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Ock Street


(see long history)

Ock Street may have first become an important route west out of Abingdon in about 975 when Abingdon Abbey acquired Marcham  and the street provided the most direct route between  the Abbey and one of its near-by manors.  Ock Street also crossed a long-distance north-south route outside the town at Ock Bridge, and a bridge had been there since at least 1080. The first known written use of the street name, in its Latin version vico de Ock, dates from before 1250.

By the time of Roger Amyce’s survey of 1554 there were eighty-eight properties along the street, a fifth of all those in the town.  The western part of the street was little developed and was surrounded by pasture or arable land, with a number of market gardens and orchards. The approach to the town centre was marked by the Ruddle Cross (close to the present 59 Ock Street) with, beyond it, the horse, sheep and pig markets.

In the seventeenth century Ock Street became a centre of radical religion. Nonconformists worshipped there illegally when they had to, and then built their chapels when this became possible.

The eighteenth century saw the steady advance of manufacturing and service industries. Buildings spread along the street frontage and courts began to develop on the land behind. This was where the burgeoning population of labourers and craftsmen could find their homes, and often their livelihoods. Over time, some courts developed into crowded groups of modest dwellings, sharing a privy and water supply.  Others housed workshops. The local industries included sack-weaving, leather-working, rope-making, malting and brewing.

Little changed until the mid-twentieth century. Reminiscences from the 1930s describe a self-conscious community in a street lined with pubs and small shops and served by pedlars with fruit and vegetables in season. Cattle still passed through on Mondays on their way to market, and flooding at the bottom end of the street was an almost annual event. But slum clearance programmes in the years just before and following the Second World War saw much of the population uprooted and moved to new developments in south Abingdon.

Ock Street is no longer what it was. Few of the pubs are left, and those that remain favour gastronomy rather than boozing. The slum courts have given way to middle class housing and blocks of flats. Nonetheless, it is still a centre for Morris dancing, and continues the traditional election of the Mayor of Ock Street each year in June. In October it cheerfully closes to traffic for the popular and happily downmarket Michaelmas Fair. It has never become just a street like any other.

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2013


(see short history)

The documented history of Ock Street probably starts about the turn of the eleventh century, but it may well have been a thoroughfare before it was an inhabited street. At this time, the growth of the abbey was leading to a second phase of development of the townscape, with a new set of roads converging on the market place and the abbey gates, and cutting across the older street plan centred on St Helen’s church.[1] Ock Street was the continuation of the Bury, going west.  Marcham had become a property of Abingdon Abbey before 975 and the high road between that village and Abingdon must from then on, if not before, have been well trodden.[2]  Mieneke Cox retells the story of Abbot Faritius, arriving from Malmesbury in 1100, dismounting at the Ock Bridge and walking barefoot along Ock Street to his abbey.[3] The substantial structure of the Ock Bridge, and its importance in documents of the time, have suggested to modern scholars that north-south traffic through Abingdon would also pass through Ock Street and cross the river at the Ock Bridge, rather than use St Helen’s Bridge in the town centre and proceed by the no doubt more muddy route through Caldecott.[4] This would have paralleled the situation in the twentieth century, when the busy A34 trunk road passed through Ock Street .

There were habitations in Ock Street by the twelfth or even the eleventh century, but they were probably few in number. Archaeological digs at the sites of the former Enock’s Yard and Morland’s Brewery appear to show substantial buildings associated with pits which seem to indicate industrial use as tanneries.[5] Tanning is a smelly business, which would not be tolerated in a densely occupied area. The first known written use of the street name, in its Latin version vico de Ock, dates to before 1250, and by that time the Carswell, the spring coming in from the north that provided its water supply, also had its name.[6]

Detailed information before the sixteenth century is scant, but by the fifteenth leases issued by the abbey show that some parts of the street, at least, had been settled long enough for houses to have become dilapidated.[7]

Only with Roger Amyce’s survey in 1554 do we have for the first time a full picture of the street. The properties that fell to the crown, and were then dispersed to those well enough placed to take advantage, all needed to be surveyed and valued. Amyce worked in numerous towns and villages in Berkshire. When Christ’s Hospital was established in 1553, his name came second only to that of Sir John Mason on the list of governors, and his special status as a foundation governor was shown by the fact that, like Mason but unlike the other governors, he would not be replaced when he died.[8]

The 1554 survey was part of the preparation for the grant of the royal charter to the town, which would take place in 1556, two years later. Coming into Ock Street from Boar Street (the present Bath Street), Amyce started his list with the corner tenement and garden occupied by John Meadowe and owned by the wardens of St Helen’s Church. He noted that Meadowe paid 18s per year towards one obit in the church, but did not mention that obits had been illegal from 1548 until the accession of Mary in 1553. No doubt the church had had its money anyway. He then continued westward along the north side of the street, listing forty-four holdings in all. Many of these were of more than a single tenement while others were unbuilt gardens or orchards. Crossing the road near the Ock Bridge, he returned eastward, noting another forty-four holdings. He seems to have taken Ock Street as including what is now the Square, and was followed in this by the Corporation and its chamberlains for the next several hundred years. Amyce’s survey shows Ock Street to be the biggest single street in Abingdon, with about 20% of the total of tenements.[9]

It was, of course, eighteen years since the Abbey had been dissolved and six since the fraternities and chantries had followed them into oblivion. Christ’s Hospital had taken over many properties that had belonged to the Fraternity of the Holy Cross, and accounted for twenty-two of the eighty-eight Ock Street tenements noted by Amyce. Three holdings had been acquired by named outside investors, who will have been front men for the syndicates that had bought ex-ecclesiastical estates wholesale all over the country. Thomas Denton, gent, from Appleton, a lawyer well in with the authorities, had been enthusiastically purchasing freeholds all over Abingdon, including twelve in Ock Street. He too seems to have been acting as an agent rather than on his own behalf.[10] Numerous lesser folk had taken the precaution of obtaining letters patent to confirm their own freeholds and copyholds. Nonetheless, it was possible to identify twenty-seven ex-abbey properties and eight from the fraternity or chantries that could be transferred to the new Corporation in the charter; they appear in the final document of November 1556 in separate lists, in the order in which they come in Amyce, and in almost all cases giving the same name for the occupier as the one mentioned in the survey.[11]

A traveller entering Abingdon and Ock Street from the west in the sixteenth century might not be immediately aware that he had entered a town. There was, it seems, a kind of suburb, a small cluster of houses around the Ock Bridge and outside the town’s boundaries, and a chapel in a meadow south of the road just inside.[12] But there were at first few other houses. Most of the land going down to the Ock to the traveller’s right would be pasture, with a number of closes used for market gardening or as orchards. These included a three-acre enclosure called, no doubt for good reason, the Thistlecroft. To his left was the expanse of Abingdon Field, later known as the Conduit Field, at least partly arable.[13] Only after a third of a mile, with houses becoming more numerous, would the approach to the working centre of the town be marked by the Ruddle Cross with, beyond it, the horse, sheep and pig markets at and around what is now The Square, and the cattle market in the Bury.

The Ruddle Cross has been described as one of the unsolved mysteries of Abingdon’s history. It was not mentioned by Amyce and so may have post-dated him, but was certainly in place by 1577 when it is mentioned in a lease.[14] When the cross disappeared is unknown, but it will probably not have survived the iconoclastic fanaticism of the Puritans of the Civil War period, who pulled down the much more famous Market Cross, Abingdon’s main tourist attraction of the time. Nonetheless, Rocque’s map of 1761 shows its old position by a definite broadening of the street on its north side, and this may still be visible in vestigial form today by a kink in property boundaries just outside No 59 Ock Street.

Inns became numerous close to the sheep market: the Bear, whose no doubt absentee landlord, the vicar of Blewbury, paid the rather folkloric rent of 12d and a needle without an eye; the Lamb, already long established under Richard Ely; and the George, with William Smyth in occupation under Nicholas Huet. The Chequers, adjoining the Bear, would be added to them soon after. A market place would be an obvious location for inns where richer merchants might stay, and where bargains might be struck over a drink or two.[15]

Ock Street had a sprinkling of residents who were prominent in town affairs, although many more of these had invested in head- or sub-leases there and resided elsewhere. Humphrey Bostock had bought the freehold of a tenement with a dovecote, on the north side and rather far out. He was an initial member of both the Corporation and of the governing body of the Hospital. A few doors nearer the town centre was Robert Overthrowe’s house and garden, also freehold; he was another Hospital governor. Richard Ely of the Lamb was a founder-member of the Corporation and one of the first bailiffs under the charter, and no doubt lived at his inn.[16]

The next eighty years or so in the history of the street are, again, not well documented. The Corporation minutes, which ought to have registered lease renewals, are scrappily kept, and a series of original leases, once in the town archives, seems to have been mislaid. Abstracts had been made of them by both AE Preston and John McGowan, but the series was never complete. Leases granted by Christ’s Hospital are unavailable for study. There are, however, chamberlains’ accounts, which record the regular collection of rents on corporation leases, and, in the form of quitrents of a few pence only, on properties held freehold.[17]

By the time of the Civil War, there had been an improvement in record keeping. Abingdon was the scene of heavy fighting, and in the immediate post-war period there are indications of damage having been caused in Ock Street. On 21 April 1646, John Reason was granted a tenement and backside late in the occupation of Edward Chandler on condition of ‘building two space of howsing and slatting the same’ and was, apparently, let off the usual entry fine. Similarly, on 1 April 1647, Thomas Steede got a lease on the ‘piece of ground in Ock Street where (Robert) Cornishe his house did stand’ at 10s and without a fine. However, Steede’s son and heir John still held the plot in 1687, presumably rebuilt, and had to pay £2 5s for the renewal.[18]

It was about this time that the reputation of Ock Street as Abingdon’s stronghold of religious dissent was established. In the short-lived ‘indulgence’ of 1672, both Baptists and Presbyterians worshipped at Symon Peck’s barn round the corner in St Edmund’s Lane; and when, after 1689, a grudging toleration was extended to nonconformity, both sects established their meeting houses in the street.[19] The Presbyterian and later Congregational chapel in the Square was screened from the multitude by a row of cottages. The Quakers, never very numerous in Abingdon and hated equally by the orthodox and by the other dissenting denominations, sited their conventicle at the extreme west end, on the north side, close to where the White Horse is today.[20] In the nineteenth century the Methodists would respect tradition by building their chapel also in Ock Street, on the south side and a few yards east of the Conduit Road corner. It would be inherited by the Primitive Methodists in 1875, when the original owners moved to Conduit Road. Religion and politics went hand in hand and, although detailed evidence is lacking, it may safely be assumed that Ock Street became a centre of Whig political organisation opposed to the predominantly Tory principles of the Corporation.

The hearth taxes of the early 1660s are the first occasion since Amyce, and the last until the nineteenth century, to leave us a reasonably complete list of Ock Street residents in a comprehensible order. It is hard to see at what point on their list the assessors actually entered Ock Street, but they moved along the south side from east to west, and returned on the north, ending with Mrs Pleydell – her husband, Samuel, had recently died – at the Corner House on the Sheepmarket.[21] Assuming that the Ock Street list starts four houses before reaching Mr Ely at the Lamb, and that it finishes with Mrs Pleydell, there are forty-six houses that paid the tax, of a total for the town of 220. Assuming also that Ock Street did not differ from the rest of the town in the proportion of householders adjudged too poor to pay tax (30% of the total), it had in 1663 some 21% of the town’s occupied houses and this had scarcely changed since Amyce’s time. By 1831, the proportion would have risen to 31%.[22]

Benjamin Tomkins, who died in 1733, left a property on the north side of the street on which the Tomkins Almshouses were to be built.[23] But by then, a palatial new Tomkins family residence, the Clock House, had been built on the south of the street, which it dominated, as it still does. Tomkins also provided a residence for the Baptist minister at the present 35 Ock Street, fine enough to demonstrate the credit and prominence of his flock in the life of the town.[24] The Presbyterian minister lived from 1750 onwards in another fine residence, leased from the Corporation at the unusually high rent of 40s per year.[25]

With the expansion of coach travel, Ock Street once more came to importance as a thoroughfare, with coaches passing along it on their routes through Abingdon. But by the end of the eighteenth century, because of frequent flooding in Ock Street, the present Spring Road had been turnpiked and through traffic was by-passing the town centre.[26]

But what is probably the most significant development of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Ock Street was the steady advance of manufacturing and service industries. The properties on both sides of the street might still be described in leases by the time-honoured phrases of ‘messuage, tenement and appurtenances’ or ‘messuage with orchard and garden ground’, but the reality was that the plots were filling with houses whose occupants, without access to land, were dependent on wages and on a market where prices were rising to previously unknown levels.[27]

It was in this period that began the growth of the courts in which the burgeoning population of labourers and industrial workers could find their homes and, often, their livelihoods. It does not seem as if any part of Ock Street was ever laid out in burgage plots on a precisely standard module, but most plots seem to have had a frontage of 30 to 35 feet (9 to 10.5 m) or half or occasionally twice that. The original house would then be built on the frontage, and might be extended back, or might be side-on to the street. The depth of the plot would generally be determined by the distance to the ditches that ran parallel to the street on both north and south, 100 to 200 feet (30 to 60 m) away. Over time, sheds and outhouses built behind the main houses would become modest dwellings, perhaps in line along the side boundary wall, and sharing a privy and water supply. Industries carried on included sack-weaving, leather-working, rope-making, malting and brewing.[28]

TNA sketch map.jpg
Court 15 behind 135-141 Ock St in 1910

TNA, Field Book IR58/64929.Courtesy of The National Archives 

As the nineteenth century approached, a new harshness seems to have appeared towards lessees and their tenants. People occupying Corporation property are named in leases, but no responsibility was felt towards them. When the lease on one particular property with a 20 foot (6 m) frontage ran out in 1817, the occupants were ejected without ceremony and an unstated number of dwelling and spinning houses were demolished. After redevelopment, there was one moderate-sized house with four smaller ones attached in a row behind it. None of the latter was more than 12 foot (3.5 m) square, and the 1831 census shows a total of twenty-four people living in them.[29] A newspaper referred to the lower end of Ock Street as ‘the miserable abodes of the poor’.[30]

landingpage_Ock street slum.jpg

An Ock Street Slum

OCC Photographic archive OCL : 75/3838: © Oxfordshire County Council, Oxfordshire History Centre

After the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, a new list of burgesses, men qualified to vote in municipal elections, was issued.[31] It is noteworthy that those who were resident in Ock Street overwhelmingly lived in the eastern half of the street. The old Ruddle Cross marked a boundary, perhaps sharper now than it ever had been. To its east was a mixed community, with substantial citizens in relatively large houses with street frontage and a few lesser folk in smaller tenements either on the street or behind it. Westwards was a distinctly proletarian area with mostly small houses, many of them in courts without street frontage, and only a sprinkling of residences of the middling sort.

Ock Street in the 1920s_1_0.jpg

Ock Street in the 1920s looking east

Courtesy of Elizabeth Drury; copyright owner unidentified

However, the working class areas of Ock Street developed into a close-knit community with its own traditions and rituals. By the second half of the nineteenth century the high spot of the Ock Street year was the June fair, at or close to the summer solstice. This was the time of the Morris dancers, led through several generations by members of the Hemmings family; of the parading of the Ock Street horns, a pair of ox horns on a pole, which had been fought for and captured; and of the election and chairing of the Mayor of Ock Street in a typical inversion ritual that guyed the solemnities of the upper classes. On the second day of the festival, the dancers would perambulate the town, soliciting contributions which were later to be spent in Ock Street’s twenty or so public houses.[32]

Mayor Ock St 4 csw_0.jpg

The Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers, with the Ock Street Horns, in 1956. There are still two active morris dancing groups that maintain their Ock Street connection.

Courtesy of Colin Wiggins

Little changed until the mid-twentieth century. Reminiscences from the 1930s describe a self-conscious community in a street lined with pubs and small shops.  Milkmen came round twice a day, measuring their product from a churn on a barrow. Growers from the outlying villages sold fruit and vegetables door to door in season. Cattle still passed through Ock Street on Mondays on their way to market, and flooding at the bottom end was an almost annual event.[33] But slum clearance programmes in the years either side of WW2 saw much of the population uprooted and moved to new developments in South Abingdon. Today, offices have replaced manufacturing, houses and flats the slum courts; and the few pubs that remain are far removed from the simple alehouses of the past. Ock Street is not what it was, but the Mayor of Ock Street is still chaired, and the Michaelmas Fair, now held in October, still sees it take on a brief annual gaiety, as welcome as it is unaccustomed.

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2013



[1] Mieneke Cox, The Story of Abingdon, Part 1 (Abingdon, 1986), p. 210. See also ibid. p. 205; M Biddle, H T Lambrick, and J N L Myres, ‘The early history of Abingdon and its Abbey’, Medieval Archaeology 12 (1968), 26-69. Agnes Baker considers that Anketill’s Lane was a 14th century variant of St Edmund’s Lane – Historic Streets of Abingdon (1957), p. 28.

[2] S E Kelly (ed), Charters of Abingdon Abbey, Part 2 (Oxford, 2001), pp. 407-414. Dr Kelly considers the documents with the traditional date of 965 to be later forgeries.

[3] Cox, Abingdon Part 1, p. 178.

[4]Alan Rosevear, Roads across the Upper Thames Valley, Vol 7, ‘Turnpike Roads through Abingdon’, (no place, no date), p. 4

[5] South Midlands Archaeology 29 (1999) pp.73-74; 30 (2000) p. 79; 31 (2001) pp. 65, 67; 32 (2002) pp. 66-7. See also Mark R. Robert et al, ‘Excavations at Mr Warrick’s Arms Hotel and the Crown Public House, 83-88 Ock Street Abingdon’ Oxoniensia  LXII (1997), pp. 163-178.

[6] Margaret Gelling, The Place-names of Berkshire, Part 2 (Cambridge, 1974), p. 435 Baker, Historic Streets, p.14; Agnes Baker, Historic Abingdon, Fifty-six articles (Abingdon, 1963), pp. 100-101; AE Preston, ‘The Carswell (or Castlewell), Ock Street, Abingdon’ Berks Arch J. 45 (1941), pp. 37-44.

[7] Jackie Smith, ‘History of Ock Street’ (unpublished typescript, Nov 2004); Reading, Berks Record Office (BRO), D/EBp T68/3. I have used a transcript of the latter made by Gabrielle Lambrick c. 1967

[8] Calendar of Patent Rolls (CPR), 7 Edward VI Part 7, under 18 May 1553, p.142.

[9] I have used a translation by John McGowan of the copy then in Abingdon Museum, and have compared this with AE Preston’s version in the BRO under D/EP7/82, p.33ff.

[10] CPR, 2&3 Philip & Mary Pt 4, under 1 Feb 1556/7 p. 92.

[11] Bromley Challenor (ed), Selections from the Borough Records (Abingdon, 1899), pp. 1-37.

[12] Gabrielle Lambrick and CF Slade, Two Cartularies of Abingdon Abbey Vol 2

(Oxford Historical Society, NS 32,33, 1990), pp. 143-50.

[13] So noted by AE Preston in his version of Amyce’s survey in the Berks Record Office. Abingdon Field is not to be confused with Abingdon Mead, which was outside the town on the far side of Ock Bridge. An alternative name for Abingdon Field was Cotsetelcroft – Baker, Historic Streets, p. 15.

[14] Abstract of Borough Leases by AE Preston, BRO, Preston papers, A/AT5, fo.11 no. 57 under 25 March 1577.

[15] Jacqueline Smith and John Carter, Inns and Alehouses of Abingdon 1550-1978, (Abingdon, 1989), p.76.

[16] James Townsend, A History of Abingdon (1910), p. 109.

[17] In the town archives at Abbey House, Abingdon.

[18] Abingdon Town Archives, Corporation Minutes, Vol 1, fo. 172; Vol 2, fo. 38.

[19] BRO, Preston papers, A/JQz 11, fo. 71; Cox, Story of Abingdon Part 3,pp. 154-6, 180.

[20] Cox, Story of Abingdon Part 3, p. 189.

[21] Information from David Jarman, Pleydell Society.

[22] National Archives, E179/243/25 (microfilm copy in BRO).

[23] BRO, Preston papers, A/AT2.

[24] Michael Hambleton, A Sweet and Hopeful People: The story of the Abingdon Baptist Church 1649-2000 (Abingdon, 2000), p. 11.

[25] Abingdon Town Archives, Corporation Minutes Vol 2, fo. 347.

[26] Alan Rosevear, Roads across the Upper Thames Valley, Vol 11, ‘Coach and Waggon Services across the Upper Thames Valley’, (no place, no date), Figs. 11.7 and 11.12; Vol 7, ‘Turnpike Roads through Abingdon’, p. 21.

[27] Lionel Munby, How much is that worth? (British Association for Local History, 1989), pp. 27-8, 33.

[28] Jackie Smith, ‘History of Ock Street’.

[29] Abingdon Town Archives, Corporation Minutes Vol 4, fo. 151. This would appear on Read’s 1838 valuation as Copeland’s Court.

[30] James Townsend, News of a Country Town (1914), p. 186.

[31] British Library, Add Ms 28666 fols.. 275-331.

[32] Andrew Dabrowski, Mr Hemmings Traditional Abingdon Morris Dancers (typescript, 2003); Jonathan Leach, Morris Dancing in Abingdon to 1914 (Chandler Publications, Eynsham, 1987); Keith Chandler, ‘The Abingdon Morris and the election of the Mayor of Ock Street’ in Theresa Buckland and Juliette Wood (eds) Aspects of British Calendar Customs (Sheffield 1993) pp. 119-136. Two groups of Morris Dancers still exist in Abingdon: and

[33] Norman Holmes, Unpublished lecture to The Marcham Society, 18 May 2004.


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