A brief history of Iffley

Much of the following text was provided by Antonia Perrott, daughter of the Founder Chairman of Iffley History Society, John Perrott (1927-2001).

The Name – Iffley

In the chronicles of Abingdon Abbey (941-46) the place is called Gifteleia. The Domesday survey (1086) has Givetelei. Merton College records in the 1290s call it Iftele and Yiftele; it is Yeftley to the civil servants writing up the Domesday of Inclosures, in Latin, in 1517-18; Lincoln College accounts, written less formally and in English, have Ifley by 1543, and it is Iffley or Iflie, according to how well people could spell, during the Civil War 1642-46. Clearly, the sound of the name – at a time when spoken forms were dominant – was fixed by then. Afterwards the Y survived in occasional use, but only lawyers bothered with the T.

The Ley element is from a Saxon word for cleared ground, and appears again in neighbouring Cowley. Ekwall, authority on English place names, is not sure about the Saxon root of the rest; it may mean a gift, or it may mean a kind of plover. The Iffley Tapestry in the Church Hall chose to illustrate a lapwing – it makes a good picture.

The Ground

Iffley village lies across the foot of a low hill rising from the river meadows through concentric bands of soils. Garden earth in the village is a heavy loam, with limestone pieces and occasional polished river stones. Higher up the slope one is more aware of the clay, and there are seams of unstable sand. The top of Rose Hill is Ampthill Clay; we have no true Oxford clay as neighbouring districts have.

The local building stone is limestone and it was taken from the hillside. W J Arkell, of Oxford Stone, records Iffley stone used at Merton College in the 1290s: Walter Merton the founder held Iffley manor. Quarrying was on a small scale. On Rose Hill the clay was used more intensively. The Victoria County History of Oxfordshire (VCH) mentions decorated iron-age pottery there, and evidence of Roman working kilns.

The Archaeology

Early finds are few: from the Bronze Age, an axe head and an urn, from the Roman period a sandstone quern and a coin of the emperor Titus (AD79-81). From the Saxon period, VCH illustrates a gilt-bronze brooch with garnets, which is now in the British Museum.

The Domesday Survey 1086

The Saxon lord of Iffley manor was Azor; according to Domesday he held it freely in the time of Edward the Confessor. There was a fishery, land for six ploughs, a furlong of pasture, 24 acres of meadow and two acres of coppice. The Norman lord, holding the manor from William I, was Earl Aubrey.

The demesne (land reserved for the lord’s own use) had one plough and five serfs (unfree peasants obliged to work for the lord). There were 14 villeins (tenants holding their land in return for agricultural labour) and six bordars (smallholders who had cleared woodland or waste ground on the edge of the settlement); the villeins and bordars had four ploughs. (The value was 100s).

The Twelfth Century – Manor and Church

By 1156 the Norman family of St Remy held Iffley, and did so until about 1200. The parish church was built in their time, in size and decorative splendour out of all proportion to the place. The family also established Iffley as a parish, and had the forethought to involve their overlords, founders of Kenilworth Priory, in its future. The manor passed through many hands, and never had a powerful, resident, family again; but the right to appoint the parish priest was given to the Archdeacons of Oxford in 1279, and remained with them until 1965 since when it has belonged to the Dean and Chapter of Christchurch, the Oxford foundation which is both a college and a cathedral.

In 1393 Iffley was confirmed in its status as a revenue-raising unit for an absentee landlord. Sir Richard Abberbury of Donnington Castle, near Newbury, had acquired Iffley as a gift from Richard II’s queen; he founded an alms-house at Donnington, to be supported by the rents from Iffley. The Donnington Hospital still owns property in Iffley and was the principal landowner until after the Second World War. Some of Donnington’s principal tenants, however, have tried to benefit their small community of farmers, carpenters, masons, shoemakers, millers, servants, labourers and paupers.

The Location of Iffley, the Water Mill, the Fishing and the Ferry

No one knows when Iffley was founded, but probably in the period 1000-1050 AD. Why it is built where it is, is possibly easier to predict. Iffley is the first place down river from Oxford which has a small hill. The River Thames was quite uncontrolled and had many branches and side streams and much of the surrounding ground would have been marshy and frequently flooded.

It is likely that the hill, running to 295 ft, now known as Rose Hill and Iffley, was a desirable place to live, safe from any floods. Many other villages, above and below, are set back from the river to cater for floods.

A water mill was built in the mid-11th century and it survived for almost 800 years. Originally owned by a series of Oxford burgesses, it was bought in 1445 by Lincoln College, Oxford, who owned it until it was destroyed by fire in 1908. It ground malt, barley, corn and other cereals and became a fulling mill for a short period in the 15th century. It was notorious for its arguments between bargees and millers, who being in possession of the lock, whether it was a flash or pound lock, could preserve their head of water, and not let it flow down river, by opening his gates, as long as he wished.

The mill was picturesque and much painted, sketched and photographed. By the end of its life, better transport, canals, roads and railways, had its impact on its viability and money spent on upgrading the machinery was too late and probably too little.

The fishing rights, which went with the mill and were owned by Lincoln College, extended from 300 yards below the mill upstream to the mouth of the River Cherwell, a distance of almost two miles. The most prized catch were eels, which were a delicacy. The lock gates incorporated eel traps.

There was a ferry boat, but it was not a regular ferry crossing. Adjacent to the lock was a landing place where it was normal to land coffins, as a bye-law prevented coffins being carried across the lock.

Old Iffley Township

The ecclesiastical parish boundaries were as the township, except that Hockmore Street in Cowley was a detached part of Iffley parish. It was also customary for Littlemore people to use Iffley church, since much of Littlemore was a detached part of an Oxford city parish. Family names from Cowley and Littlemore are frequently found in Iffley parish registers. Parish boundaries were rationalised in the nineteenth century and again in the 1980s.

Links with Oxford

The firmest link was through the church. The Archdeacon, at Christchurch cathedral, held the right to appoint priests, and as Christchurch was also a college of the University, the Rectory and its estate were often let out to scholarly gentlemen. Arthur Pits, Fellow of All Souls, lived there during the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century; his widow harboured a Catholic priest in the house, and two younger Pits fled abroad and became Jesuits. The Archdeacon Barten Holyday, however, did live in the Rectory; he died there in 1661, of the “epidemical fever that rageth now abroad”.

It may be that many of the clergymen sent by the archdeacons to serve at Iffley lived in Oxford and rode out to do their duty, when they could. In the seventeenth century there are long gaps in the burial register: no entries for much of the 1620s, nor 1640-52, nor 1660-77, nor 1687-92. It does suggest that the priest in charge was not on the spot; not all the dates coincide with times of upheaval.

At least two principal tenants of the manor were also university men, David Lewis in the sixteenth century and Thomas Nowell in the eighteenth.

The Parliamentary Gazetteer of 1843-44 says the parish of Iffley with Hockmore had 590 people in 1801, and 1081 people in 1831. Oxford businessmen began to build houses in Iffley from the 1790s onwards; villagers, working for them as servants and perhaps becoming more aware of the city’s opportunities, inspired their children to look there for better and more varied employment. Occupations given in the marriage registers after 1850 include: “railway worker . . . bookbinder . . . college servant . . . livery-yard foreman . . . engine driver . . .compositor . . . grocer’s shopman . . .”

The school log from the 1870s records heavy truancy in summertime, when boys went to work on the cricket fields off the Cowley Road. College rowing eights race over a course that begins at Desborough Bridge, Iffley Lock; at least one Iffley man was employed building skiffs and assisting at the start of races in February and May.

At the turn of the century it was possible to go into Oxford by horse-bus from Iffley Turn. Shortly afterwards Iffley got mains water and sewer pipes, and was finally incorporated into the city in 1928.

Education, Charities and Relief

The will of Alice Smith, 1679, provided apprenticeships for poor children and gifts to the poor; Stephen Field in the eighteenth century left money to buy bread. The Nowell Trust educated poor children from 1805 and also made provision for the aged. The parish overseers administered poor relief under Elizabethan law until 1835, when Iffley joined a Union of 24 parishes, with a central workhouse in Headington. There are few instances of Iffley applicants going into the workhouse; most continued to receive relief at home by application to the Union relieving officer.

There had been dame schools and there would be small private schools, but the greatest improvement was probably the opening of a National School in 1838, in the building which is now the Church Hall; it functioned as a school until 1961, by which time a new primary school had been built on Rose Hill.

Customs and Amusements

Eighteenth-century memoirs mention Iffley Feast each September. The village was always a favourite place of resort for Oxford people and had a number of public houses of which the “house by the great elm tree” was a favourite. Nineteenth-century memoirs describe village amusements celebrating May Day.

Part of the old township boundary was called Bear’s Hedge after a visiting entertainer with a dancing bear. The Foresters’ Order (a friendly society) provided its members with regalia and occasions to march about with a brass band before sitting down to dinner. There were organised river trips to Nuneham Courtenay, and river picnics. There were all the usual concerts and “theatricals”, designed to raise money – especially once the fiddlers had been thrown out of the west gallery in the church and replaced by an expensive organ needing constant attention.

Farming and Small Trades in Iffley

Before enclosure in 1830, there were cottagers managing with small strips of land here and there, which they used for vegetables or grazing. The swineherd managed pigs on Hog Common south of the church. There was a farm attached to the Donnington manor house, Court Place, and another belonging to Lincoln College (its house now misleadingly called the Manor House). The thatched house at the corner of Mill Lane was a farmhouse and there was also one in Meadow Lane. River meadows provided good pasture, and Iffley sheep farmers also had grazing rights in Cowley and in Shotover Forest.

Medieval farming society involved people in varied odd jobs as part of the service they owed for their own small holdings; a man might be obliged to use his cart to carry his lord’s goods, but he would not describe himself as a carter. After the Black Death of 1349 this begins to change and the village acquired wheelwright, weaver, carter, fuller (who treated cloth) and maltster – as well as the miller. There must have been a blacksmith. Malting (processing barley for use in brewing ale) was important, and in wills of the 17th and 18th centuries we have also a fisherman, a cidermaker and two victuallers (who provided food and stores). (Parish registers do not reveal trades until after 1830, when inclosure had tipped the balance from subsistence smallholding to waged labour. There are numerous labourers and servants, but also cordwainers (shoemakers), masons, carpenters, a seamstress and a laundress. Shoemaking was an especially useful trade; it could be done at home as a second occupation when there was no farm work, and its product was always needed. The same was true of dressmaking, and taking in washing. The masons and other building trades flourished with Victorian expansion, as did shopkeepers.

Modern Times

The change from agricultural village to desirable suburb had become clear by the 1850s, when there were 23 gentlemen’s houses, most of them spread out between the village and the main road. The Donnington Hospital was now aware that letting land for substantial building was the best course; it therefore allowed small cottages to fall into disrepair, and was criticised during an inquiry in 1894-96. Poorer families moved out of the old village, having found work and better accommodation in the growing east Oxford suburbs. New building in Iffley was for middle-class tenants.

Donnington’s developments were not intensive. The result was an area of large houses with large gardens, pleasantly spaced and still grouped among green fields with many open views of the river. Most infilling has happened since 1960.

The old township fields filled up earlier. Oxford’s motor and engineering industries needed to house a growing labour force after 1920. Part of Rose Hill was built up after 1930 and the rest from 1946, as a council estate. Iffley village for the first time in its history had a close neighbour, built on its own fields but at a time when its residents were no longer field-workers – they had prosperous suburban households with a suburban affection for peace and quiet. One Rose Hill resident served Iffley parish as a churchwarden for 21 years.

Some of the old village families are represented on Rose Hill; with rising property values there are few left in Iffley, and it was through them that the village had its strong family links with Cowley. Links with the university are still strong. Links with Littlemore, once thought unbreakable, were weakened when Littlemore got its own parish church in 1836, and severed by the Oxford Ring Road in 1966; the old church way survives only as a footbridge.


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