Jessie Jones (1885-1945): Teacher with a Legacy

An article appears on the Oxfordshire History Centre blog, which will be of particular interest to those drawn to the history of Wychwood villages Idbury and Fifield.

The article highlights the work and times of village teacher Jessie Jones. She was Head Teacher at Idbury and Fifield village school in the 1920s and 1930s. A remarkable collection her papers, and schoolwork of the children, is held at Oxfordshire History Centre. These provide a vivid insight into her work.

“Miss Jones” as she (of course!) was known, encouraged her pupils to discover and record the history and traditions of their locality, and to study the countryside around it.

It was the inspiration of her grandfather’s country records and teaching devices which gave Jessie Jones the idea and motivation to make these historical surveys. This work began with the creation of a local field map and a nature study. It was extended over several years to include the mapping and the collection of artefacts and data relating to all aspects of the geography and history of the locality, together with details of village life.

The article describes this work in some depth, with illustrations, and is well worth a look. The article is here

Some Sculptural Curiosities in Milton-under-Wychwood

You are being watched!

An unusual feature of Milton is the scattering of small pieces of sculpture which adorn a number of properties throughout the village. We are never going to rival Florence in our sculptural adornment, but these little carvings illustrate a sometimes-overlooked theme in the history of the village. This article is firstly intended to provide a record of these items as interesting artefacts within the village and secondly is an attempt to put these sculptures into their historical context and to suggest what their origins may have been, because almost all have been relocated from now unknown original settings. If any of our readers have any information on the further history or origins of these sculptures the History Society would be delighted to hear from you. I must also say thank you to the owners of buildings who have provided information about their sculptures and allowed access to their properties to take photographs.

A PDF of this article is available here

Usually sculptures in small rural villages in the Cotswolds and elsewhere are to be found on and within the local parish church in the form of architectural ornament or funerary monuments. However, almost all the ones described here are scattered among the domestic buildings of Milton, that is unusual. Most of these survivors are a legacy of the presence of Alfred Groves and Sons in the village. Many are probably salvaged features from the demolition or restoration of other buildings in the region by Groves, or sample pieces undertaken by apprentices. There are other pieces of sculpture and ad hoc bits of carving inside a few properties within the village which are not on public view but are also a part of the legacy of Groves’ presence (figures 1 and 2), these seem to be the doodles of masons living locally. Groves was once a huge enterprise in the centre of Milton. The company provided masonry, timber and building skills to many projects throughout Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire including Oxford Colleges and St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Their heyday was in the second half of the 19th Century, and early 20th Century. An account of their history by Norman Frost appears in volumes 7, 8 and 9 (1992/93/94) of the Wychwoods History Society Journal.

Figure 1 relief carving of a lion (?) inside property on Milton High Street
Figure 2 Standing man carved into a quoin now inside a property on Milton High Street

Wooden figure of angel playing a woodwind instrument

The oldest surviving figure sculpture in Milton is the wooden, probably oak, carving of a figure playing some sort of woodwind instrument. This instrument is sometimes identified as a shawm (figures 3 and 4). He has wings and is therefore an angel. Unfortunately, he is no longer on public view, but for a long time he occupied a niche on the front of the former Wesleyan Mission Room on Milton High Street. He is thought to date from the 15th Century.

Figure 3 Angel Musician front view, former Wesleyan Mission Room
Figure 4 Angel Musician side view, former Wesleyan Mission Room

He might have been a fixture in Milton for many years before he was given his own niche in this prominent location on the High Street sometime in the later 19th Century (figure 5). His time outdoors has taken its toll and he was taken down around 2006 and is now housed indoors. His origin is unknown, he almost certainly formed part of a decorative scheme of such figures in a religious setting, and it has been speculated that he may once have formed part of the decorations of nearby Bruern Abbey before it was dissolved by Henry VIII.

Figure 5 Photomontage of the angel within his niche

There is a strong tradition of such musical angels in churches in East Anglia and figure 6 shows one such from St Wendredas in March, Cambridgeshire. This is one of 118 figures of angels in this church. Similar figures appear in the church of St Mary the Virgin in Ewelme, Oxfordshire, a little closer to home.

Figure 6 Wooden figure of musician angel forming a corbel to the roof of St Wendredas, March, Cambridgeshire, early 16th Century
Figure 7 Wooden figure playing woodwind instrument from La Maison d’Adam, Angers c1491

There is of course a tradition of musical angels in European painting and sculpture from the middle ages and they also sometimes appear in secular settings. A distant cousin of our figure can be seen on La Maison d’Adam in Angers, France (figure 7), a late medieval house from 1491, and therefore of a similar age to our figure, just one of the many carved figures which decorate this French house.

Two stone heads on St Michael’s – a house on Milton High Street

These two heads were not made for this location but have been repurposed from their original locations sometime in the late 19th Century when this property was probably upgraded. The uppermost grinning figure forms a corbel that supports the timber strut-work that now decorates this gable (figure 8). Strut-work of this type was becoming a popular architectural feature in the area towards the end of the 19th Century. He is much weathered and has the appearance of a gargoyle. Again, this figure may also have been salvaged from some church restoration undertaken by Groves. He is difficult to date, possibly 18th or early 19th Century. Such caricatures frequently decorate local churches, and many Oxford Colleges (figure 9) and one or the other may have been his original function.

Figure 8 Uppermost head on gable end of St Michael’s, High Street
Figure 9 Gargoyle from New College Oxford

The lower figure is a different sort of character (figure 10) and has the appearance of a portrait. There is evidence of a moustache extending to bushy sideburns, and his shoulders appear to be adorned with toga-like drapery. These details date him to the early to mid-19th Century. The toga draped busts of British worthies of the Georgian and Victorian era decorate many a provincial town hall or art gallery, not to mention the Houses of Parliament. Such portrait busts were also used to decorate the façade of public buildings. The heads of Shakespeare and Garrick feature on many a theatre façade, and famous artists feature on municipal galleries. There are quite a few for example on the National Portrait Gallery. Figure 11 shows one such figure that decorates a building in Bath. It would be nice to know who our character is, but his rather eroded and decrepit state makes this a tricky task.

Figure 10 Lower head on gable end of St Michael’s High Street
Figure 11 Head of a bearded figure on the facade of former premises of S F Andrews, Provision Merchant, in Union Street, Bath, 1885

Female head on Dashwood House

The head of a young woman projects from the wall above the doorway to Dashwood House on Shipton Road (figure 12). The building dates from the late 19th Century, but the stone head of the young lady is from elsewhere, and possibly 18th or early 19th Century. She was probably carved as either a supportive corbel or as a carved termination of a drip hood such as are frequently seen on English parish churches. Rather weathered examples can be seen on the nearby Church of St Mary in Shipton, but a close relation of our girl can be found as a decorative termination to a drip hood to a window on St Edwards in Stow-on-the-Wold, this was probably the original intended function of our young lady.

Figure 12 Stone head of young woman on Dashwood House, Shipton Road
Figure 13 Female head terminating drip hood on St Edwards, Stow on the Wold

Bulls Head, Milton High Street

A prominent piece of sculpture on the High Street is the carved bull’s head topped by a ball finial atop the gable of what is now the High Street entrance to the small development of Harman’s Court (figure 14). The single-story building is modern rebuild of a similar structure on the site that once served as a butcher’s shop by the name of Harman’s. The back of the premises once housed an abattoir. The bull’s head was in situ on the original building and was saved and re-mounted on the replacement building which is now a domestic residence. The building opposite was once a pub called The Butcher’s Arms. Our bull now serves as an important reminder of this now hidden past. Nonetheless, he is also a refugee from some other location, as it is highly unlikely that a small village butchery would have commissioned such a statement piece of sculpture. Again, the hand of Groves is seen in the re-homing of the bull’s head here. He probably dates from the mid-19th Century and would have once adorned some Victorian Market Hall. Similar examples can be seen on Victorian Market Halls in many larger British cities. Figure 15 shows an example from the former Smithfield Market in Manchester.

Figure 14 Bull’s Head, Milton High Street
Figure 15 Bull’s Head, Former Smithfield Market Hall, Manchester, 1858

Boar’s Head, Groves Industrial Estate

A companion to the head of the bull can be found atop a gable on one of the buildings just behind Groves’ hardware store. It is the head of a boar, perched high on this gable, and he is difficult to see. However, he is also a rehomed piece of stone carving from a now unknown location, but possibly also from a former market hall.

Figure 16 Carved stone head of a boar, Groves’ Industrial Estate

Kneeling Praying Figure, Brasenose, Shipton Road

This surprising figure sits on a pierced gothic plinth sited above a door canopy on Brasenose, a cottage on Shipton Road. It shows a kneeling praying figure with face raised heavenwards (figure 17). The figure is not well detailed partly through weathering and partly by the design of the unknown sculptor. He is a rather simplified copy of a figure originally known as the Bambino Inginocchiato Orante (Kneeling Child Praying) originally conceived by the Florentine sculptor Luigi Pampaloni (1791-1847). Pampaloni first executed the figure in plaster in 1826 (Accademia Belle Arte, Florence). It was a commission for a funerary monument to the daughter of the Russian noblewoman Anna Potocki. The original design had the unclothed boy kneeling on a cushion (figure 18).

Figure 17 Figure of kneeling child praying, Brasenose, Shipton Road
Figure 18 Luigi Pampaloni, Kneeling Child Praying c 1830, sold at Sotheby’s 10/07/19

The figure became an enormous success and subsequently Pampaloni and his assistants executed many copies in marble that can be found in museums and graveyards across Europe. Whilst the original praying boy was conceived as a nude statue the concept was taken up by many other sculptors throughout the 19th century. In many of these variants his modesty was often preserved by the addition of a discreet piece of cloth draped over his right leg (figure 19). This is the version copied in the Milton figure. There are now probably thousands of versions of this figure throughout the world, many featuring as funerary monuments to young children. The one illustrated here is in the churchyard of St John the Baptist in Tibshelf, Derbyshire from the early 20th Century (figure 20). Our modest figure, from the late 19th or early 20th Century, was probably also originally intended to decorate a funerary memorial. This is reinforced by the gothic base containing a candle, a symbol of the brevity and fragility of life. However, whose memorial this was intended to be and how it ended up as a decoration to this door canopy we might never know.

Figure 19 Figure of Praying Child, attributed to Vincenzo Vela (1820-1891) Biblioteca de Nava, Reggio Calabria, late 19th Century, now with added loin cloth
Figure 20 Figure of praying child as part of child’s gravestone, St John the Baptist, Tibshelf, Derbyshire. Early 20th Century

Sculptural collages on Holmleigh, Jubilee Lane.

The next item is what might be described as a sculptural collage of various carved fragments inserted into each gable end of Holmleigh on Jubilee Lane. The house bears the date 1869 and was almost certainly built by Groves. The fragments are obviously from different sources, and from different types of stone. Many of the fragments seem to have funerary associations and were perhaps intended to form parts of gravestones. The composition on the right-hand gable contains the head of a cherub. Similar cherub heads can be seen on gravestones in Ascott and Shipton Churchyards, and a rather faded one appears carved above the doorway to Stone Porch, a house on the High Street. Beneath the cherub is a carving of a weeping willow arching over a cross and some tombstones. The weeping willow is another common motif on Victorian gravestones for obvious reasons, though I have not been able to find any on local gravestones. The assemblage includes some gothic arches, placed horizontally, and vertically in a rather whimsical composition. These fragments are again almost certainly salvaged pieces from demolition jobs or renovation jobs, or even perhaps apprentice pieces done by younger masons working for Groves.

Figure 21 Assembly of carved fragments in North-west gable of Holmleigh, Jubilee Lane
Figure 22 Assembly of carved fragments in the south-east gable of Holmleigh, Jubilee Lane

Hooded figure on Forest Gate (Formerly Frogmore House)

Our next sculpture comes from a grand late Victorian villa on Frog Lane (figure 23), formerly known as Frogmore House but now called Forest Gate. The house dates from the very early 20th Century and is quite a statement property with its multiple gables and large stained-glass windows to the main façade. Topping the pyramidal roof to one of the front bays is a cowled figure made from terracotta. He is the only sculpture in our study to occupy his original intended location. Figural terminations to roof lines were common on some of the grander houses of the later 19th century, dragons being a particular favourite. There is a terracotta dragon on one of the gables to the nearby Woodhill, the Sands (originally known as Holmleigh) which is of about the same date. This figure, half man half beast – note the claw like feet – is a re-imagining of the many hybrid-creatures that decorate churches and cathedrals and colleges up and down the country (figure 24). His face, however, is no caricature but has the look of a sensitively modelled portrait; one assumes he is the person who originally had the property built, some further research is needed here.

Figure 23 Terracotta sculpture of a hooded man with claw feet, Forest Gate, Frog Lane c 1903
Figure 24 Corbel with carved head 14th Century, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Mother and Child by Constantine A Smith, Broadstone, Green Lane

The carving of a Mother and Child sitting in front of a house on Green Lane is something apart from most of the other sculptures in this article: it is freestanding, rather than attached to a building, and it is the first piece of “modern” sculpture to appear in the village. It was commissioned by a former owner of Broadstone, and executed by the sculptor Constantine A Smith, about whom little is known other than that he was Cheshire based and active in the 1960s and 1970s. This sculpture dates from circa 1970. It shows a naked woman sitting cross legged on the ground cradling a young child who clings to her, burying its face in her body in a naturalistic way, though in other ways this carving might be described at expressionistic rather than naturalistic. The sculptor has exaggerated the size of hands and feet and generally simplified the swollen forms of the figure and stylised the facial features of the woman, perhaps in an attempt to express the fecundity of motherhood. The image of the mother and child has a long and daunting history in Western art, including the many images of the Madonna and Child, and even with the decline of the church as a patron of such works, sculptors have continued to tackle this iconic subject. This figure is a secular version of the subject, a kind of Earth Mother, naked and seated almost directly on the ground. The style can be described as broadly modernist, owing much to the revival of the technique of direct carving (working directly in stone rather than preparing a model in clay or plaster to translate to stone) as promoted by sculptors such as Eric Gill and Jacob Epstein in the early decades of the 20th Century. The sculptor has left the texture of his toothed chisel very evident in the carved surfaces. If we want a very direct precursor for this Mother and Child we need look no further than the figure of Genesis by Jacob Epstein from 1931 (figure 26), a sculpture that was hugely controversial in its day.

Figure 25 Mother and Child by Constantine Smith circa 1970, Green Lane
Figure 26 Jacob Epstein, Genesis 1929-31, Whitworth Art Gallery

Carved Head of Dr Who, façade of Groves Hardware Store, Shipton Road.

Our final head appears after a gap of over a hundred years since the last head was added to the village (Forest Gate), so represents a renewal of this Milton tradition. He projects from the upper story of Groves new hardware store which was re-built after a fire in 2014. He is also a sculpture that was originally intended for another location, and was one of a number of heads commissioned as part of a Groves’ maintenance project on the medieval church of Holy Trinity in Bledlow.

Figure 27 Carved head depicting Patrick Troughton as Dr Who, Groves Hardware Store 2014

However, for reasons unknown this head was not used. The other heads for this church included the four members of the Beatles and the local lord of the manor Lord Carrington. The head featured on Groves hardware store is intended to be the actor Patrick Troughton as Doctor Who. He was again to be a figure terminating a drip hood. And so the tradition continues.

Further Reading

Michael Rimmer: The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages, 2015.

The volumes in the Public Sculpture of Britain series published by Liverpool University Press since 1997

Benedict Read: Victorian Sculpture, Yale University Press, 1982

Maria Teresa Sorrenti: Per il collezionismo reggino dell’800. Il “Putto orante” della Biblioteca “Pietro De Nava” di Reggio Calabria, nd.

Picture credits

All images copyright of the Wychwoods Local History Society except:-

Fig 6 – courtesy of Lynne Jenkins
Fig 1 and 2 – courtesy Peter Bradford
Fig 15 – courtesy Manchester Evening News
Fig 18 – courtesy Sotheby’s
Fig 19 – courtesy of the Biblioteca Pietro de Nava, Reggio Calabria
Fig 24 – courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Fig 26 – courtesy of Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Wychwoods Victorian Evening 1990

In January 1990, the new decade was celebrated in truly entertaining style by the society. Here we present the show, digitised from the old VHS tape which recorded the event.

The Victorian evening was based on the format of a concert given in Milton Board School in 1885. Society members and friends entertained the audience with a feast of words and music depicting late Victorian life in the Wychwoods and surrounding areas.

The cast played, sang or recited from contemporary sources with material created and researched by members. Many aspects of everyday life were included – Christmas, cooking and health were prime examples. Farming life with its attendant problems was also part of the show. The themes made many references to low pay, woodland disappearance, emigration, the coming of the railways and fear of the Workhouse. Much more fun than it sounds!

We hope you enjoy the show.

The Shipton Tillyards


This article is also available as a PDF, downloadable here.

Wooden cash tills, usually with an opening on the top to accommodate a paper roll, were common in small shops throughout the country until about the 1970s. More often than not such cash tills came from workshops in Shipton under Wychwood. From the First World War until the late 1970s, the village housed three such businesses (see Map), which have now completely disappeared. This is the story of this local enterprise, which for so long was an important part of the village’s economy.

The first till manufacturing business was established by Alf Baylis just after the First World War. Alf Baylis had been raised in Shipton. His father was a railway signalman at Bruern and the family lived at 1 The Row next to the Red Horse public house.

Alf had a reputation as a bit of a “ladies’ man” who appreciated fast cars. He had learned the cash till construction business at Gledhills in Halifax (who in turn had copied from the National Cash Register Co) and brought Jimmy Wallace and Harry Crabtree with him from Halifax to work in his new business which traded in Upper High Street Shipton under the name of The Oxon Cash Register Co. Alf Baylis later lived at Wayside, Milton Road, Shipton.

The site of Alf Baylis’s new business was a builder’s yard belonging to Shipton Court. It had been described as the “Estate Yard” in the sales catalogue of 1913 and as having a carpenter’s and painter’s shop, an engine shed and saw shed with saw pit. There were also hardware and timber stores. In total the area was given as occupying one rod and 11 perches. This reference to a “yard” encouraged the naming of the cash till manufacturing works as a “tillyard” and this was later applied to the other locations where cash tills were produced. Diagram 1 shows the layout from memory of the Baylis works (source Bob Coombes).

In 1919 Henry (Harry) Coombes and his second cousin William Edwin (Ted) Coombes joined Alf Baylis. They had worked at Groves, the Milton builders, before the First World War. By 1923 the relationship between the workforce and Alf Baylis had deteriorated, for example over clocking in procedures (the clock in question is shown in the mess room on Diagram 1) and possibly pressure to work on Sundays (both Harry and Ted were staunch church members and had been in the bell ringing team before the First World War – see Photo 3). One day in 1923 Alf Baylis lost his temper and told some of the men to leave.

Map showing the locations of the three Shipton Tillyards

The vicar of St Mary’s Shipton, the Reverend Nixon, helped the unemployed men set up their own business in the stable loft at the Vicarage but there were objections to men in working clothes being housed about the Vicarage. After some two years, premises were obtained in Station Road for the new United Woodworking Company. For a while the two cash till companies worked independently although social connections seem to have been reasonable. In 1927 the Parish Council for example thanked both Harry Coombes and Alf Baylis for carrying out work to provide a coal store at the village hall.

Shipton Tillyards Diagram
Diagram 1: The Oxon cash register Co’s works (later the south or lower Tillyard of the United Woodworking Co.) Camera A is the position from which photograph 1 was taken. Similarly, camera B is the position for photo 2.

By the second half of the 1920s, The Oxon Cash Register Co. was getting into financial difficulties. One factor may have been the building of a large show room (which later became Shipton’s cinema) described as a “white elephant” by Bob Coombes, and the old Baylis business was bought out using money from Sam Groves and William Willett. By 1929 Alf Baylis had moved to Lyneham and resigned from the Parish Council. He disappeared from view, although he is reported to have traded in furniture in Manchester and is believed to have died relatively young.

The Station Road works now became known as the North Works and was run by Harry Coombes while the Oxon Cash Register Co.’s works continued as the South Works under the supervision of Ted Coombes. Both units cooperated in the manufacturing process where required. For example the North Unit had a dovetailer machine while the South Works, which mainly made shop fittings, had a corner locker machine.

Photo 1: The workforce at the Oxon Cash Register Co in about 1923 (presumably after the exodus of Harry and Ted Coombes who do not appear in the photograph). The man crouching on the left of the front row is Charles Duester. The fifth man from the left in the front row is Alf Baylis. Standing behind him in the back row is Ken Earley. Between them, in the middle row is Bertram Powell who is also third from the left in photo 2.

The layout of the Station Road or North Unit as it was just before the Second World War is shown in Diagram 2. The top shed with an engine in what later became the polishing shop was the extent of the first works. By the mid 1930s a second shed had been erected housing the machine and fitting shops. This second shed was joined to the first via the polishing shop. The adjacent business was Bradley’s Garage, belonging to Reg Bradley, who had served with Harry Coombes in the Royal Naval Air Service. Harry Coombes lived in Glenhurst opposite the Station Road Tillyard and then in 1935 moved to the adjacent villa, Hawthornes. In about 1945 a further shed was built parallel to the “lean to” and this housed the timber store, the fitting shop for the poultry incubators and the garage for Harry Coombes’ car. A small office and mess room were built to the right of the plan, ie parallel to the main road.

Photo 2: Workers in the fitting shop of the Oxon Cash Register Co. About 1923. Note that the wall behind them backed onto the slaughter house run by Dick Avery. Rats from there often ran along the shelf visible behind the workers in the photograph. They would have been standing over the old saw pit. When eventually a house was built on the site in 1980 a digger rediscovered this pit by falling into it! The rear of the photograph has the names Jack Baylis and Bert Powell. Jack Baylis was the brother of Alf.
Photo 3: The bell ringers at St Mary’s Shipton around 1910. Harry Coombes is at the end of the back row on the left. Ted Coombes is fourth from the left in the back row. Standing on ted’s left is Alf Miles who later worked at the Oxon cash register co. And whose Ascott road workshop was taken over after the second world war by the Wychwood Manufacturing Co, the last of the three Shipton cash till businesses to start up.
Diagram 2: The Station Road Tillyard just before World War 2.

About one year after the move, in 1926, a young woman, Phyllis Siford (later Phyllis Longshaw and finally Phyllis Smith), came from grammar school in Cheltenham to be the new and indeed first bookkeeper. She later recounted (WLHS archives), that the administration was in a state of some disorganisation with bills stuck on nails and the cash flow not receiving the attention it required although this was probably to be expected in a new and growing business.

According to Bob Coombes, Ted did not get on with Phyllis but she and his father Harry always had a good mutual liking and respect even after she left in 1946 to set up the third Shipton operation, Wychwood Manufacturing Co. They were both very shrewd, the one a modern, well educated girl from outside the village while Harry had left school at twelve and was very much a pillar of the local community – Chairman of the Parish Council, a member of the Rural District Council, Church Warden, Grandmaster of the Oddfellows and on the Board of Governors of the Workhouse. Photograph 4 shows the workforce at the Station Road yard in about 1936.

Photo 5 shows the interior of the Oxon Cash Register Co.’s workshop after it had been bought by the United Woodworking Co.

Photo 4: United Woodworking Company workforce In About 1936. Photograph taken in front of the polishing shop. Back Row from left – Ernie Belcher (Lyneham), Cyril Lainchbury, Victor Brookes, Don Pittaway, Horace Pittaway, Alf Carpenter. Middle row from left – Jim Slatter, Sid Harvey, Phyllis Longshaw (Nee Siford), Dan Wiggins, Alf Smith, Harry Coombes, Jaybee Broom, Laurie Pittaway, Francis Dix, Sid Tierney (Church Street), Norman Cooper. Front row from left – Albert Longshaw (First husband of Phyllis Siford), Charlie Norgrove (Mount Pleasant), Charlie Stringer (Fifield), Arthur Shirley (Ascott), Fred Smith (Milton, Second husband of Phyllis Siford), Alf Harvey Alf Harvey and Sid Harvey were brothers as were Horace and Don Pittaway. Alf Harvey and Don Pittaway worked for the company from its inception In 1923. Sid Tierney was possibly the only man to have worked in all three Tillyards when they were independent operations.

There is some disagreement over the identity of the workers shown on Photo 5. The best suggestion is that the man on the left is Jim Slatter. The two men (second and fourth from the left) are Jimmy Wallace and Harry Crabtree who had come to Shipton with Alf Baylis from Halifax. At the front right is Ernie Souch and behind him Albert Longshaw. The man between Jimmy Wallace and Harry Crabtree has not been identified.

Photo 6 is of the interior of the Station Road Workshop of United Woodworking at about the same time.

Photograph 5: interior of the Oxon Cash Register Co.’s workshop early 1930s

Both workshops were in operation until the start of the Second World War although by then the South Works was mainly making shop fittings. The Station Road Works concentrated on cash tills. The range comprised about a dozen models including one for fitting under counters (used in public houses) and one with a separately locked desk shaped top. Some wooden furniture was also produced (for example chairs for the Village Hall and cotton reel cabinets to a German design for Coates). There was still a relationship with Groves. This mainly took the form of Groves buying occasional fittings from United Woodworking and United buying English timber from Groves. Photo 7 shows typical Shipton cash tills.

One day early in the Second World War a Ministry of Supply controller, working for the Air Ministry, called at the South Works. He inquired whether they might be interested in making aircraft parts from wood. Ted Coombes apparently tugged his moustache in disbelief and showed the caller the door. Thus vanished any opportunity for Shipton to be the site for the production of the Mosquito fighter bomber! Shortly afterwards Ted sold off the machinery in the original works to Kings of Oxford and he, Reg Duester and about half a dozen other workers moved into the Station Road Works while about a dozen of the workforce including Fred Smith and Horace Pratley went to work at De Havillands (later Smiths Instruments) in Witney, ironically on the Mosquito.

Photo 6: United Woodworking Co’s Station Road workshop probably in the early 1930s and taken looking towards the end of the making shop. The man on the left is Charlie Norgrove. The man facing away from the camera. Second on the right is Jaybee Broom. On the left is Jim Slatter and on the extreme right is Sid Tierney.
Photo 8: A consignment of cash tills leaves the Station Road Tillyard
Unity cash till – new era cash till of United Woodworking Co of Wychwood Manufacturing Co

Photo 8 shows the Great Western Railway lorry picking up a consignment of cash tills from outside the Station Road tillyard. The driver is Ernie Clemson and the photograph would have been taken during the mid 1920s. Bradley’s garage is on the right.

The old premises were used during the early war years to shelter cars owned by well off car owners from Birmingham. After the War, they became a store for agricultural materials for Pratt and Haynes. In the 1950s, films were projected in the old showroom. Its final use before demolition was by the Newbolds, of the Court stables, to house pigs.

Photo 6: United Woodworking Co.’s Station Road Workshop probably in the early 1930s and taken looking towards the end of the making shop The man front left IS Charlie Norgrove. The man facing away from the camera, second on the right is Jaybee Broom. On his left is Jim Slatter and on the extreme right is Sid Tierney.

During the Second World War the number of employees declined until, according to Bob Coombes, there were only two or three boys, too young for national service, and half a dozen women including his mother. Besides cash tills, they made battery boxes and rubber stamp mouldings for the Post Office.

By 1946 however the workforce had recovered to sixteen people. The list taken from the wages book for the week ending 19 April 1946 was as follows:

H Pittaway

Makers or Assemblers
R Duester
S Tierney
P Hepden
J Sheehan
H Moss
G Duester
B Miles
V Brookes
H Pittaway
J Broom
F Smith
D Pittaway

F Richards
R Brookes

P Smith

This was the last page written in Phyllis Smith’s neat handwriting. The next week’s entries were in the hand of Mr R Williams (Ted Coombes’ son in law). A group of employees (Phyllis Smith with her husband Fred, Laurie Pittaway – who had been one of the originals to have split from Alf Baylis in 1923 with Harry and Ted Coombes – and Jaybee Broom) b^Jieved they could do better on their own and gradually left to found the Wychwood Manufacturing Company. Harry Coombes had apparently wanted to make Phyllis a director of the United Wood Working Co. but Ted had objected. Phyllis Smith left first. She was followed by her husband Fred Smith on 10 May (Alf Harvey rejoined United Woodworking that week as a polisher and Arthur Shirley also rejoined but as a maker). Laurie Pittaway left on 24 May and Jaybee Broom on 21 June.

At first they worked at Phyllis Smith’s bungalow, Alstone in Station Road just the other side of Bradley’s Garage but then took over workshops in the Ascott Road belonging to Alf Miles and used for his woodworking and undertaking business. Alf continued to work there until he died (and presumably was responsible for the “undertaking” mentioned on the new company’s promotional material).

Diagram 3: Plan of the Ascott Road Tillyard

Diagram 3 depicts the layout of the Ascott workshop as recalled by Bim Champness. The structure was of wood with a corrugated tin roof. There is no known photograph of the Ascott workshop and only one, rather poor photograph of the interior taken for the Oxford Mail (see Photo 9)

The workforce in the mid 1950s as recalled by Fred Russell and Bim Champness consisted of:

The four partners – Phyllis Smith who ran the operation, Fred Smith (in charge of making), Jaybee Broom (polishing) and Laurie Pittaway (machining). The partners all lived close to the workshop – the Smiths in Church Street, Jaybee Broom in Ascott Road and Laurie Pittaway in the High Street but next to Jaybee Broom’s house.

Bim Champness, who was Fred Smith’s nephew by marriage, was a polisher.

There were six assemblers – Bill Slatter (Ascott), Bernard Wicksey (Fifield), Philip Hackling (Milton), Basil Miles (Milton) and Sid Tierney (Shipton) plus a trainee assembler Fred Russell (Ascott).

There were evident tensions. Fred Smith suffered badly from asthma and was often unable to work so that Laurie Pittaway and Jaybee Broom felt they had to do more than their fair share. Jaybee Broom had taken something of a demotion in joining Wychwood Manufacturing. At United Woodworking he had been foreman in the making shop. Fred Smith in fact had started his career as Jaybee Broom’s “boy”. Laurie Pittaway (who later returned to work for United Woodworking in Station Road) was felt to have a rebellious streak and Fred Smith was critical of his cutting at times. It probably did not help that two’ of the four partners were married to each other and could carry on business conversations out of hours.

Conditions were hard especially in the winter. The wood glue used to freeze solid over night. At first heating was from the “slow but sure” stove in the making shop. It was Fred Russell’s job to pack the stove with sawdust the evening before and then get it started when work began again at 7.45 the following morning. There was apparently no water. He used to fill up a kettle from the neighbouring gas works so that Phyllis Smith could make tea for 9.45. She and Fred would then sit on the tool box and discuss priorities. Sometimes she would say, “There’s a bit of post Fred” and this was a signal for the directors to meet informally.

Phyllis Smith always had a reputation as a sharp business woman. She knew the value of information. In 1958, when the Oxford Mail visited both working tillyards, United Woodworking was frank about its current production level of some 200 tills a month. Wychwood Manufacturing’s output however was a secret! Phyllis Smith would allegedly tip the lorry driver, who collected the output from both tillyards, ten shillings a week so that he would pick up the tills from Wychwood Manufacturing after those of United Woodworking and she could see how well the competition was doing and to whom they were selling! She would also look at the United Woodworking Co.’s paying in book at the bank (these were apparently often left open on the desk at the bank in Shipton) and tie up payments with known deliveries. In this way she was able to undercut United Woodworking .

Wychwood Manufacturing concentrated on the production of cash tills (according to Fred Russell 80% of sales consisted of cash tills in batches of 30 units which would take up to three days to produce) although invoices prepared in the mid 1950s still listed ‘cabinet making, undertaking and general repairs’ among the activities. There was a greater concentration on exports than at the United Woodworking Co. and, according to Phyllis Smith, this brought support from the Board of Trade when Sam Groves tried to get them closed down just after the War.

In the 1950s employment at both tillyards fell by roughly half as wooden fittings gave way to plastic and more sophisticated cash tills became popular. Neither firm was in direct contact with its market as they only sold to wholesalers who generally marked up prices by 100%. Brunton and Williams of Peckham took around a quarter of the production of the United Woodworking Co. while Morden and Green, also in London, were an important outlet for the Wychwood Manufacturing Co.. Neither till producer had the means or perhaps the initiative to employ their own sales people and both suffered from a lack of space to allow them to hold stocks.

In 1972 the Ascott Road business was bought by a Mr Cohen of Adsit Typewriters of Birmingham who wanted to close it down and build on the site. Phyllis Smith stayed on for the new owners for a further two and half years until the business eventually closed in about 1975. After that the deteriorating building was briefly occupied by a tramp until a fire caused further serious damage. Now brambles have completely taken over the site.

The United Woodworking Company lasted three years longer. Harry Coombes had bought up the Groves, Willet and Clifford shareholdings and obliged Ted to retire just before his seventieth birthday in around 1954. Harry himself fell ill in 1956 and died in the following year. The day before he died, Phyllis Smith turned up to ask what arrangements were being made for the tillyard! She was told that this had been decided some three years earlier. Harry’s son, Robert (Bob), who had his own busy accountancy practice, took over the running of the company (he had been partially involved during the period of Harry’s illness). At Harry’s death about 80% of revenue still came from the production of cash tills. Bob made efforts to diversify the business. New ventures included pheasant and turkey incubators, bale sledges, bar and drapery store fittings (Avery’s store in Shipton was refitted twice and Langston’s pub in Kingham was fitted out as a night club) and garden furniture.

Roger Watts worked at United 1959-1964. He estimates the business employed approximately 17 people at that time. Harold Lord was the foreman. Other workers he remembers included Jim Claridge machinist, Terry Stowe fitter, David Rathbone, assembler and Roy Rathbone assembler. Interestingly there were also three mixed race assemblers, Mervyn Case, Johnny Neibeer and Clifford Glynn whose fathers had been American servicemen during the Second World War. Working hours were to 12.00 with a quarter of an hour for tea at 9.45. Lunch was from. to 13.00 and then work resumed until 17.30 with a ten minute tea break at 15.00. There was work on Saturdays from 7.30 to 12.00.

As with the first tillyard, clocks were an important feature in the daily life of the business. Roger Watts relates how Jim Claridge, while playing football, hit the works clock and broke the glass of its elaborate cupboard. Harold Lord continued to open the glass case for six weeks to wind the clock up before he realised the glass was missing!

From the time of the business’s inception until 1978, according to Bob Coombes,- it rarely sold less than 300 cash tills in any one month. The peak month was 3,000 tills probably in the boom years just after the Second World War! Decimalisation in 1972 however led to the introduction of even more sophisticated automatic cash tills and there was no longer the need to write on a paper roll as with the Shipton tills. The National Cash Register Company (which had first inspired Gledhills and indirectly Alf Baylis fifty years earlier!) had large stocks of automated decimal machines which would do both the calculation of the sale and the recording. Demand for traditional wooden cash tills dried up. Even the Company’s diversification programme ran into problems. Larger, specialist agricultural machinery manufacturers brought out bale sledges which stacked the bales so that they were easier to pick up. Several large orders for turkey incubators were cancelled when hire purchase of agricultural machinery was stopped. By 1978 the business was no longer viable and was wound up. Of the long-time workers, Philip Hepden, Eric Pratley, Horace Pittaway, Ernie Hedges, Jimmy Woodward, Alf Harvey and Reg Duester were there until the end.

Shipton probably produced at least 500,000 wooden cash tills in the half century from 1920. There are no production records so this must remain a rough estimate. What is true is that this micro industry allowed a significant number of men in the Wychwood villages to exploit carpentry skills largely learned at Alfred Groves and Son so that they could earn higher rates of pay than were available elsewhere (including Groves) and generally enjoy better job security without having to commute to Oxford. Its insularity was initially a strength but led eventually to its demise because the industry was, to use the modern jargon, product orientated rather than market orientated.

This article owes much to the painstaking collection of information, including audio recordings made over the years with Wychwood inhabitants, by John Rawlins. The author is also very grateful for interviews with Bob Coombes, the son of the founder of United Woodworking and Roger Watts who worked there from 1959 to 1964.Gordon Duester who worked at United Woodworking at the end of the War also made several valuable suggestions. Similarly, with regard to the Wychwood Manufacturing Co, information and recollections were generously shared by Fred Russell who worked at the Ascott Road works from 19s4 to 1958 and then again from 1964 to 1966 and Bim Champness who also worked at the Wychwood Manufacturing Co. from 1956 to 1966.

Combe Mill Recollections

The following article by Alan Vickers is based on the written notes of Jeff Broxholme, who has lived at Milton under Wychwood since 1969.

Combe Mill

An idyllic Life – Living by an old Oxfordshire Mill before and during the Second World War

His family lived very simply but Jeff Broxholme still remembers his early life at Combe Mill with affection. Combe Mill is in a valley midway between Long Hanborough and Combe Village in West Oxfordshire. The Oxford Worcester railway shares this valley with the River Evenlode. Combe Mill is mentioned in the Doomsday Book but was probably not as large as it is today. It is assumed that this earlier mill was a flour mill, powered by a water wheel on the River Evenlode. It has greatly changed since that time. Even the original village has disappeared, possibly because of the Black Death. It is said to have been relocated to the top of the hill where the present village stands, about one mile North of Combe Mill. There are no remains of the original village except for a mound where the church stood. This is on the left near the top of the drive from the road linking Long Hanborough with Combe.

The drive itself leads to the Blenheim Estate Maintenance Yard. It passes two cottages where Jeff Broxholme lived until he was eighteen years old. Part of the first building on the left was a saw mill, in use until around 1980.

His father, Stephen Leonard Broxholme (always known as Leonard) was born in Ragby Lincolnshire in 1901. He worked as a sawyer in the local sawmill until 1927 and then moved to Heythrop to work in the sawmill there. In 1930 he married the housekeeper and cook of the Rectory at Cornwell, Emily Selina Hands from Chipping Norton and needed a house for his new family. He found a position as manager of the sawmill on an old estate yard belonging to the Duke of Marlborough in Combe and moved there in 1931. Jeff was born in the same year and his sister Edith Marina followed in 1934. Jeff’s father was the only sawyer at the mill which was very run down following the First World War and the depression of the 1920s. He was to work there from 1931-1949 cutting timber from the Estate Woods for use on the Estate – planks, posts, rails and oak coffin boards for Blenheim Palace.

Early Life

Jeff’s early life was somewhat precarious. At first the family lived in a small thatched cottage in the hamlet of East End Combe. When he was only two, a beam above the cottage fireplace caught fire which spread to the thatch. He still recalls the flames and reflections off the firemens’ helmets. He was taken to another house in the hamlet. His mother was rehoused with a friend nearby. Shortly afterwards the family moved to Combe Mill. There he suffered a series of illnesses, possibly due to the poor water quality at the Mill. At first he developed a large swelling in the neck and had this operated on at the Radcliffe, travelling there from the new railway halt at Combe. While recuperating he took some water to drink from a bucket at Mrs Williams’, friends of his parents who had helped them following the fire. He slipped and fell on the edge of the bucket undoing all his stitches. Somebody with a car took him back to the Radcliffe. Later he spent time in the isolation ward at Abingdon with scarlet fever.

Life at Combe Mill

Food was never in short supply. Leonard always had a fried breakfast before going to work. Eggs came from their own chickens. A very impressive cockerel attacked young Jeff but disappeared very shortly afterwards, presumably via the pot. Rabbits and hares could be caught but game birds belonging to the Estate were strictly off the menu (hardly surprising when a gamekeeper was summarily dismissed after a day’s shoot just failed to reach a bag of one thousand birds!).

Occasionally there were shooting parties from the Estate in the vicinity of the Mill and Jeff’s home would be used for luncheon if required. The servants brought the food in hay boxes. The ladies used the house for powdering their noses – how they got on with the Elsan earth toilet in the garden is not known!

 There were domestic rabbits too whose numbers were increased by taking the does to the buck in Long Hanborough. Two pigs were kept in sties at the back of the house. One was killed in March and one in November by the local slaughter man. A straw fire would be lit to burn off the bristles and the carcase hung up to bleed. Milk was delivered from Richard Colliers’s farm along the lane. Although the river was close by, fresh fish did not figure on the menu although occasionally eels were caught and eaten and their skins used for shoe laces. In season, blackberries and hazelnuts could be gathered from the hedgerows close to the mill.

Bread and meat were delivered. The meat came from a butcher in Woodstock. Bread was supplied by the two bakers in Combe.  One, Mr Pott, did not have a van and walked everywhere with a large basket. He also delivered telegrams and cooked meat for private households on Sundays. The Coop could be reached by bicycle to Long Hanborough. Some groceries came in Walford’s van from Bladon and there was a small grocers in Combe, Teddy Busby Stores. The Combe Post Office also served as a general store. Brookes stores, also in Combe, supplied sweets. Clothes were ordered at Strong and Morris in Woodstock but sometimes items were obtained from Banbury.

Mrs Broxholme made a wheat and potato wine. Other sources of alcoholic beverages were the three public houses which existed at that time in Combe village – the Cock (still in existence today), the Royal Oak and the Marlborough Arms. The Royal Oak suffered a setback when the landlord, Mr Muggeridge, killed himself by jumping off a railway bridge into the river following irregularities with the Christmas fund.

Heating the home was not a problem as the family could burn the offcuts from the sawmill. The same energy supply served for cooking. Electric power only came to the cottage in the 1950s. Light was from paraffin lamps or candles.

Entertainment was from a battery powered radio bought just before the War and attached to a long wire aerial. New batteries were sourced from Woodstock when required. There were no holidays but only the occasional bus trip to the coast, mostly to Southsea which was the closest point on the coast. A train trip to Chipping Norton to visit his maternal grandparents was an infrequent pleasure. This would be either in a diesel car or on a steam train where the driver would sometimes allow you to stand on the footplate. At Kingham one had to change and go over the covered bridge to catch the train to Chippy.

School Life

Jeff started his formal education at five years old in the infant department of Combe School. He would be taken the one and half miles on the back of a bicycle ridden by his mother. Because of the earlier injury to his neck, he was always reminded to take extra care and could not take part in sports or games so that he felt isolated from his schoolmates. There was no hot food at school. Most children went home at midday. Some, like Jeff, who lived some distance from the village, were allowed to stay in the school and eat their sandwiches. A large white card was hung on the school gate and the children could not re-enter the school until this was removed. Jeff would be picked up again by his mother at the end of school. In the meantime, his father kept an eye on Edith, sometimes with the help of a neighbour, until his mother got back.

The School comprised two classes and served around 35 pupils. Mrs Woodward looked after the infants (aged 5 to 7). Jeff was one of the smallest children and was put next to another small boy, Derek Allan, at the front of the class. Next door, the Head teacher, Miss Walker, had four different classes in one room – 7 to 8 year olds, 8 to 9 year olds, 9 to 10 year olds and 10 to 11 year olds.

The ultimate disciplinary sanction was the cane across the hand. Jeff remembers the cane breaking on the hand of a boy called David Oliver.

At the age of eleven, those, who had passed the Scholarship, went to Chipping Norton Grammar School. They cycled to Stonesfield (on bicycles apparently provided by the Council) where they caught a bus. Jeff went instead to the Marlborough Secondary Modern School at Woodstock. Prior to this school being opened in 1939, village children who did not pass the 11+ went by bus to the bigger school in Church Handborough.

The keepers saw to it that there were no raptors in the neighbourhood but Jeff remembers other wild life – otter spraints on the concrete strip near the mill, water voles and lots of hedgehogs. Strangely he does not recall seeing wild ducks but one year there was a wild goose down by the river although this disappeared just four days before Christmas!

The Village Calendar

An important village event was the celebration of Mayday. All the school pupils were taught various dances. The older girls had to decorate an old bath chair with flowers to form a suitable carriage for the May Queen, chosen, along with a May King, by the Head teacher, Miss Walker. This carriage was pulled around the village and a collection made for some unspecified purpose. The girls wore flower patterned dresses with bonnets. The boys had hoods extending over their shoulders in green cotton and long green buttoned coats reaching nearly down to their knees. Costumes were made by Miss Walker’s mother who lived with her in the school house. After the dancing on the green, there was a tea party and sports.

The first Sunday after 10th August was the Combe Feast. There was a funfair often with steam engines, on both village greens.

There were other flower and vegetable shows, which were usually held in conjunction with a fete and sports. These took place either at “Combe House” or at Mrs Cottrel Dormer’s in the middle of the village. Jeff’s father won many prizes for his vegetables and Jeff and his sister usually won certificates for wild flower displays.

At the end of the school year, there was always a school play where Miss Walker attempted to involve every child.

The Second World War

At Sunday school one day, Jeff learned that “there was a war on”. When he got home, his father confirmed this. Jeff asked who he was going to join, “the cowboys or the indians”!

With the outbreak of war the pupils were told to stick brown tape to the larger windows of the School. They were issued with a gasmask at home. This was a trunk like contraption with an eyepiece to look out from. The lower part comprised a flat metal attachment which was adjusted by the man who had brought it. The whole thing smelt strongly of rubber. Later everybody had to go to The Royal Oak Public House and line up by a large table to have another bit fitted to their gas mask. The lower part was green and it was fitted by means of some special sticky tape. Apparently this new bit contained charcoal. Gasmasks were kept in a brown cardboard box with a string handle so that they could be carried over the shoulder. This later wore out so a tin tube with a lid and string handle had to be bought to replace it. There were frequent practices at school in putting on the gas mask. Sometimes the eye piece misted up and the Head teacher told the children to rub some soap on the inside of the mask. Great fun could be had by blowing effective raspberries from inside the mask. There was no explanation as to what the brown paper or the gas masks were for. Similarly the children did not know why they were asked to bring cans to school and then hammer them flat.

 Many evacuees came to Combe and the surrounding area. They brought their own school teachers. One day two ladies appeared at the Mill with five children from Enfield in tow. The Broxholme family were required to house them – the French family of three (two girls, Betty and Ruth and one boy Derrick) and one boy (Peter) and one girl (Beryl) from a family called Carr. Peter and Derrick took the bus each day from Combe to Marlborough School with Jeff. This unexpected supply of playmates was welcome to Jeff and he does not recall any special friction between the children. They delighted in playing in the surrounding woods and there were Leonard’s wonderful sledges to play on in the winter.

Canadian soldiers were billeted at Blenheim Park where cattle and some lambs were said to have ended up on barbecues. The Americans were based at Brize Norton and Heythrop and consequently black troops were a rare sight in Combe. There were few British camps close to Combe apart from one at Finstock (the concrete remains are still visible close to the Garden Centre.) Freeland housed a military hospital.. There was a satellite airfield at Kingswood where Spitfires were hidden in the woods.

In the direction of Charlbury, there was a grass strip and a tin hangar housing a Liberator for the personal use of Winston Churchill who was a frequent visitor to Ditchley House.

Actual military activity  was hardly in evidence – a few incendiary bombs falling on Stonesfield and Bladon and a Bren Gun Carrier which became stuck in the river close to the Mill. The four Coldstream guardsmen from the Bren Carrier spend six weeks living in the Mill yard stables. Jeff and the evacuees helped clean the river mud off the bullets. His mother did all their cooking and even interceded for them when their officer would not let them go to a local dance!

The closest form of military power was the Home Guard. Jeff’s father was a member of the Combe unit. Some of the exercises closely resembled an episode of Dad’s Army. For example, on one occasion, the Combe unit managed to penetrate the defences of Brize Norton by using a false floor in a lorry. On another famous day during an exercise which pitted the Combe Home Guard against the forces of Long Hanborough, the Combe unit prevailed when the whole village population turned out and helped arrest the Long Hanborough contingent!

One night Leonard took Jeff out to Combe Hill rise to show him the glow coming from the bombing attack on Coventry.

Leonard Broxholme served in the Home Guard until he had a serious accident. Walking in the blackout to Combe for a Home Guard meeting, the handle of his canvas shoulder bag was caught by a passing car and he was dragged along. He lost an eye and one arm was so damaged that he did not regain the use of it until 1963 when a pit bonesetter in the North of England worked a miracle that was apparently beyond conventional medical practioners in the twenty years since the accident occurred.

Just before D-Day, there were manoeuvres between British and American troops around Combe. Telephone wires were laid in the fields from the back of trucks. Afterwards the wire was carefully harvested by the children just as they had done throughout the War with the aluminium strip broadcast to confuse the enemy radar. This wire made much stronger reed boats than had been possible before the War.

The children did not receive regular pocket money but earned cash by collecting flattened tins and rose hips for the war effort. Rose hips at three pence a pound were particularly worthwhile.

All the children were issued with Wellington boots during the war. Prior to that, wet socks had been hung up around the Tortoise stove in the classroom.

In 1943 Jeff joined the Scouts and stayed with them until he was 19, eventually becoming a Kings Scout. It rained on his first camp but the scoutmaster lit a fire and prepared a hot drink and supper. Sacks of straw were obtained from a farmer and these became the boys’ beds on the groundsheets. The scout movement became a window to the world beyond rural Oxfordshire when he went to France and Norway with the scouts in the late 1940s.

Members of the Red Spinning Society, a fishing club for London businessmen, would sometimes come down for a weekend of fishing. They would be looked after by Mrs Broxholme. Jeff recalls some splendid characters among the visiting members. A Mr Panyey had been to America and could spin a rope like a cowboy. Another used to bring a microscope and entertain the children with the results from his pond dipping among the reeds. Some were wonderful conversationalists who could conjure up something of life beyond rural Oxfordshire.

Later Career

Leonard moved to the Eynsham Estate in 1948 and worked in the saw mill there until the Mason family lost much of their fortune through the collapse of copper prices. Leonard then worked in Woodstock for Scarsbrook before finally joining the timber department of Groves the builders in Milton under Wychwood in 1954. Jeff became an apprentice carpenter at Tolley Brothers of Bladon in 1945. After two years of National Service with the RAF, He came back to Chipping Norton to work with a former colleague who was setting up as a jobbing builder. In 1954 he too joined Groves in Milton, working as a bricklayer charge hand.

The Mill in Detail

Cut timber was stacked on the right hand side of the drive to dry. Planks were left for seasoning underneath the carpentry shops. Some oak boarding was kept at Blenheim for coffins (including probably Winston Churchill’s) The planks and rails had small laths of about 1 1/4” by ½” placed under each piece of timber. It was reckoned that each ¼” of timber needed a year to season.

The timber in the form of tree trunks was brought by contractors, often using Foden steam lorries, and was placed where a small wooden crane (a derrick) could lift them onto a steel plate to be moved to a large circular saw blade. This crane was operated by hand with a winding handle and pulled diagonally as required by a second operator. If the log was too long, it had to be cut by a crosscut saw, a two handled saw blade operated by two people. Jeff remembers seeing his mother use the blade when no other person was available.

The mill was powered by a water wheel driven by shafts and pulleys through a blacksmith’s shop connecting with the main machinery under the saw mill. The water wheel, which is still in place today, was quite large, approximately 13 feet diameter by 8 feet across. It was converted in 1850 to saw mill use (source Oxfordshire Mills by Wilfred Foreman published by Phillimore 1983). The wheel was “breast-fed” ie the water hit the wheel midway between the top and the bottom of the wheel. The resulting power was well used. The first use was for a water pump taking water to the roof of the building where it filled a large tank supplying the adjoining cottages. This was only river water and was not for drinking. There were taps over the kitchen sink and also a copper in the wash house. (Drinking water came from a spring on the other side of the river, about 150 yards away. Two buckets had to be fetched before breakfast.)

The next use of the power from the water wheel was to turn the fans in the blacksmith’s shop. This was followed by power to the band saw in what was called the “pattern shop” on the first floor. The cogs for the pit wheel and pinion wheel were made from cast iron coupled with wooden cogs made from hornbeam.

The fourth use of the power was to the sandstone wheel used by foresters to sharpen their axes.

The fifth use was to a large lathe, used mainly to cut the hubs of cart wheels some of which could reach 15”” in diameter.

The sixth power offtake was to the saw mill itself. This was in the form of a continuous belt to a rack of belt pulleys powering respectively:

  1. A small carburundum wheel for sharpening saws
  2. A planing tool with a blade of approximately 15” wide, installed around 1944
  3. A large saw between 3 to 4 feet diameter
  4. A steel plate (called a rack bench) for bringing tree trunks from outside to the saw for ripping. The derrick crane previously mentioned lowered trunks onto this plate.
  5. A belt from the steam beam engine (discussed below)
  6. A small saw of approximately 30 inches diameter for a hand push bench  for much smaller pieces of timber

The steam engine was installed in about 1852 It was used when river water levels were too low following drought or when there was too much water because of flooding. This double acting, condensing, rotating beam engine was only therefore used intermittently between 1852 and 1913 and was in good condition when laid up in 1913. It was left in a locked room until the early 1940s. An auxiliary steam engine was installed during the First World War to cope with the additional throughput of timber needed for pit props and trench supports for the War Office. This was a coal fired agricultural tractor with belt drive. Jeff remembers this engine falling apart during the 1930s and it was probably scrapped around 1936.

The water wheel was in poor condition and required a new shaft when Jeff’s father arrived. He arranged for this to be produced at his previous sawmill in Heythrop. The mill workings were generally in bad condition – pully shafts were often missing and wheels had to be replaced. Brass castings were obtained from Daniels in Bridge Street Witney. Heavy mechanical work, including work on the waterwheel, was carried out by Johnson and Son of Standlake. Once the new main shaft for the waterwheel had been installed more people were engaged at the Combe Mill. An assistant, Mr Margates was taken on to help Leonard. Tom Knibbs was the carpenter working in the shop. He was the son of the landlord at the Cock Inn in Combe. A blacksmith, Bert Horn, came in from Bladon when required. A painter lived next door to Jeff’s family. The foreman for the estate yard was Charlie Townsend.

The company was completed by a horse named Jolly who could be harnessed to a cart for deliveries. A full time stableman from Long Hanborough looked after the horse and made the deliveries. The water wheel was used until the 1950s when electric power was installed at the Mill.

The chimney for the beam engine had been knocked down around 1922. As it was only of brick construction it was easily dismantled. Most of the bricks were simply dropped down inside the chimney.

The later Restoration of the Mill

Jeff was first approached by a group interested in restoring the mill chimney in 1968-69. He completely stripped down the old chimney and built a new one which has a date plate for 1972 fixed on the West side. The new chimney was first used in 1973 when the restored beam engine was fired up for the first time and Leonard, much to his delight, was able to witness this not long before his death in 1977. The restoration group was surprised to see how fast the engine fly wheel ran.

The original boiler is still in place but would no longer withstand the required steam pressure. A subsidiary boiler was installed and is used at the present time. The original boiler is of the Cornish type, consisting of a horizontal cylinder or drum and was installed at the same time as the engine. It is thought to be one of the oldest boilers in the country still capable of use.

The mill race was blocked up by the Estate but a small reservoir of water has been installed by the restorers. Water is pumped from the river to provide some motion to the wheel. The original sluice gate was also unfortunately destroyed by estate workers in the period 1965-1975. The water run from this sluice gate had produced an enormous hole in the river bed with a pool of 40’ diameter and 8’ deep, ideal for boating with reed boats, swimming and diving.

The mill building has now been restored thanks to a Lottery grant and is protected as a Grade II listed building. The restoration included the provision of a lift for the disabled. The Mill is now open for visitors  and is in steam from March to October on the third Sunday in the month. Here is The official Combe Mill Website

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