Because the historic heart of the city of Oxford lies at the junction of two rivers, entrances to the city from the west, south and east all involve crossing bridges – bridges which have medieval origins: ‘High’ or ‘Hythe’ Bridge to the west, Folly Bridge to the south, Magdalen Bridge to the east. The old walled city was set back from these bridges. Yet not long after crossing them, the traveller could, for many centuries, expect to encounter some form of gate: thus, the west gate by Castle Street (swept away in the seventeenth century), and the longer-surviving east gate by Long Wall Street. The old south gate was also defunct by the mid seventeenth century, but for a century and more after that, before reaching that point, the traveller had to pass under a castellated gate which spanned the Thames bridge, the original ‘Folly’. Equally, the traveller who approached by land, from the north, had to pass through the north gate to reach the heart of the city – the strongest of the gates, precisely because it no river before it. That gate also housed the city gaol – because why waste a good fortification? (By the same token, the castle housed the county gaol. And, for less clear reasons, in 1726, a site alongside the east gate was made into a workhouse serving several city parishes. Other parishes were served by a workhouse at Gloucester Green).
By the eighteenth century, gated walls no longer plausibly served a defensive purpose (and anyway, the country was at peace). Such gateways as had survived presented impediments to traffic. There was a nation-wide craze for demolishing them, in the context of larger efforts to widen streets, introduce or improve street lighting, and sometimes also street policing in the form of salaried night-watches. When the gates of the City of London were burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, they were rebuilt; the city gaol was rehoused in the new Newgate, and the debtors’ prison in the new Ludgate. But a century later, because different values reigned, the rebuilt gates were demolished – Ludgate in 1760; Newgate in 1767. Prisons were relocated in more healthily airy sites. Similar things happened in many cities. In Bristol, city gates were demolished in 1760; in Norwich, in the early 1790s; in Newcastle, from 1795.
Thus old townscapes were modernised and made fit for a peaceful, commercial and mobile society, a society which (as its leading lights saw it) was ready to shrug off the cramped parochialism of the past in favour of broad vistas, orientation to a wider world and speedy inter-urban transport.
The usual vehicle for local improvement projects was a local act of Parliament: an act which Parliament passed on application from a locality, so long as it conformed to prevailing standards and appeared to have the support of the community at large. Such acts established new local authorities specifically charged to effect the changes, and empowered them to raise the necessary money, by some stated means. Improvement acts did not give the new bodies that they brought into being much discretionary power. Rather, they empowered them to undertake specified tasks, with discretion only over the details of implementation. If it came to be thought locally that there was a case for doing more, one had to go back to Parliament to seek additional powers. The eighteenth-century central executive may not have exercised much directing power over the localities, but the legislative kept them on a tight rein. Nonetheless, these acts did authorise dramatic change to urban landscapes. The steamroller force of Parliament was hitched to the local-improvement waggon.
A history of social uses of the Thames observes that, largely as a result of these legislative initiatives, the late eighteenth century saw ‘a transformation of the Thames crossing network on a scale unparalleled since the thirteenth century’ — a reminder that, though this was an ‘age of improvement’, it was not the only such age.
Eighteenth-century moves to modernise Oxford’s entrances began with the turnpiking of the road between Newland (Witney) and Botley, under an act of 1767, which aimed (among other things) to make the route across the floodplain between Botley and Oxford fit for carriages, not just riders and pedestrians. The passage of the first coach along the new road, in the summer of 1769, was hailed by the local paper. Those who used this road had to pay tolls at a tollhouse around what’s now the station – moved westwards when the station was built; its shape is still preserved in the frontage of what was once called the Old Gatehouse pub (currently ‘The One’). These tolls also shortly funded a new access route from this point directly into the city, sparing the traveller the need to wind his or her way up along Hythe Bridge street and then eastwards through the wharves of Fisher Row, round the southern edge of the castle, and past where the west gate had once stood. Instead, a new road (now called Park End Street) was constructed over a new bridge (‘Pacey’s bridge’), then sliced through the western edge of the castle ditch, up to St Peter in the West (now Bonn square). Red crosses on the map above show where this route was inserted. The last section of this roadway retains the name of ‘New Road’ 260 years later.
Improvements to other entrances quickly followed, courtesy of the ‘Mileways Act’ in 1771. Its name echoed the terminology of an older, Elizabethan act (18 Eliz. c. 20). It addressed itself to ‘Mileways’ not incorporated into any turnpike road. It established a body of commissioners (grandees of the university and city, and a bevy of landed gents, including Spencers, Harcourts and Berties), and other men of substance in the university and city, plus an elected representative from each college and parish. These men were collectively charged with effecting improvements. The way this usually worked was that business was carried forward by those who could be bothered to turn up. The quorum was set at a meagre seven. To finance their proceedings, the commissioners were empowered to levy tolls at whatever points they chose on the roads in question, on people, conveyances, horses, and oxen and cattle driven in for sale, though cattle ‘going to or returning from Pasture or Watering Places’ in the city or St Clements were exempted (one begins to get a sense of the kinds of traffic passing along Oxford’s streets). The new commissioners were also empowered to pave streets, and to raise funds for this purpose from those whose properties fronted the relevant street – though only to a total of six pence per yard per year. It seems that tolls could be used to top up that income. Cleansing and lighting, not only of the main through roads but of all other streets which the commissioners chose to concern themselves with, by contrast fell squarely on local residents ,who were also made responsible for sweeping footpaths in front of their properties every morning except Sundays.
A major object of this act, highlighted in the title, was to improve the approach from the east, over the Cherwell, which, unlike roads to the south, west and north, had not yet been confided to a turnpike trust. The eastern approach mattered especially because it was from this direction that important and sophisticated London visitors might be expected to come. The bridge that carried travellers from this direction over the Cherwell was known to be on its last legs (and in fact part of it collapsed in 1772). According to the act, the old bridge was not just ‘decayed’ but also ‘incommodious’, so that needed bettering too. A bridge of some length was required, since the road crossed the Cherwell at one of its fissiparous points. Building a grand new bridge — to the ambitious designs of the commissioners’ surveyor, John Gwynn – took the best part of a decade. In the meantime, travellers passed over a makeshift bridge to the south. The new bridge’s fine stone balustrade continued to be worked on for some years after the bridge itself came into use.
The act authorised – and the commissioners soon set in train – further improvements to the commodiousness of the eastern approach, by opening up part of what’s now called The Plain, at the price of eliminating part of the church yard of St Clements, and demolishing other local buildings. A major gain (from an improvement point of view) was that the entrance to the road that led towards Henley (and ran past Iffley) was widened. (From the point of view of St Clements residents, some of whose houses were demolished, the balance of advantage was less clear). The trust also took on responsibility for improving and maintaining two miles of road heading in the direction of Iffley. The Plain moved closer to the form in which we know in 1829, when the church was removed. The opening-up process was complicated (as elsewhere), by the need to establish tollgates, to generate funds for the improvements. This seems to have been the only place at which the Mileways (as opposed to turnpike) commissioners levied tolls. Toll gates long straddled the fork in the road where the Victoria fountain now stands.
On the inward side of the bridge, the city side, the commissioners quickly set about removing buildings which narrowed the street, and also took down the old east gate– that was effected as early as 1771. The adjoining workhouse was removed to the northern edge of the city (more on that in a moment).
According to the act, it wasn’t just the eastern access road that needed work, but also the roads that joined it to other access points: that is, the main roads through the city, the ‘through’ element being emphasised (presumably in order to justify using tolls on travellers to pay for much of the work). Again it was the ‘incommodious’ character of these routes that was underlined. More particularly, they were said to be ‘greatly obstructed by Nuisances and Annoyances, as well as by various Encroachments and Projections, as to render [them] inconvenient and dangerous to Travellers’. The act authorised the spending of money raised from such travellers on roads linking the road over Magdalen bridge to the great roads heading south, west and north. These through routes were to ‘be amended, paved, raised, sunk, altered, or repaired’ or if appropriate rerouted.
The intention at other compass points was to carry improvements to the boundary at which already established turnpike trusts took over. Southwards, the commissioners’ jurisdiction ended at Folly Bridge, to which a Hinksey turnpike had been constructed under an act of 1755. It was those turnpike trustees who ordered the taking down of the ‘Folly’ gate on the bridge in 1779, in order to widen the bridge (though, as usual, a toll-house provided a continuing choke point). Otherwise the bridge and its environs were not modernised until the early nineteenth century. The Mileways Act outlined no modernisation scheme for St Aldate’s, which remained a relatively narrow and congested shopping street. The ‘commodiousness’ of modern St Aldate’s is the result of early twentieth-century town planning.
To the west, the object, achieved within a couple of years, was to improve the through route to the New Road, by demolishing the butchers’ shops and shambles which gave Butcher Row (later ‘Queen Street’) its older name.
To the north, more change was envisaged and achieved. The north gate was to be demolished – like the east gate, it fell in 1771. The city prisoners it had housed were temporarily relocated in the castle, alongside county prisoners, then some years later (1789) rehoused in a very different building (in an age of experimental prison design) on Gloucester Green. Other forms of opening up were undertaken too. The top of Cornmarket, the west end of Broad Street and the area around the church of Mary Magdalen were all widened by the removal of houses – and, in the case of Broad Street, also by moving back the south front of Balliol. Beyond St Giles church, the old Mileway had, since 1761-2, been taken under the jurisdiction of the longstanding Stokenchurch turnpike trust, so from that point northwards, the city shared responsibility (it and the university were standardly represented on the boards of all local trusts).
An amending act of 1781 took the modernising exercise further. It provided for the widening of the High Street, and of Turl street (at whose join with Broad st had once stood a small ‘twirl’ gate through the city wall). Turl st was to be improved to the point where carriages could ‘pass commodiously’. Making both approaches to the city and the city itself more hospitable to carriages was clearly one of the imperatives driving change.
As I’ve emphasised, the 1771 Mileways Act aimed to raise much of the needed funding by tolls on travellers, including local people who were perhaps visiting markets, shops or friends, as well as those travelling longer distances, perhaps as tourists. This scheme for outsourcing costs built upon the precedent of the Elizabethan act, which had imposed taxes on property owners around the city, arguing that road improvements would make it easier for them to bring their produce to market. But of course, buyers as well as sellers benefited from that, and the system was controversial in its time and after. This element of the new scheme proved so too. When it came before Parliament, the bill attracted a counter-petition, from ‘several gentlemen, clergy and freeholders’, arguing that ‘the laying a Toll upon Travellers, for the Paving of Streets, the embellishing or ornamenting of any Town, or removing any Annoyances therein, is contrary to the Tenor of all the Laws for Repairing of Highways, repugnant to Justice, appropriates, as it were, a Tax upon Land, for the local Improvement of a rich and opulent Town and University; and, if adopted by the House, may become an intolerable Grievance’. When ten years later, 1781, the term of the act was extended, it was conceded that paving and repair of city streets should no longer be financed from tolls. But the concession related to those costs only. During the early nineteenth century, tolls continued to be drawn upon to finance £20,000-worth of additional street improvements, even though more than enough had already been raised to settle the debt contracted against tolls to fund the original project.
Some local improvement acts among other things established salaried night-watch forces. In Oxford, no such force was instituted until 1826 (when it was established under the jurisdiction of the university – whose leaders wanted to be able to police not only undergraduates out on the town but also the local women, some but not necessarily all of them prostitutes, who consorted with them). Though the Mileways act established no new enforcement personnel, it did prescribe many regulations for existing bodies to enforce. The new bridge and (one would have thought more vulnerable) street lights were protected under penalties. Matriculated persons breaking lamps were to be punished as the statutes of the University directed. (Clearly incidents of this sort were anticipated). Streets were reqiured to be kept clear of encroachments, whether in the form of activities — such as making casks, mixing mortar, shoeing horses or throwing at cocks (a form of sport) – or in the form of objects, including signs, emblems, bow windows, porches and spouts. Bonfires and fireworks were prohibited.
Some of the act’s provisions may interest those who’ve read earlier posts on managing the waters, dumps and gravel pits. Proprietors of waterworks were to make sure that their pipes didn’t burst and damage pavements. Cleaners of streets were to carry away dirt and soil at least twice a week – and no other person was to presume to remove ashes, dirt, dust, dung or manure (presumably because these were all recyclable commodities). Residents could put unwanted substances in the street for collection, but were not to leave them for so long as to annoy neighbours – though building related rubbish or rubble could be left lying around, so long as there was a footway through it. Scavengers who collected dirt, dust, ashes or other filth (there’s a certain random quality to the list in each context) could dump it in vacant public places not intended to be built upon, if they had the commissioners’ approval to use any specific place. Some materials were earmarked for removal, but others had to be imported. Workers appointed by the commissioners were authorised to take sand, gravel, stones, furze and heath, as needed, to make or repair roads. from any waste ground or common, river or brook within three miles of the city, free of charge, so long as they railed or fenced in their quarries or pits, so that they didn’t pose a danger to cattle.
Market-related activities were among those regulated (as in many other such acts), because they were so intimately bound up with traffic and the use of streets. No swine, beast or cattle were to be left to wander, or cattle killed in streets or ways, or animal carcases hung up outside the market. Goods were not to be set out for sale in the street, nor on any ‘Flap-Window’ so as to incommode passage. Carts and drays were not to stand in the principal streets, unless unloading. Sledges and wheelbarrows were not to run on ‘foot pavements’. The holding of markets in the High Street and Butcher Row (Queen’s Street) was condemned as inconvenient, because of the foot and vehicle traffic occasioned. Yet some kind of market was needed, since residents naturally wanted to be able to buy meat and garden stuff. The commissioners were accordingly authorised to establish an off-street market, between the High Street and Jesus College Lane (the Covered Market’s current site). All vending of meat and garden stuff was thenceforth take place there (though fish and poultry could be sold from houses, and later the list of exemptions was extended to include ‘foreign fruit’ – oranges and lemons). The costs of building a new market hall were to be met by borrowing; stallholders’ rents were then to be channelled into paying the debt. John Gwynn – who designed Magdalen Bridge – was also asked to design the new market, but his plan was judged too grandiose, and wasn’t implemented.
‘Improvements’ undertaken under the Mileways Act didn’t exhaust the modernising energies of this generation. The 1770s also saw a variety of other notable public building projects, come to fruition. Planning for the Radcliffe Infirmary – the second (after the Radcliffe Camera) of three building projects funded by the munificent testamentary gift of London physician John Radcliffe — began in 1758. The hospital, sited in what was then open ground to the north of the city, opened for business in 1770, initially it consisted of two wards: male and female. (The function of ‘infirmaries’ was above all, by means of surgery and other simple treatments, to get workers back on their feet).
Two years later, the Radcliffe Trustees embarked on their third and final project, construction of the Radcliffe Observatory. Just a few years before, the professor of astronomy had had to play his part in the famous global observation project mapping the transit of Venus from his room in the tower of the schools quadrangle, now the old Bod. (This was the scientific project in the service of which Captain Cook was sent to Australia). The Observatory was meant to improve on that set up. It was judged by a Danish visitor of 1777 to be ‘the best in Europe’.
The Infirmary (which also served as a site for medical training), and the Observatory between them aimed both to improve Oxford’s position in the world of science, and to add to the splendour of its architectural display.
Meanwhile, just south of the hospital, on what was then called Rats and Mice Hill, later Wellington Square, a grand new workhouse — dubbed, according to current fashion a ‘House of Industry’ — was authorised by another act of 1771. It served eleven of Oxford’s parishes (superseding the two existing workhouses). Gwynn designed this showpiece too.
The rebuilding of Balliol’s south front apart, most college activity in this period was less visible (consisting especially in improvements to halls, libraries and chapels), but the construction of Christ Church’s Canterbury Quad – the part fronting Oriel square – deserves notice alongside other new developments. The quad was intended to house ‘the most privileged undergraduates’.
This torrent of improving activity within the space of a few years — summarised in the labelled map below — is very striking, and must have been disruptive but also exciting to live through.
Changes in access routes into Oxford, and associated building projects, should be viewed within the larger context of changes to land and water transport networks. The turnpike system, which entailed getting investors to put money into road improvements, in the expectation that the debt would be serviced by tolls on users, was developed early in the eighteenth century. The Stokenchurch turnpike, established 1718, providing a route to London that Oxford could access from the south and west, was among the pioneers. The turnpike system ramified through the kingdom during the mid and later eighteenth century. In Oxfordshire, the decade of the 1750s seems to have seen more new trusts established than any other (including the Hinksey turnpike trust), but the 1770s ran that decade a close second; the 1790s also saw a handful of new foundations. But it would be misleading to note only new foundations. Old trusts often extended their reach, and developed better routes between the towns they served. The Stokenchurch trust ultimately extended tentacles closer to the city, then, in 1789, abandoned the old route to London through Shotover (involving a steep upward climb) for a new route – through Wheatley to roughly where the M40 runs today. This sounds again like an adaptation to coach and carriage traffic: those on foot or horseback may have seen virtue in a steep but shorter route, but for coaches and carriages, gentler gradients were better.
Throughout the century, but again increasingly over time, energy and capital were also directed into river improvements, and from the 1760s into canal projects. Parliament considered a bill to effect improveents to navigation on the Thames and Isis and in relation to the Coventry canal (which would ultimately reach Oxford), in the same year that it considered Oxford’s Mileways and new workhouse proposals. Clearly the region – like many others — was at this juncture awash with improvement plans. (The tide of improvement initially flowed faster in the south; later, more in the north).
Parliament’s role as a forum for the discussion of and enabling of such projects is evident. As Paul Langford observed in his 1989 Public Life and the Propertied Englishman (originally a set of Ford lectures), one of the historic roles of Parliament had been to defend the subject’s property (especially in relation to royal tax demands). In the eighteenth century, this role was flipped to important effect, as Parliament retooled itself as an engine for the remodelling of property rights in the service of national improvement, and as the progenitor of a wealth of new investment opportunities.
To echo another of Paul Langford’s phrases, eighteenth-century England was both ‘commercial’ and ‘polite’. Improvement was inspired and powered by economic growth, but it was also inspired and shaped by cultural aspirations. According to the eighteenth-century value-scheme, university towns were only borderline ‘polite’. For they housed multitudes of young unmarried men, many of them aiming at careers in the church, and were therefore vulnerable to being denigrated as ‘monkish’, inward-looking, and more generally out of synch with modern times. Unlike most continental universities, nonetheless, Oxford and Cambridge also catered to a genteel clientele. In the eighteenth century, student numbers dropped, but those students who attended could hope to be better lodged than their precursors, in relatively grand rooms, sometimes even in fashionable new buildings (like Christ Church’s older Peckwater quad as well as its new Canterbury quad).
In modernising the city’s entrances, the city and university symbolically threw open their doors and welcomed polite travellers. Perhaps the most successful tourist guide of the era was the Pocket Companion for Oxford, first published under than name in 1761. It went through roughly a new impression or edition a year until 1816: that is, for more than half a century. About a dozen copies, from different years, can be found in archive.org.
The mode of such guides is routinely upbeat, and the 1764 edition already found nice things to say about Oxford’s main routes. The vista from the High Street was praised (though it was noted that there was debate about whether it would have impressed more if straight). Magdalen bridge, ‘the Grand Entrance from London’, was noted to have been widened in recent years. St Giles, when approached from the city, through the north gate, was said to present a nice prospect ‘Especially to such as love Retirement…It hath much the appearance of a near country village, being well planted with Elms; the Houses (many of which are handsome ones) having for the most part grass-Plots before them, and Gardens or Corn-Fields behind them.’ On St Aldate’s, the ‘magnificent front’ of Christ Church was praised, as well the relatively new town hall (rebuilt on the basis of a gift from a local MP in 1752). To the west, Botley Causeway was reported (without explicit censure) to run across a mix of terra firma and bridges.
In the 1783 edition, praise was lavished on the new improvements in a way that implied the city had reached a previously unattained level of distinction. The view down the High Street was now noted to terminate with Magdalen College (presumably not so visible before) and the ‘beautiful new bridge’. The New General Market was said to exceed ‘any Thing of the Kind, as well in Size as in Use, in the Kingdom’. St Giles was commended as a very spacious street, with something of the country about it (though that theme is no longer developed). It was noted finally that a ‘beautiful new Road’ has been built ‘at no common Expence’ from St Peter le Bailey to Botley, the last stretch of that route, ‘before a very inconvenient narrow Causeway, is now completely finished with four new bridges, and is become as ornamental as it is a useful Key to the West and North-West part of the Kingdom’.
Ornamental and useful! And well-designed for travellers. The planners had hit their mark.
A footnote on the later history of turnpikes. Pat Pond, who has tollhouse keepers in her ancestry, has shed interesting light on how a family might relate to this occupation. It seems that a couple might move from tollhouse to tollhouse, presumably in pursuit of betterment, or possibly just a change of scene. Taking on a tollhouse was a kind of speculative investment: tolls were ‘farmed’, that is rented, and the return will have depended both on local traffic and on the keeper’s diligence. The Smiths (her ancestors), started on this occupation when the husband was clerk to a London farmer of tolls; in the early nineteenth century they took on the Botley tollhouse (children born there from 1812), moved on to run Swinford tollgate, then Shillingford Bridge. Their children grew up in the job, and several went on to undertake it in their own right. Three of the Smith’s sons ran tollgates: at Langley, Herts; at Hackney, Middlesex, then Brownhills, Staffs; and at Furze Hill, near Newbury, Berks. – in the last case, after first running Osney Pound [ie pound lock?]). The last was linked to yet another tollhouse keeper, in that they married two sisters: Joseph Porter was first gatekeeper and road inspector at Reading, then took over the tollhouse at Botley, which thus returned to the Smith family-circle, very broadly defined. Porter, continued in the post until the road was disturnpiked in 1880. It was common in the later nineteenth century for roads to be disturnpiked and thereafter maintained from the rates. The railways undercut takings, and thereby the viability of the turnpike system, and presumably ended this family line of business.
Apart from sources to which I’ve linked in this text, I’ve also used a number of books and other items not freely available on-line. Daniel MacCannell’s Oxford: Mapping the City is both very informative and helped to crystallise my thinking. Arthur J. Engel wrote informatively about ‘The University of Oxford and the Problem of Prostitution’ in Victorian Studies 1979, shedding general light on policing practices along the way. The eighteenth-century volume of the History of the University of Oxford helped me with the history of the Observatory. Howard Colvin’s chapter on architecture in that volume finishes with a useful list of new college and university buildings from the era. Laurence Brockliss’ more reader-friendly, The University of Oxford: a Brief History is good on the social milieu and European comparisons. I turned to the Journal of the House of Commons (available to Bodleian readers through the subscription database UK Parliamentary Papers), for information about the fortunes of Oxford proposals in the House of Commons.
Thanks to Pat Upstone Pond for information about her family, set out in the final note.
This post incorporates [in the form of two reworkings of the 1830 OS map] historical material provided by the Great Britain Historical GIS Project and the University of Portsmouth through their web site A Vision of Britain through Time (http://www.VisionofBritain.org.uk). It’s used under this licence http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ I have edited the map to identify historic entry routes in the first case; ‘improvements’ in the second case.