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Pest houses were first established in England to house and isolate victims of the plague. Their history goes back to at least the 14th century and they were used for travellers and pilgrims as well as for local people, suggesting that some outbreaks of the plague were brought over from Europe (the French word, la peste means, literally, the plague). Over time they were used for other highly infectious diseases such as smallpox.

Deddington’s Pest House

Historical references are rare. The Victoria County History’s pages on Deddington mention it only three times: as being run by the Feoffees: that it stood in the Pest House Fields (27.637 acres): that it was still in use in 1855 but in ruins by 1896. The Reverend Cotton Risley makes three references to smallpox and the building in his Diaries (1835 -1848).  On 23 January, 1837, he records: ‘Heard the small pox was in the cottage of a person named Richard Bliss – his last infant was ill therewith and two other children had it slightly ‘ … called on Irons the relieving officer & told him to report to the Board at Woodstock that the small pox was in this place’. Two and a half weeks later, on 11 March, Risley notes: ‘Exerted myself getting a family named Payne moved to the  pest house, the small pox having appeared in the family’. (Research by Mrs E Heywood adds a footnote to these entries: ‘On 23 March Charles Payne, aged 4, was buried, having died at Deddington Pest House’.) Just over a year later, on 15 April 1838, Risley writes: ‘Mr Davis the Guardian called to say that he understood there was a man about to be brought into the parish with Small pox by boat from Birmingham named Matthews & that they were going to prepare the pest house’. These entries suggest an ongoing low presence of the disease, but nothing of epidemic proportions.

Mary Vane Turner, in her account of Deddington, does not mention the Pest House and H.M. Colvin merely notes that, ‘victims of smallpox were nursed in a building known as the Pest House set aside for this purpose’. Mary Robinson contributed a brief article to the Deddington News (Nov. 1980) and this is the only description that I have found. She describes the building at that time as a ‘dilapidated tin-roofed cow sheda stone cottage, ‘so small that it probably contained little more than a bed and a hearth.  It lies to the north and left of Deddington, off the Banbury Road, at the bottom of the valley just before the turn to Milton’.

So we have no knowledge of how many victims of contagious diseases the Pest House served over the years, who (with the exception of 4 year-old Charles)  they were, who looked after them, the nature of the treatment offered and how many (if any) patients survived. If anyone has access to further documentation, please get in touch.

DCE Minute Book

The Pest House does feature by association in the Minute Book (1906-88) of the Trustees of Deddington Charity Estates. The building itself is in ruins by this time and most of the references over the century concern disputes over non-payment of rent for the surrounding Pest House Fields. In 1920 the Trustees agreed that ‘Mr Callow be allowed the necessary nails’ to mend the Pest House fence and ‘one half the cost of cutting and laying the fence’. In 1939 a Mr Sydney Canning was asked if he would like to take over of the Pest House Fields for the term of the lease. This was an unwise decision as it led to the years of rent arrears and disputes.  The final reference to the Pest House comes in 1984 when Mr W. Fuller reports that ‘the hovel (i.e. Pest House) is very dilapidated’ and suggests that it be demolished, the stone sold and the site cleared. The Trustees agree.
There is talk in Deddington of a large hollow stone, initially from the Pest House, that was filled with water and into which people could throw their coins – an early attempt at decontamination, perhaps at a time of contagion, before the coins went into general circulation?  Again, if anyone knows more details of this story, particularly the date, please get in touch.

Victoria History of the County of Oxford Vol. 11 ed. A. Crossley, London: Institute of Historical Research, 1983.
The Story of Deddington, Mary Vane Turner. First published by Deddington Women’s Institute, 1933. Re-issued and published by the Deddington Map Group for the Deddington and District History Society, 2008.
A History of Deddington Oxfordshire, H.M. Colvin: SPCK, 1963.
Early Victorian Squarson – The Diaries of William Cotton Risley 1835–1848  Selection by Geoffrey Smedley-Stevenson, Banbury Historical Society Volume 29, 2007.

Michael Allbrook and Mrs E. Heywood for Pest House references from Early Victorian Squarson.
Mary Robinson for extract from article in the Deddington News, Nov. 1980.
Leah Calcutt and the current Trustees of The Deddington Charity Estates for the loan of the Minute Book for 1906-88.


Photos by Colin Robinson, line drawing by Ted Robinson

Pest House by Colin RobinsonPest House by Colin Robinson
Pest House by Colin RobinsonPest House by Colin Robinson

Deddington Charity Estates

Notes from the Minutes 1906-1987

The land generally known as Pest House Fields

12 January 1906 James Gardner (tenant) asked for the hedge to be cut and the ditch to be cleared.  This being the boundary between the Pest  House Field and the Allotment Field.
9 June 1909  The walls around the hovel need repair, Mr [T. T.] Bolton paying annual rent of £26.00
9 January 1911 Drainage required in Allotment Field. The Charity to provide the pipes, the tenant to install.
29 July 1915  Mr Jesse Callow rented Pest House Field at £30 per annum. The arable field adjoining was rented by Mr James Gardner at £2/5/- (£2.25p) per acre.
11 January 1915 The Clerk produced the Leases of the land belonging to the Charity duly signed and witnessed.
17 May 1915  Work on Pest House Field awarded to Mr Alfred Hopcraft totalling £9/15/0 (£9.75p).
6 April 1920  Trustees provided rails to repair fence to Mr Callow and paid half the costs of the labour.
8 August 1921  Joseph Canning leased Pest House Field and the Arable Field adjoining at £2/5/- (£2.25p) per acre.
22 January 1923 The rent on the Arable Field to be reduced by 10/- (50p) an acre but the tenant to clean the land.

Mary Robinson

From Deddington News, Vol. 5, No. 3, November 1980

The intrepid traveller might go on foot along the main road towards Adderbury and just before he reaches the Milton turn by the Highways Depot, he might look down into the valley and see in the bottom of the dip what appears to be a dilapidated tin-roofed cow shed. Not so at one time, for this was Deddington’s Pest House, an isolation hospital, no less, for those visited by smallpox.

To judge from its size there can have been few creature comforts here – a bed to die in, a fire in the hearth and nothing more probably. The stone cottage stands on land leased by Mr Sid Canning, who can remember it still in use in the early part of this century for scarlet fever victims.

The Pest House and its surrounding fields are owned and administered by our local Feoffees, or trustees of the Deddington Charity Estates, a body set up in 1612 by Squire Richard Cartwright of Aynho, who generally ran church affairs at that time. Administration of the Estate, which also owned lands to the extent of 43 acres and 21 poles, the Hermitage, Town Hall and Almshouses, was somewhat chequered in the last century, with the result that a new scheme was drawn up in 1856 by the Court of Chancery.

Of the story of the Feoffees, more anon. Our present Feoffees (1980) are Mr Seymour Francis, Mr Charles Fuller, Mr Kenneth Garrett, the Rev. Richard Hannah, Mr Edgar Lines and Mr Robert Stevens.

The pen and ink drawing on this month’s cover (November 1980) is by Ted Robinson and the notes by Mary Robinson, who looks forward to having corrections and additions to this sketchy information.