Retro: Fascinating tales of Great Oakley

The Spread Eagle pub
The Spread Eagle pub

The village of Great Oakley is featured in a new book charting its history, alongside its bigger neighbour Corby.

With just two miles between the old village of Corby and the centre of Great Oakley, the pair were similar-sized agricultural villages until 1932.

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But, as the new Victoria County History’s acclaimed survey of Northamptonshire demonstrates, the landscape of the area was dramatically altered by the large-scale industrialisation associated with the production of iron and steel following the discovery of rich ironstone deposits.

The latest volume, published by Boydell and Brewer, explains how Great Oakley was inexorably drawn into the expanding new town as it spread southwards, eventually being incorporated firstly into Corby urban district in 1967 and in 1993 into Corby Borough.

The book documents the lesser-known medieval and early modern history of Corby and Great Oakley; it shows how generations of inhabitants utilised the rich natural geology and the abundant woodland to supplement the local agrarian economy.

Great Oakley lies on Harpers Brook, and was mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086.

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Its name “Oakley” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “oak clearing” suggesting that the settlement was formed when woodland clearance took place in the ninth or tenth century.

At the time it was probably part of a large multiple estate comprising several later parishes.

In 1086 there was one manor of Great Oakley held by Launcelin. At that time, there were 21 tenant households on Oakley manor, headed by 19 villani and two slaves, representing a total population of about 100.

A separate manor and parish of Great Oakley was created in the early 12th century, following its division from Newton and Little Oakley.

In 1377 poll tax was paid by 96 adults aged over 14, suggesting there were about 40 to 50 households, though it is unclear to what extent outbreaks of plague had reduced the population from its medieval peak.

During the medieval period the main manor was the seat of various aristocratic families including the de Lyons in the 14th century.

Although it was divided, it was brought back together after 1495 by the Brooke family including the De Capell Brooke baronets, who have owned it since then.

There were 20 burials recorded in 1599, when high food prices and widespread grain shortages resulted from four successive harvest failures, and 13 people were buried in 1621 during another period of dearth.

During the 16th century, records show a unique glimpse into law and order in Great Oakley.

In 1542 Thomas Bull was elected and a jury of 14 tenants were empanelled. Offences included an assault by William Bosworth on Katharine Horsley, who responded with “forbidden words”.

Thomas Arnesby and Henry Bull illegally grazed their horses before the harvest was over, William King erected a pigsty next to the common and other tenants were fined for stealing wood.

A more unusual case involved Margaret Bull, who was fined the considerable sum of £2 for allowing illicit gambling at her house, where men gathered to play cards for money.

The beautiful St Michael’s Church lies in the grounds of the hall. Built of stone in the 13th century, the nave roof is clad in traditional Collyweston stone slate. The church register dates from 1718.

Inside the church there are monuments to the Brooke family and it is thought the oak choir stalls were donated by the Cistercian abbey at Pipewell.

Harpers Brook flows through the village and once formed the boundary to the ancient Rockingham Forest.

There is a well in the village called Monk’s Well which was mentioned in the Domesday Book. It can still be seen, and is situated in the grounds of Bridge Farm in Brooke Road.

Until 1871, Great Oakley had just 200 residents.

In the 18th century the Spread Eagle public house was built on the north side of a double-arched stone bridge over Harper’s Brook, and became a well-known posthouse for travellers and stagecoaches.

Most of the village’s oldest buildings are built in Lincolnshire Limestone.

Many did not survive Great Oakley’s growth during the 20th century but the post office and Home Farm do remain.

A village hall was built in 1921 by Sir Arthur R. de Capell Brooke for the villagers to use for social activities.

Next to the hall is the old vicarage, in the grounds of which there is a large grass mound. Rumour has it that a vicar once had this made so that he could feel nearer to heaven.

The original village hall has now been replaced by a new hall.

Although in recent years extensive new housing has been built on land heading towards Corby, much of Great Oakley remains unchanged. A preservation order exists on all trees and stone houses in the village.

The present lord of the manor is Hugh de Capell Brooke, who lives with his family in Great Oakley Hall.

The limestone house was built in 1555 on the site of an earlier building, and from the 17th century successive generations of the Brooke family made alterations to it. It was last modernised in the 1960s.

At the last census, Great Oakley had a population of 2,248.

VCH Northamptonshire VII: A History of Corby and Great Oakley, edited by Mark Page and Matthew Bristow, is published by Boydell & Brewer.