The Local Historians: 5 Oliver Ratcliffe

Oliver Ratcliff was born in Ashby de la Zouche in 1860 and soon after brith moved to Stony Stratford where his father Gilbert was a grocer. Around 1880  he moved to Olney and set up a printing business. Hs older brother William was a harness maker and it appears that they shared the same premises on the High Street in Olney. He adopted the name Cowper Press for his printing business.

Oliver took some interest in local history and in the 1890s conceived of the idea of printing and publishing The History and Antiquities of the Newport Pagnell Hundreds. This was first published 1900.

Some explanation of the term “Hundreds” might be useful here. The ancient Saxon unit of assessing land assessment was the Hide. It probably came into being as the area of land which at one time was necessary to support a family and was used  as a basis for taxation. The actual acreage could vary according to the quality of the land but most economic historians use a rule of thumb figure of 120 acres for a hide. So in the Domesday assessment in 1086 the wealthy Wolverton manor was valued at 20 hides and Bradwell at 5 hides. In the late Saxon period majors were grouped together as Hundreds (i.e. 100 hides approximately) and in our area were were three such hundreds – Seckloe (essentially the west side of Milton Keynes from Wolverton and newport Pagnell in the north down to Newton Longueville and Stoke Hammond in the South; Bunsty (that part of Bucks north of the Ouse); Moulsoe (a long strip of manors on the eastern edge of the county from Clifton Reyns in the North to the Brickhills in the south). Each Hundred had its own hundred court to deal with issues that crossed the boundaries of the manors.

In the 14th century these three hundreds were consolidated into a single administrative unit known as the Newport Pagnell Hundreds and until quite recent times many North Bucks administrative offices were centred in newport Pagnell. In the 19th century the hundreds became redundant. Poor Law Unions after 1832 overlapped the boundaries of the old hundreds. The courts were replaced by a court administered from Aylesbury under an Act of 1867, and the Local Government Act of 1888, placed their former jurisdiction in the hands of the County Council. Oddly enough they were never formally abolished, so in theory the Newport Hundreds still exist.

When Oliver Ratcliff published 1900, the name Newport Pagnell Hundreds was still understood by people. Each entry is organised by community.

Ratliff distinguished himself from Lipscomb by adding another 60 or 70 years of historical information. He also had the advantage in 1900 of being able to use photographs rather than engravings, which were the only source of illustrations open to Lipscomb. As a printer he was able to substantially reduce the cost by essentially donating his free time to the enterprise. The amount of work, quite apart from collecting the information and writing the text, was enormous. This was still the age of letterpress printing, where type was arranged individual letter by individual letter and setting the type with spacing and any decorative elements in  a galley, which could then be inked yo provide the impression on the page. Each page was printed singly, hung up to dry and then turned ver to print the text on the next page. possibly he speeded up the process by printing four pages on a sheet and later cutting and folding. The next step was to sew groups of pages together and, when the book was assembled, hold the book in a press while the spine was glued. The final step was to bind the book with covers. I estimate that it may have taken Ratcliff a whole year of part time work to complete his project.

I don’t know what press Ratcliff used by this Albion press was popular in his time.

Oliver Ratcliff was an amateur enthusiast rather than a scholarly man. He picked up much information from talking to people and absorbing facts in this way. Sometime (possibly most of the time) he was right to record hearsay. One example from my own research may illustrate this. Ratcliff grew up in Stony Stratford and when he wrote his History he mentioned that the Peacock was one of the old inns. Sir Frank Markham noted this but also observed that “Ratcliff gives no authority for this.” This was true in that Ratcliff cites no authority at all, but when I was researching Stony stratford inns I came across a fine in 1619 awarded against William Taylor the Peacock.

Oliver Ratcliff moved himself, his family and his business to Southen on Sea around 1908 and the Cowper Press closed. I don’t know how many copies of the book were originally printed but I imagine that today they are rare. Some reprints are available, although if they have been produced using OCR the quality may not be good,