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Local History

Interested in Local History? Please come and see us at one of our advertised monthly meetings at Goring Heath or Whitchurch Village Halls and contact Vicky Jordan (0118 984 3260) or Peter Hawley (0118 984 3069) for more details.

Whitchurch and Goring Heath History Society

The Thameside Counties of Oxfordshire and Berkshire were at the crossroads of English history for many centuries. For its size the village of Whitchurch, at the centre of that region, has a rich and fascinating story to tell as a former Royal Manor (larger than Pangbourne at the time of Domesday) and the home of two landed estates and an ancient riverside port and river crossing, with a surprising number of published records and reminiscences.

The Whitchurch and Goring Heath History Society and its precursors have a long history of study and publications and it has held popular talks and explorations for many years to cover both regional and local topics, including fine work by the late Robert Noble.  We think those who have not attended or acquired its publications will find it interesting and rewarding to do so. We are constantly receiving enquiries from former and current residents which we are eager to research and answer.

We include Goring Heath Parish in our territory as a substantial part of that parish was originally part of Whitchurch and known as Whitchurch Hill. Please come and see us at one of our advertised

monthly meetings at Goring Heath or Whitchurch Village Halls and contact Vicky Jordan (0118 984 3260) or Peter Hawley (0118 984 3069) for more details. You will find it is a community to be proud of.

Peter Hawley's publications for the Society include two editions of Relics and Monuments, a collection of essays and talks he gave at various times and there follows a miscellany of other shorter articles which might be of interest to residents.



Among the most distinctive heritage features of Whitchurch High Street Conservation area are the three eighteenth to nineteenth century Tilehurst brick "bell mouth" entrances to Walliscote Drive, Manor Road and Number 1 Whitchurch House.

The finest of these is the one at Walliscote Drive (formerly known as Church Drive). In my book "Relics and Monuments" I have described that this important and handsome feature was designed for the late eighteenth century owner of Walliscote, Sir John Simeon MP, when he was seeking to enclose the entrance to Walliscote as part of a private "gentleman's" residence. The enclosure maps of the time show that up to then the driveway was not in fact private property but an open spur of the public village street. There was public outcry against Sir John. He succeeded in installing gates but was refused permission to lock them and the drive remained open to pedestrians (later as the Thames Path) and to vehicles having business at the Church. Nevertheless it was later possible for the owners of Walliscote to have the site of the driveway and verges registered at HM Land Registry as their private property.

This first bell mouth is of high quality and has elegant brick panelling. I have long supported the view that it was designed by the nationally important architect Sir John Soane (Dulwich Picture Gallery, Bank of England etc) who was said to have been born in the village and is known to have worked extensively for the Simeon family.

The second at Manor Road is of similar date and constructed to form a main entrance to Samuel Gardiner's Coombe Park with gates which were later moved a quarter mile to the West.  This is slightly plainer than the Walliscote Drive example but is more appropriately set off by convex shaped pavements, still relatively uncluttered.

The third and much smaller example at Whitchurch House will have been contemporary with and originally formed part of the Coombe Park development.

Unfortunately the appearance of the first of these examples has been marred over the years first by use as a car par and latterly by a series of unmatching bollards and inconsistent surface treatments and it lacks the flattering convex pavements of the Manor Road entrance. More recently the owners have agreed to a floral planting scheme which has led to additional street furniture. As a heritage feature of some importance I would recommend a little tidying up. Bollards should in my view be confined to the wooden posts marking the pavement line. I will leave others to comment on the other temporary features but I believe the quality of Soane's work demands that the features either side of the entrance should at least be made to match each other and convex pavements (as at Manor Road) might also be considered.


Peter Hawley

Whitchurch and Goring Heath History Society.




The camp was originally more often referred to as at “Coombe Park” rather than “Manor Road” and as I shall show had a short and important service history before the Polish connection and the “Polish Camp” title we now use actually began.

For much of WWII and just afterwards there was a lot more varied activity in Whitchurch than many of us can perhaps imagine.

As early as October 1940 the Rector wrote in his Parish Letter:

We gladly welcome the presence of Royal Engineers who by their excellent conduct and cheery behavior have found a warm place in many hearts (is that an indirect way of saying “Ladyfriends”?). We particularly enjoyed their recent military parade to St Mary’s Church.

These Engineers were engaged in portable and removable bridge construction – bailey bridges and pontoons - and many of us have regretted their absence at the Toll Bridge today. I believe they lived at first under canvas at either Walliscote Farm or Thames Bank.

It was not the only wartime activity that livened up the village. A lot of you will know that the Racquets Court of Swanston House was used as a packing plant for Borwicks’ Baking Powder. The History Society received a letter of reminiscences in 1994 from Hon Robin Borwick who had been a boy living at Swanston House at the time. One of Robin Borwick’s anecdotes contains quite a shock:

During the war, an army camp was built in one of the fields of Coombe Park … The first thing Teddy Howard as owner knew, was when he found builders digging up foundations in his field.

Apparently Whitehall had failed to get the requisition paperwork through to him.

He was so distressed that he had a heart attack and died.

(By looking through the parish records I found that the date of his death was 27 March 1943. It is only by that that I can establish when work actually started on the camp.)

But military bridge training on the Thames had gone on much longer. Joan Wilcox’ book on Pangbourne contains a picture of Royal Engineers training here during WW1 and another in 1939. Robin Borwick continues:

It became a bridging school for the British Army, subsequently Canadians, later Americans. Two officers were billeted at Swanston and Waliscote House (where the factory girls lived in the stables.) Later in the war Mrs Howard was moved to the Victorian back quarters of her house and the main house was commandeered as a rest camp for the American airforce.

In fact as most of you know the bridging school used by soldiers of three nations was actually at Thames Bank with its lawns running down to the river opposite Pangbourne Meadows. It was already up and running long before the Coombe Park camp and the men had initially been camping or billeted around the two villages.

But when Yanks were coming, that sort of provision was suddenly not good enough. We hear a little more from the village scrapbook of our former parish clerk, Mr John Holmes, writing in the 1970s whose family maintained another factory for war production at The Haven, Eastfield Lane:

[Where the village telephone box stands] is the entrance to Coombe Park, part of which is now Manor Road and shared by residents of the Council Estate which was built in the latter half of the 1950s on the site of the army camp nissen huts and concrete buildings, later used by Polish and other refugees

One of those concrete buildings was eventually turned into a village hall, (this very room, which was opened as a village hall in 1962, modernized in 1972 and again later). Another was turned into a more permanent Catholic Church which flourished until the 1980s or 1990s, but is now derelict.

Prior to that time the Polish Community had enjoyed a very cramped chapel in one of the nissen huts shown on one of our slides and a wooden community hall somewhere near the present Parish Hall car park.

The shocking thing to the Howards which may have contributed to Mr Howard’s death, was that what was being taken over in 1943 was actually the most prominent front portion of their Park. Until then their visitors passed through ornamental wrought iron gates giving directly from the High Street to enter their front drive, which was then entirely private, unlike the open section most of you have come along to get here today.

Furthermore, just west of the Old Barn (now Old Barn cottages) the north easterly verge widened out under an avenue of yew trees and it was on that verge, across the road from and well before we reach the present Manor Road estate, that the first seven army huts were erected in close parallel formation with their entrances looking southwards facing the Howard’s private drive. It was some time later that the gates of Coombe Park were relocated to the position we now know, alongside the village hall beyond the site of these first seven army huts.

One of those seven curved top buildings became a temporary catholic chapel until the present concrete one was built. Another became the original Whitchurch home of Anna who is here today. Many more huts were constructed to the left of the drive on the site of the Manor Road Estate we know today.

Our former postman the late Peter Woodage wrote in 1983:

So the first American GIs had arrived (Jan 1944) and waiting for them was a new camp (built under the Lease-Lend programme)… We local lads should have been at Sunday School but we had heard that the “Yanks” had come.. Our first contacts were over the railings behind the building which is now the Village Hall… going for the asking, sweets chocolates and tinned cheese not to mention our introduction to Nescafe instant coffee.

One particular day stands out when a host of various types of bridges were being busily assembled both on the river and in the meadow. It turned out that a mammoth demonstration of bridging was being laid out for General Eisenhower and General Bradley. Subsequent research as shown this was the only time the Supremo had visited us. By 0830 on 4th July 1944 all the troops had gone.

But not quite all as Joan Wilcox shows that the final bailey bridge was built in May 1946 by 10 Training Battalion Royal Engineers, This was the only time the public were allowed to cross the river on any of these bridges.

But the population of the military camp had become very small. In about 1946 and 1947 the camp was made available to the County Council for public housing purposes and in the following couple of years many of the structures were offered to the Polish Housing Association, though a few English and Italian families were also housed there in about 50 of the huts. Most of the Poles were ex servicemen just getting married. Children came fast.

One later eye witness and University contemporary of Robin Borwick and David Laing, was Count Nicholas Tolstoy, a master at Whitchurch House Preparatory School from 1954 to 1956. In an interview when he revisited in 2007, he said:

Next door was the Polish Camp where the Polish maids came from. Little wars used to break out from time to time between our boys and the boys from the Polish Camp, where there were a lot of families with children. The Polish boys never did anything very naughty but sometimes used to break into the school grounds for a bombardment of conkers on all sides.

When Council Houses were built the original seven huts to the right of the drive were not included in the redevelopment but became the site of three new private bungalows (Fir Bank etc) which occupy that position today. Many of the Poles stayed on in the newly built houses but all but Anna Szczeponek (last of the Mohicans) drifted away, as they generally got on in the world and to be nearer to their workplaces.


                                                Peter Hawley

                                       Whitchurch and Goring Heath History Society




Extracts from Footprints and Cyphers by Robert Noble

(footnotes by Peter Hawley)


Article dated December 1983

Besides leaving "Whitchurch House" back to the Whistlers Reverend Samuel Walker 1690-1768 also left property in Whitchurch to his sister Elizabeth who had married another parson, Reverend Thomas Nicholls.[1]


Article April 1984

It all begin in 1722 when the famous Bubble burst and bankrupted the directors of the South Sea Company. Among the boardroom casualties was a Francis Hawes, Squire of Purley, Berkshire. He had been a director for some years, his affairs had prospered and he had been able to invest some of his growing capital in some 70 "parcels" i.e. strips of land in the five "open" fields which in those days made up agricultural Whitchurch. To crown all, he had just bought old Hyde Hall in Sulham, had refurbished it (there is a date 1719 on one of its ornamental drainpipes) and had renamed it Purley Hall. All the 70 Whitchurch properties had to go in the sale and the Duchess of Marlborough who had just lost her husband the great Duke now found a release for her remarkable energies in vast property deals in the forfeited lands of the whole body of directors.


In our case, as no doubt elsewhere, a detailed schedule was drawn up of the 70 parcels involved. A copy of this list still survives and can be inspected among the Foster papers in our county record office (cat. ref. F1123). 20 years later after the Duchess had died in 1744 the whole lot were meticulously listed again and this list also survives in the county record office (FX1V10). What is more this second list can now be checked against a book of detailed maps of the village which show every one of the 500-600 strips into which our 5 open fields were divided, together with their owners and their acreage (FX1V7).  This was the work of Reverend Samuel Walker's brother-in-law, the Reverend Thomas Nicholls[2], who had retired to Whitchurch and in addition to his family's land purchases was to benefit mightily from being Walker's principal beneficiary.[3]


What eager hours of retirement and loving care must have been spent on the production of this book so priceless to posterity that it proudly carries the title "A book of maps of the particular lands in the common fields of Whitchurch in the county of Oxford in which the several quantities are expressed according to a survey made in the year 1626. Not all those lands that are stained red are the property of Mr. Nicholls". Some of them were actually situated in a part of Whitchurch parish over the river.


When probate was finally granted on the Duchess' will most of her enormous landed estates, including the properties in Whitchurch, passed to a young Mr. Spencer and his name duly replaces hers in the rate books. Some years after his death in 1777 the Whitchurch properties, along with those in half a dozen other counties, were all sold off to a Mr. Harrison of Stony Stratford, Bucks.


Article August 1988

From Thomas Harrison the Whitchurch properties passed through a variety of hands and were finally bought by Samuel Gardiner, the new lord of the manor of Whitchurch. This was just in time for him to "chip them in" to the melting pot of the 1800 enclosures as a 50-acre credit against which he would take out a similar acreage of more compact plots.

Whitchurch and Going Heath History Society




The ecclesiastical parish of Whitchurch has from earliest times included a substantial area known as Whitchurch Hill, now part of the civil parish of Goring Heath. By 1880 it was recognised that the burial ground at St Mary's Whitchurch was so overcrowded that an additional site was required and it was decided to locate this at Whitchurch Hill.

Mr C L Gardiner of Coombe Park presented land at Whitchurch Hill for an additional burial ground (including a small area for overflow from Goring Parish Church) a new recreation ground and parish rooms and £1,000 towards the building of a "chapel of ease" for the parish of Whitchurch.

The parishioners of St Mary's rallied to the cause and a simple but lovely church was erected at a cost of £1,891, overseen by a committee led by the churchwarden Dr Francis Bateman (Tanya Hawley's great grandfather) who was later buried at the site with Tanya now laid to rest beside him. Other prominent early burials from down the hill included Whitchurch House resident Mr Robert Grey (Governor of the London Foundling Hospital) and his wife.

The architect appointed was Mr Francis Bacon of Highclere and it certainly proved a happy choice. His design provides a flint clad building, with elegant brick interior, eighty feet long, much more than the average cemetery chapel, with space for up to 200 worshippers. The immaculate interior brickwork is by Messrs Wheeler of Reading. The church was dedicated by the Bishop of Oxford in 1883. Particular features are the open apsidal chancel area, clear lancet windows and plain brickwork providing an excellent acoustic which has served well for many musical events. The delightful Walker organ was a gift of Miss Slatter, sister of the then rector of Whitchurch. There are prominent wall monuments including to Field Marshal Smiley, the owner of Great Oaks (now the Oratory Junior School).  .

Stories vary about the call for such a fine church. The fast increasing population at Whitchurch Hill clearly had difficulty in getting to St Mary's, particularly in bad weather before the re-excavating and surfacing of Whitchurch Hill in the twentieth century but Canon Slatter's explanation is perhaps less generous. "The poorer inhabitants had been discouraged from attending the old Parish Church by the gradual encroachment of their privileges by the growth of the lower village and the number of houses erected there for the wealthy." Most of the pews in St Mary's were privately rented which excluded the poorer parishioners until the present open pews were inserted there in response to a national campaign at the turn of the century.

The churchyard was handsomely planted but a cross shaped "avenue" of cypresses alongside the Church had to be removed in the 1980s. The porch and lychgate were added by the Palmer Family of Bozedown as a war memorial after 1918. Although a separate clergy house was for a time maintained, St  John's has always been treated  as an integral  part of Whitchurch Parish with alternating services, by the same clergy, choir and PCC.


Peter Hawley

Whitchurch and Goring Heath History Society







Just over 40 years ago, the late Sheridan Thynne of Whitchurch was staying in the Hotel St. Pierre in the small gastronomic resort of La Bouille by the banks of the Seine. The hotel manager asked him about Whitchurch and suggested that the two villages might be suited to each other as twin villages.

The local councils of both villages approved of the idea which the Whitchurch parish chairman Robert Noble took up in conjunction with Christopher Claxton, the first chairman of Whitchurch Twinning. The villages each sent small delegations to explore their potential 'twins' and in spite of official advice that they were 'too small' the project went ahead.

Twinning charters were duly signed in 1978 (some years before either Goring or Pangbourne followed the example), and in view of the healthy number of Whitchurch Hill participants, the parish of Goring Heath was joined in 1985.

The decision was taken from the first to avoid a formal 'civic' association and base the twinning firmly on personal relations between residents. In one of the initial groups was M. Roland Cousin (who died in 2017), accompanied in 1978 by his 17 year old daughter, Martine, who has emphasised the family nature of our twinning by serving as the President of the La Bouille committee for over twenty-five years. Leaders for Whitchurch have included Ian Bruce and Vicky and Martin Jordan. Peter and Tanya Hawley have been ever present members. Relaxed groups of us go to La Bouille in alternate years, staying with local families and enjoying at leisure, hospitality, good food and the picturesque surroundings. Language has been no barrier and several generations have fond memories, including children who are also most welcome whether learning French or not.

Peter Hawley    Whitchurch and Goring Heath History Society





The "South Oxfordshire Chilterns, Caversham, Goring and Area" volume of this monumental work has now been published. (2022). It is one of the last in the county and indeed in the country as a whole. The same red cover and bulky format has been maintained following the example of the oldest volumes which appeared a century ago and at intervals ever since.

It is a massively learned tome. edited overall by Simon Townley and the Whitchurch, Goring and Checkendon chapters by the equally meticulous Simon Draper. A generous acknowledgment is given on the first page to "Vicky Jordan, Sue Matthews, Peter Hawley and other members of the Whitchurch and Goring Heath History Society". It is illustrated by an excellent selection of colour pictures (the first acknowledged as provided by Peter and Tanya Hawley) and black and white photos from all periods.

Whitchurch has long been furnished with an extensive collection of local histories and such learned works as "Footprints and Cyphers" by Robert Noble are also quoted along with Peter Hawley's own collection "Relics and Monuments" .

After an initial discounted period the volume is likely to be priced at over £100 but the History Society has purchased a copy which will be available for members to leaf through at future meetings. Much of the content already appears in our other publications and some of the more speculative material omitted. The treatment of the subject of the Royal Manor at Whitchurch up to 1604 is informative and will be new to many of us.

Although long overdue and not an easy read, this is a volume of which we can be truly proud.


Peter Hawley

Whitchurch and Goring Heath History Society


[1] Walker did have a sister Elizabeth but we now believe it was her granddaughter, Elizabeth Nicholls, who was left property in Samuel Walker's will. The Reverend Thomas Nicholls is an important figure in Robert Noble's story so it is worth noting that in fact he was Walker's great-nephew, not his brother-in-law. What is the significance of the letter "h" in the spelling of his name? He was the brother of the younger Elizabeth and was Rector of Stanton St. John, not Whitchurch, but may have retired to live in one of the Whitchurch properties.


[2] Walker's actual brother-in-law was Thomas Nicolls without an "h" of Coton Staffs and it was maybe this Thomas' son William who purchased extensive lands In Whitchurch and (?) a beneficiary of Walker's will.


[3] The importance of the extended family in Whitchurch is revealed by no less than 5 memorials in St. Mary's church. The younger Thomas Nicholls and his sisters Elizabeth and Frances are commemorated as well as Walker and Walker's wife

Goring Heath's history stretches back to pre Roman times with the remains of an iron age hill fort at Bozedown, the legend of Charles 1st at Collins End, the fine 17th Century Alms Houses, the evidence of the enclosure of the common land in the early nineteenth century, and  more recently, the remains of a Second World War RAF depot scattered over a wide area in the woods and fields.

There is a local history society that presents interesting talks and other events, and has also published memoirs of a resident whose recollections stretch back over 200 years !

For more information on  RAF Woodcote, please click here for an interesting and well researched  website

There are some old photos of Crays Pond here and ones of Goring Heath here.