourne was erected in 1877 - later demolished in 1970s.
The erection of Northbourne had presented some difficulties, especially with the management of local government. The development was not generically part of either village, Didcot or East Hagbourne. The railwaymen and their families could not share in the traditions of these-villages, nor were they culturally linked. The common culture that the railwaymen with their families shared together was that of the city and its life. They had, for instance, no respect for the squire, the lord of the manor or the local clergy -Rector or Vicar. Consequently, these relative newcomers were disliked heartily by villagers from all adjacent villages. Superficially, of course, Northbourne was linked through the railway to Didcot; and felt a greater affinity towards that parish rather than to East Hagbourne. This anomaly was finally resolved in 1935, after several false starts, when parts of the parishes of East and West Hagbourne were amalgamated with Didcot, and its boundaries were extended south to their present limit.

World War II

The war years were relatively uneventful, the town little affected-by direct acts of war. No bombs fell, despite the proximity of the two Depots, Army and RAF, and the fighter airfields at Harwell and Abingdon; although there was one raid in November 1940 on the Milton Depot. Didcot and the surrounding area became a refuge for hundreds of evacuees from London during the war. There was once again a large influx of troops and four temporary camps were established for their accommodation. The ending of the war did not ease the problem for many elected to stay on at Didcot.. These early post-war years also saw the establishment of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. Housing, once again, became the problem of the Wallingford Rural District Council during the period 1945-55.

Post-war development

The first of the many post-war housing estates were all public- those of Sinodun Road, The Croft, Newlands Avenue, Fairacres Road, Queensway, Barnes Road, Glebe Road and Edinburgh Drive- all built between 1947 and the early 1950s. Large-scale private building was restricted due to the scarcity of building licences and materials so it was not until the mid-1950's that the first of these estates were built, Meadow Way in 1956. But other, even larger, estates followed in the years 1959 to 1965- Brasenose, Loyd, Cockcroft and Portway. A development of the 1970’s was the Fleetway Estate. As in the 1930's this further population increase brought improvements to the Broadway Shopping centre. By 1962 this had been remodelled with many of the earlier residential houses replaced by the modern shops.

Didcot Power Station

Commenced during the 1960's, and completed, also in the early 1970s, was the Didcot Power Station for the CEGB. The 2000MW coal-fired station: its chimneys and cooling towers serve as a distant beacon for the weary homecoming traveller. The future for Didcot is even more growth. By 2000 the population. is visualised as being in the region of 25,000 plus. With these people and houses will come fresh commercial development the Orchard Shopping Centre- and improved services, both public and private.

Brian Lingham is a founder member of the Didcot and District Archaeological and Historical Society and has authored several books on the colourful history of Didcot. The Railway Comes To Didcot (1992); Oxfordshire - Around Didcot and the Hagbournes (1990); Long Years of Obscurity: History of Didcot (1979); Changing Face of Didcot: A Photographic Record Covering the Past One Hundred Years (1977, Co authored with M J Hall), Dreams and delusions; a history of Didcot, 1945-1974, vol 4 (2012).
All the books are available direct from Brian Lingham.