Binsey: The History


The township of Binsey (c. 387 a.) lies north-west of Oxford, bounded on all sides by branches of the river Thames; (fn. 60) it lies partly on the first gravel terrace, partly on river alluvium. (fn. 61) In the 12th century it comprised the islands of Binsey to the north, and Langney to the south. An area around the church in the north-west forms an island, separated from the village by the Swift ditch, and although considered part of Binsey from an early date may originally have been called Thornbury (thorn-tree hill), considered in the 15th century to be an alternative name for Binsey. (fn. 62) South-east of Binsey lies Medley which has been joined to Binsey by modern drainage schemes. Binsey belonged to St. Frideswide’s priory from an early date, and was said traditionally to have been given to St. Frideswide herself; there may have been a cell of the priory there c. 1130. (fn. 63) Langney was granted to St. Frideswide’s by Oseney abbey c. 1190 and was held of the lord of Northgate hundred. (fn. 64) From 1244 the priory leased Langney to its tenants on Binsey. (fn. 65)

The village lies among river-meadows about a mile north of the built-up area of west Oxford. The houses border a large green; along the north side stands a row of 18th- and 19th-century rubble and brick cottages, roofed with slate or thatch. At the south-west corner is a rubble and slate farm-house, which contains some 17th-century work. To the north-east stands a public-house, the Perch, a two-storeyed rubble building roofed with thatch and slate; (fn. 66) it dates partly from the 17th century, but it is not known how long it has been an inn. It was recorded as the Fish in 1831, and was described in 1842 as ‘well-known’, (fn. 67) presumably because then, as later, it attracted visitors, on foot and by boat, from Oxford. About ½ mile north of the green lie the church and two small cottages. In the 16th century St. Frideswide’s priory owned a house near the church called ‘the court’. (fn. 68)

In the Middle Ages there was a settlement known as the Wyke on the south-eastern tip of Langney, close to the modern Wyke Bridge. It was first recorded c. 1190 (fn. 69) and was large enough to be considered a separate hamlet in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. (fn. 70) There was still at least one house on the site c. 1587, but it had disappeared by 1624. (fn. 71)

A lane runs to Binsey green and the church from the Botley road, crossing a stream of the Thames at Wyke Bridge. The bridge was first recorded in the later 17th century and was rebuilt in 1776 or 1777. (fn. 72) It may have replaced a ford next to Swerham for which the bailiff of Binsey paid Oseney abbey ½d. in 1317, although that ford probably lay further east than the later bridge. (fn. 73) The lane from the village to the church was laid out at inclosure in 1821, replacing an earlier footpath through the fields; other footpaths led from the church to Wytham and Godstow. (fn. 74) There was a ford across the river to Port Meadow, (fn. 75) and the inhabitants of Binsey claimed to have a right of way for their carts and cattle across the meadow towards Oxford. (fn. 76)

In 1381 44 Binsey inhabitants were assessed for poll-tax, although 7 bore the surname atte Wyke and may have come from that settlement; others may have been from Medley. (fn. 77) In 1524 only 5 men were assessed for subsidy, one at the comparatively high rate of 5s. (fn. 78) In 1648 13 were assessed, including Mr. Perrot, the tenant of the manor. (fn. 79) In 1662 38 hearths were taxed, and in 1665 31, of which 9 were in Thomas Crutch’s manor-house at Medley. In 1668 48 people paid poll-tax. (fn. 80) In 1773 there were 11 houses in Binsey, 5 of them in disrepair, and a twelfth house had fallen down some years earlier. (fn. 81) The population rose from 55 in 1801 to 82 in 1821, declining slightly thereafter; in 1921, the last year for which a separate figure is available, it was 63. (fn. 82) In 1974 it was fewer than 30. (fn. 83) Most of the 18th- and 19th-century inhabitants were poor; in 1793 there were only one or two moderate farmers, and in 1904 the vicar asked help from Christ Church because there were no resident gentry to support clothing, coal, and other benefit clubs. (fn. 84)

Medley, although technically part of St. Thomas’s parish, has been closely connected with Binsey throughout its history. Its inhabitants seem to have been entered with Binsey in medieval and early modern taxation records, (fn. 85) and some were buried in Binsey churchyard. (fn. 86) There were 2 cottagers at Medley in 1279 (fn. 87) and later the settlement seems to have comprised only the manor-house and associated buildings. In 1509 the house was assigned to the abbot of Oseney as his residence. (fn. 88) A boatyard on the Thames at Medley dates from the late 19th century. (fn. 89)

Their nearness to Oxford, at the end of a popular walk across Port Meadow, has made Binsey and Medley familiar to Oxford people of both town and university. Medley was a popular eating place; some 17th-century verses celebrated ‘A place at which they never fail/Of custard, cyder, cakes and ale,/Cream tarts and cheese-cakes, good neats’ tongues,/And pretty girls to wait upon’s’. (fn. 90) Similar food and drink was served in 1767 at the Cheese Cake, adjoining the manor-house. (fn. 91) The unspoilt rural nature of the site attracted other visitors, including Gerard Manley Hopkins who lamented the felling of the ‘Binsey Poplars’ in 1879. (fn. 92)


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