Oakham: Not just a small town but the capital of our county
Local history by Bryan Waites
For centuries Oakham was a small town in a small county. In 1801 its population was only 1600. This did not double until 1881. Then the population remained steady at about 3,500, even declining in the 1930s. It still did not rise in the 1940s and 1950s.
However, in the late 1960s the influence of commuters was beginning, coupled with the increase in new housing estates. By 1971 the population had risen to 6,400 and thirty years later it had almost doubled. There is now some danger that this historic market town may outgrow its charm and attractiveness due to government pressure for more houses, especially in the green belt around.
By 2001 the population of the county also doubled owing to its convenient location near the A1, London and the south-east, with Leicester, Peterborough and Nottingham all within 30 miles. This has sent property values sky-high as the delights of England’s ‘Secret County’ and Rutland Water become better known.
Yet, despite its small size, Oakham has always been an important centre of trade, administration and justice. From the 11th century the town was divided into Lordshold, based on the castle, and Abbey-land (later known as Deanshold), based on the church. The former was held by the Lord of the Manor, the latter by Westminster Abbey.
The castle was the location for courts and the Assizes, but in recent years this function has been eroded. Crown Courts are occasionally held in the castle, but Magistrates Courts have been moved to the County Council Offices.
The Butter Cross and market tolls are still under the jurisdiction of the Lord of the Manor, Mr Joss Hanbury, formerly of Burley-on-the-Hill. There are two busy markets each week, but the renowned cattle market has gone.
Oakham has gained either fame or notoriety on a national scale due to its association with several prominent personalities ranging from Titus Oates (1649-1705), ‘the biggest liar in Christendom’, to Sir Jeffrey Hudson (1619-82), ‘the shortest knight in history’.
Both were born in Oakham. Titus, ‘the King of Liars’ was an instigator of the Popish Plot (1678). Macaulay in his History of England described him as having ‘a short neck, legs uneven like those of a badger, with low forehead as that of a baboon. He had purple cheeks and a monstrous length of chin’.
Sir Jeffrey Hudson, known as the Rutland Dwarf, was only 18 inches tall from the ages of eight to thirty. Later he grew to 3 feet 6 inches. When he was nine years old he was allegedly taken up to the Duke of Buckingham’s mansion at Burley-on-the-Hill on the occasion of a visit of King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria, as a dinner time diversion. He jumped out of a cold pie dressed in a tiny suit of armour. So impressed was the Queen that she took Jeffrey into her service where he had many adventures. His cottage can still be seen in the town.
Lord Lonsdale (1857-1944), the ‘Yellow Earl’, was the first President of the Automobile Association, which adopted his yellow livery. He instituted the Lonsdale Belt in boxing and was himself a superb horseman and athlete. In 1878 he walked 100 miles from Knightsbridge Barracks to the Ram Jam Inn, Rutland, to win a wager; he did it in 17 hours 21 minutes. He was Chief Steward of the Jockey Club. His Barleythorpe Stud was famous and he made one of the longest jumps, 32 feet, in the history of fox-hunting.
George Finch, 9th Earl of Winchilsea (1752-1826) was the founder of the MCC. His servant, Thomas Lord, acquired the cricket ground at Marylebone, which ever since has been called Lords. Some of the earliest ‘Test Matches’ were played in Rutland at his home, Burley-on-the- Hill.
The first known town plan of Oakham was by John Speed in circa 1611. This gives a really good idea about our present-day street pattern and how it evolved, In fact, it confirms that, despite modern ‘filling in’, there has been little change in the historic centre of Oakham.
The church of All Saints, the nearby Old School, the Market Place and the Castle are all close together, In fact, if a rectangle is drawn bounded by High Street, Burley Road, Station Road and Church Street they are all located within it. Perhaps Oakham was a Saxon town known as a burgh which would have been a fortified rectangle. Later, Oakham may have become a Mercian royal centre with a timber hall and associated buildings within this rectangle.
By Domesday (1086) this became a motte and bailey castle. The motte can still be seen in the castle grounds. Then, not long after, William the Conqueror granted part of his Lordshold containing the church to Westminster Abbey, and this became the separate Deanshold.
In 1166, Wakelin de Ferrers was granted Oakham. Between 1180 and 1190, he built the fortified manor house we see to-day. It was not a conventional castle as such, but is now recognised as one of the finest examples of Norman domestic architecture in the country. It is the earliest aisled hall of stone in Britain to have survived virtually complete.
The Castle was the centre of activity and it is not surprising that the market was close by under its protection. The town grew around this core. Dean’s Lane and Northgate converged on the Market Place and in the 19th century were much busier than they are to-day, being more important than the present High Street. Both roads accommodated a variety of occupations: pork pie makers, bill posters, town crier, carpenters, bakers, grocers, tailors, decorators, confectioners, printers, lodging houses, tent and rope works, cycle works, coal dealer and aerated water manufacturer. It was between Northgate and Dean’s Lane that much of Oakham’s population was concentrated, often in small yards and jetties.
Oakham is also an ecclesiastical centre. All Saints’ is the parish church of the entire town and is a landmark from all directions. Its Benefice includes nine villages and the chapel of St. John & St. Anne, Westgate, Oakham, founded in 1399. This chapel was a ruin until it was restored and opened in 1983 as the centre of warden-assisted flats for the elderly.
Known as ‘the Cathedral of Rutland’, All Saints’ has a county-wide function with civic services and ceremonials like the RAF Freedom of Oakham service. Additionally, there are five other religious groups in the town: Roman Catholic, Baptist, Congregational, Methodist and the Society of Friends. Oakham School has its own chapel opposite to All Saints’.
The School was founded by Robert Johnson, later Archdeacon of Leicester, in 1584, in All Saints’ churchyard. It is now known as the Old School. From this modest beginning Oakham School has become a leading co-educational public school with over 1000 pupils. The School not only gives employment to the town but contributes considerably to cultural events, including the Oakham Festival. The wide influence and prestige of Oakham School has done a great deal to advance the town’s fame.
The golden age of this classic English market town has gone. Arthur Mee in the 1930s described Oakham as ‘small with wide streets and fair gardens with trees shading old houses with peeps of green hills and woods and lanes, and wooded paths running to the Market Place’.
The Ellingworth family were well-known in Oakham: they were music dealers and photographers and ran the chemist’s shop. Dulcie, one of the daughters, taught at Langham School. She lived to an great age being alive throughout most of the 20th century.
When interviewed she spoke nostalgically of the old times ‘We crossed and re-crossed the road to each others houses content, not having to fear traffic, save for a few horses. The sounds of the day were the songs of birds, the rhythm of the anvil at the blacksmith’s shop next door and the Angelus’. She went on to describe the pageantry of the Assizes, the May Fair and Flower Show, Feast Days and Horse Shows, the opening up of the hunting boxes for the Season and then how Oakham ‘settled down to its summer siesta’ when that Season closed.
Was Oakham really a rural idyll? In our busy world we shall never know, even if the new by-pass has recovered some peace and quiet. Can we hold fast to what we have? There are imminent threats from a proposed Vision of Rutland which seeks to fill open green spaces with houses. Additionally, Hawksmead Developments hope to site 1000 houses together with parkland, sports facilities, etc. along Melton Road towards Barleythorpe.
The key problem is to balance sensible expansion and ‘progress’ with the need to conserve what is best about Oakham. Perhaps limits should be set in terms of townscape, landscape and environment now so that everyone is aware of the criteria involved in saving this historic market town before it is too late.