The Victorian era saw huge changes in the world outside Hook Norton. In the 1830s most people lived in the countryside; by the 1910s the nation had long become predominantly urban. In Hook Norton the population grew up to 1851 and then, even as the birth rate remained high across the country, the Population began to gradually fall as people moved out to the cities and even to lands overseas. Long before the end of the century the building of a railway system had revolutionised transportation, and even in Hook Norton a process of industrialisation had begun to shift the pattern of local employment away from agriculture.
This transformation in the character of economic life was basic to the period’s changes. First we look at the economic crisis of the middle decades of the century as agricultural producers suffered from the importation of cheap food from North America. A large section of the population chose to leave the parish and find a living elsewhere, mainly in the growing urban centres but also overseas in the colonies and especially the United States. But then the fortunes of the parish were transformed by technological innovation in three critical industrial developments – the building of the railway from Banbury to Cheltenham through Hook Norton, the opening of ironstone quarrying on the east side of the village, and the expansion of the Brewery. In each of these cases we follow the fortunes of the enterprise well into the twentieth century. Finally, as the village began to grow again, its daily life was transformed by modern technologies, necessarily introduced on a small scale in Hook Norton but easing the lives of many people, especially the more fortunate.
This degree of industrialisation helped reduce the problem of poverty which so plagued the earlier Victorian years. In the later decades of the century, the poor and deprived were helped, not so much by the government’s harsh policy after 1834 of building regimented Union workhouses, as by the local self-help societies that bloomed in Hook Norton as elsewhere.1 The greatest improvements came with the reforming Liberal government of 1906-1914, which extended Victorian paternalism into the new century and broadened its range. Of particular interest to the people of Hook Norton, it not only introduced old-age pensions for the over-70s (if at a miserly level), but took steps to protect and encourage small farmers. Though severely limited in reach and generosity, further Liberal programmes for the unemployed, the sick, and children also helped to reduce poverty by 1914 – marginally but significantly – in a way unbelievable fifty years before.
Educational provision improved slowly in Hook Norton from the 1830s, notably through the village’s National and British elementary schools. Parliamentary legislation from 1870 onwards tried to expand compulsory schooling, raising the school-leaving age to 10 in 1880, 11 in 1892, and 12 in 1899, and extending secondary education after 1906. The impact in Hook Norton, however, was reduced by local conservatism and unenthusiastic implementation by Oxfordshire County Council, but children increasingly emerged from the village school – and certainly after 1910 – with a good standard of literacy.
Public health continued to suffer under Victoria from the inadequacies of diet and housing as much as from ignorance. Hook Norton had long been known for its very professional lunatic asylum, which brought extra medical expertise into the village, but the asylum catered almost exclusively for people from outside the parish and, in any case, closed in 1854 as provision for the mentally ill was increasingly concentrated in large public institutions in other parts of the county. Thereafter, like most country areas, the people of Hook Norton continued to suffer from inadequate medical attention, even if things did slowly improve. After 1906 the Liberal government strove to improve medical services and introduced an embryonic National Health insurance system, but the benefits were felt primarily in urban areas.
In this increasingly changing world, even the very meaning of the term “parish” was transformed. In 1830 much of government still lay in the hands of institutions that were part of the Church of England. In 1857 and 1858 the church courts lost their jurisdiction over matrimonial affairs to the new Divorce Courts, and over wills and probate to the new Probate Courts. Traditionally local government had been in the hands of a Parish Vestry made up of the church wardens, the “perpetual curate” and the overseers of the poor, but in 1894 they were replaced by a secular Parish Council in a national reform of local government. The parish of Hook Norton now became a secular entity representing even non-Anglicans, and in 1919 Anglican church affairs were put in the hands of separate Parochial Church Councils.
Yet, if religion became less central to the running of the country, it had once again acquired growing importance in local life. The Anglican Church underwent something of a Protestant revival after 1840 but was soon caught up in the disputes generated by the Anglo-Catholic movement. Even as it lost its place in secular government, St Peter’s became a lively centre of social life for its adherents. Equally, the nonconformist sects showed great vitality, with the Methodists becoming almost a second established church locally, and small dissident sects emerging to challenge both Methodists and Baptists, especially among the labouring classes.
Early in the Victorian period emigration was already seen as a major solution to poverty and restricted opportunity, both to the colonies and the United States. In this section we provide some fascinating stories about some of those who emigrated and found varying degrees of success and disappointment in their new lands. Some of them came back to Hook Norton, as notably did William Bloxham, who returned from Australia as a volunteer in the Australian forces that fought on the Western front after 1914. That Great War would have a huge impact on the village, sacrificing many lives, and destroying the Victorian optimism and sense of human progress that had marked society and opinion under the old Queen.