The History of Weaveley Furze

Weaveley Furze is an unusual survival of a parish ‘Poor’s Allotment’ which is still used in part for its original purpose. This was to provide a small area of common land within each feudal manor where the poor could find kindling and other fuel free of charge.

Initially, the rights relating to ‘furze’, or scrubby heathland, were part of the feudal compact after the Norman Conquest of 1066 through which mediaeval peasants owed loyalty and a share of their produce to the Lord of the Manor in exchange for his protection. This was harshly enforced, in keeping with the times, but was less one-sided than historians have sometimes suggested.

Individual plots of land were immense by today’s standards – usually a ‘virgate’ of 30 acres – and the Lord of the Manor would usually provide what were in effect ‘starter packs’ for smallholding; in Tiddenham, Gloucestershire, whose records have survived remarkably fully, this consisted of two oxen, a cow, six sheep, the pre-sowing of seven of his 30 acres, farming tools and furntiture for his house. The humblest residents of the village were given five acres, rent-free.

Feudal rights of turbary – cutting peat and turf for fuel – and estovers – using dead timber for carpentry or fuel and bracken etc for bedding, were also part of this deal. For five centuries, Weaveley Furze would have served this purpose as the land in Shipton-on-Cherwell parish which was least suitable for grazing or arable use. (‘Shipton’ means ‘sheep-town’ and the agricultural history of the parish saw grazing dominate for many years until arable overhauled it in the late 18th century).

The Inclosure Movement, which changed the feudal system for ever, gave Weaveley Furze a new importance. The appropriation of communally-farmed land by large-scale farmers tilted the balance against the peasants. Agriculture became much more efficient and productive but families who were previously self-employed and self-sufficient became labourers for others. Many left for better prospects, especially when the Industrial Revolution offered better wages in the growing towns. Those who stayed often needed charity and the Poor’s Allotments were part of the provision for them.

Shipton’s first inclosure was as early as 1588, when riverside land was appropriated by John Rathbone, tenant of the splendidly named Scorchebeef Manor which shared feudal rights with Shipton Manor itself. (The old Scorchebeef manor house, named after late 11th century tenants, stood opposite the surviving Shipton manor house, where outbuildings and tennis courts now are. It was burned down in the early 17th century).  Rathbone’s behaviour played a part in triggering the abortive anti-inclosure uprising at Hampton Gay and Enslow in 1596. His landlord, New College, also protested and when his family tried to fence off more land in 1667, the college stopped them.

In spite of such local reversals, the momentum behind inclosures proved unstoppable, with Parliament belatedly passing laws to sanction the process. In 1768, the tenant of Shipton Manor Adolphus Meetkerke won a private Parliamentary Act allowing him to inclose the whole parish. He took 444 acres, New College 324, the Rector of Shipton-on-Cherwell 182, Christ Church college five (the remains of an old landholding) and the Poor Allotment at Weaveley Furze four.

As you can see from the map, this smallest share of the carve-up was itself only a part of the furze land at Weaveley, symbolic of the way that the relative even-handedness of the feudal compact had been swept aside. The little wood and scrubland now took its place among the many small Poor’s Allotment charities which still appear on the register of the Charities Commission.

Over time, most of these have been converted into general charitable trusts for the poor of parishes, swapping their traditional role of providing timber for fuel and other uses for small grants related to matters such as extra heating for the elderly, help with education for children from low-income households and the like.  This is still a part of Weaveley Furze’s work as you can see from its entry on the Charities Commission register. But after years of obtaining a modest income from shooting rights, a new era began in which the ancient role and some of the woodland skills involved in it have returned.  Read more on the next page:The Re-awakening.

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