The Otmoor riots

First published in What's On by

Otmoor, was marshland until the mid-19th century, which made it a remote area with its own distinct character and a close-knit community.

Its inhabitants were fiercely independent and defensive of their rights as shown in the following legend. The locals claimed that Our Lady of Otmoor' had ridden a circuit round the moor while an oatsheaf was burning, and given the area inside it to the people of Otmoor in perpetuity.

In a 19th century pamphlet, Sir Alexander Croke, a local landlord, refuted the validity of the story and said people believed that the donor was Elizabeth I or another queen, or King Charles I.

In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the people of Otmoor were not prepared to let the landowners ride roughshod over their interests and drain the wetland when the land was fenced off in 1829.

The Otmoor riots involved desperate agricultural labourers who saw the additional sources of income they cherished disappearing as the wetland dried.

Their anguish inspired the rhyme: The fault is great in Man or Woman Who steals the Goose from off a Common; But who can plead that man's excuse Who steals the Common from the Goose.' This refers to the Aylesbury ducks and geese bred on the common land before enclosure.

Black men are Oddy born [Oddington], marsh men are called black men. Oddy bells are supposed to ring Hang Sam Gomme, Save Will Young.

Robert Graves

The first drainage attempts were unsuccessful and even led to local flooding. Nocturnal raids to disrupt the drainage work started in 1829 and, on June 5, 1830, enclosure banks were attacked. Later, 29 local farmers were charged with breaking the banks of the River Ray and flooding the lands of Sir Alexander Croke.

The farmers pleaded that the banks were a public nuisance and were acquitted. The people of Otmoor then believed that the whole enclosure was null and void and that they could destroy fences and reestablish their rights of common.

The Rev Philip Searle, rector of Oddington, was a promoter of the enclosures: It was narrow back, the parson, As I have heard em say, Who employed the Parish Clerk To stop the River Ray.

He blocked up the water For four feet high or more To injure other farmers And keep it out of Otmoor.' The rioters blackened their faces, wore women's cloaks and tied black scarves over their heads and armed themselves with billhooks, hatchets, pitchforks and staves.

On some nights, up to 150 men set out to destroy hedges and stakes with their billhooks. Attempts were made to keep the situation under control by stationing Coldstream Guards at Islip and additional policemen in the villages, although they could have none at Charlton because no-one would offer them lodgings.

The authorities also tried to bribe men to inform, leading to the rhyme, which is found in several versions: I went to Noke And nobody spoke.

I went to Brill They were silent still I went to Thame It was just the same, I went to Beckley They spoke directly.' Robert Graves wrote about the riots in Antigua Penny Puce: "Black men are Oddy born Oddington, marsh men are called black men. Oddy bells are supposed to ring Hang Sam Gomme, Save Will Young.' "

Sam Gomme was a spy employed by Lord Churchill's Yeomanry and Will Young one of the rioters' ringleaders.

Everything came to a head on September 6, 1830, when about 1,000 people walked the seven mile circumference of Otmoor in broad daylight, destroying every fence in their way.

The Riot Act was read to them, and the Oxfordshire Yeomanry was summoned. But they refused to disperse and 66 rioters were arrested, 41 of whom were loaded aboard wagons to be taken to Oxford gaol, escorted by 21 yeomen commanded by a Captain Hamilton.

The magistrates feared conspiracy as handbills had been published by the King of Otmoor, Given at our Court of Otmoor'.

The rioters were not all local, some coming from Oxford, Bicester and nearby villages.

The men were not restrained, so, when a large mob attacked the escort with stones and bricks on the outskirts of the city, the prisoners escaped.

The situation gradually calmed down after this event and fence-breaking ceased after 1835.

Another more recent legend' emerged that the local people had webbed feet, (presumably because it would make it easier for them to walk in the marshes) illustrated by a weathervane erected on Charlton church around 1955.

The Rev EHW Crusha wrote a to Miss Eltenton that he was furious about this: "It is commonly said that Otmoor goslings have webbed feet' (or rather Otmoor gollins). It is as old as the memories of surviving old people. I have myself no doubt that it originated as a kind of insult which foreigners' used towards Otmoor men."

Christine Bloxham's book Oxfordshire Folklore, published by Tempus, is now available, price £14.99.

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