The Ascott Martyrs and the Chipping Norton Affair

UPDATE FOR 2016: Beverley McCombs' book "The Ascott Martyrs" has now been published, and can be purchased direct from the publishers. I have a limited number of copies direct from Beverley which I'm able to sell for £15+P&P (as I don't have the overheads of a business!) - let me know your address if you'd like me to send you a copy, and I'll let you know how much it will come to with P&P.

UPDATE FOR 2017: Beverley McCombs has created a Facebook page about the Ascott Martyrs, which you can 'like' or 'follow' to receive updates, or, of course, comment on.

UPDATE FOR 2018: The Ascott Martyrs' Educational Trust has created a website and Facebook group about the Ascott Martys, with information about events which they are organising in the Ascott under Wychwood area. There is one on 23rd June 2018, which Beverley will be attending.

Written by Beverley McCombs, this is just a brief summary of the exhaustive research she has carried out into these women. (I can pass on her email address if you would like to get in touch.)

On the village green in Ascott-Under-Wychwood, a small Oxfordshire village in England, there is a chestnut tree with a seat which was renewed in June 2000 as a village project marking the Millennium. There are four steel seats painted black and bolted together around the tree. Each has an inscription. One bears the words "Ascott Martyrs imprisoned 1873". The next lists the names of "Amelia Moss, Caroline Moss, Jane Moss, Martha Moss, Mary Moss, Ellen Pratley, Elizabeth Pratley, Mary Pratley". The third seat lists the names "Martha Maria Smith, Mary Moss alias Smith, Charlotte Moss, Ann Susan Moss, Fanny Honeybone, Ann Moss, Rebecca Smith, and Lavinia Dring". The fourth seat has the words, "And those who supported them: Jane Pratley, Celia Honeybone, Elizabeth Honeybone, Eliza Honeybone, Mrs Caleb Moss."

This seat was originally erected to celebrate the centenary of the 'Ascott Martyrs', the sixteen women of Ascott who were sent to prison in 1873 for the part they played in the founding of the National Agricultural Labourers' Union when they were sent 'over the hills to glory.'

Queen Victoria subsequently remitted the sentences and the women were welcomed back into the village as martyrs. It is said the Queen gave them each a red flannel petticoat and five shillings. The National Agricultural Labourers' Union gave them each enough blue silk material to make a dress plus five pounds.

The story as told in the newspapers of 1873 said: "...Rioting in Chipping Norton! Sixteen Ascott women sentenced to hard labour! Police reinforcements were sent to Chipping Norton to deal with a crowd of rioters who attacked the police station and attempted to rescue 16 women of Ascott.

The trouble started when Mr Hambidge of Crown Farm Ascott sacked his men who had joined the Agricultural Workers' Union and then employed men from Ramsden to do his hoeing. The Ascott women stopped these men from working, and tried to persuade them to join the Union. The women were arrested, taken to Chipping Norton, and charged with obstructing and coercing John Hodgkins and John Millen with a view to inducing them to leave their employment on 20th May.

The two magistrates conducting the trial were Rev. T. Harris and Rev. W.E. Carter. Mr Hambidge engaged a solicitor (Mr Wilkins) to conduct the prosecution but the women were not defended by counsel. The magistrates pleaded with the farmer not to proceed with the prosecution, as they would have no option but to send the women to prison. This he refused to do.

So the ringleaders were sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour, seven for ten days, and nine for seven days. When the public knew the sentence there was a great uproar, and by 9pm there were over 1000 infuriated people swarming around the police court. They tried to rescue the women and broke the windows of the Police Court and the street lamps. Mr Holloway of the Workers' Union, the Mayor of Chipping Norton Mr Rawlinson, and Alderman Farwell, endeavoured to quieten the rioters without success. The violence continued until 11pm.

The women were taken into two dark rooms with very few seats so they were obliged to take turns in resting. Here they were kept until 1am an hour after the crowds had dispersed at midnight. A telegram for police re-enforcements had been sent to Oxford. When these arrived in a four-horse dray the women were transferred to the drays and set out thus, through the cold night on their journey to Oxford prison. They had no warm clothing but huddled together for warmth and tried to protect the two small infants with umbrellas. They arrived at Oxford at 6am. They were given washing and ironing to do for their labour, excepting the two women with infants who were excused from working. (Eight of these women were single and eight married). During their enforced absence kind neighbours and officials of the Milton-Under-Wychwood branch of the Workers' Union at first cared for the children. They are now in charge of the Ascott Workhouse.

The next day a big meeting of protest was held in Chipping Norton where Joseph Arch addressed a crowd of 3000. A collection was taken in aid of the women of Ascott. 80 pounds was subscribed (5 pounds in coppers).

We understand that questions are to be asked in Parliament and that a personal appeal to Her Majesty Queen Victoria is to be made on behalf of the Ascott women, and therefore trust that justice will be done, and these unfortunate women set free."

The Charge Sheet listed nine women sentenced to seven days imprisonment: Martha Moss, aged 33, born in Mixbury and living in Ascott, a glover; Caroline Moss, aged 18, born and living in Ascott, a glover; Elizabeth Pratley, aged 29, born in Burford and living in Ascott, with child of 7 months; Mary Pratley, aged 33, born in Hailey and living in Ascott, with child of ten weeks; Lavinia Dring, aged 44, born and living in Ascott, a glover; Amelia Moss, aged 36, born and living in Ascott, a glover; Jane Moss, aged 31, born and living in Ascott, a glover; Ellen Pratley, aged 25, born in Leafield and living in Ascott; and Mary Moss, aged 35, born and living in Ascott.

Seven of the women were imprisoned for ten days: Martha Smith, aged 45, born in Chilton [actually Shilton] and living in Ascott, labourer, Church of England; Mary Moss (Smith) aged 17, born and living in Ascott, Baptist; Charlotte Moss, aged 39, born and living in Ascott; Ann Susan Moss, aged 25, born in Chipping Norton and living in Ascott, Church of England; Fanny Honeybone, aged 16, born and living in Ascott, a glover, Church of England; Ann Moss, aged 22, born in Stanton Harcourt and living in Ascott, a labourer, Church of England; and Rebecca Smith, aged 25, born in Churchill and living in Ascott.

Immediately after this case was reported from Chipping Norton, Holloway, Chairman of the Oxford district of the National Union, carried out an investigation into the wages and conditions of the Ascott farm labourers. He found that:"... before the appearance of the union, wages had been nine shillings a week in winter, ten shillings in summer, with two shillings a week extra for 13 or 14 weeks at busy seasons, when hours were 12 to 16 a day. There were no perquisites (perks), and no wages when time was lost on wet days. Following the forming of the union branch, wages were raised by two shillings per week..."

Some of the records from the Chipping Norton Affair and the Ascott Martyrs as it has come to be known are kept at the Oxfordshire Archives in the Oxford County Records Office and in the Centre for Oxfordshire Studies. At least four of the families subsequently emigrated in 1874 and are the forebears of the Pratly, Pratley, Prattley, Honeybone and Moss families and their many descendants now spread throughout New Zealand.