Three people have been incredibly helpful and kind in doing fantastic transcriptions of wills or in depth genealogical research in helping me in the writing of this post. Thanks must therefore go to @JudithScholes, who has even constructed a family tree, @DTEDILFXXX (NSFW btw) who can read wills in real-time, and Kirsty Grey of Family Wise (https://family-wise.co.uk/about-us/) who amongst other things spotted the Welsh link.
At first glance Goring and Streatley looks like the sort of place they take photos of for the front of last-minute airport biscuit gifts. However, it has a much richer history than the postcard picture would imply. Read on for evidence of 10s of thousands of years of human occupation, from the Mesolithic to Iron Age agriculture, a Roman Villa. Moving much close to the the present day, we find an early 19th ‘private venture’ girls boarding school run by a widow, just at the time when the State was about to step in and provide for mass education.
Walking round a bend in the river, into a picturesque complex of bridge, lock, moorings and weirs, I think we’ll be struck by the nature of this place as cross-roads, where the ridgeway crosses the Thames. Rather than a frozen picturesque scene, it is a constant resting point in thousands of years of journeys. The travellers who have been coming through this place have travelled up and down the river and along a track which, when it was first walked, stretched across the North Sea into mainland Europe. When Mesolithic nomadic hunting gave way to transhumance, after the Islands were separated from mainland Europe about 4000 years ago, this track became a path, then a kind of roadway alongside which settled groups lived and traded.
Goring is saturated with evidence of this long history of human activity and settlement. In the village itself there’s a great deal of history poking out above the sands of time – in the buildings where people still live, work and worship. But if we rush along for the chocolate box image we’ll miss some really interesting stuff on the way.
On our walk into the village centre, we’ll pass a couple of fields near ‘Gatehampton Farm’ where, over the last 30 years or so, a series of digs have uncovered evidence of much earlier activity. The view from the ground does not contain any hint of this long history, but if we use satellite images from Google Earth’s archive, dated 2004, we can see something amazing.
The dark lines and circles are evidence of Neolithic and bronze-age settlement. The circles (some double circles) are bronze-age burial mounds, used to honour the dead, and mark one group’s territory from another. The lines are earlier Neolithic ditches, possibly made to drain the land for growing crops.
What you can’t see from the pictures here are the multiple finds in this same area of Mesolithic flint tools. The earliest of these is from around 10,000 years ago when the climate suddenly switched at the end of the last glacial period, going from the coldest to temperatures comparable to today in around 50 years. This warming was accompanied by the growth of grasses and grazing ideal for horses and reindeer – which is what Mesolithic hunters were probably killing and dressing in this area, where these animals would perhaps have been drawn to the water.
Gatehampton is steeped in evidence of human activity. Also in the same place is a large Roman villa. The local South Oxfordshire Archaeological Society have been investigating and then excavating this site every summer since the mid 80s, uncovering substantial structures, including a bathhouse, and interesting finds suggesting wealthy occupants. Overlying the Mesolithic, bronze-age and Roman activities are Anglo Saxon finds, some of which suggest continuity of use of things like grain ovens between Roman and later periods.
Getting into the centre of the two villages, David Ford Nash’s site makes clear the continuing importance of Goring and Streatley as a crossing point, and also tells us about the conflict between the use of the river as a source of power for a flour mill, and as a trade route. Building up a weir created a powerful flow of water to turn the mill, but made it difficult for boats to pass through. Flash locks were used to create floods of water that allowed boats to cross weirs, and there was one in the river here. If that sounds exciting, it was also dangerous. In 1634 a passenger boat overturned in the lock at Goring and 60 people were drowned. A surfeit of liquids remains a real risk to travellers to Goring today – the village’s heritage trail is dominated by pubs.
We’ll cross the river here at Goring bridge into Streatley and past St Mary’s church, which is an impressive 19th C rebuilding on the site of a Saxon church. You can see the tower on Turner’s unfinished painting, above.
If we take short detour along the high street we can find an unassuming white painted house, a grade II listed building known as ‘the Old School House‘ . There are two school houses in Streatley. A later one, up the road, catered for boys and girls of the village and was possibly one of thousands of schools put up through voluntary charitable subscription in the mid 19th Century. According to Lawson and Silver, one of the interacting reasons that 1870 Education Act was passed (which made elementary education compulsory and give it state support) was that these local charities quickly fell in to debt. Whilst it was relatively easy to persuade donors to contribute to the glamour of setting something up, and seeing a building rise, it seems it was much more difficult to continue to raise funds for the more prosaic task of keeping the school going.
So, the school I’m interested in predates both the legislation, and I think also the building of the village school up the road. It is referred to in this, quite faded, record from the 1841 Census. In the late 18th C and to the mid to late 19th C a lot of schooling, in town and country, was done in the houses of women who taught local children basic literacy and often religious instruction from the bible. There’s a lovely but quite old article by Higginson about the impact of such village schools on literary figures and some interesting illustration of how such ‘Dame’ schools were seen by reformers as parochial, ill-informed and often nothing more than not-very-glorified childminding. Dame schools were ‘private venture’ schools – those not supported by charity or endowment. Whilst they were often informal and housed in kitchens or front rooms of widows or elderly women they existed along a continuum. Some resembled small boarding schools, catering for children from perhaps slightly wealthier members of the local and regional community.
I think this school is an example of the schools looking after a wealthier part of the local community. The 1841 Census describes Mrs Sophia Thomas, aged 65 as the head of a ‘boarding school’, in which there are then listed 9 children aged 10-15 and a woman of 40 years, Georginna Head, possibly a teacher employed by Sophia Thomas. Sophia’s will is also available online, and the school obviously served her well, along with investments she made and inherited from her father and husband given the generous bequest of capital (over £1000) she was able to leave to her niece Sophie, in 1857. The purchasing power of that sum today would be about £95k). Her father Joseph gets an interestingly brief mention in the Reading Mercury as a churchwarden, in an advert offering a reward for the return to his parish of an absent father. This James Woodley, had absconded and left abandoned his wife and children without means of support, further suggesting that the Hannington and Thomas family were pillars of the community. I think that what we have here is a very respectable though very small girls’ school.
Sophia’s life was not an easy one. After marrying and moving to live in Wales she had a son who died very young, followed soon after by her husband Mathew. She then returned to look after her father until his death in1810. After this she seems to have opened a school, whether through a sense of educational vocation or as a means of supplementing the income from any inheritance she had perhaps received from her father. As this book by Christina de Bellaigue tells us, the historical record for schools like this is often sparse. Historians rely on memoirs and other biographical records to help piece together a story for a place like this.
In the case of Shophia Thomas’s school we have a few records such as the census from 1841 and 1851, and some newspaper adverts like the one above from January 1839. Her adverts are quite understated affairs, especially when compared to adverts for schools on either side, presenting themselves as establishments for Young Ladies, trumpeting the proprietor’s attention to the morals and health of those in her charge. Perhaps she could not afford the cost of the greater number of words, or perhaps the reputation of Mrs Thomas’s School spoke for itself. The last advert, from the Reading Mercury of January 1841 is the last one we have for Sophia’s school, which suggests that it was soon after the census that the school closed, and emphasises the ephemeral nature of such private ventures. By 1851 Sophia is listed in Streatley still, but this time as a ‘fundholder’ – living off the investments and perhaps some savings that she gathered from her work as a school proprietor.
Next post is a long stretch of countryside, through Moulsford and past an interesting small nature reserve called ‘Tara’s Piece‘. I’ve got no idea what we’ll find in this next stretch…