Like other villages lying on the springline at the foot of the Downs, Harwell may have been inhabited for many centuries of prehistory. No one knows who first lived by the spring at Wellshead. Several Roman coins have been found at different places on the land now known as Harwell Parish, enough to make it probable that by Roman times there was a settlement here. The site of a Roman well on the Downs is now under the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, adjacent to the Atomic Energy Research Establishment.
Figure 1.1. A bronze follis (Roman coin), originally covered with a thin layer of silver, found in 1960 by Mr E.B.Brown while hoeing in Middle Farm garden. The head is of the Emperor Constantius Chlorus, who married Helena (?born at Abingdon), Constantine the Great being their child.
The first positive evidence that people lived and died in Harwell dates from about A.D. 500. By this time the people were Saxons, who buried their dead, in pagan fashion, outside the village. Their cemetery, on the edge of the Holloway, was found about thirty years ago when foundations for a house were being dug. The dead were buried with a few belongings – perhaps a brooch or an urn. Only one man, buried with his sword, seems to have been grander than the rest. Some of these remains may be seen at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Figure 1.2 Skeleton found and excavated at Downs Close in 1966. Ashmolean Museum.
These inhabitants seem to have been simple people, only interested in surviving until the next harvest, but one grave, some distance from the rest, showed that life could be fiercer still. The grave held the skeleton of a young man with the head of a spear still lodged in between his ribs. Was he a raider killed by the natives defending their own? We shall never know, but he provides the only evidence that there was any excitement in the lives of our forbears.
Figure 1.3 Saxon grave goods found near the Holloway. Ashmolean Museum.
In these early days Harwell was part of the kingdom of Wessex. In about A.D. 635 St. Birinus came to Wessex and converted the royal family to Christianity. The people presumably followed suit some years later, and no longer used their old cemetery, but buried their dead in the churchyard. We know nothing of Harwell for several hundred years after this. The rising power of the kingdom of Mercia to the north forced the removal of the Wessex capital from Dorchester to Winchester, and during the eighth and early ninth centuries the Thames remained a debatable border between the two kingdoms.
By the time we hear of the village again, it is A.D. 956. Round about this time King Edgar gave Harwell to a man called Aelfstan, in a charter witnessed by an imposing array of bishops, including St Dunstan. A few years later the village was given to Aelfric, and then in A.D. 985 Ethelred the Unready gave it to Aethelric. The charters for these three transactions all survive, and are accompanied by descriptions of the boundaries of the land. These descriptions are very interesting, for they show that a thousand years ago the parish had very much the same shape as it has now. The two earlier descriptions are much the same. The boundary is described as one would walk round it, with landmarks such as elder stumps, streams and pathways. The elder trees have gone, of course, but some of the paths and streams can be recognised. The old main road that runs past the Atomic Energy Research Establishment was a main road even then, referred to as the “herepath”, which means literally the “army path”, or the “raider’s path”, which was probably how the villagers thought of it.
The Icknield Way is also mentioned, and another name that survived until fairly recently was Humbercombe, which is mentioned as Humberdene in the eighteenth century. Many of the other names have disappeared – Crane Brook and Hazel Lea Brook lay on the Milton boundary (hazel trees still grew there before the second world war), and a mysterious name – flegges gore – describes the junction of the Chilton and Hendred boundaries. The southern part of the boundary can be followed fairly easily on the map, although some parts of it have disappeared under the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, but the northern part is something of a puzzle. In the two earlier charters, the lowest lying part of the parish, which formed the watermeadow, was treated as an extra piece of land, not part of the village proper. This part is quite unrecognisable now, as it lies under part of the Power Station and part of the road linking Didcot with the Abingdon bypass.
However, in Anglo-Saxon times it was thought right that each village should have everything it needed, such as meadow-grazing and wood supply, and by the time we reach the next charter, in A.D. 985, the meadow has been included in the village. The description of the boundaries in this charter is very different from the others, although it is still recognisably the same village. Again we have a mixture of known and unknown names: Horn Down Way for the “herepath”, the Sutton stream, Cylm’s combe which is the land that lies between Chilton and Hagbourne Hill, and several unidentifiable streams down in the valley.
Up to the time of the Norman Conquest, the largest part of the village belonged to Stigand, Bishop of Winchester, (and Archbishop of Canterbury); two other smaller pieces belonged to men called Ulric and Achi. We know nothing of these two, but Stigand was an important figure in the last years of Anglo-Saxon England. He was more of a politician than a churchman; his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury was regarded by the reformers in Rome as uncanonical, and even Englishmen were somewhat uneasy about his position. After King Harold’s death at Hastings, Stigand was the leader of the party which put forward the young prince Edgar as king. However, they were demoralised by William’s rapid movements, and by the time he had advanced to Wallingford Stigand was ready to surrender. He was left in office for a time, but was deposed by the Pope in A.D. 1070. He was left in possession of at least one manor until his death two years later, but he probably lost Harwell, and the village passed into Norman ownership.
Gillian Otlet says
Thanks for doing this – but just to say it was my family home where the Saxon graves and finds were found – Downs Croft (not Downs Close).
The property Nottingham Fee, off Downs Close, is currently the subject of consultation over a planning application so we have flagged up the need to keep a watching brief on the site if it is not possible to prevent the building development going ahead.
We also found more items: http://oxoniensia.org/volumes/1967/notes.pdf#page=3 (R.L.Otlet rather than Otlett, and Downs Croft rather than Downscroft)
And more in 1976. We still have some newspaper cuttings and photographs of the finds in the loft if you are interested.
Judith Ann Malan says
THANK YOU for posting these interesting facts, especially the evidence links and the newspaper reports.
I am new to Harwell, only having arrived here in May , 2019, but I feel such a kinship with this village. Even as I came down the hill via Harwell Campus!
That view over the fields with the trees, and the Light here, is remarkable.
Currently, I am endeavouring to compose/compile images, evidence and maps( I have received one from Frances Frith of the early map of the farms; and I am just about to contact Oxford Archaeology for permission to use the map of the area showing the early settlements…).
Creating an illustrated map is part of my studies, and because we now live here, and also the historical proximity to RAF HARWELL, I am gleaning as much information as I can in the quest to draw the invisible.
Looking forward to hearing from you.
Randy Harwell says
I remember my father telling me as a young child
that our family originated in England from the county of Oxfordshire in a village called Harwell.Harwell is my fathhers name sake.My name is Randy Harwell and I was born in Oxford,Mississippi.Oxford Mississippi was incoperated as a township in 1837.The Iniversity of Mississippi was established in Oxford in 1848.The town was named after Oxford England because of the university there.My mother moved to Oxford and in 1957 I was born there.It was years later I found the history of my family.All the parody is very interesting .I would love to discover more about Oxford England and actually meet someone from there.I have been to London once but at the time I was not aware of my family history.
Amy Harwell says
I live near Memphis Tn and I too am a Harwell. My father always told me our family generated from Harwell England. Anyone have a family history of the Harwell’s from here?
Amy Harwell Wesson.
Allyson Harwell says
I am too a Harwell. My Grandfather told me of this place and I am looking forward to visiting when I come of age.
Lee E. Harwell III says
Same here! Was always told this as a kid, although it was Village of Harwell or Bath, England depending on who you asked. I am a Harwell from Central Louisiana (Alexandria area). My Grandfather (Lee Eugene “Gene” Harwell, who was from Mississippi (not 100% sure of the town), married my Grandmother (Alice Jackson), from Cheneyville, LA. I later in life was able to get great pictures of the church in Harwell, UK through my sister who, because of US military like me, ended up in the UK (and later marrying a Brit) and visited the town and the RAF base. She got some great shots of the cathedral window! Always wanted to get there. Maybe one day! I would love to show my 3 yo daughter her heritage! I am looking to begin researching my actual lineage myself soon, if anyone has any good tips for a “genealogy newbie” please pass them my way!
Liz Roberts says
Dear Randy, dear Amy, are you aware of the US Harwell/Harwell Genealogy group on Facebook? Some of us in Harwell Oxfordshire ard members bc of the link to the US Harwells who ard commemorated in Harwell Church. Read about the history of the church and the ‘Harwell Window” at http://www.hcchurches.org
Lee Eugene Harwell III says
Looked for the group on FB, no luck. Would you happen to have a link? Thanks in advance!