History of Bampton

There is little doubt that Bampton is one of the oldest towns in England. The etymology of the name shows it to be of ancient British origin unchanged by the tide of the Anglo-Saxon invasion which swept away so much of British laws customs and languages. The termination ‘ton’ which is spelt nearly always as ‘tune’ in old manuscripts and pronounced as the Scots pronounce ‘toon’ is almost certainly Celtic in origin there being many examples of towns and villages all over the island with this termination. The ancient word ‘tune’ denoted a HEIGHT or EMINENCE, and is linked to the fact that the ‘towns’ of ancient Britons were all strongholds, erected on downs or heights. The modern word ‘town’ is almost certainly also derived from ‘tune’.

The first syllable, ‘Bam’ is most likely derived from the word, ‘Beam’ which used to denote a tree, and is pure Saxon – the word ‘Baum’ in German signifies a tree. Through the centuries, the word ‘beam’ has been narrowed in application, until it no longer signifies the living thing, but the log or trunk of it, after it has been felled and hewn, and placed as a main timber, or beam, to support the roof or the ceiling of a house.

The ancient name of Bampton is almost certainly therefore ‘Beamtune’, although other spellings to be found in manuscripts are Beamdune, Bemtune and Bentone.

There is archaeological evidence to suggest that the community of what we now know as Bampton was established during the Iron Age, and it is thought that it also marks the site of an extensive unwalled Roman settlement. Further archaeological finds indicate that the settlement survived after the Roman era, but the first mention of the town is in a 7th century notice in the Saxon Chronicle about a battle. Between the years 500 and 800 AD, England was divided into seven petty kingdoms, with the present county of Oxford lying between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. This frontier position saw the county being the scene of frequent battles between the Mercians and the West-Saxons, in which the neighbouring Britons, from the western parts of Gloucestershire and Wales, frequently took part, assisting sometimes one party, sometimes the other, and sometimes fighting both at the same time!

In the year 611, Cynegils became the King of Wessex, and in the fourth year of his reign, he had cause to repel an army of Welshmen who had invaded his dominions. In the expedition, he was aided by his son, Cuichelm, who later became king. Without further embellishment, the Saxon Chronicle notes: “A. D. 614. This year Cynegils and Cuichelm fought at Beamdune, and slew two thousand and sixty five Welshmen.” Considering the numbers slain, this must have been an action of considerable importance.

Bampton, or Beamdune, then merges into obscurity, until some 300 years later, in the reign of King Alfred. Alfred was born at Wantage, not too distant from Bampton, and spent a great part of his life in this part of his kingdom. Indeed he held an important parliament at Shifford in 890, which was the subject of an ancient manuscript - now lost - but which is quoted by Sir Henry Spelman in his ‘Life of Alfred’.

The history of Bampton is then once again lost, until it re-emerges in the reign of Edward the Confessor around 1046. The chaplain to Edward was Leofric, and he was rewarded by his sovereign for services rendered, by means of a grant of estates and manors in Bampton and nearby Chimney. Edward also appointed Leofric the first Bishop of Devon, and on establishing his cathedral-church in Exeter, he gave his land at Bampton to it. This land remained under the see of Exeter until the 19th Century, when it was taken over by the church commissioners in the 1840s. A lot of the land has since been sold, but some still remains under church ownership.

Bampton is then mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. This book (made up of two volumes) was basically a compilation of a nationwide survey commissioned by William the Conqueror, to find out how much his kingdom was worth. In those days, the monarch owned the land, and it was for him to give……or to take away. The Domesday Book is essentially a financial document – and we know how difficult they are to read – but it gives a tremendous insight into the system of land tenure in that time, and the way the system worked – mostly to the detriment of the peasant class! The Domesday Book, also mentioned that Bampton had a market, so it must have been an important town in the area at that time. Why, is not fully clear, but it may have had something to do with the defence of the area. For instance, in the 7th century, the King of Mercia had his seat at faraway Tamworth. To defend his kingdom, therefore, at least in the initial stages of an attack, he would rely on local ealdormen, or sub-kings, living around his kingdom, to try and thwart the designs of the attackers. Bampton was the home of one of these ealdormen. Studies have also shown that such a military ‘presence’ in an area, influenced the growth of towns and villages, and it is therefore likely, that Bampton grew because of its then strategic location. The granting of the right to have a market was the jealously guarded prerogative of the king, and would only be given if the lord of the town was sufficiently in favour with the king to be granted the franchise. It would appear that this was the case with Bampton, although the specifics of the granting of the market franchise are lost in the mists of time.

In 1314-15, during the reign of Edward II, Aylmer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, obtained a license from the king to “make a castle of his house at Bampton.” This is the origin of ‘Bampton Castle’ – in the days before the all-number telephone numbers, the Bampton exchange was called ‘Bampton Castle’, and the nearby RAF communications station still retains that name. The Castle has long since gone, being demolished prior to 1789, but a farmhouse, Ham Court, incorporates part of its west gatehouse and curtain wall.

Over the next few centuries, there was piecemeal allocation of land around the manor to various lords, which resulted in Bampton having several manor houses. During the 12th century, the church was rebuilt, with its distinctive spire added in the 13th century.

The 13th century arguably saw the beginning of the decline of Bampton, at least in commercial terms. Witney overtook Bampton in terms of population, industry and wealth. It gained borough status, and had the privilege of sending two of its burgesses to parliament. The sheep on the Cotswolds, the waters of the Windrush, and its favoured position on the London to Gloucester road, all combined to establish a very strong woollen industry in the town. Burford also flourished. From early days, it was a popular stopping place on the London to Gloucester road, and like Witney, Burford boasted a woollen industry. In contrast Bampton had little to offer other than a market, and this was facing fierce competition from the likes of Faringdon.

And so to 1645, and Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell and his army were in mid-Oxfordshire, and on arrival at Bletchington, was advised that there was a sizeable body of Royalists at Woodstock, on their way to Faringdon. Cromwell immediately decided to engage the enemy, which he did at Bampton. The Royalists holed up in what Cromwell described as a ‘pretty strong house’, but after an overnight siege, eventually surrendered to superior forces. Quite which building was the ‘pretty strong house’ is not unequivocally known, although Bampton Castle is favoured by many historians. Against this is the fact that it is known that when the Roundheads captured a Royalist castle, they destroyed it. Cromwell would surely have therefore destroyed Bampton Castle if that had been the ‘pretty strong house’, but no mention is made of it in his report.

For us, living in an age of innovation and continuous change, it might be difficult to appreciate how little rural life changed over the centuries. But the fact is that, if Aylmer de Valence had been able to return to Bampton at the beginning of the 18th century, he would have noticed little change from the times he had lived in. The town was still surrounded by large open fields, divided into strips. Men still ploughed the acres using slow moving oxen, and still followed the same rotation of crops. He would, however, have been surprised by the improvement in the quality of the housing of the townfolk. During the period 1650-1750 there was an immense amount of building and rebuilding of substantial houses in Bampton. While the reasons for this are obscure, there are two main schools of thought. Bampton had a flourishing leather industry during that period, bringing prosperity to the town. Coupled with the emergence of the ‘middle classes’ – doctors, lawyers, businessmen – who were demanding a much higher standard of living, this could have led to the building of such commodious houses. However, another possibility is that they were the houses of farmers, who were no longer the peasant farmers eking out a precarious existence on a few acres, but men of substance, with two hundred acres of more, and a commensurate living standard. But, if this were the case, why were the houses built in the town? At that time, all the arable land was still divided into strips of about an acre, in the great open fields which lay around the town. The day when Bampton became a cosy homogeneous unit was yet to come, and when a farmer wanted a new homestead, he was forced to build it within the confines of the town.

Another feature which was to alter the face of the Bampton was the increase in the number of shops. Up until the 18th century, villages and small towns had few shops as we understand them, and the inhabitants depended very largely upon the periodic visits of peddlers for commodities not produced locally. In 1751, William Dutton opened his shop in Mill Street, and from then on further shops, selling all sorts of different wares were opened in the town. By the middle of the 18th century, Bampton was almost totally self-sufficient, and had regained some of the prosperity of its past.

Another godsend at that time was the building of the Witney-Clanfield road, which went through Lew and Bampton – the road was probably meant to run from Witney to Faringdon, but didn’t for some reason materialise at that time. While Bampton had never been totally isolated as could be construed from the ‘Bampton-in-the-Bush’ title - see later comment - the building of this road meant that Bamptonians could get to Witney and beyond in a degree of comfort never before experienced. Later on, towards the end of the 1770s, a second road was built connecting the Oxford-Faringdon road to the Witney-Burford road, via Brize Norton and Bampton, crossing the Thames at Tadpole. The original bridge was of wooden construction, and lasted 25 years, before being replaced with the present hump-back bridge in 1802.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Bampton was a place of contrasts. On the one hand, there were the wealthy landowners and farmers, doing very nicely thank you, but at the other end of the scale, there were the farm workers trying to survive on wages of 1s 6d per day. Poverty was rife, and there was no benevolent welfare state to turn to. In such circumstances the Parish, by law, had to make provision for the poor and needy, but even when support was provided, the money given was meagre to say the least. A typical pauper was one Thomas Baston, a one-time labourer, who at the age of 71, was too infirm to work. He was given the princely sum of 5s per week (25p in the money of today) by the Parish to survive, and even allowing for the difference in money values from then until today, one wonders how he did survive! Yet life was probably more pleasant for him than for his fellow paupers who were accommodated in the Parish poorhouse, which stood on Weald Street, opposite the Manor House.

This was the time of great progress and experiment in the agricultural world. Jethro Tull had invented the seed drill. Robert Bakewell and Thomas Coke had effected great improvements in animal husbandry. But no innovations could be introduced to Bampton, as long as the ‘open field’ system was still employed. At the beginning of the 19th century, the ancient system of crop rotation was still being followed in Bampton, with the local farmers following a four-year programme as follows:

  • Field 1 Wheat
  • Field 2 Beans
  • Field 3 Barley
  • Field 4 Fallow

And it was out of the question for an individual farmer to deviate from the system. Indeed, it was not an easy matter to change the system to one of enclosure, since it needed an act of parliament to do so. And in turn this needed two-thirds of the landowners to favour it. With the church being the largest landowner around, and fearing a diminution in the land rents if enclosure was introduced, Bampton stayed with the old system, long after other areas had changed.

However, in 1812, with the church now more amenable to enclosure, the act of parliament was passed allowing enclosure in the parish, although the actual enclosure was not completed until 1821 because of the formidable legal issues to be resolved, not to say hard bargaining also by the church. But the result was the old, old story, the rich grew richer, and the poor poorer. Enclosure favoured those with property, and there is no doubt that those without found themselves worse off. Under the old system, many of the townsfolk had the right to run a few animals or head of poultry on the common meadows of the parish, but these, after enclosure, had been shared amongst the landowners and farmers. One can well appreciate that the ownership of a few livestock had kept people above the breadline, but with enclosure, many had then to survive in deplorable conditions.

However, in spite of the poverty that existed in the village, there was a high degree of optimism in the future, and a feeling that Bampton would return to its prosperity of the past. With this increased optimism, there was an initiative to revive the market, which had been languishing since it was revived in 1776 – a few stalls with some dairy produce and some trading in pigs were all that the then market had to offer. A proposal was made to build some sort of wooden shelter to provide some protection to the stallholders, in the hope that this improvement would attract more to sell their produce and wares. This did not meet with the approval of the wealthier townsfolk, and so another plan emerged to build a town hall cum market house. After all, it was argued, Witney has a town hall, so why not Bampton?

The town hall was duly completed in 1838, for the princely sum of £300. This may not seem much today, but when farm workers of that era were lucky if they earned 10s per week, the cost is put into context. Unfortunately, the new town hall did nothing for the revival of the market, and within a few years, the weekly market had disappeared from the calendar completely. The town hall had therefore become Bampton’s white elephant, and from its completion to the end of the 19th century, the trustees struggled to make it pay its way – but with little success. The newly established parish council took over the building in 1895, but its fortunes did not improve. Towards the end of the century, the arches of the building were filled in, and the open area closed in to form two rooms on the ground floor. One of the rooms was used for years as a reading room, and the other became the headquarters of the fire brigade, until they moved to the fire station in 1970. After years of general neglect - the income was never enough to cover the cost of the maintenance required - the building was refurbished at a cost of £6000 in 1970, and today it is a well used facility of the village. But it is true to say that the town hall raises mixed emotions with Bamptonians. Its proportions are not very good, and its style is basically of Italian derivation. Having said that, there is no doubt that the building makes an acceptable centrepiece for the Market Square, and the village would be the poorer without it.

By the middle of the 19th century, Bampton had become a self-contained community: there was no need to go shopping in Witney or any other town. The village boasted around 25 to 30 shops, including several butchers, chemists, drapers, bakers, fishmongers, tailors, sadlers, hairdressers, grocers, and some general stores. The titles by which these shops go under should, however, be treated with some caution, since most of them sold a hotchpotch of commodities. But it is clear from the range of shops available, that Bampton was well endowed with the retail outlets of the day. Further, and in spite of the infamously low wages, the Bampton man could, apparently, always find a few coppers to buy his beer. In 1851, the town had no fewer than 10 public houses (rising to an incredible peak of 13 during the 1950s!); the Bampton man certainly seems to have had, and retained, a very healthy thirst! Elements of the community were relatively prosperous around this time, as evidenced by the fact that over 60 households employed one or more full-time domestic servants. But this prosperity hid the poverty which still pervaded the village, with many still at or below the breadline.

The second half of the century started well enough for Bampton. Agriculture was still the main employer in the area, and the community continued to flourish and grow. In 1873, the railway came to Bampton (although the station was actually closer to Brize Norton than to Bampton!), offering a mode of transport and comfort the likes of which had never been seen before – and at low cost. London could be reached in just over 2 hours by train, which allowed people to go on shopping trips to the capital, and return in time for tea. A further innovation was the introduction, by Great Western, of cheap day excursions to the principal seaside resorts, and for many a Bampton man and woman, this provided the first opportunity to see the sea! These opportunities for observing how people lived in other places had a profound effect on the Bampton people. Their outlook broadened, and they began to lose some of that narrow parochialism; they began to realise that Bampton was not the centre of the universe after all! But another result of the road and rail building, was a new-found accessibility to Bampton for outsiders, and this resulted in the character of the society gradually changing. The middle classes began to move in. Retired professional men, retired army and navy officers, and people of independent means bought up some of the commodious houses, which had done their duty as farm houses for so long, and turned them into, what house agents would call, ‘gentlemen’s residences’. The newcomers very soon made their presence felt. For long, the affairs of the town had been the domain of the farmers and the more prosperous tradespeople, whose aim in general was to keep things as they were, and had always been. No increase in the rates was acceptable, even if it would have meant Bampton progressing, and keeping up with developments in towns elsewhere. At this time, rubbish was just thrown out into the street by many of the householders, with the parish having little control over it. The Highmoor stream was also used as a dumping ground, but nothing was done to counter these actions, because it would have cost money. But the newcomers, having come from towns where provisions had been made to deal with all aspects of public health, did not propose to tolerate such a state of affairs, and gradually, with pressure and action from them, things began to change for the better. Indeed, it was through the newcomers that Bampton got its first street lighting. The proposal at first met with stiff resistance from the vestry, which would not budge in increasing the rates to pay for the lighting. Not to be denied, the newcomers raised the funds through voluntary contributions, and the lights were installed.

Another series of events which changed the face of Bampton around that time, happened in the late 1870s when a run of disastrous harvests was experienced. Many farmers were ruined by this alone, but, as if this was not enough, the country also started to import corn from the New World, at prices which could not be matched by those local farmers who had survived. In an effort to continue to survive, much of the land around Bampton, which had for centuries been under the plough, was converted to meadow and pasture, to produce dairy products. However, towards the end of the century, Denmark and Holland started to invade the market with their own cheap dairy produce, and it was only the ever increasing demand from the large towns and cities which kept many of the farmers, and particularly the smaller farmers, in business. This period, however, eventually saw the eclipse of the very small farms in the parish, and the pattern of agriculture took on a form very similar to today: a few substantial farms in the medium to large category.

These larger farms were able to compete with the foreign imports, the more so with the increased use of machinery, but this latter aspect also spelt disaster for employment in the village, and the population numbers began to slide as people went elsewhere in the search for work.

So the result of all of these changes was that, by the end of the 19th century, employment opportunities for farm workers was down, and there was a substantial reduction in the population numbers from the peak at the middle of the century because of this. But wealthier people had also moved in to the town, and had begun to change to face of the place, not only by renovating and rebuilding properties, but by influencing the way the affairs of the town were run.

On December 4th 1894, the first election for the Bampton Parish Council was held, and it says much for the town fathers of that day, that there were 21 candidates for the 11 seats. Bampton was getting itself ready for the 20th century.

The early years of the 20th century were marked by the coming of the bicycle to Bampton. Now, the younger people of the village had a means of transport, such that they could look farther afield for work, with many becoming employed in the mills and shops of Witney. While many in the village remained on or below the breadline, the general picture was one of slow growth, and improvements in living standards: albeit improving at a very slow pace. Notwithstanding the problems, the Bamptonians of this era made sure that life was enjoyed, with much happening in the village over the course of a year, with many of the events still a part of Bampton life today. Easter Monday was when the steeplechases were held. Not much is known about these races, but it is believed that the course lay between the village and the station. During the same day, show-jumping events were also held in a field close to the village. Whit-Monday saw (and still sees) the Morris Dancers performing in the streets, and in private gardens around the village. This was also the day that two of the local benevolent societies made merry. The Self-help club (headquarters at The Lamb Inn), the Victoria Club (headquarters at The Wheatsheaf), were a godsend to the poor people. By paying a small weekly amount, a few shillings a week could be drawn in times of illness. Every Whit Monday, the two clubs, each led by a band, marched in procession to the church for a combined service. And after the service each returned to its own headquarters to partake of dinner, and of course ale! Lloyd George’s Insurance Act of 1911 of course sounded the death knell of this type of society, but other forms of societies have sprung up from time to time, such as the SPAJERS and The Pumpkin Club, which aim to do a bit of good around the community for those in need. Late summer saw the Horticultural Society holding its Flower and Vegetable Show – a very popular affair, drawing entries from far and wide. At the beginning of the century, the vegetable garden played a very important part in the lives of many a Bamptonian. For working class families, existing on pitifully meagre wages, a well-stocked vegetable garden could just about keep the wolf from the door. Hospital Sunday was another important day in the calendar, and held on one of the Sundays during August. It was so called because of the collection made in the village to support the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. The Bush Court of the Ancient Order of Foresters, established in Bampton in 1891, and whose objects were much the same as the other two clubs mentioned above, but which was part of a nation-wide organisation, assembled at their headquarters, the New Inn (now the Morris Clown), and marched in procession, led by a brass band, to the parish church. This society had 100 members at the time, and a particular day of note for it was August 6th 1900, when its new banner was unfurled and carried in the procession for the first time. The banner is preserved in the Town Hall.

The annual Bampton Horse Fair took place during the August bank Holiday, and at the turn of the century ran over three days. The Fair had gone from strength to strength during the 19th century, reaching its peak in the first decade of the 20th century. That the Fair enjoyed more than local fame is shown from the fact that buyers came from as far afield as Liverpool, London and South Wales. The first day of the Fair was ‘Show Day’, when horses of a superior type were sold by formal auction. The second day was ‘Big Fair Day’ when horses of every description were sold by individual haggling. The third day was ‘Pleasure Day’ – which speaks for itself! There is still a fair today in Bampton held during August, but there are no horse sales, only the fairground rides and stalls to enjoy.

As the 20th century progressed, Bampton managed to maintain a great degree of independence from the surrounding villages and towns, and the world at large. The culture remained pretty much self-contained, with one former resident saying that it was like a cross between a Thomas Hardy novel and ‘The Darling Buds of May’! The Great War took its toll of young Bampton men, as it did to the rest of the country – over 250 Bampton men went off to war, and some 50 did not return. But afterwards, the village returned pretty well to the style it had had before the outbreak of the conflict. Agriculture was still the main occupation for many in the village, but with the expanding transport systems, making travel much easier, many began to make their living much further afield. But Bampton remained Bampton, and the generation which grew up in the 30s and the 40s, would view the village of those years with quite some nostalgia – and as an idyllic place in which to grow up.

After World War II, the pace of change in the village was not as dramatic as perhaps elsewhere in the Country, but change has been seen. While initially benefiting from improved transport links, with the closing of the railway, and the reduction in the bus services, Bampton is worse off today than it was in the 50s in terms of public transport. Of course, the car has mitigated the effect of this, but in these days of increasing pollution, and environmental awareness, this can hardly be a good thing. The village has also seen expansion in the number of houses, and therefore its population, which stands now at around 2500. A further increase in the number of dwellings is on the cards, given the Government’s projection of house demand. But Bampton will jealously guard the open field space which surrounds the village, in the hope that any new houses to be built will be built in areas approved by the villagers, and not by some far-off Government body or council. While agriculture still provides some employment opportunities for the people of Bampton, much of the work is contracted out, and the size of the machines now available to work the land is such that the number of jobs is few. Many Bamptonians now make their living outside of the village, and indeed, with London a mere 2 hours away by car and train – subject of course to the vagaries of the train companies timekeeping – Bampton is now part of the commuter belt!

Bampton is still a wonderful place to live. It is a pretty village, and still retains many of its centuries old customs, and not a few relatively new ones! The people of the village are proud to be Bamptonians, but are also very warm-hearted, and welcoming of visitors. There are many sites of historic interest to see in the village, details of which can be found on this Website. And of course, there are still 5 public houses!

So what is the origin of the ‘Bampton-in-the-Bush’ name. The truth is that no-one knows for sure! The popular view is that it was because, for many many years at some stage during its existence, Bampton was cut off from the rest of the world, and had no roads leading to it. This myth was perpetuated by those who pointed to the great open fields surrounding Bampton, and further strengthened by the quote from Dr Giles (see sources below) who said that during his father’s time, there ‘was no clearly defined road between Witney and Bampton’. But this was not true! Throughout the ages, as can be seen from this brief history, Bampton was an important market town in the area, and on a key route from London through to Gloucester. In fact, no record of the use of the word ‘Bush’ has been found which pre-dates Cromwell’s use of it in his report on the siege of the ‘pretty strong house’ in Bampton in 1645. One possibility is that it was just a bit of internal fun-poking by Bampton’s own people. The sound of ‘Bampton-in-the-Bush’ might just have appealed to their sense of humour, such that as time passed, the alternative name for Bampton stuck, while its origin faded into the mists of the past.


History of the Parish and Town of Bampton by J A Giles and published in 1848.

The Bampton We Have Lost by J L Hughes-Owens, publish date unknown.