Dorney History
Dorney History 

The Historical Background of Dorney: Documentary and Place Name Evidence

by Julian Munby


An extract from “Gathering the People, Settling the Land” with grateful thanks to the publishers, the Oxford Archaeological Unit.


The landscape of Eton and Dorney forms a very distinct element of south Buckinghamshire, where a series of gravel ‘islands‘ in the Thames river plain have become discrete settlements, and where the courses of former river channels will have influenced every phase of transformation, and still influence the present landscape. While this area can be studied on its own, and has now been subject to a very searching campaign of archaeological interventions, it must also be placed in a wider context.


Leaving aside the possible connections with the Berkshire south side of the Thames, the Eton/ Dorney area can be seen as the tail end of the ‘Burnham Plateau’ region, a distinct area at the back of the Chilterns with a linear arrangement of historic settlements reaching from the higher gravel terrace to the north down to the river Thames at the south end of the region. The links between the very extensive areas of riverside meadow and the almost limitless areas of woodland pasture in the hills must have been a factor in human settlement and land use in this locality long before it was attested in Domesday Book.


A general survey of the potential for the landscape history of the Dorney/Eton area was undertaken by Dr Jonathan Hunn in 1997, which comprised a search of map and other documentary sources, resulting in a plotting of basic historic landscape elements, and identification of several themes for investigation (1997). Since then, a further search has been undertaken on potential sources in the archives at Dorney Court and Eton College. The key visual sources for the landscape history are the early estate maps of Dorney (1812 – Buckinghamshire Record Office, Ma/63/4T) and Eton (1742 – Eton Archives S1/135), which show local land use and ownership in Dorney, Boveney and Eton. In the wider area the post-medieval extent of commons and greens is clearly depicted on the Ordnance Survey drawing (OSD 153) of 1811, and the one-inch map (Sheet 7) published in 1822. The historic parish boundaries are depicted on first edition 6-inch OS maps (1875–83) along with much topographical detail. The manorial histories given in the Victoria County History reveal links between detached areas, which only gradually acquired separate manorial or parish status.


The regional context 

The grouping of historic parishes in geographical zones is of known relevance for the historic period, when manors and parishes were often coterminous, and the full extent of the parish was exploited. The area includes all the historic parishes coterminous with Dorney and Eton on the north side of the Thames.


These estates, which apart from Burnham and Boveney were single estates in each parish, all had modest amounts of meadow, very significant amounts of woodland, and thriving fisheries (Campbell 1971). They demonstrated a consistent pattern of land use as a series of long parishes extending from the flood plain up to the Chilterns, with woods and commons at the north end, and villages sited at approximately the 45 m contour.


The northern ends of the parishes are all on glacial sands and gravels, with the villages on or near the edge of the gravel (Boyn Hill) terrace. The southern ends of the parishes (together with the parish of Upton-cum-Chalvey) span the lower gravel (Taplow) terrace and the lowest (Flood Plain) terrace. The settlement pattern of this area is less distinct, with numerous hamlets, often with village greens (Burnham Abbey and Cippenham in Burnham; Chalvey Green, Slough and Upton in Chalvey/ Upton; Stoke Green in Stoke and Wexham).


The wide river plain has accommodated two riverside parishes, Dorney and Eton, together with the ‘Liberty’ of Boveney. It is especially notable that Dorney, Boveney and Eton continue the scattered settlement pattern: the last with Eton Wick at the west end of the parish, and Dorney/Boveney with a straggling settlement round its extensive and irregular village green. The riverside settlements also had links to the north: the ‘Liberty’ of Boveney was a chapelry of Burnham, and Dorney retained a long detached portion in Burnham (with its Dorney Wood adjacent to Boveney Wood up at the north end); the manor of Eton comprised areas that later became the separate parishes of Wexham and Hedgerley, with extensive commons and woodlands.


The shape of the hundreds also reflects the linearity of settlements, in as much as this end of the county is divided between Stoke Hundred in the south-east corner, and then the broad strip of land that forms Burnham Hundred, extending up to Chesham and Amersham on the Hertfordshire border. Outside of the area there are further links from low-lying estates to outlying portions of these hundreds in the Chilterns, most of which do not appear separately in Domesday Book and must therefore have been included under the main manor. Thus in Burnham Hundred, Taplow (anomalous as a long and riverside parish), had an outlier in Penn, Burnham originally included the parish of Beaconsfield, and Farnham had an outlier at Seer Green (Chenevix Trench 1973). In Stoke Hundred, as already mentioned, the manor of Eton included Wexham and Hedgerley; Upton had a further outlying portion between Hedgerley and Fulmer; the riverside parishes of Datchet and Wraysbury included the whole of Fulmer and  Langley Marish respectively, while Iver had an outlying portion at Iver Heath. This may suggest that in origin the riverside estates were part of long Chiltern-foot estates, which then became fossilised as late Saxon parishes. There is almost nothing in the early tenurial history to indicate the existence of large estates that were subsequently divided, and the distribution of pre Conquest owners recorded in Domesday Book forms no more of a regular pattern than the diversity of holders in 1086. So it maybe that the apparent confusion of divided estates/parishes with outlying portions does in fact reflect the ancient arrangements with discrete estates having distant grazing rights in the Chilterns. This of course would have been little different from the traditional arrangement of grazing access all-round the Weald in Kent and Sussex, and the means of dividing wood or marsh pasture between adjacent settlements in other parts of England. But it does mean that the long-distance links between the Thames-side and Chilterns cannot be ignored for the medieval period, and may well have been relevant in earlier times.


The local context

Dorney, Boveney and Eton were all influenced by their geographical and geological setting, as a series of low gravel islands, surrounded by alluvium. The former river channels that (elsewhere in the Thames Valley) often disappear altogether, have here survived as hay meadows or pasture; and in contradistinction to what is often found in medieval villages, the commons occur in the centre of the village and the arable fields are marginal, even occurring alongside the River Thames. The whole area is flat, with a recent (Pleistocene) geology of flood-plain gravel and alluvium, overlain with more or less well-drained soils that now have a range of classifications.


The early medieval landscape

Despite the absence of detailed evidence concerning the Saxon landscape, certain elements appear to predate the Norman Conquest. There are no Anglo-  Saxon charters for this area, apart from one for Datchet (Sawyer 1968, no. 1454), and the Domesday evidence, summarised above, is of limited use on its own. However the boundaries of ancient parochial units as shown on mid to late 19th-century maps can be combined with what is known of later manorial and administrative history, so as to distinguish the probable limits of the earliest estates (Young 1979).


The significance of the cartographic evidence is that it records boundary information that is generally of known duration and stability. That is, the ecclesiastical parishes are of some considerable antiquity, dating from at least the 10th/11th centuries and in some cases even earlier. There is now widespread acceptance that the boundaries of ancient parishes were themselves based on pre-existing estate or communal units, which might represent the whole ‘manor’ or single estate, or a ‘vill’ or township consisting of more than one estate.


In this instance, the number of Domesday manors is clear enough, and the main question is the territorial extent of their holdings.


Secondly, it is worth observing the character of the boundaries themselves. In contrast to the other ‘estates’, Eton is the only area that can make a claim to what can be described as a ‘natural territory’. That is, it was defined by the River Thames on its southern and eastern sides, by the combined water courses of the Boveney and Roundmoor Ditches on its western side and by the Chalvey Ditch and Willow Brook on its northern side.


Dorney’s northern boundary continues like Eton’s, skirting the meadows along the Roundmoor Ditch, but a detached portion of the Liberty of Boveney and parts of Burnham lay on the southern edge of the water course. On the north-west the boundary between the southern extremity of Hitcham and the north-western extremity of Dorney exhibits the classic characteristics of artificial imposition, stepping across the furlongs of fields or meadows. On the eastern side, the boundary between Dorney and Lower Boveney was comparatively straight and regular, but maybe an arbitrary line: two thirds of its course crosses Dorney Green while the southernmost third was independent of any upstanding features (excluding trees) and it would seem most probable that this area had been common pasture since far back in antiquity. The south and western boundary of Dorney follows the course of the River Thames with one slight exception. At the north-west corner there was a small portion of the Berkshire parish of Bray that lay on the eastern side of the river. To what extent this represents a shift in the course of the river is difficult to say. One needs to remember that before the middle of the 19th century the Thames (except when it was in flood) rarely provided much of a barrier to movement due to its comparative shallowness.


The Boveney area is an anomaly, being a ‘Liberty’ (or exempt jurisdiction) within the parish of Burnham, one of the long Chiltern-edge parishes already discussed. According to the Victoria County History the parish would appear to have consisted of nine such Liberties (Boveney, Britwell, Brittilthrupp, Burnham, East Burnham, Cippenham, Lent, Weston and Woodland (later Wood). There is only one ‘Liberty’ which may be ascribed a definite area: Boveney was described as having an area of 463.6 acres (187.61 ha) with three detached portions. The largest of these was at Lake End north of Dorney, where the area was some 19.6 acres (7.94 ha); there was a small parcel adjacent on the north side of Roundmoor Ditch (approx. 5 acres) and one other a short distance to the north about 15.6 acres (6.34 ha) on the 1842 tithe map. These last two parcels were not included in the area of Boveney in c 1881. What is also curious is that although Boveney was part of the parish of Burnham, it does not appear to have been included on the Tithe map of 1842. However, the Burnham ‘Liberties’ appear to have been ‘tithings’ in the 14th century according to the court rolls (British Library, MS, Egerton 8326-8327; Bucks RO D 11/3/4). That is to say the subdivisions of the vill that formed the smallest unit of communal policing known as ‘frankpledge’. What is more certain is that Boveney was a separate manor, appearing on its own in Domesday Book and with a continuous recorded descent (VCH 1925). The lack of parochial status for Boveney may well originate in its other Domesday estate, the single hide held by Reinbald the Priest as part of the church of Cookham (in Berkshire). Otherwise the historic churches, possibly of pre-Conquest origin, were to be found at Taplow, Dorney and Eton. That of Dorney was adjacent to the manor house, and the other two within their main respective settlements.


Domesday Book records the names of the late Anglo-Saxon landholders together with a summary of the value and components of their holdings.


Although it is not possible to reconstruct the physical layout of the landscape it is possible to make some comparisons between the different entries. Population figures are not very informative, being essentially the count of manorial tenants, but only one villager is listed for Boveney, with totals of 24 for Taplow, 11 each for Dorney and Hitcham, 37 for Burnham, 26 for Upton and 21 for Eton.


The statistics for arable land are contained in the statement ‘land for so many ploughs’. It has been recently argued that these figures are not an abstract terminology but are, on the whole, a broadly accurate reflection of the arable resources of a particular locality(Higham 1990, 36). This being so then it is also possible to make comparisons between the different estates (Boveney is treated as a single holding). An examination of the figures reveals that Dorney had the lowest area of arable (as measured by the number of ploughs) at 3 ploughlands. By contrast Boveney had 3.5 and in ascending order came Hitcham (6), Eton (8), Upton (10), Burnham (15) and Taplow with 16 ploughlands. What is interesting is that a high number of ploughlands did not necessarily translate into a high valuation. For example, using the 1086 valuations, it would appear that Taplow at 16 ploughlands was valued at £8 in contrast to Hitcham’s 6 ploughlands (£4) and Burnham’s 15 ploughlands (£10). Of course, it would be over-simplistic to assume that different land areas had different value in terms of their soil quality and productivity. Nevertheless, it is possible to compare the bald statistics for the number of villagers given above with the overall value of their associated estate.

With regard to the meadow resources, both Dorney and Burnham each had meadow for 3 ploughs but their combined area was only equal to that of East Burnham (6). Interestingly, Boveney also had meadow for 3 ploughs, which were more than the combined resources of Taplow and Hitcham (at 1 each) and more than either Eton or Upton (2 each).


Of particular interest is the unusual mention of horse pasture at Dorney, especially in the context of the later stud farm at Cippenham (see below). The outlying wood pastures have already been discussed.


One of the surprises of the Domesday data is the apparent lack of water mills from the area.


Only Eton (valued at 20s) and Upton (1 valued at 4s) have mills recorded. Why Taplow, given its proximity to the Thames, should have no mill recorded is particularly surprising.


The later medieval landscape

The evidence for the landscape in the medieval period is derived from a variety of sources most of which are either of late medieval or post-medieval date. It is, therefore, necessary to be cautious in interpreting the data and avoid the temptation of projecting it further back in time than the evidence will support.


Nevertheless, it is clear that many landscape elements are not prone to sudden alterations without some compelling reason to change and are of considerable antiquity. The principal problem remains one of identifying the origin of field systems that have gradually evolved over a considerable period of time.

Meadow land was one of the most valuable types of land use in the medieval period and its availability and distribution was fundamental to the pattern of landholding in the medieval village. This was governed by local topography, both in terms of its drainage pattern, its exposure to flooding, and the character and quality of the soils. Of particular importance in this part of the Thames valley is the aspect of drainage and flooding. It is apparent that those areas adjacent to watercourses (Lake End/ Roundmoor Ditch, Cresswell/Boveney Ditch and the ditch from Amerden Grove to the south) were where the principal meadows were located. It is one of the peculiarities of the local landforms here that the meadows in Taplow, Dorney and Eton run through the open fields along existing or former watercourses. While grazing animals were rigorously excluded from hay meadows prior to harvest, the rough pasture was potentially open all the time, and was generally on lower grade land. As has been previously observed, the scattered nature of settlement has resulted in many small areas of pasture (West Town Common, Lake End Green) in addition to larger areas such as Dorney Green, which was adjacent to (and undivided from) Boveney Green. The arrangement of arable land was probably already well established by the time of Domesday, and it is likely that it then consisted of predominantly large open fields subdivided into furlongs, with manorial tenants having scattered holdings of individual strips, and crops rotated between the fields. A key element of the system was the opening of the fields after harvest for grazing, and the availability not only of allotted shares of meadow, but also grazing in those meadows after the hay harvest. This system is likely to have evolved over time although certain elements (particularly the open fields) would have required a degree of planning in the allocation of strips to members of the community.


Whether they originated as a combination of piecemeal colonisation and shareholding, or as a single act of creation by the lord of the manor, the end result is much the same, and any evidence of origins hard to detect.


Despite the unevenness of the quality of the documents it has been possible to recreate some of the principle elements of the medieval landscape. The information is derived from both medieval and post-medieval sources whose stability through their continued use is probable, rather than absolutely certain. The detail concerning the smaller land parcels is uncertain, but for the majority of the larger fields the information is broadly accurate.


The first observation to make is that all the larger field units would have been subdivided into long strip furlongs (some of which are recorded on later 18th and 19th-century maps). Secondly, that there were at least eight principal manorial holdings in the area (Taplow, Amerden, Huntercombe, Burnham Abbey, Dorney, Cippenham, Eton, Upton) and at least two other lesser manorial holdings (Weston, Boveney). These estates held land predominantly, but not exclusively, within their respective parochial areas. The extent to which some fields were intercommoned by different manors has not been established. However, what is more probable is that individual holdings could become more dispersed among different manors. A relatively late arrival such as Burnham Abbey (founded in 1266) held the majority of its lands in the south of Burnham parish, but also had holdings in the manors of Eton and Dorney. The dower settlement of Lady Margaret de Huntercombe in AD 1368 listed lands held in Burnham, Dorney, Boveney and Eton (PRO C135/ 200/8). Dispersed holdings would have been regulated by the manorial court on whose lands they were situated. This is important to remember when considering the nature of medieval landscape as illustrated.


Although there were some eight ‘manorial holdings’ in the area under consideration, only two (Dorney and Eton) have their principal manorial extents shown (excluding the detached portion of Dorney). Therefore, it is only these two which may be described with any degree of completeness. Both Eton and Dorney possessed large open fields that were denoted by the terms ‘north’ and ‘south’. The manor of Eton would appear to have been organised on a simple two-field system: that is, there would have been an equal distribution of strip holdings between fields and when one of them lay fallow (on alternate years) communal grazing would have been practised (Hall 1982, 19). The picture that emerges for Dorney is not so simple. Although the evidence is relatively late it would appear there were at least four principal arable fields. These were named as North Field, South Field, Thames Field and Upcote/ Oak Stubbe (the last of these could be a late name so its medieval origin is not certain). In addition, there would appear to have been several closes to the north of Dorney church towards Lot’s Mead and along the highway between Burnham and Dorney.


At present we lack the information which would permit a detailed analysis of how the field system would have been regulated by the court leet of Dorney.

It would appear that the landscapes of Taplow and Upton were also arranged on a similar pattern of four or five large open fields operated under some form of biannual rotation. However, this is conjecture and still remains to be demonstrated.

It is not certain how the lands of Boveney were arranged in the medieval period. It is possible that the names Roast or Rose Hill and Mulsharn or Moulsham indicate a two-field system, but this remains to be proved. The demesne lands of Burnham Abbey were scattered among at least six large common fields and were regulated through its own courts (PRO maps MR44–5).


The only other significant medieval landscape feature within the present study area was the enclosure known as ‘Le Parke’, a large irregular enclosure containing a large moated site. This was first mentioned in 1272 and covered an area of some 308 acres (124.5 ha). It formed part of the manor of Cippenham, but by the mid-15th century was no longer mentioned in documentary sources. Originally it was used for the rearing and hunting of deer, but by the mid-14th century it was used as a stud farm by Edward III; meadow grasses were especially important for horse rearing (PRO C132/42 (1); VCH 1925, 174-5; Gladitz 1997, 151).


The post-medieval period and Parliamentary Enclosure

The landscape of the early post-medieval period is unlikely to have altered in any dramatic way, though no doubt subtle changes did take place. Although there was a continual change in the pattern of land holding, this did not necessarily result in change to the landscape. An important influence on the maintenance of field systems depended, to a large extent, on the continuing authority of the manorial courts. This authority would have made it less easy to amalgamate an individual’s holdings without the agreement of the court leet. Nevertheless, enclosure has been studied in the adjacent area of the Chiltern Hills (Roden 1969) where a phase of enclosure of common fields and common wastes between c 1550–1800 by agreement was followed by early19th-century parliamentary enclosure that completed the process.


Eton and Dorney were slightly exceptional in this respect and, like Burnham, were never enclosed by act of parliament. Eton had only a small portion of its landscape un-enclosed by1773. There was an agreement to enclose Pound Green at Dorney in 1790. By the time Dorney was first partially represented by cartographic means in 1808, and by the 1st edition one inch Ordnance Survey in 1811–22, there were no remains of any subdivided open fields. In the parish of Burnham and Upton, enclosure appears to have begun in the early 16th century according to the Inquisitions of depopulation (Eton: Bucks RO Ma R/19; Dorney: NRA 2613 serial no 260 and map Bucks RO Ma/63/2T; Burnham: Leadam 1897).


In the parish of Burnham the subdivided open fields survived for longer into the 19th century but here, as in Dorney and Eton, the enclosure movement had been proceeding on a piecemeal basis for some considerable time (probably over the course of several centuries). In the mid-17th century an area of common waste was enclosed in Taplow, and there were Parliamentary Enclosure Acts for Taplow in 1779; Hitcham in 1778; Farnham Royal in 1821; Stoke Poges in 1810, and Upton in 1808. The proposal to enclose Dorney Common in 1869 was unsuccessful, and it survived to be registered in the 1960 s (Taplow: BL MS, Add 26071; Dorney: NRA 2613 serial no 723; in general, Tate 1978; VCH 1925 and maps in Bucks RO).


The modern landscape

The cartographic link with the landscapes of the past and those of the present are provided by the Enclosure and Tithe Apportionment maps of the late 18th and mid-19th centuries. On these and their supporting documentation were recorded the details of field names, ownership/occupancy, area,  tithable value and sometimes distinguishing topographical features (for example water courses, pits  and old structures). Their usefulness is further enhanced by the first edition large scale (25 inch) Ordnance Survey maps of c 1875–80, which link through to all modern maps. They demonstrate that the landscape was still predominantly rural in composition: all the original medieval settlements still retain a rural aspect, with the exception of Upton whose population had quadrupled by1861 (Reed 1979, 229).


In 1873 the largest landholders were the Grenfell estate of Taplow Manor, the Duke of Sutherland and Westminster, Sir Charles Palmer (1482 acres) and Eton College with its 1007 acres (HMSO 1875). The size of individual farms and the number of labourers employed were recorded on the census returns from the middle of the century. The 20th-century landscape can be followed through modern mapping,  and two detailed sources: the valuations and maps from Lloyd George’s ‘Domesday’ of land ownership of 1909–10 in the PRO (see Short 1989) and the records of the national farm surveys of England and Wales undertaken between 1940–43 (PRO MAF 73/ 3/52–56, and MAF 32.)


Dorney: the immediate landscape

In the absence of detailed manorial records from the late medieval-early modern period, the Dorney map of 1812 is a key source for the local topography. This is ‘A Plan of Boveney lower side, with the lower side of Part of the Parish of Dorney’, and it gives field names and ownership, though the only indication of land use is the names themselves.


The picture of Dorney given in the 1812 map will not necessarily show the extent of medieval settlement, though it is likely to reflect its character.



The most obvious feature of the map is the scattered nature of housing, spreading from near the church and manor house along either side of Dorney Green, and also around Lake End Green. In Boveney there is a smaller concentration on one side of the common.


The majority of the Dorney properties have a regular ‘toft’ surrounding the house, as if they were traditional peasant holdings rather than being encroachments on the edge of the common. This is less certain with the houses at Lake End Green, which have more of the appearance of being latecomers, and possibly encroaching on a larger space. As has been observed, this dispersed settlement type is actually a feature of the local landscape, to be found in most of the adjacent parishes. The corollary of this is that the observed historic pattern may only be the end of a continual process, and it is not unlikely that earlier settlement may have come and gone in other places.


Thus the archaeological evidence for medieval settlement at Lot’s Hole could be seen as settlement spreading along the trackway to the north, and indeed the evidence of Anglo-Saxon activity south of what became Lake End Green could be the precursor of later settlement on the Green here. The field names south of Lake End Green: ‘Pin Ashford’ and ‘Ashford’ are topographical (‘pin’ is likely to be from (animal) pen), but the two ‘Somerton’ names (Great and Little Somertons) south of Lot’s Hole maybe the name of a lost settlement.



The general distribution of fields has already been described, with ‘North Field’ and ‘Thames Field’ (although divided) representing the two main open arable fields. A line of meadows ‘Dorney Mead’, ‘Lower Meadow’ and ‘Calves Leys’ are likely to be the hay meadows, which at one time would have been allotted in strips. In 1812 these fields were largely divided between the tenancies of Perryman, Want and Trumper. This leaves a large number of closes at the north end of Dorney, which do not obviously fit into this pattern (although the 1812 map does include several parcels in Hitcham parish).


They may have formed another field – it was not unusual for a three-field to become a two-field system – or been a separate demesne farm (much of it was held by J Trumper in 1812). Another possibility is that there was a separate hamlet: at Lot’s Hole are a number of small paddocks that could represent earlier farms (their ‘Somertons’ names have been mentioned above), with an ‘Old Field’ immediately to the east, while further north along the track is ‘West Farm Common’ (named after West Town Farm in Burnham) that may imply a former settlement nearby.


It is evident that the watercourses (still in 1812 shown as open ditches) have formed this pattern of land use, but it is notable that at that date the two ditches originated as ponds or springs at their northern extremities, and flowed south towards the Thames, so they were no longer streams linked to the river at both ends.