Economic Life in Hook Norton
In this Section
From its earliest settlement Hook Norton was always an agricultural village. Through the Middle Ages and beyond, the structure of farming in the parish was organised on a community rather than individual basis. It concentrated on mixed farming, much of it for subsistence, though the Oseney Abbey manor shipped much produce from Hooky to Oxford. The gradual commercialisation of agriculture saw greater specialisation in marketable crops, but this was always limited by transportation difficulties. The Enclosure Act of 1774 marked a key moment in transforming the nature of farming, with severe consequences for the poorer members of the parish – many of whom had to seek a livelihood elsewhere, either in the industrialised counties to the north or in the colonies overseas. Agriculture today is still mixed, but it employs relatively few people and has shrunk as a proportion of the local economy. In compensation, Hooky enjoyed its own industrial development, a consequence of the massive diversification of economic activity that has come in two waves since the 1880s.
The first great change came with the opening of the railway in 1887. Many long years in the building, the Banbury and Cheltenham Railway opened Hook Norton to the outside world, though passenger traffic would remain a minor part of its business. An important reason for diverting the railway through Hooky was the opportunity to exploit local ironstone deposits more effectively and ironstone quarrying spread hugely across the eastern end of the village. Fields were stripped to a depth of twenty or thirty feet; narrow-gauge tramways carried the stone to huge kilns, four alongside the Banbury Road and one farther south at the foot of the hillside facing Park Farm. The resulting calcined iron ore was then taken to the main railway line and sent off to Wales and the Midlands. Though the industry declined after the 1920s, it came back into production in the Second World War and for a short time ironstone was by far the largest employer in the village, only to collapse again once war ended.
The building of the railway and the prosperity it brought also contributed to the growth of the brewery. Drawing on a strong local tradition of private brewing in the homes and farms of the parish, the business John Harris built up after 1849 grew sufficiently for a magnificent new brewery to be erected at the turn of the century. It still survives as the best surviving example of a Victorian gravity-fed brewery, and it continues to produce beer that is admired and enjoyed nationwide. For good reason, the brewery is far better known than the village!
The passing of the ironstone and the final closing of the railway in 1963 represents the deindustrialisation of Hook Norton, except for the brewery. For at least twenty years life was fairly static, even though basic services – electricity, piped water, sewerage, telephone – were introduced, mainly after 1950. The village still maintained a busy retail centre, with many shops and local tradesmen, such as it had boasted for well over a century.
Since 1970, however, increasing car ownership has undercut local shops even as in-migration has boosted the population. The economy has shifted to a combination of light industry (notably pottery and printing), technical services and small businesses based on the internet, together with substantial educational and medical establishments. A large proportion of the population works in managerial, professional, technical, administrative and service occupations, many of them outside Hook Norton. In 2011, despite the economic downturn, the parish enjoyed a lower level of unemployment than had been common through most of its history.
© Donald Ratcliffe