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Oswestry Heritage Comics II - week 49It was a great pleasure to meet John Pryce-Jones earlier this year – Oswestry’s foremost local historian. He’s the author of a number of books on the history of the town, all of which I’ve used extensively in my research for this series. His clear and precise way of writing, and the way he organises dense historical facts and figures into related themes has influenced the way in which I have written the Oswestry Heritage Comics.

John’s been writing about Oswestry for a long time, and draws both on depth and breadth of experience when it comes to writing about local history. Here he is talking about that process in his own words:

How did you start writing about Oswestry’s history?

I had graduated from Exeter University (where I had studied History) and found myself back in Oswestry at that time without a job.  This was in 1977.  I spent some of my spare time in the library and discovered the wonderful local studies collection, starting with standard works such as Watkin’s Oswestry and Cathrall’s History, and working through the collection of Kelly’s Directories with their lists of shops, tradespeople and pubs, and the miscellany to be found in Bye-Gones.  I drafted a longish piece on Oswestry’s pubs and offered it to the Advertizer and was pleasantly surprised when the editor Dai Lewis published it – and then asked if I had anything else.

Your research has been pretty extensive – has anything surprised you? Anything about Oswestry’s history that really made you say: Wow – I didn’t expect that!

Coming across images of the parish church, and Oswestry Castle, from Tudor times, at the National Library of Wales. 

When I first learned of the prisoners of war who were lodged in Oswestry during the Napoleonic Wars – men from France, but also from the Netherlands, Spain and Poland.  Also finding a large collection of models carved from animal bones by prisoners in Oswestry, on display in a museum in Peterborough. 

And the vivid eye witness accounts of life in Oswestry in Tudor and Stuart times to be found in the records of Star Chamber, including fierce disagreements over the make-up of the local council, between the vicar Nathaniel Tattersall and his parish, and between Edward Lloyd of Llwynymaen and almost everyone he came into contact with.

Is there an aspect of Oswestry’s history that seems neglected or under-appreciated to you? If there is, why do you think it’s been passed over?

I have believed so a long time that Oswestry’s place on the edge of things – on the fringe of Shropshire, over the border from modern Wales – has meant that it is often neglected in works on Shropshire, or on Wales.  Here in Oswestry we know the part we have played in Anglo-Welsh conflicts, in the wool trade and the railways, for instance, and the recent excavations on the Castle Bank are making people appreciate the importance of our castle.  It is puzzling how little is made of our 18th century history, and of the two hundred years between the Civil War and the coming of the railways – plenty of records exist for these years, there are many attractive buildings from this time, and a lot went on in the town at this time – perhaps the reason it’s largely neglected is because there wasn’t a single game changing event or development, instead it was incremental change. 

Any advice for people interested in local history? Any advice for someone keen to do research?

Spend time at Oswestry Library and get to know the resources available in its local collection. 

These days there is much that is available via the internet, including details of records for Oswestry that are held by the National Archives at Kew, the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth and the British Library, as well as our own Town Council Archives, and local library collections.  That said, the records themselves must still be consulted by the traditional method – by visiting libraries and archives, and spending time working through a surprisingly large number of documents – some dating right back to the 13th century.  Don’t limit yourself to what you can find online by a Google search – and question what you find there – there is much that is helpful, but there is much that is not.

Don’t limit yourself to the well-trodden paths – though there are often new angles to explore with the better-known themes.  Take a theme from history generally – one that interests you – and see what can be found out about it at a local level.


The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of the area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
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Yesterday evening I was invited to the celebratory dinner marking the 40th anniversary of the Oswestry & Border History and Archaeology Group. This society came together in the wake of the excavations at Rhyn Park Roman marching camp in 1977. The organisation quickly attracted a large membership of not just those interested in local history – but actual local archaeologists and historians.

So it was with great pleasure yesterday evening that I finally got to meet, in person, none other than John Pryce-Jones himself: the historian of Oswestry. And it was also a pleasure to discover that he not only knew of the comics, but was extremely complimentary about them (including their accuracy!) – praise indeed coming from someone with such a breadth and depth of local knowledge. It was also a pleasure to be introduced to musician and historian Chris Symons, whose book on Sir Henry Walford Davies (Master of the King’s Musick, 1869-1941, and Oswestry’s most famous musical son) I have just purchased. Chris gave a dinner talk on Oswestry’s musical heritage – a theme and approach worthy of the Oswestry Heritage Comics!

An argumentation is, apparently, the collective noun for a group of historians. But despite our different interests in local history, the three of us could not have been in more agreement on three crucial points:

  1. Local history, archaeology and heritage research must be meaningfully interconnected. Too many researchers and groups still use language and approaches which are exclusive, elitist and divisive. It has made the study of the local past seem particularly intimidating, parochial and riven with petty rivalries. This is, to say the least, not helpful – and it does not have to be this way. Bringing together different “branches” of local interest is, in fact, the key to good local heritage scholarship.
  2. Local history, archaeology and heritage can be usefully approached “episodically”, whether as short articles – and John Pryce-Jones did originally in the 1970s and 1980s; or as short talks – as Chris Symons demonstrated that evening; or as comics. This both allows readers to “dip in” and read up on a single subject in appropriate detail at one setting – and allows the writer/speaker/artist to engage on a much larger project in manageable, bite-size chunks. Interestingly, this approach elides well with the Facebook post history of Oswestry emerging via sites like Hidden Oswestry.
  3. Local history, archaeology and heritage isn’t static. It is worth reminding ourselves that the work of canal preservation societies in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, were focusing on the heritage of only a generation or two back. Just as new approaches are needed – new perspectives are also needed.  The study of local history needs to embrace “as history” the 1980s, the 1990s – even the millennium! This history may be more relevant and more interesting to a new generation of local historians, too.

I count it as a privilege to have met both John and Chris. As a result of our meeting, I hope that both of them will feature in upcoming Oswestry Heritage Comics. More importantly, this meeting has given me new confidence in what I have been doing with the comics, and in significant ways validated the underlying approach I have been using. As the Oswestry Heritage Comics move towards their conclusion – and I now begin to engage with academics and students interested in the outcomes of the project – yesterday evening’s Argumentation has given me plenty of food for thought!

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The Walls of Willow Street – Week 32 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Like most mediaeval towns across Britain, Oswestry was protected by its town walls. Few reminders of these walls survive – and the most obvious is one which hides in plain sight.

Oswestry historian John Pryce-Jones, in his excellent book Street-Names of Oswestry, relates how the word “willow” in the name of Willow Street is actually an anglicisation of the Welsh word walia (or, with the soft mutation, gwalia) meaning “wall”. The word itself being a reference to the fact that the road once led up to the gate that originally stood around the junction with Castle Street. Pryce-Jones makes the linguistic connection with “Wyle Cop” in Shrewsbury, the name of which might also refer to the town’s walls.

But there are other possibilities. “Willow” (and, indeed “Wyle”) might be derived from the Welsh word hwylfa, which means “a road leading up a hillside” – a term which could describe Willow Street quite well, particularly as it climbs away from Oswestry up towards the racecourse. The word might also derive from the Welsh word gwylio, meaning “to watch” – referring to the watchmen, or the half-tower that might have once stood flanking the gate (the poet John Ceiriog Hughes favoured this interpretation, incidentally). Pryce-Jones notes too that the process of anglicisation resulted briefly – around the early 1600s – in the name of the district around the street being referred to as “Wool” rather than “Willow”. Pryce-Jones himself, applying a sort of linguistic and antiquarian Occam’s Razor, favours the walia/gwalia interpretation, which I have followed in the comic.

“Willow”, as an English synophone to walia/gwalia, appears fairly early on. Pryce-Jones lists some of the English references to the street from as far back as 1337:

  • Wyliastret (1337)
  • Stryd Wylyw (1530s)
  • Williho Gate (1560)
  • Walliowe Street (1631)

Speak these names out loud and I think you can hear why he favours the walia/gwalia interpretation over gwylio or hwylfa. By as early as 1706, the name finally settles as “Willow Street” – the name we know it as today.

Oswestry’s town walls were finally pulled down following the Civil War – sometime after 1652 or so; certainly before 1660. Short lengths of wall around the gates were left standing; Derrick Pratt suggests interestingly that this was to facilitate the control of trade through tolls and tarriffs (a theme locally that goes back as far as the construction of Offa’s Dyke). However, these surviving portions of wall were also in bad repair, and between 1772 and 1782 these last remnants were torn down. Around Black Gate (near Sainsbury’s) this allowed Salop Road to be widened to allow the passage of carriages and stagecoaches into town from the new toll road (now the A5).

There is a plaque which commemorate the old gates of Oswestry up at the end of Willow Street – and you can follow the line of the old walls around town if you know where to look; there are patterns in new brick by Hermon Chapel, a map which shows the line of the walls at the entrance to the Castle, and a memorial down opposite Booka to the old gate which once stood there. Oswestry’s town walls are gone – but if you know where to look, they are not forgotten.

Oh, and the pun about the financial district I made on Facebook? Oswestry’s “Wall Street”, of course!

John Pryce-Jones “Street-Names of Oswestry” is available (reference only) in the Oswestry Library’s local history collection. If you’re interested in local history, these are great resources. Ask the members of the Oswestry Local & Family History group for help finding this and other books by the same author.

The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of the area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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