IN 1873, 16 female farm labourers from West Oxfordshire were thrown in Oxford Prison for protesting against unfair pay.

Within days the incident had sparked national outcry, leading to an intervention from Queen Victoria herself.

More than a century later and 11,000 miles away, a former nurse from New Zealand stumbled on the story while researching her family history.

Three decades on, Beverley McCombs has published her defining work on The Ascott Martyrs.

She told reporter Pete Hughes how she discovered her family story engraved on a village bench in West Oxfordshire.

CHIPPING Norton was a scene of chaos: more than 1,000 people rioted through the streets, throwing stones and smashing street lights.

The heaving crowd centred around the police station where protestors were tearing shingles off the roof and breaking windows.

Inside was the cause of the commotion: 16 women and two babies less than a year old, both crying constantly.

Superintendent Joseph Lakin, who had to somehow get these women through the baying mob to the train station to take them to Oxford Prison, must have been wondering how his quiet town has been transformed into a sea of carnage in a few hours.

Spt Lakin had to wait until 1am for reinforcements to arrive from Oxford.

In the darkness, their carriage driver forced his way through the hundreds still crowded outside the police station and came to a halt.

The officers disembarked and somehow Spt Lakin managed to bundle all 16 women past the throng and into the vacant carriage, which was then immediately turned around and set off on the 20-mile journey back to Oxford.

Four hours later, the exhausted women and their now sleeping babies arrived at Oxford Prison to begin their sentence.

It was a cold, damp morning: the date was May 22, 1873.

More than a century later in 1988, New Zealand sociology graduate Bev McCombs and her husband Peter were holidaying in England.

They walked into a little shop in the village of Ascott-under-Wychwood and struck up a conversation with the woman behind the counter.

Mrs McCombs explained that she was looking for traces of her great-grandparents Eli and Jane Pratley, who had been married in the village.

On hearing the surname, the woman behind the counter asked: "Have you seen the tree on the village green?"

Slightly taken aback, Mr and Mrs McCombs walked across, discovered the tree and, around its base, an octagonal wooden bench.

On the bench were carved the names of 16 women and a dedication to 'The Ascott Martyrs'.

Mrs McCombs had never heard of any of the women, much less the Ascott Martyrs.

However, having recently completed a sociology degree, her curiosity was immediately piqued: who were these women who, decades before suffrage, had earned a permanent memorial in such a public place?

Determined to find out, she dragged her husband to the Oxfordshire local history archives (some holiday this was turning out to be), and asked for all the information they had on the Ascott Martyrs.

After a few minutes hunting, the assistant brought out a huge bundle of letters, charge sheets, newspaper clippings and photographs.

She sat down and began poring over them.

Gradually, the bits of paper revealed how a crowd of 1,000 people had surrounded Chipping Norton Police Station in May 1873 to protest the imprisonment of 16 local farm labourers who were inside.

She had almost forgotten her original family history investigation when she found a charge sheet for the 16 women and on it a name she knew: Elizabeth Pratley.

Before her great grandfather Eli Pratley had married her great grandmother Jane, he had been married to another woman – Elizabeth.

Her name had not been carved on the bench, but there it was in black and white on the charge sheet.

It was now too late to turn back: what had started as a summer holiday with a side-dish of genealogy turned into a mission to bring these forgotten women back to life.

Speaking 28 years on, Mrs McCombs recalled: "The Ascott Martyrs are mentioned in several history books, but they get a paragraph or a page at most: I wanted to tease out these women at the heart of the story and bring them to life.

"Sociology is all about who's who and what's what, and it just felt like these women wanted to me learn their story."

Gradually she pieced together the tale of how these women ended up in Chipping Norton Police Station surrounded by a thousand angry protestors

The story began in May 1873 in the tiny village of Ascott-under-Wychwood.

The biggest farm in the parish at that time, about 500 acres, belonged to landowner Robert Hambidge.

That month, the men on his estate convened their own branch of the recently-formed National Union of Agricultural Workers, and demanded he pay them an extra two shillings each week.

Instead, he fired them.

To fill in for the men, Hambidge hired their wives, but the union paid them nine shillings a week not to work and join the strike instead.

Being the start of summer and in desperate need of labour, Hambidge recruited a couple of 18-year-old lads from the neighbouring village of Ramsden.

The following Monday, May 11, the lads came sauntering down the lane, hoes over their shoulders, to start their days work: perhaps the sun was shining, and probably they were in high spirits – they had managed to get some paid work.

But when they arrived at the field, the gate was blocked: a group of women (estimates vary from 21 to 30) was standing in their way.

These were the women who had dared to go strike for an extra two shillings a week, and among them, Elizabeth Pratley.

Essentially, they stopped the lads from going to work.

The women were perfectly entitled to their strike, but they were not allowed to stop anyone else from doing their job if they wanted to.

Mrs McCombs' research suggests the interaction between the women and the boys was pretty light-hearted – fun, even – what is certain is that they ended up persuading the lads to join their strike.

The new converts went back to the Hambidge house to hand in their hoes.

But when Mr Hambidge discovered his two new recruits striking against him after less than a day's work, he brought charges not against them, but against 16 of the women.

The police were persuaded and, on May 21, Hambidge himself drove the women to a court hearing at Chipping Norton Police Station.

A representative from the union was sat in the courtroom ready to pay the fine should the women be found guilty.

But he never got the chance.

The boys gave their evidence first, and, to the women's dismay, it was totally contrary to their version of events.

The lads painted the incident at the farm gate as aggressive and confrontational and, when the women came to give their evidence, it was not believed: this was 1873 – decades before women, let alone working class women, would be treated as equal citizens.

They were all found guilty.

Seven, regarded as the ringleaders, were sentenced to ten days with hard labour; the other nine got seven days with hard labour.

All 16 were bundled into two small cells to wait for the next train to Oxford, which also happened to be the last train to Oxford that day.

No one is exactly sure where the crowd first came from or how so many people heard about the sentencing so quickly, but within a few hours of the verdict a swarm of angry farm labourers and villagers from across West Oxfordshire had descended on Chipping Norton angry at the outcome and the riot ensued.

The local papers ran the story in their next editions and the London press quickly caught on.

Soon the whole country was talking about the Ascott Martyrs: the issue was raised in the House of Commons – then it reached the ear of Queen Victoria.

Within days it was widely agreed that a miscarriage of justice had taken place.

Someone in the government asked the Queen to give the women a pardon and, unbelievably today, on the very last day of their hard labour word came through that the end of their sentence was to be remitted.

They were cleared of all wrongdoing.

The women and the men went back to their jobs and families, but their impact on the national mood and the labour movement was to reverberate for years to come.

In September that year, Eli and Elizabeth Pratley moved to Canada with their three children to start a new life.

Just six weeks later Elizabeth died of typhus. She was 29.

Eli moved back to England, married Jane Malins and moved the family to start a new life in New Zealand.

More than a hundred years later, his great granddaughter Beverley began researching the family history.

After three decades of work she published her book on The Ascott Martyrs last year. She and Peter visited Oxfordshire one more time in December and handed a copy of the book to the Oxfordshire History Centre in Cowley, so the next time someone comes looking for information about the Ascott Martyrs, they won't have to pore over a massive stack of old newspaper clippings and charge sheets.

Speaking about the book, Mrs McCombs, a mother of four, said: "I was intrigued that every time you try to write something about farm labourers, peoples' interest goes right down: in history, we always hear about the 'important' people – kings and queens.

"But when it's your own family history, you want that to be important to people as well."

In the year 2000, the wooden memorial bench in Ascott was replaced with a new, metal seat: this time the name of Elizabeth Pratley was included with the others.

Buy the book online at