2023 commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Ascott Martyrs, sixteen women, two with babies, who were imprisoned with hard labour for supporting agricultural workers striking for a living wage, in the west Oxfordshire village of Ascott-under-Wychwood. See the detail of the Anniversary Conference in the comment at the foot of this page.
This momentous event led to a full-scale riot and an attack on the police station in Chipping Norton. It provoked a series of fierce exchanges in both local and national press, and resulted in questions being asked in Parliament. The events were linked to the growth of Joseph Arch’s newly formed National Agricultural Labourers Union but at the heart of the story was the faith of a number of the martyrs and their families.
You can learn more about the Martyrs on the website of the Ascott Martyrs’ Trust here: https://www.ascottmartyrs.co.uk
Paul Jackson, founder and past trustee of the Ascott Martyrs Trust has provided on this page:
- a video of a song telling the story of the Martyrs performed by Mark Pidgeon aided by local schoolchildren
- a download of “All things bright and beautiful? Church and chapel in the Wychwoods” – a chapter by John Bennett from “The Ascott Martyrs” (published by Paul in 2023 and edited by Keith Laybourn) focusing on the role of religion in the story of the Martyrs: see the comment at the foot of the page for access to the book.
- the following extract considering the role of Primitive Methodists
The Nonconformists in the Wychwoods: The Primitive Methodists
The meteoric rise of the Primitive Methodists from their foundation around 1810 to the mid-19th century is a remarkable story. Their spread and influence throughout Britain by the 1870s put them on an equal footing to many of the other Nonconformist denominations with much longer histories. They began as a secession from the Wesleyan Methodists in north Staffordshire, adopting the name ‘Primitive Methodism’ as an expression of their desire to return to what they saw as the more authentic evangelical roots of John Wesley’s early missions. They spread their word via a network of travelling preachers and tended to target working class communities. In Britain the Primitive Methodists joined with the Wesleyan and United Methodists in 1932 to form the Methodist Church.
The Primitive Methodists had begun to establish congregations in Oxfordshire from the 1820s and had a flourishing circuit in existence covering the Wychwood area by the mid-19th century. They were established in Milton by the 1830s, having built their first chapel in 1834.[i] The 1851 religious census records an average morning congregation of 110.[ii] They had built their second, presumably larger, chapel in 1860 in a significant location facing the extensive village green.
Though there was no Primitive Methodist chapel in Shipton or Ascott, there were a number of other chapels in the area with circuits covering Chipping Norton and Witney. The Charlbury stonemason and amateur chronicler of local history John Kibble (1866-1951), writes:
‘Primitive Methodism got a strong footing at Milton. A chapel was built  and glorious camp meetings were held upon the Green. The late Mr Isaac Castle was a tower of strength. His tent was a feature for all good work, both religious and temperance, and he built a house with a room for a coffee tavern, so that there should be somewhere besides the public house as a place of call and refreshment.[iii]
Kibble’s words highlight the appeal of the Primitive Methodists, and the name of Isaac Castle reveals a connection between the Primitive Methodists and the NALU.
The ‘camp meetings’ were mass outdoor preaching events which could last all day. Whilst ostensibly being an opportunity for Christian evangelism, they were also popular social events accessible to all within the local area, and a powerful recruitment opportunity. The provision of food, music, singing and charismatic sermons would have made them lively social events, with sometimes thousands of people in attendance, camp meetings are known to have taken place in Milton and other local villages.[iv]
The proximity of the Milton Primitive Methodist chapel made the denomination accessible to Ascott and Shipton, and the camp meetings enabled the Primitive Methodists’ voice to extend widely in the local area, without the need for bricks and mortar chapels. While we have no evidence to know that the Ascott Martyrs attended these camp meetings, it is more than likely that they were familiar with such events.[v]
A significant feature of the Nonconformist chapels, of all denominations, is that their organisation and management, and even the building and maintenance of their buildings, was largely supplied from their own congregations. This connection with the local community made them more accessible to the labouring class and gave these members the opportunity to participate in the administration and delivery of their religion, and, through its Sunday school, its key educational role[vi].
The Primitives were also not averse to using female preachers. In about 1870 Joseph Arch’s own daughter, Annie (1851–1904), became a Primitive Methodist preacher on the Leamington circuit when she was 19 years old.[vii] To see their sex in such a position of trust and authority alongside their male counterparts must have given confidence to the women of the Wychwoods. (More about Annie Arch (Annie Leuty) here.)
The name of Isaac Castle (1824–1891) also connects us to the NALU. He was a signatory on the deeds of the Milton Primitive Methodist chapel, and we also find his name as a regular committee member in the minute book of the NALU during the 1870s.[viii] He appears to have begun working life as an agricultural labourer but by the 1870s is described as a ‘wood dealer’ with property interests in the area. He was well known as promoter of Primitive Methodism, Temperance, and the Agricultural Labourers’ Union. His marquee was available to all three for the promotion of their cause and was also certainly used for meetings promoting emigration opportunities to the agricultural workers of the Wychwoods, (see essay 9, which deals with emigration). There is a plaque to Isaac Castle’s memory inside the Milton Primitive Methodist Chapel.
The link between membership of the Primitive Methodist church and membership of the NALU is well known.[ix] Joseph Arch was himself a Primitive Methodist lay preacher, and many of the key leaders in the early NALU such as Joseph Leggett, Christopher Holloway and George Banbury all had key roles in their respective Methodist and Primitive Methodist churches. An explicit connection between the early formation of the Union and the Milton chapel is recorded in the Oxford District minute book for 7 May 1872, where the secretary was ordered ‘…to request of the Trustees and Minister, the use of the Primitive Methodist Chapel Milton for the purpose of holding a Meeting of delegates from the Branches, such Meeting to be held when Mr. Arch or other Friends shall be among us…’[x] This Is despite the fact that the rules of Primitive Methodist Chapels expressly forbade the use of chapels for political purposes.[xi]
The evangelical flavour of many of the union meetings, which were often accompanied by bands[xii] and the singing of Union songs, is another indicator of the allegiance between the Primitive Methodists and the Union. In her preface to Arch’s autobiography, of 1898, the Countess of Warwick quotes an anonymous source:
Another thing that appealed to the imagination was the extent to which the meetings of the strikers were inspired by song. The hymn tunes were easily linked to the verses in which the labourers expressed their hopes, and embodied their demands. The industrial revolt had in it some of the elements of a religious revival, and one of the most conspicuous of these was the resort to singing as a relief of emotions otherwise too difficult to articulate.[xiii]
Press reports of these meetings often comment on the number of women and children present.[xiv] It is almost certain that the 16 Ascott women must have seen Arch speaking at one of the meetings he attended in the Wychwood area, reportedly attended by thousands, even before their release from prison. His name was a big draw.
Arch’s speeches often included an appeal to the gospels and a Christian morality in support of the labourers’ cause, as evidenced by the quote at the head of this essay. He was often referred to as ‘the apostle of the labourers’ movement’.[xv]
A number of early mass rallies for the promotion of the NALU and establishment of Oxfordshire branches took place in the Wychwoods area. Large meetings of agricultural labourers took place on the Milton recreation ground in 1872, which led to the formation of what became known as the Milton Union, soon after becoming the nucleus of the Oxfordshire District branch of the NALU.[xvi] It seems that the organisational structures of the Methodists in general and the Primitive Methodists in particular provided a ready-made ‘infrastructure’ upon which the NALU could piggyback for the building of the Union. The hierarchical networks of branch, district and region were duplicated within both organisations.[xvii] When the NALU spread into the Gloucestershire district of Cirencester, the local branches all coincided with the location of an already existing Primitive Methodist chapel.[xviii]
We know that the Primitive Methodists targeted the poorer classes of society, and their core membership was undoubtedly working class. However, they also relied on some of the more professional members of their communities to help set up congregations in agricultural areas, to help with the administrative and organisational skills required to purchase land, build chapels and establish trusteeships for the sustaining of these chapels.
[i] See Kate Tiller, 1987, op cit. p. 68. This first chapel is no longer extant but was sited in a central location in Milton-under-Wychwood near to the village green.
[ii] Ibid., p. 68.
[iii] John Kibble, Wychwood Forest and its Border Places, 1928, re-issued by The Wychwood Press, Charlbury, 1999, pp. 79–80. Isaac Castle’s coffee house seems to have come later, circa 1891, and is now a residential property at 64 High Street, Milton-under-Wychwood.
[iv] M. K. Ashby, 1974, op cit. p. 375 mentions camp meetings in Chadlington, Milton, Lyneham, and Chilson.
[v] For an account of Camp Meetings in Ascott in the 1920s and 1930s See Eric Moss, Walk Humble, My Son, Charlbury, 1999, p. 74.
[vi] See N A D Scotland, Methodism and the Revolt of the Field. A study of the Methodist contribution to agricultural trade unionism in East Anglia 1872-96, Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1981, p. 22.
[vii] Pamela Horn, 1971, op cit p.16.
[viii] Pamela Horn, Agricultural Trades Unionism in Oxfordshire 1872-81, The Oxfordshire Record Society, vol. XLVIII, 1974, p. 27.
[ix] For further evidence of links between Nonconformist groups, including the Primitive Methodists, see: Nigel Scotland, op cit, 1981; and Pamela Horn, 1971, op cit.
[x] P. Horn, 1974, op cit. p. 28.
[xi] See N. A. D. Scotland, Methodism and the English Labour Movement 1800–1906, “Anvil” vol. 14/1, 1997, p. 40.
[xii] A brass band from Lyneham was in attendance at a Union meeting in Milton-under-Wychwood on 1 July 1872; see Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 6 July 1872.
[xiii] Joseph Arch, From Ploughtail to Parliament, London: The Cresset Library, 1986, p. xxiv. For examples of union songs see Pamela Horn, Joseph Arch, Kineton: The Roundwood Press, 1971, pp. 244–247.
[xiv] The Witney Express, 11 April 1872 reports on presence of women and children at a meeting in Stretton, Warwickshire; and Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 32 August 1872, p. 8, comments on the number of women present at a meeting in Woodstock.
[xv] The Witney Express, 18 April 1872.
[xvi] Pamela Horn, 1974, op cit. p. 10.
[xvii] On this correspondence see also Nigel Scotland, 1981, op cit. p.76.
[xviii] N. A. D. Scotland, Methodism and the English Labour Movement 1800–1906, “Anvil” vol. 14/1, 1997, p. 42.