A talk by Dr Malcolm Graham, Director of the Centre for Oxfordshire Studies given to the Deddington and District History Society - by courtesy of Colin Cohen whose article originally appeared in the society magasine 224 (of which he is editor) in March 2001.

The speaker at our February meeting, Malcolm Graham, should be credited with setting up the Centre for Oxfordshire Studies at the Central Library in Oxford, one of the first and still one of the most important such centres in the country. It contains a vast amount of material relating to Oxfordshire and the tremendous collection of reference works and source material, from trade directories, to sale catalogues, census returns, parish registers, etc. And one must not forget the huge photographic collection and oral history records. He has managed to achieve all this during a time of financial stringency. The COS is open to all—perhaps the most accessible of the many research resources available in Oxford.

His book, Oxfordshireat War, published only in 1994 is now sadly out of print. He started by asking how people in Oxfordshire heard the news—on the radio, or from shouts in the street. The Mounthill Ramblers went to the Cotswolds at 11am on Sunday 3 September 1939, arriving at a Burford full of unofficial evacuees, and heard of the outbreak of war, but continued their walk on to Bourton-on-the-Water! A Packer of Chipping Norton photo  shows children arriving by train at Chippy—the train at least a dozen carriages long. However only half of the official evacuees expected arrived in the Banbury Rural District. Some children got off at the wrong station (sometimes just to look for a toilet) and were separated from their friends for good. A child arriving at Banbury was heard to ask ‘where’s the sea, gov’nor?’ His only previous trip outside London having been to the sea.

Oxford became a centre of the fishing industry due to the relocation of the Ministry! Malvern College came to Blenheim [as did MI5], as the Admiralty wanted the Malvern College buildings until their deep shelters were built in London [where my father remembered being told to shelter under his steel desk during the V bombs].

The war was often fun for children, like the movies coming to your street, and so many new sights. The first air raid warning in Oxfordshire was three days later: it was a false alarm and the risk of a road accident in the black-out was perhaps greater than bombing!

Not a lot happened until May 1940, and the fall of France. Much of the fun poked at the Home Guard was based in fact. Enthusiasm for the Home Guard faded, and it had to become compulsory. Women were initially excluded from the Home Guard, but ad hoc arrangements were set up in some villages. In the summer of 1940 there was a huge programme of pill box building (in competition with airfield building). The former are now being mapped by English Heritage. And the road signs and place names were removed from war memorials;
even from horse troughs and carriers’ carts.

The first major civilian bombing in Oxfordshire took out the signal box at Banbury and most of the town’s gasometers, but Oxfordshire got off fairly lightly, with no raids for about three years and only a handful of people killed in the raids (from the 4,700 bombs dropped on the county) during the whole war. Numerous buildings were destroyed, but to make way for the new airfields, where the county went from four to about 20. It was said that Oxfordshire had more airfields per square mile than any other county: Harwell was used for
Horsa gliders for the D-Day Normandy Landings.

Farming became a huge priority— many agricultural workers had joined the forces and women, children and PoWs were all pressed into service. The amount of land under grass was hugely reduced— even golf courses were no longer sacred. There were eventually some 1,700 Land Girls in Oxfordshire. The now-disused grain silo south of Kidlington is a relic of this period—built close to the Oxford to Cambridge railway for ease of distribution.

There were many shortages and saving was everything: at one time coal almost ran out in Oxfordshire. Crusader tanks were built at the Morris works at Cowley. Northern Aluminium in the Southam Road, Banbury, produced wings for aircraft. Many of the temporary hospital buildings of the time, such as the Churchill, have lasted fifty years or more. Penicillin was first made and trialed at the Radcliffe. The Binfield Women’s Knitting Circle produced 4,000 garments during the war! But on the whole Oxfordshire had a relatively quiet war.

Useful links:

Deddington's Unexploded Bombs

Map of Bombs dropped on Oxfordshire

Oxfordshire Rolls of Honour & War Memorials