An Early ‘Maternity Home’ at Stonelands:

 
 
Sworn Lains

When transcribing the Parish Registers of Asthall, Brize Norton, Shilton and Swinbrook, I was intrigued by recurring references to the burials (occasionally baptisms) of infants ‘from Sworn Lains’, the name changing about 1765 to ‘Stonelands’.  There were also early 18th Century references in the Burford Registers, but here the infants were from ‘Forsworn Lains’.  In some cases ‘extra-parochial’ was also recorded.  This led to the finding of an area of some six acres calls Stonelands, on the boundaries of the first four parishes above, which had been extra-parochial until an Enclosure Award of 1814, when it was taken into Asthall parish.

Modern title deeds only date from about 1940, and the farm boundaries had been fluid for a long time, so that these six acres were sometimes farmed from Shilton, at other times from Brize Norton farms.  The Enclosure Award only gives the owners of the Great Tithes, not those of the land, and this is also the case with the Land Tax Assessments 1785 to 1831.  The only written references come from Rawlinson’s Diaries, Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Quarter Sessions records, and two visitation Returns for Shilton.  Fortunately, two sets of manuscript notes have come to light – one dated about 1895, by Thomas Banting of Filkins, the other (undated) by Doctor Howell Powell of Brize Norton who died about 1970.  The latter contains his memories of Stonelands when a child, about 1906.  The following chronological narrative is from all sources.

 ‘Convenient Dwelling House and Premises standing extra-parochial’

From 1800 the Land Tax Assessments showed Edward Batt, esq. of Burford as the owner of the Tithes, and at some time he appears to have acquired the freehold, which with his other property was part of the securities of Messrs. Batt and Co., Bankers.  The Bank was put into liquidation in 1815, and the subsequent auction of November 1815 included this ‘Convenient Dwelling House and Premises standing extra-parochial’ as well as a substantial Farm House.  The whole were under lease to Mr James Hart for the remainder of 21 years, determinable on Notice at Lady Day 1818.  The name of the purchaser has not been found.

 Baptisms and Burials

The record of baptisms/burials cease after 1836, by which time the new Poor Law had come into effect, and Workhouses had been built, which presumably put an end to these activities.  Burials 1718 to 1730 were 4 at Burford, and 9 at Asthall.  There was a gap until 1794/8 when 3 were recorded at Burford.  From 1798 to 1819 there were 23 Baptisms and 3 Burials at Asthall:  then from 1818 to1836 there 46 Baptisms and 15 Burials at Swinbrook.  This hardly measures up to Banting’s narrative, but perhaps the village story of disposal of bodies in the grounds, had some substance.

 Thomas Banting’s notebook

Thomas Banting’s notebook was given to William J. Monk, a local historian about 1895 and talks of Sworn Lains as it was about 1830, when he was about 16 years old.  He wrote ‘it was a public House and two or three cottages and some Land  the man as belongd to it used to carry on a roaring trade here as young women as were in trouble used to go there to be confined as about this time a man told me as on a find Sunday afternoon he had told as many as 28 walking up and down the Road, an as I had some reason to know as there was a case from our own village which I knew at this time of day the parishes was very particular as to where a child was born on account of making his parish there but at this place nobody could interfere so there came parties from all parts.’ W.J. Monk acknowledged using this story in his ‘A Ramble in Oxfordshire’ (c. 1917) and added ‘Here, to this old house came those women, mostly of good class, who had been as the country people say, “unfortunate”, and here in the “laaing” house near, as it is still called, the lives of infants were taken and their bodies buries around.’

 

Thomas Rawlinson's Diaries

There was a mansion on the extra-parochial parcel, over whose ruined front door the date 162- could still be traced in 1906, also initials to suggest that the placed been built by a Fettiplace.  Local legend was that the house was used by the ladies of king Charles I’s Court at Oxford (1642-1646) for the delivery of illegitimate children, and in his Diaries (1720-1730) Rawlinson describes the place as ‘Sworne-Lanes, commonly call’d the Bastard School…Here is a House which no body claims…’.  The record of infant burials is intermittent between 1726 and 1840, and the few adults from the area may well have been quarries living in two small cottages and working in a small stone quarries adjacent.

 Shilton's Third Pub

The House appears to have had an Inn licence from at least 1753 when it was called ‘The Lamb’ and the licence was held until 1779 by John Packer, occasionally by Ann Packer.  It then seems to have changed its name to ‘The George’ (1782) and the ‘The Fox’ (1783-84) when Stephen Pratley was publican.  There are no entries under Asthall from then on but in 1791 Isaac Hanson appears as the publican of Sheakespear’s Head, Stone Lands and he continued as publican of the Shakespear until 1795, in 1796 Isaac Thomas is given as the publican but this may be a clerical error.  The inn may have been rather a rough house – the Packers were committed to Oxford Castle for murder in 1755, but acquitted when the informed confessed that he was the guilty part, and Jackson’s Oxford Journal also records that a burglar had taken refuge there in 1771, and was apprehended by the Sheriff.

The Lying-In activities were known to the Church, as the Visitation Returns for Shilton in 1771 record that ‘offertory money was given to relieve poor women in distress’, while that for 1774 is more specific – ‘to poor afflicted lying-in women’.

 A Notorious Reputation

Quarter Sessions only record one Bond (for £80) for maintenance of a child born here – in 1755 Charles Godfrey Junior, late servant to Herbert Beaver of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, gentleman, indemnified Iffley and the County for the illegitimate child of Elizabeth Edmonds;  the child was born at Sworn Leys, an extra-parochial place in the County of Oxford, and the mother had gone to live at Iffley with her widowed mother.  However the reputation of the place was notorious, as shown in a Jackson’s Oxford Journal report of October 1778 of a somewhat dubious marriage. The groom eloped shortly afterwards ‘observing, that if his Wife had married to obtain a Settlement she was bilked, for he was born at Sworn-Lanes, near Burford:  an extra-parochial Place, where many unmarried Ladies resort upon particular Occasions’.

 PRIVATE LYING-IN NOTICE

However by 1801 no secret was made of the functions of Sworn Lains as on 21st November an advertisement was placed in Jackson’s Oxford Journal as follows:

 ‘PRIVATE LYING-IN NOTICE is hereby given, That near SWORN LAYS, in the County of Oxford, is a house belonging to no Parish, well situated to receive LYING-IN WOMEN privately:   and such may be treated with on reasonable Terms, by applying to James Hart, at Sworn Lays Great House, near Burford, Oxfordshire.’

From this date, the number of child baptisms from Stonelands in the Asthall registers grew to 5 or 6 a year, but burials were fewer.  In 1818 a special fee of 19x 6d was placed on burials from Stonelands against 6s 8d for locals although Stonelands was now in Asthall parish;  subsequent entries occur in the Swinbrook registers.

 

 

Dr Howell Powell

Dr. Powell’s description of c.1906 states that this ‘laa-ing house’ was in the centre of a ‘foreign’ fir copes which kept the sun off the South side of the old house.  This latter was roofless – stone mullioned windows without glass – a ‘church like’ front door.  There was reputed to be a ghost – of a horrible old woman carrying a screaming naked baby.  There was a very deep well, at the bottom of which there was said to be enough room for a cart.  One night he and his brother timorously crept to a gap in the copse wall to watch for the ghost – when ‘a nasty voice snarled: - “Leave I alone, I be doing no harm!”’ – they turned and ran, later realising that they had only disturbed a tramp.

Dr. Powell reminds us that one reason for the immunity of Stonelands was that the parish of Shilton to the west was a detached part of Berkshire, so that the old house was midway between the jurisdiction of their Sheriff and the Oxfordshire one.  He said it had been a pest house for plague and smallpox, and that Oxford Scholars had stayed there during the plague at Oxford.

The walls were still standing in 1935, but by 1946 all but one had fallen, and this had to be demolished as unsafe.  During this century (ie 20th) the house has been used as a local stone quarry, and by 1976 nothing remained but grassy mounds to indicate the outlines of the main building.

In view of the above legend, the old name ‘Forsworn Lains can perhaps be translated as ‘Forsaken Births’ – ‘forsaken’ is an old meaning of ‘forsworn’ and ‘Lains’ or ‘laa-ing’s’ from ‘lay’ which cold formerly mean ‘bring to bed’ of a child.

 

 

(All original grammar and spellings adhered to)

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