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Oliver Sansom

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Oliver Sansom

1636 - 1710

Biography

(see long history)

Oliver Sansom, leader of the Quakers in the Vale of White Horse, was born in 1636 in Beedon but of a family based in Charney Bassett. At seven, and in spite of this being in the front line in the Civil War, he was sent to an aunt in Charney to go to the school at nearby Longworth. He first attended a Quaker meeting in 1657, but it was not until the early 1660s that he became a serious member of that sect. By then he had married Jane Bunce who was of another Charney family. Over time, he converted Jane and the other members of both families to his own new beliefs.

Of the many sects that proliferated in those disturbed times, it was the Quakers who were the most disliked both by Anglicans and by other Dissenters. They separated themselves from normal society, insisting on obeying what they regarded as God’s law even when this was at variance with the law of the land. In particular, they refused to pay the tithes that maintained the Anglican clergy. Sansom was destined to spend long periods of his life in prison, although this doesn’t seem to have greatly hampered his sectarian activities.

Living as a farmer in Boxford, Sansom became leader of the Quakers in the region of Newbury. But before 1678, after much legal trouble over tithes, he gave up farming and moved to Faringdon as a mercer. Faringdon became the centre for the three hundred or so Quakers in the Vale, one of three such groupings in Berkshire. It was led by Sansom with the help of members of his family: his wife Jane handled administrative and social affairs, and her sister Joan Vokins the spiritual teaching and exhortation.

Sansom was an occasional visitor to Abingdon for missionary work and recruiting, and in 1691 he moved there permanently for the purpose of reinforcing the local Quaker community which was always a small one. A Quaker meeting house was established near the west end of Ock Street before 1700. Sansom made his home in Boar Street, the present Bath Street. Although it was no longer illegal to be a Quaker, he continued to defy the law in refusing to pay taxes and tithes, and remained in continuous conflict with the local authorities until his death in 1710. He left numerous polemical writings, administrative documents, letters, and a very informative autobiography.

Sansom was buried in the Quaker burial ground near the meeting house. He and his wife are not known to have had any children. 

 

 

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2016

(see short history)

Oliver Sansom was already a familiar figure in Abingdon before moving there from Faringdon in 1691. He was the undisputed leader of the Quakers of the Vale of White Horse, and influential also among those of the Newbury region. He lived in Boar Street, the present Bath Street, until his death in 1710.

Sansom was born in 1636 in Beedon but of a family based in Charney Basset. His grandfather, after whom he was named, had belonged to a religious group that described each other as their brothers in Christ, and was probably descended from the local Lollards of several generations earlier. At seven, and in spite of this being in the front line in the Civil War, he was sent to an aunt in Charney to go to the school at nearby Longworth; he learned to write in a neat clerkly hand, and even some elementary Latin.[1] About 1660, he married a Charney girl of the extensive Bunce family, but the couple could not live together until they had acquired a landholding. It was during their temporary separation that he became a Quaker.

Of the many sects that proliferated in those disturbed times, it was the Quakers who were the most detested by Anglicans and by other nonconformists alike. They had pulled back from their earlier confrontational behaviour, heckling Anglican clergy in their own churches and indulging in provocative street theatre. But they still proclaimed their separation from normal society by refusing conventional courtesies, declining to serve in social functions that required oath-taking as most then did, and  withholding the tithes that maintained the Anglican clergy and that everyone, by law, was supposed to pay. They professed at every opportunity, even at most inappropriate times and places, that it was the Holy Spirit, acting within them, that controlled their actions, and that their individual consciences took precedence even over the dictates of the Bible. Respectable parents feared, with reason, that their children might be drawn into this strangely attractive counter-culture.

Sansom, moving with his wife to begin farming at Boxford, could not keep his allegiance secret. He was soon in trouble with the law, and even more with the clergy whose tithes he refused to pay. His and his wife’s families at first tried to smooth matters over and pay his fines and taxes for him, but he always refused, and over the years he was able to convert them all to his own beliefs.[2] He spent much time in prison, but often contrived to be allowed out on his own and Quaker business. Quakers did not lie, and the jailers could be confident he would return when he promised.[3] He even set up a business while in jail in Reading, manufacturing pattens (wooden overshoes) from raw materials his wife obtained for him, and grew vegetables to send home.[4] By 1678, he had given up farming and was living in Faringdon as a mercer. Faringdon became the centre for the three hundred or so Quakers in the Vale.

Sansom had joined the Quakers when their initial phase of heroic enthusiasm and rapid expansion in the 1650s was over. He was a participant in the debates and conflicts that shook the sect as it settled its long term future. He strongly opposed a faction which, in the late 1670s, took over the Reading congregation and split that in Newbury.[5] These congregations were led by wealthy men who would normally aspire to local eminence and civic office. Seeking for the social respectability which other Dissenters had achieved, they wished, among other things, to diminish the independent role that women had come to play in the Quaker movement. Sansom had no interest in civic office, and his leadership depended on the active support of female members of his family. His wife Jane handled administrative and social affairs, and her sister, the prophetess Joan Vokins, the spiritual teaching and exhortation. To remove them from those roles in the Vale would have been impracticable and unacceptable.

Sansom’s greatest days were in the 1680s when persecution reached new heights. He became an accomplished court-room performer, and magistrates learned to fear having him before them. He would take the Bible in his hand, look slowly round the courtroom with a smile on his face, then let the book fall open − always exactly at the page in Matthew where Christians are forbidden to swear.[6] To prove that Quakers were law-abiding, he once, when sentenced in Faringdon to be imprisoned in Reading, took himself there unescorted, though accompanied, no doubt, by a rout of vociferous supporters.[7] Politically aware, he mocked the magistrates with the absurdities in the law they were applying, and publicised the corruption in the legal hierarchy where clerks and informers conspired to extort blackmail and hush money from nonconformists.[8] He exploited conflicts among the magistrates, and it was from him in 1686 that they first learned of the change in government policy towards Dissenters. James II was hoping, in relieving the Dissenters of the disabilities under which they laboured, to make a start at gaining similar relief for his Catholic co-religionists. ‘The king’ Sansom told the justices in court, ‘is inclined to show us some favour,’ and he and his fellows were acquitted.[9]

In 1682, Sansom led a recruiting drive in Abingdon, when he and Joan Vokins preached, sometimes in the open street, and made converts. He had negotiated an agreement with the moderate mayor William Foster; he would accept being heavily fined, so long as the members of his congregation were not.[10] At first, meetings were held in private houses, but by 1700 the Quakers had acquired a piece of land at the far end of Ock Street and had built a meeting house which, from later maps, was apparently somewhat to the east of where the White Horse is now.

By 1691, when Sansom came to live in Abingdon, William III was on the throne and serious persecution had ceased, but there was still the matter of the tithes that he refused to pay to James Canaries and Anthony Addison, successive vicars of St Helen’s. This and similar conflicts would end only with his death in 1710.[11] He left numerous polemical writings, administrative documents, letters, and a very informative autobiography.

Sansom and his wife are known to have had two young children in their care in 1683, one an orphan and the other the child of a family member, but there is no indication in his writings that they had children of their own.[12]

 

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2016

 

[1] James Boone (ed),  Life of Oliver Sansom (1848), pp. 2-9

[2] Boone (ed), Oliver Sansom, pp. 9-12, 52-57

[3] Bodleian, Letters of  Oliver Sansom of Boxford,  Ms Add D.31, 2.12.65, 14.5.67, 28.2.84

[4] Bodleian, Ms Add D.31, 4.1.84, 20.4.84

[5] Manfred Brod, ‘Dissent and Dissenters in Early Modern Berkshire’, Oxford University DPhil thesis, (2002), pp 256-262.

[6] Boone (ed), Oliver Sansom, pp.314-8

[7] Sansom, An account of many remarkable passages of the life of Oliver Sansom (1710), pp. 375-6

[8] Sansom, Remarkable Passages, pp. 293, 302

[9] Sansom, Remarkable Passages, p. 367

[10] Boone (ed), Oliver Sansom pp. 273-4

[11] Boone (ed), Oliver Sansom pp. 420-48; A E Preston, St Nicholas Abingdon and other papers (1928) pp 141-3

[12] Elsie Huntley, Boxford Barleycorn, the story of an English village (Abingdon, 1970) p. 111

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