More commodious entrances

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).

Uncommodious entrances, overwritten on the first, 1830s OS map. For the underlying map, see acknowledgement at the end of the post.

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.

Like Bruce’s battle axe, this is Magdalen bridge but…renewed and changed, eg widened in the late nineteenth century to allow trams to run down the centre. Many pictures of the bridge over the years are reproduced here

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.

The Plain, fruit of eighteenth century and later demolitions

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).

Mary Magdalen church, between two (widened) roads

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.

A Turl Street fit for carriages

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.

Market front

‘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.

Site of House of Industry: now Continuing Education

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.

A torrent of improvements, overwritten on the first, 1830s OS map. For the underlying map, see acknowledgement at the end of the post.

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

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 ( It’s used under this licence I have edited the map to identify historic entry routes in the first case; ‘improvements’ in the second case.

Hart’s Sconce

An ephemeral name – a civil war name, of unknown origin. But the only one we have for this bit of ground. (Though now I find that Fred Thacker, in his book The Thames Highway, claims that in older maps it’s called George Island).

It’s the triangle where the Castle Mill Stream debouches into the Osney Mill Stream, aka the Thames. As you approach the river through Oxpens Meadow, you can swerve left into it.

Geese like it. There are goose gang-hangouts on either side of the Castle Mill stream, one tucked beneath a willow. Round here live about the most mixed set of geese I’ve seen. In other places, either Greylags or Canadians usually predominate, but here it just seems to be a mix.

On older maps it shows as a set of islands, or later an island, within a set of watercourses more extensive and complex than we see now: the Osney mill stream was once flanked to the north by streamlets feeding into the Castle Mill stream, lined with trees, and to the south, by the Shire Lake, the county boundary, joining the Thames around where Cobden’s Crescent now is, and then (if one follows the name) looping north, by Shire Lake Close towards Christ Church Meadow. And Folly Island was bigger and surrounded by complex water courses (some of which survive at the southern end of the bridge). So a messy, watery area.

In the Civil War, there was some kind of fortification on the island, and apparently trenches in St Ebbe’s in the grounds of the old Dominican Priory, Blackfriars, later built over and then built over again. These trenches appear on some eighteenth-century maps, though archaeologists have failed to find traces of them.

Later this area became the first of the City’s open air swimming pools, 1846, serving the new suburb of St Ebbes. The stream around the island was partitioned off with weirs to create a smooth stretch of water in between, according to a design still visible in the remains of a similar pool at Tumbling Bay. The pool was closed in 1938, the waterway filled in, and now it’s just a little nook at the bottom of Oxpens Meadow.


Oxford wasn’t an important Roman town (though, as I’m learning from the excellent open access Archaeology of East Oxford, it did have a reasonably significant Roman pottery industry, scattered around the fringes of what’s now East Oxford). The need to be able to defend an urban community in the region came later, in the eighth or ninth century, the VCH tells us, in the face of challenge from the Danes. The route followed by early walls is hypothesised in part from cracks and leanings in later buildings.

Watercourses may have played a part in the defensive system. The VCH suggests that ‘Trill mill stream might have made a major southern defence superfluous.’  Hurst, in his Oxford Topography, suggests that the ditch that ran along the north wall was constructed over a series of existing deep ponds (those along Holywell Street serving as city fishponds), and that the area around the east wall was ‘a kind of morass’.

Trouble with the Danes persisted for several centuries, but they weren’t always exactly an external threat, having settled in St Clements. Danes were massacred in St Frideswide’s in 1002 (spurring a reprisal raid on the city).

Building of the castle (1071) established a strong point to the SW. Troubled times under Stephen must have encouraged the formalisation of defences around a now somewhat larger settlement. ‘In 1142 the town was said to be very strongly defended with deep water on all sides… The late-twelfth-century town seal shows a town surrounded by a stone-built and crenellated wall.’  A great ditch was dug more or less along what’s now Broad St.

Using Oxford History’s excellent guide to these walls to take myself on a walk, I discovered recently that much more wall survives than I had imagined. (That a large strip of wall survives, currently unvisitable, inside New College, reflects the fact that the college took seriously the responsibility, assigned to it on its foundation, to maintain the wall). Gates, which don’t survive, are memorialised in a series of names: Eastgate Hotel, Littlegate Street, the Westgate centre (whose recent radical reconstruction made possible a deep if rapid probe of the area’s archaeology), St Michael’s at the North Gate (the archaeology book Oxford before the University has a quite striking picture of what it might have been like to approach the early medieval north gate on its front cover. Oxford artist John Malchair sketched it from both sides in its final days. Later, that gateway served as the town prison).

Surviving elements of medieval town wall. This uses the 2nd series OS map as a base map:

Mid and late medieval town walls stood back from — so did not make immediate use of — Oxford’s rivers, though no doubt those served as protective assets to the west, south and east. They did however make use of the natural lie of the land – as it fell away from what’s now Christ Church towards the Thames to the south, or from the Castle down to the Castle Mill Stream (an incline now most evident in the New Road).

By the sixteenth century, the protective function of these walls had ceased to be taken seriously. In any case, changed conditions of warfare as well as the fact that the city had expanded required a new approach when the civil war broke out in the 1640s. Fortifications constructed to protect the city’s royalist occupants – discussed on the basis of a contemporary map in an article in Oxoniensia now made extensive use of the rivers.

Fortification lines in thick black, rivers in blue. Yellow square shows approximate space contained by old town walls. Base map from the article in Oxoniensa referenced above, with my highlighting and notes.

As is evident from the map, the main defensive perimeter constructed was to the north, where there were no rivers to afford protection – though a ditch dug across Merton’s land to the Cherwell provided an artificial obstacle. These ‘old fortifications’ — running south of modern South Parks Road — were still marked as such in Isaac Taylor’s map of 1750. More recently, archaeologists have found traces of the ditch along the southern boundary of Mansfield College.

Where rivers ran, to the west, south and east, defences were more episodic. They focussed especially on areas where between the river and the city lay open: towards Osney, by Christ Church Meadow and where the Cherwell loops eastwards (St Catz now lies within that loop). Here there were occasional fortified strongpoints, as on ‘Hart’s Sconce’, the now vanished island on the Thames (at the southern edge of what’s now Oxpens Meadow), and at St Clements. (The Archaeology of East Oxford discusses recently amassed evidence for a countervailing parliamentary rampart having left traces across the slope of South Park). Inasmuch as parliamentary forces clustered especially to the east, up on the hills in Marston and towards Headington, there was a particularly pressing need to focus effort there. Though of course distances were not large and all parts of the city were potentially vulnerable.

Interestingly, the southern stretch of the old city wall that ran between ‘Merton Field’ and Christ Church Meadow, with its bastion, seems to have been adopted as part of the new defensive system. Archaeologists have suggested that this was in fact true of other parts of the old wall too: they suggest that it was refurbished for defence within the larger perimeter.

Over and above the construction of fortifications (not necessarily of a very stout or permanent kind), steps were taken to impede river access by the establishment of ‘booms’. And to the east and south channels were dug to flood the meadows.

Unless the town did anything special to protect itself when the Young Pretender’s highland army marched on Derby in 1745, the next period when armed conflict seemed at all likely to affect the neighbourhood was the Second World War, when preparations were made to fight back – if it came to that — against the advancing front of a Nazi invasion. The Oxford canal from Abingdon (ie presumably, initially the Thames) up to Banbury was chosen to provide a ‘stop line’ , from which resisting British forces could operate. A pillbox to the east of the canal at Wolvercote – up by the A40 – testifies to those preparations. (Churchill supposedly planned to promote the slogan ‘You can always take one with you’).

During the Cold War, Cowley Barracks served for a while as the centre of the UK’s nuclear warning system. But rivers weren’t envisaged as having much of a role to play in that kind of conflict. (Though John Hershey’s account of Hiroshima shows us blistered bomb victims desperate to be given water from the many rivers that flow through that delta city – Hiroshima: wide island).

There are other, now derelict modern military sites in and around Oxford  (including an RAF base near Stanton Harcourt now largely obliterated by gravel extraction).


There are still dinosaurs in Oxford.

But now they’re fossils in the University Museum, along with other once animate life. Many fossils on display haven’t moved far from their lifetime haunts. We find Jurassic sea creatures from Cowley – an ammonite, a pleiosaurus; a giant plesiosaurus from Cumnor; a sea urchin from Bullingdon; a shark’s tooth from Shotover, reminders of the shallow seas that rose and fell through Jurassic eons.

And later land-based creatures: a woolly rhinoceros from the Iffley Road; a bear from Magdalen College Grove (‘275-70 thousand years old’). Together with evidence of human life: a flint tool from Wolvercote. (Flints themselves, we’re told in the museum, in two senses embody past organic life: they’re formed when silica from dead creatures such as sponges gathers in burrows made in chalk by, for example, worms. Flints found in Oxford must have been imported, perhaps from local chalk beds in eg the Chilterns — evidence of mobility in people or goods).

Some were once items in personal collections, including the personal collections of Oxford dons, before the museum was founded. We find nucleolites collected by the geological mapmaker William Smith, from ‘near Oxford’, 1816, and various items from the collections of his nephew, John Phillips, reader in geology, who was also the first keeper of the museum. Their collections weren’t all local in origin: many of these men also fossicked abroad. We’re not always told where their finds originated, probably because it wasn’t always recorded. (There are also quite a large number of items originating from vague ‘British seas’).

And some of these men are themselves memorialised in statues around the central court: alongside high-status luminaries such as Galileo, Kepler and Darwin we find locals such as William Buckland, John Phillips and Sir Joseph Prestwich (they’ve all figured previously in this blog).

And now scientific women with local connections receive a belated ‘shout out’ too, like John Phillips’ sister Anne.

The museum is in effect not just a museum of palaeontology and its sister science geology, but also of the history of these sciences, and key figures (especially key local figures) in the early history of these sciences, and of the history of collecting and museums, and of teaching on the basis of collections.

Geology and the related study of fossils date, in forms that recognisably anticipate the modern sciences, back through the middle of the eighteenth century — from a century before the foundation of the museum. By the middle of the eighteenth century, they were coming to be conceptualised as essentially historical sciences, concerned not just with remains from some ancient time, perhaps before the flood, but with the succession of things through long ages of time. The Cambridge scholar William Whewell, in 1839, glossing the new term recently imported from the French, ‘palaeontology’, explained its fundamental importance for geology: ’in order to learn the history of the revolutions which the earth has undergone, we must seek for general laws of succession in the remains of organic life which it presents’.

The museum in effect picks up the story of the development of these lines of study in the early nineteenth century, early in the lifetimes of its founding generation. At that time, knowledge, and conceptual schemes making sense of that knowledge, increased and developed at unprecedented speed, on the basis of international collaborations, which are themselves memorialised here. A cast made for the university’s first reader in geology, William Buckland. reveals his interest in French discoveries from the very late eighteenth century. Another exhibit records exciting discoveries in the course of mining excavations in Germany.

The museum is in its own right a notable exhibit. An excellent series of videos recounts the circumstances of its foundation, in the 1850s, at the instigation especially of Henry Acland (who’s also previously figured in this blog) and Charles Daubeny (after whom I guess Daubeny Road off the Iffley Road is named). John Holmes, author and presenter of the video, explains that its external decorative scheme reflects its founders’ avowed aim of reconciling religion and science, in the tradition of ‘natural theology’, that is, they said (whether mainly to overcome opposition or not) that they aimed to illuminate God by the study of his work. Above the main doorway, accordingly, an angel holds a Bible in one hand, and a cell preparation in the other. Adam and Eve flank the base of the decorative arch. Building on a contemporary understanding of Gothic architecture as having evolved from the representation of natural forms, the building’s designers seized every opportunity that its construction presented to represent current knowledge of the natural world, for example, forming different pillars out of different (labelled) rocks, so that they could be (and according to the videos, still are) used in teaching.

Interestingly, the scientific luminaries commemorated in sculptures round the central court include James Watt and George Stephenson, best known for their contributions to railway engineering. The decade in which the museum was built also saw the first railway line to extend north-south across Oxford. Locally, this was very novel applied science.

The museum is undergoing a reorganisation, so it’s unclear which parts of its current display scheme will endure, but at the time of my visit, early October 2020, Oxfordshire geology and the fossils enshrined in particular local deposits of earth and stone are introduced in a series of display cases around the north and east perimeters of the central court.

From the city of Oxford itself, fossil remains are mainly Jurassic, legacies of the ‘shallow seas’ period.

The most eye-catching among these are dinosaur (or at least ‘saurian’) remains. In the early nineteenth century, William Buckland showed the French scientist (and pioneering palaeontologist) Georges Cuvier the remains of a monstrous creature, apparently a kind of giant lizard, found a couple of decades before in a slate quarry in Stonesfield, to the west of Woodstock, and subsequently acquired for the university and displayed in the Christ Church anatomy lab. The two scientists agreed to name the creature ‘megalosaurus’ (literally, giant lizard). This is said to have been the world’s first named dinosaur (though the more generic category, ‘dinosaur‘ was not invented until the 1840s — so this was presumably the first named instance within an as yet unnamed category). Interestingly, in relation to the role of women in science, it was Buckland’s wife, Mary, who made the drawings of the megalosaurus which he included in a report to the Geological Society of London.

One of the museum staff told me that, along with unique remains from a dodo (a bird made famous by Lewis Carroll), what’s left of the megalosaurus is the museum item in highest demand. Accordingly, a cast of the jaw is displayed, along with information about the dodo, in a display case near the entrance. More of this creature may be displayed in the central court in the near future.

More immediately striking in terms of what the visitor can see now are pleiosaurus remains: remains of large marine reptiles, including the jaw of a giant pleiosaurus, from the Chawley brickworks near Cumnor, and a complete skeleton from a gravel pit at Yarnton. The first was identified by Joseph Prestwich in the later nineteenth century, and was among a number of finds made at Chawley.

Horace Woodward, Memoirs of Geological Survey of UK. The Jurassic Rocks vol 5 (1895).

A short video evocatively describes the much more recent finding of a complete pleiosaurus skeleton, and how the bones were lugged out of the gravel pit and hauled back to the museum.

Though these finds are of later date, identification and naming of the species came early, hot on the heels of the identification and naming of megalosaurus. In 1824, William Buckland, then newly elected as president of the London Geological Society, presided over an exciting meeting, in which his work on the megalosaurus was discussed alongside work by his fellow cleric WB Conybeare, in Dorset and the southwest, on a marine reptile which he had just named the ‘pleiosaurus’ – near-reptile. Michael A. Taylor, who discusses this meeting in his essay ‘Before the Dinosaur’, reports that just the previous year, 1823, the Anning family of fossil collectors had uncovered the first complete pleiosaurus skeleton (Mary Anning is now the best known of those who carried on that family business — it becomes apparent that women in the field were often involved through male kin. Though in fact, it was also not uncommon for men’s involvement in science to run in families). According to Taylor, the category ‘dinosaur’, even once coined, did not quickly catch on. Dinosaur connotes especially a land animal, and technically means only that, though in common understanding it often includes more. In the nineteenth century, people often spoke generally of ‘saurians’, including such marine reptiles.

A novel feature of early nineteenth century study was not just the identification and naming of particular categories of extinct animal — categories that were then projected backwards on to past finds — but also, attempts to imagine these past creatures as living beings, and even to reconstruct the eco-systems in which they had flourished.

In my ‘Geomorphology’ post, I recalled a scene in the hit TV series ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’, the key to whose appeal was that it reported on dinosaurs in the manner of any other nature programme. I recalled how, at the edge of a shallow Jurassic sea, around what’s now Oxford, a hunting dinosaur was shown as being (to the viewer’s surprise) reframed as prey to an even larger dinosaur which suddenly reared out of the water. I now think that maybe this scene showed our local megalosaurus being hunted by a local pleiosaurus.

Megalosaurus: plates from Phillips, Geology of Oxford and the Valley of the Thames, 1871

I’m indebted to Michael A. Taylor, Before the dinosaur: the historical significance of the fossil marine reptiles, in J.M. Callaway and E.L. Nicholls (eds.) Ancient marine reptiles, 1997.