Chapter I Chapter III


Chapter II.

Derivation of Name and Description of the Village

The derivation of the name of Souldern, or Soulderne, was for some time a much vexed question. It appears, in all public documents, until 1469, as Sulthorn, with rare and very occasional variations of Suldren, or Sulphorne; but it seems now, almost without doubt, that the original form (for this we are indebted to the Rev. J. C. Blomfield, our Rural Dean) was Selthorn (Anglo-Saxon), “the great thorn,” as distinguishing it from Blackthorn and Highthorn, places in the neigh­bourhood, and also on the line of the Portway. The present village is in the Hundred of Plough­ley; Deanery, Union, and County Court District of Bicester, in the Diocese and County of Oxford, It is bounded on the north by Aynho (North­ampton­shire), on the west by the Cherwell, on the east by Fritwell, and on the south and south-west by Fritwell and Somerton. The area is, according to the rate book 1444, from the assessment, 1453 acres. The population (1881) is about 500. In 1879 there were 117 houses and 498 inhabitants, of these 262 were members of the Church of England, 63 “exclusive Methodists,” 66 attended church and chapel indiscriminately, 39 were Roman Catholics, and 62 ignored any form of religion. There is the Church, a Roman Catholic Chapel, and a Wesleyan Meeting House in the village. The Rector, the Rev. Dr. Stephenson, states that before the opening of the Oxford and Birmingham Canal, which runs through the parish, the inhabitants of Souldern only numbered 160 to 200 souls. The nearest point from whence coals could be obtained was the adjoining county of Bucks, and it was almost impossible for the poor to get any fuel. The canal having removed this difficulty, numerous families of labourers settled in the village, and in a few years the population more than doubled. The soil is fertile clay and loam near the Cherwell, and sand and stone brash on the high ground. Souldern is 16 miles from Oxford, 3 from Deddington, 8 from Banbury and 7 from Brackley and Bicester. The nearest station is Aynho, on the Great Western line, within four miles distance. From the want of capital or energy, or more probably of both, on the part of the inhabitants, no successful attempt has been made to obtain a more direct route. The modern town, as the natives delight to call it, is pleasantly situated on the outskirts of Aynho Park, and slopes down so abruptly from the turnpike house (well known to members of the Bices­ter hunt as Souldern Gate) that nothing of it, save a few columns of curling smoke, can be seen from the high road, and it was the boast and consolation of the inhabitants in the days of the dreaded invasion of Napoleon that their village was too hidden to attract his notice. A relative of the compilers much given to practical joking, as was the fashion of his time, dressed himself up one day, and, riding furiously into the place, shouted “Napoleon!” The terrified villagers snatched up their children and fled from their cottages, thinking that “old Bony had come at last.” After the short and abrupt descent to the Town Well, whence a road branches off to the Church and Rectory, the village extends up­wards and onwards in a westerly direction until it ends in the present Manor House, which stands on the brow of the hill over-looking the valley of the Cherwell. The main street, nestling as it does throughout its course under a broad belt of trees with its substantial-looking houses built of the white stone of the neighbourhood, and fore-courts tastefully planted with variegated trees and shrubs, its thatched cottages covered with apricot trees, two old Elizabethan buildings, occupied respectively by Mr. Thomas Merry and Mr. John Bodding­ton, and its almost handsome school, has such an air of comfort and repose that strangers and visitors soon acquire a liking for the little out-of-the-way village. The National School was originally founded by William and James Minn in 1816. About 1851 Mr. James Minn gave a piece of land and two cottages adjoining, for the accommodation of teachers. Since the recent Education Act, the school has been much altered and enlarged, a good house has been erected in place of the cottages, and a clock has recently been put up. Mr. and Mrs. Tingey (1882) are the present worthy Master and Mistress. The supply of water in Souldern is abundant. A never-failing tream rises in a field called “Bove-well,” which, after supplying the Town-pond, passes the Rectory, and finally finds its way into the County Brook, which divides Oxfordshire from North­ampton­shire. Prior to the enclosure of 1856-7, there was another spring in that part of the common land called Chadwell, where the water was collected in a stone tank dedicated to St. Chad. Unfortunately the well is now stopped up. There is undoubtedly ironstone in parts of the parish, but whether its quantity or quality would make it worth the working remains to be seen. There are also quarries of plank-stone. The population is chiefly agricultural. Until recently nearly every cottager had her lace-pillow, but modern education has closed the doors of the three schools formerly devoted to the teach­ing of this industry in the parish. Souldern could at one time boast of its three crosses, but during the period of miserable vandalism which succeeded the Reformation and reached its height at the great rebellion, these were almost entirely destroyed. The steps and base of one, however, may still be seen in the churchyard; the base only of another (called Coles Cross), in Col. Cox's field (see charities); and of the third not a vestige is left. There are no remains of butts in the parish, though probably these at one time existed, as, by an ordinance of the fifth year of Edward IV., it was required that “Butts should be made in every township, at which the inhabitants were to shoot up and down upon all feast-days under a penalty of a halfpenny for every time any one of them neglected to perform this exercise.” We are inclined to think that the butts at Souldern were placed where the bowling green was afterwards established. Remains of the latter are to be traced on the right hand side of the road leading from the village to old Soudern gate, and the remains of the stocks were, not many years ago, also to be seen at the corner, near the Fox Inn. The only days now kept in the village are the 14th Feb­ruary, the 29th May, Feast Day, and Christ­mas. On Valentine's Day the children come round shouting, with outstretched hands, and laying great accent on the last line of the distich—

Good morrow, Valentine!
I be yours and you be mine,
Plaze give us a Valentine.

—May Day, although shorn of some of its glories. by the intolerance of the Puritans, is still May Day, for innumerable groups of children, dressed in their Sunday best, go from door to door with their pretty, and often most tastefully arranged garlands and posies, bright with king-cups and daisies, and all the bravery of spring flowers, chanting the following quaint old ditty—

Gentlemen and Ladies,
  We wish you happy May,
We come to show our May Garland
  Because it is May Day.
    Chorus―Because it is May Day, &c.

A branch of May we bring to you
  And at your door it stands,
It is but a sprig, but it prospers a bough,
  The work of our LORD'S hands.
    Chorus―Gentlemen and Ladies  (repeat 1st Verse).

—0n the 29th of May, the anniversary of the res­toration of King Charles II., a large branch of oak is displayed in the principal street, and oak apples are extensively worn. On this day also the annual meeting of the Souldern Club, or Friendly Society is held. This Club was originally established in 1816, but has been worked under a new system with great success for the last few years. There are at present (1881) 83 actual members, who pay an admission fee of 5s, and 4s. per quarter; and 12 honorary members, who subscribe 10s, to £1 1s. per annum. John Bird and Thomas Lake are the stewards, John Hill, Esq., and Amos Welford, trustees, and James Tingey, treasurer and secretary. The allowance during illness is 9s. per week for one year, and half-pay for any time of sickness afterwards. At the end of every five years, the surplus fund, with the exception of £1 per head, is divided in proportion among the members, Those who have received more than the amount in sick pay forfeit all claim in the division.

Feast Days, &c.

The Village Feast, or Wake, is kept on the 1st Sunday after the 18th of September. In all probability it was originally held on the first Sunday after the 8th, that day being the anniversary of the nativity of the blessed Virgin, to whom the church is dedicated. We are told that as late as the middle of the present century Souldern feast was looked forward to from September to September. Open house was kept from Sunday until Saturday. Rich plum puldings were made and joints of beef cooked by all who could afford them, and the poorest cottage had its cake and bottle of home­made wine, Relations and friends from all parts flocked in; old friendships were renewed, and old differences made up. In the main street a fine row of stalls was erected, on which both usetul and fancy articles were displayed, china, boots and shoes, hosiery and clothing, besides the delights of the children, such as gilt gingerbread, sugar pigs, etc. Many were the sports also at that time: prize-fighting, jumping in in sacks, ducking for apples in tubs of water, the hands tied behind the back, searching for sixpences in bowls of treacle, donkey racing, climbing the greasy pole, and skittles; and of evenings, we are sorry to add, much drinking with the dancing, at the public-houses. Under the refining influence of modern times most of these vanities have passed away, only two or three apologies for stalls come to the wonted corner by the “Bull,” with a “merry-go-round” for the children, and cocoa-nut throwing for the young men. The observance of the 5th of November has almost become a thing of the past, a coutemptible bonfire just serves the purpose of collecting a few roughs, Christmas is still kept up in somewhat of the olden style; hospitality is the order of the day, and charities are universally dispensed; carol singers, ringers, and mummers parade the village for more than a week. These mummers are said to be the repre­sentatives of the secular players of whom John of Salisbury wrote, that “their plays had little to do with morality. They consisted of comic tales, dialogues, and stories, to which were added coarse and indecent jests.” Whether this description were true or not it is an undoubted fact that mummers were welcome Christmas visitors in the halls and castles of England, and that the pieces performed by them were of a secular character, as distinguished from the miracle and mystery plays of the monks. What the plot of the modern performances may be we are at a loss to say, but as far as we can gather, old John of Salisbury's description still holds good. There is a female, called “Molly” (always represented by the biggest young man who can be found); a fight in which someone is killed, and the doctor comes in on his hobby-horse to bring the deceased to life. Then “Molly” has the tooth-ache, and the “Doctor” operates on her, and extracts a tooth the size of a decanter-stopper. His man “Jack” is in active attendance, and the clown, or Jack-pudding, introduces himself in the following terms:—

'Ear comes as never come yet,
With my gret yead, and my little wit;
My yead is gret, my wit is small,
I'll do my, duty to plaze you all.

—As to costumes, the actors appear to have robbed every scarecrow in the parish, and as to the play it is difficult to say which is most to be wondered at, its intense stupidity or extreme vulgarity.—Of Souldern worthies there are no records extant, the only individual of whom any notice remains is one ‘Daniel Brown,’* nicknamed ‘Belcher,’ a poor half-silly creature, the butt of the village, who is said to have performed many eccentric feats, among others that of riding on the back of a bull into the town pond. Being strictly honest he was often employed as a messenger, and at other times amused himself by wandering about the country. On one occasion he found his way as far as London, and somewhat hungry after the long journey invested his all in the purchase of a lemon. This having failed to satisfy the cravings of hunger, and being too proud to beg, he found himself in Cheapside in a state of complete destitution. Fortunately, Mr. Cartwright's carriage was passing at the time. Belcher hailed the coachman with delight, and although our hero looked anything but a creditable acquaintance, the man acted the part of a good Samaritan, took him to his own lodgings, gave him a meal, and sent him back to his native village by the next waggon, with this ticket on his back, ‘Belcher Brown, Souldern Town, pass him on.’ Whether he again visited the metropolis is not known. We hear nothing more of him but his will, which runs as follows:—

My soul I leave unto the Lord
  My body to the ground;
My 'bacca box to Master Ned,
  My clothes back to the Town.
Unto my old friend Shepherdless (sic)
  To him I leave my knige;
I think it best to make my will
  Whilst I have strength and life;
But if the Shepherd should be dead,
  My knife goes back to Master Ned.

—The ‘Master Ned’ here referred to was one of the Clifford family, who had evidently shown Belcher some kindness. This document (the will) and the 'bacca box are in the possession of the present Mr. Clifford.” The following anecdote has been related to us of another Souldern man, an old and respected neighbour. In 1851 he went up to London to see the Great Exhibition. When inside the Palace he was, naturally enough, staring and gazing about him, when suddenly a fair specimen of the Yankee hailed him with, “Wal, stranger, what are you looking for?” The Souldern man was equal to the occasion, for he answered without hesitation, “Well, I was looking for a bigger fool than myself, and I think I have found him.”

* This biography was communicated to the late Mr. Wing by one of the compilers, and may be found in his excellent work “Annals of the Bicester Union.”

Chapter I Chapter III