A History of Shopping in Wolverton Part I

With the development of supermarkets, shopping malls and out-of-town shopping outlets, the shopping landscape has changed much over the past 30 years. Over the last 170 years the changes have been even more dramatic. So I am going to develop a series of posts to trace the change and development of shopping in Wolverton. I have touched on some of these matters before, but I hope to give a more coherent account here.

The history of shopping in Wolverton really begins in Stony Stratford, which in 1838 was a small coaching town with a population of about 1,500. There was a full range of trades and services, some which have survived to the present, like Bakers, Butchers and Ironmongers, and others, such as Basket Makers, Straw Hat Makers, Glovers and Tallow Chandlers, which have not.

Stony Stratford held a market every Friday and most of those living on the Wolverton estate probably walked to Stony Stratford for weekly shopping. In addition, Stony Stratford held two annual fairs, one on August 2nd to sell toys and hardware and another on the first Friday after Michelmas Day (end of September) for hiring servants. The hiring Fair was a characteristic of early 19th century England and a remnant of an agricultural economy which was fast disappearing.

The development of New Wolverton meant that the new settlement could support some shops of its own. Accordingly, the London and Birmingham Railway provided for 8 specialized shop units at the north end of Bury Street. They were mostly populated by Stony Stratford traders.

There are no pictures of these buildings which barely lasted 20 years but this sketch here may give some idea of their appearance.
At the very north end, beside the canal, was the “Locomotive Eating House” described in this post. Locomotive Eating House  Next door, occupying two units, was Charles Aveline, then a young man, son of a Leighton Buzzard Cabinet Maker and nephew of Frederick Aveline, who already had an established business in Stony Stratford. The next unit was occupied by Thomas French, a boot and shoe maker. At this time the Northamptonshire shoe manufacturing industry was just drawing its first breath and shoe-making was still a made-to-measure hand-made business.
John Reeve, a Stony Stratford Grocer and Tea Dealer set up a branch in the next unit and George Gilling, a Stony Stratford Butcher, set up shop here and appears to have run the new Wolverton Post Office next door. The last in this row was a Bakery, operated by George Kightley, also from Stony Stratford.
This Bakery may have been a Co-operative Bakery for some of these years but evidence is hard to come by. There is just the vaguest reference, so it may have been an independent concern to start with and a Co-op later. The Kightley family were an established Stony Stratford baking family.
At the other end of Bury Street, two more shops were opened in the three storey houses. William Boyes, a Stony Stratford Draper, opened up a branch here which lasted for the rest of the century. And in another house Joshua Harris, who had come from outside the area, opened as a Grocer and Druggist. If that seems a strange combination let me note that Grocers were originally druggists in Medieval times, but by 1600 the Apothecaries had broken away to form their own guild. However, old customs die hard, and plainly men like Joshua Harris were continuing in this field. He was a bona fide member of the Pharmaceutical Association.
These early shop establishments tell us a lot. Bakers and Butchers were essential. A Grocer would sell tea, sugar, flour and various potions for home remedies. The Draper would sell cloth to make clothes, which you could either do yourself or take to a tailor or dressmaker. Your local cabinet maker would provide you with tables, chairs, beds and storage chests and drawers – all made to order.
Vegetables may well have been purchased at the Friday market in Stony Stratford. Milk was probably delivered in a pail directly from the cow to the door. Pasteurization, Tuberculin testing, and even bottling had yet to be invented.

The Radcliffe Trust and Wolverton – Part VI The Final Century

The arrival of the railways was a watershed moment for Wolverton. The old agricultural world which had sustained the manor for centuries was no longer truly viable. The Stony Stratford properties had been sold off in 1802 to redeem a £16,000 Land Tax. Land had been sold off for the new railway town (which continued to grow), there was now only one water mill on the estate. More alarming for the Trustees was the relative decline of agriculture as a primary wealth producer.

In 1847 a London surveyor, Henry Crawter, was engaged to survey the estate. He concluded that the Stacey Bushes farmhouse near Bradwell Brook was beyond repair and that a new farmhouse should be built at the centre of the farm. He advised that Park Farm was no longer a viable unit and that the land should be divided between Manor Farm and Wolverton House Farm. The pasture land known as Great Hodge should be divided between Stacey Bushes Farm and Brick Kiln Farm.

Accordingly Stacey Farm was built by Wolverton’s builder, Charles Aveline, and today it forms the nucleus of the Milton Keynes Development Museum. Park farmhouse was leased to James Edward McConnell, the Locomotive Superintendent, and subsequently to a succession of tenants. The house has been known as Wolverton Park since that time.

A further survey by Jeremiah Matthews in 1858 proposed that Wolverton House itself should be separated from the farm and leased as a country mansion. This, however, did not become possible until the Harrison family finally vacated the house in 1892.

This required the building of a new farmhouse for the land that had formerly been farmed from Wolverton House and in 1892 a new farm house was built beside some farm buildings and cottages at The Warren. This now became known as Warren Farm.

Stonebridge House Farm was itself rebuilt in 1855.

Agricultural prices continued to decline in the 19th century with some years of real hardship. Matters improved in the first two decades of the 20th century, only to slump again in the 1930s. Against this backdrop the pressure for Wolverton’s town expansion could not be ignored and between 1903 and 1906 more land was sold for housing development. The new streets thus created honoured three of the Radcliffe Trustees, Viscount Peel, the Earl of Jersey and Sir William Anson.

The demand continued, and Radcliffe Street was extended in 1928 and 1929. In the 1930s another 100 acres were sold to provide for new recreation grounds and Marina Drive and Gloucester Road. After the war they released another 174 acres which created the extension of Windsor Street, Furze Way and subsequently Southern Way, Woodland View and St John’s Crescent.

By 1966 the writing on the wall was plain. The government had decided on a new city development which would incorporate Wolverton and Bletchley and much of the land in between. The Wolverton Manor would be subject to compulsory purchase.

The agreed price for the entire estate, with the exception of Wolverton House, Wolverton Park and Wolverton Mill, was £900,000, and on September 29th 1970, all was conveyed to the Milton Keynes Development Corporation.  Wolverton House was sold to Buckinghamshire County Council and Wolverton Park to a private buyer. The Mill was retained, but I believe has been sold for development more recently.

1970 marked the end of the Manor’s history, which stretched back for more than 1,000 years and it also brought to an end the Trust’s involvement in the affairs of Wolverton, which had begun in 1713.

The memory is preserved in Radcliffe Street and in The Radcliffe School, created from a merger of Wolverton Grammar School and Wolverton Technical School in 1956. There are three, or possibly four, street names that have some connection with the Radcliffe Trust.

And that is the end of the story.

The Radcliffe Arms

The earliest demonstration of the rather chaotic planning that has characterised Wolverton throughout its history was the building of its first pub in an isolated location.

Wolverton’s first railway station was built to the north of the canal on the embankment. It was only a temporary affair and by 1840 they had built a new, permanent station, further south on railway property. In those two years, however, some momentous decisions had been made, probably in haste, which led to the construction and opening of the Radcliffe Arms.

Everybody was being a little too clever, it seems. The Radcliffe Trustees, upon selling the first 8 acres, had required the Railway Company to enter into a covenant that they would not build any tavern or public house on their land. They agreed to this and kept to it. In the meantime, the Trust, seeing a benefit for itself,  granted a lease of 6 acres to John Congreve, a Stony Stratford solicitor and Joseph Clare, the landlord of The Cock Hotel, for 63 years. Accordingly, they built stables, coach houses and a tap room for the sale of beer by 1839 and probably thought they would easily recoup their investment. The area we are talking about later became Wolverton Park.

The Railway Company, having little or no interest in this, built their permanent station, together with Refreshment Rooms, at the new site, and left the Radcliffe Arms isolated in a field. Congreve and Clare made representations to the Trustees, the ground rent for The Radcliffe Arms was reduced and they were provided with more land in a more suitable location to build The Royal Engineer. So within the space of two years, the new settlement acquired two Taverns.

The Radcliffe Arms did function for about 30 years and probably did enough business for the first two decades. Thereafter it became increasingly isolated from the town and you can see from the evidence of the censuses that business is falling off. By 1871 the buildings are used for residential purposes only and they were later torn down when the Recreation Park was developed in the 1880s.

It quickly acquired a rough reputation and far from being respectfully called The Radcliffe Arms was known as “Hell’s Kitchen”.

Hugh Miller, a Scottish traveller and writer recorded this first impression in 1845:
It was now nine o’clock.  I had intended passing the night in the inn at Wolverton, and then walking on in the morning to Olney, a distance of nine miles; but when I came to the inn, I found it all ablaze with light, and all astir with commotion.  Candles glanced in every window; and a thorough Babel of sound—singing, quarrelling, bell-ringing, thumping, stamping, and the clatter of  mugs and glasses issued from every apartment. [1]
On enquiry, it turned out that this was the eve of a prize fight between a Nottingham champion and a London fighter[2] so Miller walked to Newport Pagnell, armed with two pistols for protection, to seek better accommodation. However, he found the atmosphere just as riotous and pressed on to a village he called Skirvington (Sherington) where he at last found the peaceful night he sought. We may be surprised today that Miller readily undertook these four mile to Newport Pagnell on foot but the world in 1845 was not so far removed from the idea of walking to one’s destination. Rail travel had made speedy travel possible but walking for many was a natural and obvious choice, and this vignette may underscore the fact that the 1840s were transitional years for one’s mode of transport. It is also worth noting that rail travel may have significantly reduced the risk of robbery against the lone traveler.

It is difficult to generalize from this brief encounter with the Radcliffe Arms, however, we also have a record from Hugh Stowell Brown, who has left us a vivid account of his first (and probably only) experience:
I arrived on Friday evening, and went into the erecting-shed on Saturday morning; and at the dinner-hour had to pay my footing. This was done at the vile public-house close to the station — a house which went by the name of ‘ Hell’s Kitchen,’ a name it well deserved. An old proverb says, that if an Englishman settled on an uninhabited island the first building he would put up would be a public-house.  A public-house was the first thing built at Wolverton by the directors of the London and Birmingham There was no church, no school, no reading-room ; but there was  ‘ Hell’s Kitchen.’ And in that ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ that first afternoon, I had to pay about ten shillings for drink. ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ was a horrid place; always full of mechanics, navvies, labourers, tramps of all kinds; at least one hundred station-men spent there half the dinner-hour and perhaps half their wages.[3]

            “Paying his footing” probably meant, as the newest arrival, that he was expected to stand a round of drinks. Ten shillings for this young boy was 2 ½ week’s wages – an enormous sum for his initiation into the ranks of railwaymen, and on this evidence he must have discovered a lot of “friends” in “Hell’s Kitchen”.
             The turnover in landlords was quite high. The first tenants  were Richard and Priscilla Hipwell. In 1841 they were running the inn with two adult servants and a 15 year old boy.  After a few years they moved to a grocer’s shop in Brixworth and were succeeded at by Robert Lambeth Done. By 1851 it was managed by Joseph Gostlow and his wife Frances and appears to have been a larger establishment of staff. They employed a barmaid and four other servants and a nurse and it may be that these were the best years for the public house. They also had six lodgers or hotel guests. These I have described in my post The Comedians
            The establishment appeared to be of a similar size in 1861, this time managed by Berkley Hicks and wife Mary Joy. They had three small children a barman and three servants. In fact, it was the barman, Berkley’s younger brother, Henry A Hicks, who later went on to run the much more palatial Victoria Hotel on Church street a decade or so later. Four cottages surrounding the Inn are first listed in 1861 where they are described as Radcliffe Arms Cottages.
   
         The 1881 census still recorded residents here – all living in “Hell’s Kitchen”. There is no mention of the Radcliffe Arms or Radcliffe Arms cottages. If we go back to the 1840 map it is evident that there are at least two buildings in this location – one is the hotel, the other may be the cottages or it might equally be the stables or outbuildings. The Radcliffe Arms cottages only make an itemized appearance in the 1861 census. They repeat in the 1871 census. From 1841 to 1871 the Radcliffe Arms licensee and his staff and family and guests are recorded but not in 1881. As I have noted above the Ordnance Survey of 1880 shows only one building.


[1] Miller, Hugh. First Impressions: England and its People. Chapter XIIV. 1889.
[2] Sir Frank Markham gives a full and entertaining account of the prize fight that Hugh Miller stumbled upon. One boxers entourage had camped at The Swan in Newport Pagnell and the other at The Cock in Stony Stratford. All other hostelries were full to the brim. History of Milton Keynes, Vol 2. Luton, White Press, 1986, p. 85-88.
[3] Hugh Stowell Brown. Notes on my Life. Chapter IX. 1888.

The Radcliffe Trust – Part V: The Railway

While the Trustees had handled the building of the Grand Junction Canal 50 years earlier, in 1830 a momentous decision was upon them. Robert Stephenson’s new railway proposed to cut through the Wolverton estate for a distance of two miles.

On 21st February 1831, the Trustees met at the London home of Sir Robert Peel, to consider the implications of these proposals. They were not opposed to change on principle. They were well aware of the advantages for their tenants of the speedy transport of produce to London markets but they were also conscious of the damage to the land that would result from the embankments and the increased flooding risk from the proposed viaduct. On this occasion they declined their support.

A year later, after further investigation into the risks and benefits, and after being assured by Robert Stephenson that a fourth arch would be added to the viaduct to minimize flooding they gave their assent in June 1832. The bill was debated in Parliament and the Act was finally passed on May 6th 1833.

From this date it took a further five years before the line became a reality. Further negotiations led to the viaduct being expanded to six arches and the diversion of the river to follow a straighter course. (See plan of diversion here.) As I mentioned in an earlier post, this resulted in the demise of the ancient Mead Mill.

There were delays. The line had been completed to Denbigh Hall and from Rugby to Birmingham, so early passengers had to alight at Denbigh and be carried by coaches to Rugby before resuming their journey. The delay was largely caused by the Kilsby Tunnel, although the Wolverton Embankment and Viaduct was not without its engineering and construction problems. The line was complete on 17th September 1838. Wolverton had entered the industrial age.

The event was celebrated by

” a fete on a large scale. A very large assembly of spectators from the neighbourhood congregated at this place. At Stratford, booths and stalls were erected, and the place had all the characteristics of a large country fair. The road to the station was crowded with foot people and vehicles of every description.” (Northampton Herald. 22 Sep. 1838)

The watchers on that day were rewarded by the remarkable sight of a plume of smoke coming from a tall funnel moving across the fields to the south. And it was chugging towards them at an undreamt-of speed. It was a short train of two carriages only, which would explain why it had only taken two hours – an average of 25 mph. Regular trains in those first years took three hours and fifteen minutes to reach Wolverton.

Aboard, were George Glyn, the Chairman, Richard Creed, the Company Secretary, and Edward Bury, the Locomotive Superintendent, Robert Stephenson himself and the Duke of Sussex, one of Queen Victoria’s uncles.

A day for the history books.

The Radcliffe Trust – Part IV: The Farms

The manor, which the Radcliffe Trust took over in 1713, was still largely an agricultural estate, as it had been for at least 800 years. Change there had been: the growth of commercial activity at Stony Stratford in the Middle Ages, and the forced abandonment of the old Wolverton village in the 16th century – but agriculture remained at the core.

Radcliffe assumed several major tenancies, which continued for the early part of the 18th century. Richard Wodell held the major part, about 550 acres which included the land around Wolverton House and what later became Warren Farm. William Harding was the tenant of Stacey Bushes Farm, which at the tim amounted to 289 acres. James Brittain held the 276 acres on the west side of the estate and probably lived near to the brick kiln. William Swannell rented 243 acres at the northern end of the estate and Thomas Scott rented 147 acres around the stone bridge on the Newport Pagnell road. There were also a number of smaller holdings – mostly closer to Stony Stratford.

Thomas Harrison was appointed estate manager in 1872 and served in this capacity for 36 years. he was succeeded by his son, Richard, who then put in another 49 years in the job. For 85 years the Harrisons loom large in Wolverton affairs. Not only were they agents for the Trust but also substantial tenants. Thomas Harrison farmed the land largely based upon Wodell’s farm and between 1782-6 spent £1,840 rebuilding the farmhouse, which he named Wolverton House, and which still stands today. Harrison was paid an income from the Trustees as their agent and he also managed the Earl Spencer’s estates in Bradwell, so he was a man of some resources beyond that of his income from farming, and it is thought that he employed a steward or bailiff to manage the day-to-day affairs of the farm and house him at some farm buildings in The Warren, later to be known as Warren farm. Harrison was a member of a new breed of farmer emerging in the late 18th century – the gentleman farmer.

During this period other families with generational continuity were emerging – the Ratcliffe family at Stonebridge House Farm and Park Farm and the Wilkinsons at Brick Kiln farm.

In many respects the best years of agriculture were over by the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Food prices had risen, but rents had also risen by 14%. Grain prices reached their peak in 1812 and then began to fall and farmers everywhere struggled. Rent reductions of 10% were allowed between 1820-24 and again from 1829-36. Farm labourers wages fell and unemployment was high. Desperate people responded by burning hayricks and destroying farm machinery. Everyone suffered in one way or another. Richard Harrison, probably the wealthiest man on the manor, was a partner in the Stony Stratford Bank, which failed in 1820, and he was left with considerable debts. The decline continued throughout the 19th century. In 1800, 80% of the population earned their livlihood directly from agriculture. At the end of the century that figure was down to 4% – an astonishing social change.

We can look back now and see that the coming of the Railways could not have been better timed in the case of Wolverton. Men who had been on borderline wages of 6s. a week, could now find work at Wolverton Station for 18s. a week. Had the London to Birmingham line gone through Buckingham, as first planned, Wolverton would have further declined, Stony Stratford, having lost the coaching trade, would have become equally poor, and I would not be writing this today.

The Radcliffe Trust and Wolverton – Part III The Mills

The Trust acquired two working mills on the River Ouse. At the time they were known as West Mill and Mead Mill. Both mills were recorded in Domesday. There is still a mill on the site of West Mill, which has been known as Wolverton Mill since the 19th century. Mead Mill, on the eastern side of the Manor, operated for about 1,000 years but the diversion of the river at the time of building the railway viaduct probably had an impact on its viability and it had ceased working by 1840.

This plan shows the new embankment and viaduct and the old river course is shaded. The new course is the white area between the dotted lines. It appears that the new river course decided the fate of the mill. Apparently nobody was particularly bothered about it as the Radcliffe Trustees could have insisted on a new mill-race to be constructed at the L&BR expense, but perhaps they decided that one larger mill working efficiently was better than two less efficient ones.
The 1841 and 1851 censuses record Mead Mill, but it is occupied by three families, mostly headed by railoway employees. there is no mention of a miller.

The engraving depicted above shows the then new viaduct and the old Haversham bridge. Mead Mill was still standing at this time but is out of frame on the left hand side.
Both mills were in the hands of Perry brothers in 1713. Mead Mill, together with 90 acres of meadowland, was rented by John Perry and the West Mill was leased to William Perry with 21 acres.
Wolverton Mill continued and became larger and more industrialized in the 19th century. It has now been converted into flats.
This picture was taken in 1939.

The Radcliffe Trust and Wolverton – Part II The Inns


As I have remarked before, the Watling Street was the dividing line between the Wolverton and Calverton Manors, so the land on the east side was always owned by the lord of the manor. As Stony Stratford grew in prosperity due to improved roads the land adjoining the High Street became more valuable and a number of inns were paying useful rents to the Manor.

This map, which I have borrowed from a Stony Stratford website, shows the town at about the time that Radcliffe made his purchase. Concise history of Stony Stratford

At the time Radcliffe purchased the Manor, the population of Stony Stratford as a whole was about 1,000. By comparison, the rural population of Wolverton was under 200.
The Inns of Stony Stratford would make an interesting study in itself, but here I will focus on those that were part of the Radcliffe purchase.

They were The Bull (1609), The Three Swans (1526), The Red Lion, The Horseshoe (1529), The Queen’s Head and The Nag’s Head. The Cock and The Rose and Crown had been sold some time before and were no longer part of the estate. The Nag’s Head probably went out of business shortly after Radcliffe’s purchase. The rent at that time was only 17s and it is never mentioned again. The Bull continues its trade on the same site, but the building has much developed since the early 18th century.

The Red Lion must have been near to the Three Swans as indicated by Red Lyon Close. The Horseshoe, which in its day was spoken of as the largest of the Stony Stratford Inns was pulled down in 1860 for the development of St Paul’s School, later Mr Fegan’s Homes. The Horseshoe also gets a mention in a late Elizabethan play called Sir John Oldcastle. It was a collaborative effort between Anthony Munday, Michael Drayton, Robert Wilson and Richard Hathaway – not William Shakespeare, as is sometimes suggested.

The Three Swans, which sometimes was known as The Swan or the Swan with Two Necks,
The Trust kept records of the tenants from 1713 to 1802 when they were all sold to meet the cost of a government land tax.

          The Bull            1713-1720     William Eyres
                                    1720-1760     James Hall
                                    1760-1764     William Burbridge
                                    1764-1790     John Coates
                                    1790-1802     Thomas Sleath

          Three Swans     1705-1729     Christopher Carter
                                    1729-1785     R Wilmer
The Three Swans was converted into two dwelling houses in 1785.


          Horseshoe         1685-1729     Matthew Eyres
                                    1729-1758     Aquila Cole
                                    1758-1767     William Whittaker
                                    1767-1784     Ann Whittaker
                                    1784-1802     William Godfrey
The Horseshoe and several surrounding houses were cleared in 1860 in order to build the new St Paul’s School.


          Red Lion           1680-1713     Thomas Penn
                                    1729-1730     William Keen
                                    1737-1742     Charles Horne
                                    1742-1785     Edward Jeffcoate
The Red Lion was converted into a work-houe for the poor of Wolverton and Stony Stratford.


          The Queen’s Head      1691-1742 Michael Garment
The location and fate of this inn is unknown.

The Three Swans and The Rose and Crown both compete to be known as the Inn where Richard III’s nephews, Edward and Richard of York, stayed overnight on their way to London. Richard put the two of them and their companions into “protective custody”. They were never at liberty again.

The Radcliffe Trust and Wolverton – Part I

The Wolverton Manor was a complete entity for a very long time. It predate the Norman Conquest and at that time was in the hands of three Thanes. These men I have discussed here. Impact of Norman Conquest
Shortly after 1066 the manor was given to one of William’s tenant-in-chief, the Breton, Maigno. He made it the centre of his barony. The First Baron

It remained in this family for about 400 years until the male line came to an end and through one of the daughters came into the possession of the Longuevilles of Little Billing. I have yet to write about the Longuevilles, but will do so. It is not an altogether pleasant story. The Longuevilles began their enclosures early in the 16th century and on a predatory scale. In the course of which the old village of Wolverton was depopulated. More of this another day.

At the time of the acquisition of the manor by Dr John Radcliffe the estate was in the control of Sir Edward Longueville, something of a rake, who was extravagantly in debt.  He had already sold the Manor at Little Billing, but his expenditure continued to exceed his income and and much of the estate, including the 1586 Manor House, was falling into ruin.

The effect of Radcliffe’s acquisition was to bring the estate under more responsible management. Radcliffe hired a man called John Battison from Quinton whose father had been estate manager under the Longuevilles. For this service Battison was paid £40 a year. This appears to have been a sound appointment. Two of Radcliffe’s trustees, Sir George Beaumont and William Bromley, visited the estate early in 1715 and again in 1716. Some £1400 was spent on building repairs, although not on the great house itself, which was too far gone. They appear to have been quite satisfied:

“You would have the satisfaction of seeing a noble Estate, & the management of it such that I think there is little cause to complain of.”

Bromley wrote to his fellow Trustees.

The Trustees and the Estate Management were generally sympathetic to their tenants. Misfortunes such as bad harvests, flooding and even insolvency were met with tolerant arrangements to reduce, defer, or even forgive rents. Christopher Carter, the landlord of The Three Swans had been struggling for some years and in 1728 it was reported that his brewhouse had been “for many years in a ruinous state, and mortar fell into his drink.” Sir George Beaumont, one of the original trustees, took an understanding view when Carter was faced with insolvency in 1730:

“I shall always be of Opinion that if we can preserve our tenants from impending ruin, it will be charity well applyd.”

From the very beginning the Trust was a benign landlord and this tradition continued for 250 years until the estate was surrendered to Milton Keynes. They were inclined to encourage family inheritance of tenancies, keep up repairs and maintain reasonable, if not low, rents. In terms of community life, they rebuilt Holy Trinity Church at the huge cost of £7,793 and the church and vicarage at St George’s for £2,629. They built the Old Wolverton School House in 1856 for £600. Over the years they made various donation or repairs and additions and paid all or part of the stipends for the Rector at Holy Trinity, the Vicar at Wolverton and the curate at Wolverton St Mary’s.

Dr John Radcliffe – a short biography

John Radcliffe was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire at the end of 1652. He was the third son and fourth child of George and Ann Radcliffe. There were two other sons to follow but John was the only one to survive infancy; however he had three sisters as companions when he was growing up. As to his exact date of birth there is no record. Parish registers during the Republican period were often poorly kept or not at all and in some instances actively discouraged by the authorities so it is not surprising to find no record, even though his father was a relatively prominent citizen.

George Radcliffe was an attorney at law and himself the son of a country vicar. As a supporter of the Cromwellian cause he was rewarded with the post of Governor of Wakefield’s House of Correction, only to lose this to the previous incumbent after the restoration of the monarchy.

John’s background therefore was solid provincial middle class. The Radcliffes were not wealthy but neither were they poor. John attended the local Grammar School and showed himself to be a bright pupil and in 1666, when he was just 13 years old, he was sent to University College, Oxford. He graduated with a B.A. in 1669 and then embarked upon studies in anatomy, chemistry and botany for an M.A., which he was awarded in 1672. Following this he was able to begin his proper medical studies. He obtained a licence in 1675.

From the start he appeared to have an intuitive gift to diagnose illness and prescribe novel and effective treatment. For example, his treatment of smallpox, then a common enough scourge, used cooling emulsions on the skin, and ordering his patients to get plenty of fresh air. The conventional treatment was to bleed the patient and to confine him to bed in a dark and stuffy room. It did not take too long for the word to spread about the effectiveness of Radcliffe’s treatment and prospective patients were soon lining up outside his door. And as these matters often run it took the cure of one celebrated patient to cement his rsing reputation. A certain Lady Spencer had been ill for years and the ministrations of successive doctors had made no impression. After three weeks in Radcliffe’s care she was up and about looking better than she had in years. Now Radcliffe could command high fees from the well-to-do and well-connected.

In 1682, after completing his Doctor of medecine degree he moved to london, finding a house in Covent garden, strategically placed between Westminster and the city. As his fame grew so did his fees and by 1690 he was charging 20 guineas for a consultation. He was patronized by the Royal Family and by many of the Aristocracy. On the other side of this he tended to live frugally, with the exception of his drinking habit, which I will come to. He had no wife or children and very little that he wanted to spend his money on. As his wealth accumulated he did invest money in various venture. usually these paid off, leaving him more wealthy than before.

He did not achieve his fame through his medical skill alone; he was also a “personality”.

He liked to talk; he liked male company; he liked the ale-house; he did not care very much what he said to people and to whom. He was able to maintain good friendships but he was often arrogant and was not sparing in his criticisms of some of his colleagues. Needless to say this did not go down well with the medical profession of the day.

One of the Royals Doctors,  Gibbons, was described contemptuously as “Nurse Gibbons” by Radcliffe for always prescribing “slops, caudles and diet-drinks”. Another, Doctor Lister, was characterised as “having his head turned the wrong way”.

He was no less gentle with his patients. One peer, apparently something of a hypochondriac, came to him to complain of singing in his head. He was despatched with the advice that “you should try wiping your arse with a ballad.”

Even the Royals were not immune. Princess Anne (later Queen) sent a summons to him one evening while he was drinking in a tavern. He replied that he would be along shortly and carried on drinking. An hour or two later a second messenger was sent when Radcliffe was even more comfortably ensconced. The Princess’s symptoms were described and Radcliffe reacted, “By God! Her Highness’s distemper is nothing but the vapours, and she is in as good a state of health as any woman breathing, could she but give in to the belief of it.” It would not surprise you to learn that Anne never called him again.

But his commanding and bullying manner was no doubt part of the attraction. Patients generally appreciate forceful advice, even if they do not always act upon it. In 1697 he was called to King William, who was then suffering from dropsy. Radcliffe told him that the best he could expect was another three or four years of life, but only if he followed Radcliffe’s orders. “If Your Majesty will forbear making long visits to the Earl of Bradford (the kings drinking companion), I’ll try what can be done to make you live easily.”

Radcliffe showed little interest in women, although there were some reported dalliances, and even less in marriage. He therefore found himself towards the end of his life with no heirs. In his last decade he began to acquire property – the Wolverton Manor being the chief, and a smaller estate in Yorkshire. In the last year of his life he bought a large house at Carshalton in Surrey.

His own health problems started to appear when he was fifty with a serious attack of pleurisy in 1703. He recovered but the years of overindulgence in red wine began to catch up with his health. He began to go to places like Bath and Tunbridge Wells for recuperation, but the decline had set in. He was still practising in his last decade but increasingly his thoughts turned to his legacy. He did provide for his sisters and their families and make some other bequests, but the main endowment went through his Trust, to his first college, University College, Oxford.
He died of a stroke at his house in Carshalton on November 1st, 1714

The Radcliffe Trust

In 1713 Dr John Radcliffe, the most eminent physician of his day, purchased the Wolverton Manor from the dissolute and hard-up Sir Edward Longueville.
Radcliffe became very wealthy through his fame as a doctor and by the time of his death had amassed a large fortune. In the last few years of his life he started to spend some of it and the purchase of the manor for £40,000 not only enabled him to make a shrewd investment with a good return on capital but also to re-enter Parliament as an eligible MP for Buckingham.
Radcliffe died a year later and as far as we know had little to do with Wolverton but in his will he set up a Trust that still bears his name and this Trust built several institutions at the university where Radcliffe studied for many years – Oxford. These were the Radcliffe Camera (a library), the Radcliffe Infirmary and the Radcliffe Observatory.

The library, which is still a prominent landmark on Oxford’s Broad Street, was built between 1737 and 1749. It was designed by the architect James Gibbs. Radcliffe allocated £40,000 to the cost of construction.
The second project, more modest in cost, but more far reaching in its impact, was a new hospital, The Radcliffe Infirmary. It was built on donated land about half a mile out of Oxford as it then was for a total cost of £12,791. The original estimate was £4,000, but as is the case with all building projects the budget ballooned. The operating costs for the hospital came through donations and through Oxford physicians giving their services free. The Radcliffe Trust took on the responsibility for repairs and building additions.

The last of these great Oxford institutions was the Radcliffe Observatory, built in the grounds of the Infirmary a few years later. This project was probably not in Dr. Radcliffe’s mind but the trusteesn identified a need and had the resources to build it. It continued to be used until 1934, when the problem of light pollution made it impractical. The building was sold and a new observatory built outside Pretoria, South Africa.

What is all this to do with Wolverton? Well each of these institutions, and indeed the Trust itself, was funded from the income from the Manor. In 1713 annual income from rents was £2,187 2s. 4d. The money came from about 50 tenants on the Manor,  four farms, two mills, and all the properties on the Wolverton side of Watling Street in Stony Stratford – coaching inns, other commercial establishments and houses. This may not seem like very much money today but it was sufficient to maintain these important Oxford institutions for over 200 years.

The Radcliffe name was strongly associated with Wolverton until the remaining farms were sold to the Milton Keynes Development Corporation in 1970. The Trust, as landlord of the Wolverton Manor, had a dominant influence until the coming of the Railways, after which it slowly declined The Trust still retains its interest in Wolverton Mill.

The memory of John Radcliffe is tenuously preserved in the street named after him and this was the street that used to connect the Stratford Road with the southern part of town until the town planners decided to block it off with the Agora.

This is the an introductory post to a series about the Radcliffe Trust which was a key influence on Wolverton for 250 years. Wolverton’s part in maintaing some prominent Oxford University institutions is less well-known but next time you walk past the Radcliffe Camera you might reflect that it was paid for by the rents of Wolverton’s farms and the Inns and houses of Stony Stratford.