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Village history

Like many villages, the village of West Woodhay has grown around the main house in the village, West Woodhay House; thus much of the history of the village is bound up in the history of the manor.

Norman Conquest

The earliest traceable settlement appears to have been near the present church, where there is a motte where stood a lodge or small castle, probably built by William FitzSwale in the early twelfth century. FitzSwale was the son of Swalo, the man given the manor after the Norman Conquest. In 1204 the manor, by then called Woodhay Oseville,  belonged to Sewald de Oseville; by 1256 it had passed to the St Amand family and it is thought that the 1st Lord St Amand abandoned the castle some time around 1300 for a more comfortable manor house, assumed to have been half a mile away on or near the site of the current House (and by the site of the original church buildings).

John the 2nd Lord St Amand was given the right to hold a market in Woodhay every Tuesday (today there is no shop of any kind in West Woodhay!); his son Almeric became a famous knight in the 100 Years War.

The Wars of the Roses, and the Cheyneys

In 1433 West Woodhay (and Enborne as well) passed to Sir Robert Shottesbrook; his daughter married Sir John Cheyney, and the Cheyneys proved to be the next long-term owners of the manor. They did lose it for a couple of years in 1483 during the Wars of the Roses, but deeds of valour at the battle of Bosworth Field and being on the winning side meant that John Cheyney regained both West Woodhay and Enborne. Further deeds at the battle of Stoke in the Lambert Simnell rebellion meant that Cheyney was called to Parliament as a baron, but after he died childless in 1499, the remainder of the Cheyney story at Woodhay descended into arguments over inheritance, legal disputes and even a murder case, until the manor was sold.

The Rudyerds

The last Cheyney sold the manor to William Darrel of Littlecote Manor; his nephew Sir John Darrell sold the manor to Sir Benjamin Rudyerd in 1634.

Educated at Winchester and Oxford, a barrister of the Inner Temple, knighted and appointed surveyor of the Court of Wards and Liveries in 1618, Rudyerd played a major part in the parliaments of James I and Charles I, becoming known as the “Silver Trumpet of the long Parliament”. Among his friends were literary, artistic and political figures such as Ben Johnson, William Herbert 3rd Earl of Pembroke, Inigo Jones and Sir Henry Wooton, some of whom no doubt visited the new house that Rudyerd built in 1635 to replace the earlier building. It is thought that Inigo Jones was the architect, and this is the house that we see today.

Of the other buildings in the village of that time there are no known traces.

The Civil War intervened and Rudyerd played a part, initially on the side of the King, then as mediator between the King and Parliament, and then on the side of Parliament during the war itself, but found himself turned out of Parliament and imprisoned for a short while.

The Slopers

Rudyerd’s grandson sold the manor to William Sloper some time between 1707 and 1714; Sloper was a country gentleman and one of his first acts was to build a new Church; his son William led a different lifestyle – already married he fell in love with a (likewise already married) actress and singer Susannah Cibber. After a lawsuit and two scandalous trials reported in full detail in the popular broadsheets, when William junior inherited the manor he moved Susannah in too.

He became MP for Whitchurch and she developed her career as a vocalist, becoming a favourite of Handel and taking part in the first performance of the Messiah in Dublin in 1741. The result was that the local grandees no longer visited, but the village and the house often saw the artistic elite, figures such as Handel, Garrick, Arne, Charles Burney and Quinn, coming to stay on their way to Bath during the “season”.

Susannah died in 1766, William in 1789, and his son General Sir Robert Sloper, former c-in-c India, moved his mother in; between them they removed all signs of Susannah, and the house and village returned to “normality” for a while. However in 1821 the General’s grandson the Reverend John Sloper succeded. He is said to have used his shotgun to persuade his villagers to come to church, and during the “Swing” or “Machine” Riots of 1830 he was the only local landowner who, when faced by the mob, refused to give them money. West Woodhay peasants were described as “amongst the most violent participants in the machine riots”. For an internet article on the Swing Riots please see http://www.berksfhs.org.uk/journal/Mar2000/Mar2000BerkshireMachineBreakers.htm.

Some of the houses from that time do still exist, if not necessarily in their original form; the outlying farms now known as Bricklayers, The Malt House, Green Farm, Great Farm (then the Home Farm), Hatch House Farm, Wilmotts, and Fishponds existed by then, as did the Rectory (now the Old Rectory). There would have been other cottages, probably near the sites of the current cottages. At this time the front drive to the House ran from Wilmotts to the House, over a raised way between two smaller lakes, which perhaps explains the rather spread nature of the current village, in  that many of the houses are probably positioned around the original park grounds of the House.

The Coles

John Sloper’s son Gerard sold the manor in 1880 to William Cole; William Cole came from a Norfolk landed family and had traded successfully in the City; he set in motion a series of changes to the village

  • the existing church was demolished and a new church built half a mile away
  • West Woodhay House was extended by means of a substantial ballroom; the whole “look” of the building was Victorianised, using a popular architect of the day
  • the bulk of the village cottages, a schoolhouse and the Village Hall were built, architected by Miss Jessie Cole; the Malt House was extended and New Farm (later Malt House Farmhouse) was built.

 William Cole was succeeded by his son, who died in India of cholera, his widow Jane, and then his grandson Horace de Vere Cole, the practical joker best known for “The Dreadnought Exploit”. In 1912 Horace Cole sold the manor to his uncle Alfred Clayton Cole, successful banker and sometime Governor of the Bank of England.

The farms had been loss-making; in 1910 two of the farms had been leased to A J Hosier who turned them round rapidly, but in 1915 Hosier proposed keeping cows at these farms, whereas Alfred Cole was more interested in game, and Hosier moved elsewhere. 

During the 1st World War the House was used as a hospital, and was officially called “West Woodhay House Auxiliary Red Cross Hospital”. 

The Hendersons

Alfred Cole’s estate sold the bulk of the manor to H W Henderson, a member of the Stock Exchange; he made no major changes to the estate, and in the Second World War he permitted the Middle School of Raynes Park to take up residence from 1944 – see  http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/39/a4542239.shtml

In 1949 his grandson John Henderson inherited the estate. He and his wife Sarah restored the house to its original seventeenth century design, amended only by the later addition of the “Orangery” at the rear of the house. John later created a memorial garden at the Church in memory of Sarah who died in a hunting accident in 1972.

John Henderson’s son Harry now runs the estate as a going concern.

The village then and now

Centuries of change have left to us only limited clues to what the village looked like in earlier years; certainly parts of the village are no longer part of the Estate, and the Estate now includes land outside the bounds of the village. The outlying farms are either no longer part of the Estate or have been taken “in-hand” and the farmland no longer let. There seems to be no record of when the market that existed in the fourteenth century actually lapsed.

The  Malt House is no longer a malting house – the malting oven existed up to the 1960s – and bricks for the village are no longer made at Warren Kiln. Laundry Lane still has a number of cottages but no longer a laundry; the laundry was here until at least the 1st World War but is now a cottage. Park House was the carpentry shop until relatively recently. 

The Rectory was sold by the Church in the early 1950s in and now a private house. The Church Commissioners built a new rectory a few years later on land provided by Johnny Henderson to replace an existing thatched cottage, and this is one of very few “new” buildings in the village. 

There is no record of a pub in the village as such, but there was one on the top of the downs – on the West Woodhay / Combe boundary and technically within the bounds of West Woodhay. Considered by some a haunt of vagabonds and n’ere-do-wells, it was closed and pulled down in the late nineteenth century, but signs can be seen if you walk the track along the top of the Downs known as Wayfarers Walk from the east almost to Walbury Hill.

The Village School survived as a school until about 1955 or 1956 when it was integrated into Inkpen School; the Schoolmistress Miss Greenfield moved with it, and the school building no longer exists. There was a Village Green until at least the second world war; used as a “green” by the village school children, a maypole was erected on May Day and the children danced around it near the post box by the current modern Rectory.

The Village Hall however is very much in existence, as are the nineteenth century village cottages; there are probably less cottages now than there were earlier in the nineteenth century, as there are signs of earlier dwellings elsewhere within the bounds of the village.

A hundred years ago or more, almost all the inhabitants of the village were either tenant farmers or estate employees; estates now employ rather fewer staff. While some of the houses and cottages have been extended and a number of farm buildings have been converted to houses or flats or offices, the character of the village has been essentially retained as far as is possible in twenty first century circumstances.


Sources for this historical summary include “Ancient and Modern”, a history of the united Benefice of West Woodhay with Enborne, Hamstead Marshall, Inkpen and Combe, published in 1999?,   www.berkshirehistory.com and advice from current and past residents of the village.