Current Oxfordshire research themes England up for sale: the Sarsden 2022 project

England is Changing Hands: the Sarsden 2022 Project

Linda Devlin and Kate Tiller

We are a century on from one of the greatest upheavals experienced in the history of rural counties such as Oxfordshire. This was the great wave of sales of landed estates that began with the return of peace in 1918 and continued through the 1920s. In terms of potential for local research it is one of the most widespread and significant themes from this period as Oxfordshire researchers are beginning to find. The sales of estates were happening in many parts of Britain. By the end of March 1919 well over half a million acres were on the market and by the mid-1920s between 6 and 8 million acres of land had changed hands in England. This was a transformation compared by modern historians with the impact of the property confiscations and sequestrations during the17th-century civil wars, the permanent transfers of land at the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, and the shifts of power at the Norman Conquest. F.M.L.Thompson (in English Landed Society in the 19th century, 1963) concluded that the consequences of the sales led to the disappearance of much of ‘the great estate system’ and the ‘formation of a new race of yeomen’, that is the owner-occupying farmers (many former estate tenant farmers) who by 1927 occupied 36% of the total acreage, compared with 11% in 1914. Alun Howkins (in Reshaping Rural England, 1992, p.281) reckons that between 1918 and 1925, ‘The focus of power and deference finally shifted…from the landowners to the farmers.’

One local initiative exploring this theme has been started by the Heritage Centre at Churchill in north Oxfordshire. They have begun a new volunteer project to research and record the 1922 Sale of the Sarsden Estate. The property, on offer in 65 lots, comprised 3,785 acres including ‘practically the whole of the village of Churchill’. It was up for auction at the Randolph Hotel, Oxford on 30 August, 1922. The sale had a profound effect on the villages of Churchill, Sarsden, Chadlington and Lyneham.

The Heritage Centre’s Project ‘22 will include the history of the Sarsden Estate, the reasons for the sale and the subsequent history, owners and occupants of the land and buildings involved, up to the present day. A group of volunteers,16 in total, with Linda Devlin as the Co-ordinator has been formed to carry out this research. They have started with the Sale Catalogue and maps which have details of the various lots, photographing and using Google Earth to look at the properties as they are now and collating as much information as possible from residents – such as deeds, old photographs, postcards, etc. to chart the history of the properties from the sale to the present day. One member is researching the impact on agricultural life and the working of local farms. Earlier maps and the 1910 Valuation records are amongst other sources. Volunteers are making use of on-line research facilities and hope to resume visits to libraries and archives as soon as possible post-Covid-19.

Project ’22 was launched on 30 January 2020 at a packed meeting in the Village Hall in Churchill. The hall, built as a Reading Room in 1870, is just one of an array of estate benefactions around the green which continue to signal the village’s earlier identity as an estate village. The Sarsden estate, big house and surrounding villages, was bought by the Langston family, London bankers, in the 1790s. Not only did they develop Sarsden House and grounds but, particularly in the time of J.H.Langston, MP (died 1863) and his daughter and heir, Julia, wife of the 3rd Earl of Ducie, created a Victorian estate whose influence, on employment, farming, housing, religion, charity and recreation are reflected in buildings still to be seen-church, schools, memorial fountain, reading room, forge, estate housing and farm buildings.

The reasons for estate sales often reflected general as well as local and personal factors. So it may have been at Sarsden. The latter phases of the war saw increased agricultural production and high prices for produce enhanced by protective government intervention, factors that continued after 1918 and were reflected in increased demand for agricultural land. By contrast the owners of landed estates were faced with increased death duties, high taxation and historically low rent levels, likely incentives to sell at least some of their land. Family circumstances might also contribute to decisions. The 3rd Earl of Ducie died in his nineties in 1921, the year following his 63-year-old only son, leaving the title to the Earl’s aged brother, a Queensland cattle- and sheep-farmer. Also in 1921, the government unexpectedly ended guaranteed grain prices, the so-called ‘Great Betrayal’ which reduced prospective agricultural returns and with it the pace of sales and the prices to be had for land. Who was it who bought the Sarsden estate farms and cottages in 1922, speculators or local tenants?

There will be many interesting questions and pieces of evidence for members of Project ’22 as they pursue the why? when? how? and consequences of the Sarsden estate sale of 1922. The project will run for two years – until 2022, the 100 year anniversary of the sale. The group will present their results in the Village Hall and a display in The Heritage Centre. An archive of information and images about the Sarsden estate, its sale and subsequent history will be created. We would be interested to know if others are researching the sale of landed estates in Oxfordshire or elsewhere.

LINDA DEVLIN is Project Co-ordinator for Churchill Heritage Centre.
KATE TILLER spoke at the launch of Project ’22 on ‘Village and Estate 1914-1939. Times of Change’.