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The importance of Henley and the River Thames – study day

The Oxford Local History Association organised a valuable study day on 20 November to consider the importance of Henley and the River Thames. Talks in the morning on a number of topics relevant to the theme were held in the atmospheric upper room of the Chantry House in the town, which itself turned out to be highly relevant to the theme. Over thirty people participated in the event.

The first talk, by Robert Peberdy,  examined economic exploitation of the non-tidal river, under three headings: fisheries, grain milling and transportation of goods. He explained how fisheries, plotted from Domesday Book references and concerned essentially with eels, were owned predominantly by high-status members of society,  and involved substantial investment, although in competition with sea fisheries and probably not of great economic significance. He examined milling on the Thames by reference to similar activities on other waterways, pointing out how the islands in the Thames proved important in the siting of mills and creating an adequate flow to work milling machinery. On transportation, Robert offered the hypothesis that for a period of two hundred years after the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, when through passage of goods between London and Oxford ceased, Henley was the centre for trans-shipment to animal transport. It still remained a significant entrepot in the trade in timber and malt until the advent of the railways in the mid-nineteenth century.

Simon Wenham, who had previously written a history of Salters of Oxford, gave a lively and well-illustrated talk on the history of the Hobbs boating firm in Henley. He explored its origins in the nineteenth century, in wharfage and boat building. and connections with the history of drink in the town, the firm’s founder, Harry Hobbs, having kept the Ship Inn on Wharfe Lane. Simon emphasised the importance of the next generation, led by William Hobbs, in developing the town,  of which William was a leading citizen right up to the end of the Second World War.  The talk was rich in social and economic detail, including the firm’s property dealing. As well as involvement with the regatta and supplying hire boats, the story was brought right up to date,  with the hospitality business operated by the present generation of the Hobbs family.

The morning concluded with fascinating talks by Ruth Gibson and Kathryn Davies on the Chantry House and the Red Lion respectively. The construction of both buildings has recently been dendro-dated to the 1470s, suggesting that they were very likely part of the same overall development. Ruth explained by reference to details of the building’s construction that notwithstanding the name by which it is commonly known, the original purpose of the Chantry House was for storage and transhipment of traded goods. However, a   century after its construction, the building’s top floor began to be used as the town’s schoolroom. Kathryn described how renovation work under the Red Lion’s new owner is causing new questions to be asked about the evolution of the building, as one of the most important of the town’s hostelries.

In the afternoon, Simon Townley, editor of the Victoria County history volume, Henley-on-Thames and Environs, and author of the book on Henley in the ‘England’s Past for Everyone’ series, led a historical guided tour starting in St Mary’s churchyard. Simon took into account the results of recent research, including ‘dendro’ dates for a number of timber-framed buildings in the town, and the town’s southern suburbs in Victorian and Edwardian times.