Laying down my sword and shield

Although I do have some more posts in mind that I could write, I seem to have run out of steam on blog-writing for now, so I think I’ll set it aside for a second time. Having done that in July 2020, I later resumed, so I’ll take it up again in the same way if the mood takes me.

I began this blog as I started coming to terms with the new life forced on us by the pandemic, one year ago, 17 May 2020. I wrote at a Stakhanovite pace for three months, wound it up, added a couple of afterthought posts in August, then resumed more consistently, at a slower pace in October, prompted by my continuing curiosity about some aspects of the story, and by continuing constraints on movement and sociability, which put a premium on motivated local walks. It now totals over 100,000 words.

This second leg of the blog differs somewhat from the first in that it has been less observation-driven and more book-driven: reading has more often prompted the walks, though I’ve always checked out and refined my notions about what I’m talking about on the ground. In that context, I’ve also read and written more about archaeology and medieval history. I’ve profited from contacts in the local history community that I made partly through the blog, and especially as a result of giving an online talk about ‘Blogging the Floodplain’ for the Oxford Preservation Trust in October – thanks to William Whyte for the invitation to do that. Thanks especially to Stephanie Jenkins for her generosity in answering questions and sharing things she thinks might interest me.

It’s always great accidentally to encounter moving spirits on walks.

Pointing the way: Stephanie Jenkins, keeper of the Oxford History website; Judith Webb, freelance ecologist

Thanks equally to all those who’ve taken an interest in the blog, which routinely attracts a dozen or so visitors a day, and sometimes more (especially if I write and publicise new posts). Readers have mostly come from the UK but also more widely. The map below sets out WordPress’ current report on my ‘All Time’ stats: over 14,000 ‘visits’, distributed over much of the map. (Of course you only need one reader each from Canada and Russia to sweep up large stretches of the globe). The blog currently turns up high enough on searches for much routine traffic to come via searches. The Guardian did its bit to arouse interest by printing my account of the Castle Mill Stream walk as one of its ‘riverside walks’, which it has then proceeded to disseminate on through endless travel outlets. Thanks to my cousin Katy Parnell for suggesting I send it in.

Thanks finally to all those who’ve taken an interest in the project and accompanied me on walks. I’ll probably forget one or more people, but they include in this second period Glenn Black (to whom thanks for information and ultimately a tour of the area around the Redbridge Stream), Sue Clark, Chris Crocker, Andrew Edwards, Robert Evans (to whom thanks for the introduction to Sunningwell) Liz Frazer (to whom thanks for the introduction to marshy Marston), Judith Herrin, Andrew Kahn, Tony Morris (to whom thanks for the introduction to the Devil’s Quoits), Rebecca Nestor, Juan Neves, Katherine Paugh, Mark Philp, Robert Quick, John Robertson, Jan Royall, Lucie Ryzova (for whom thanks for the introduction to the Tree Lane route to old Cowley), Hamish Scott, Benjamin Thompson & Nancy-Jane Rucker. I also enjoyed having lunch with Graham Harding and wish him well with his proposed book on Port Meadow. In my experience, while lockdown has stifled some kinds of sociability, it’s promoted other kinds.

Place names and topography

Many place names have topographical elements. They provide a kind of verbal map of the landscape.

Since, until the last century or so, (and to some extent even now), the nature of the landscape has mostly determined what places were settled, settlement names often include within themselves a clue to their own rationale — as Margaret Gelling notes in the introduction to her Place Names of Oxfordshire. This doesn’t always work equally well: Oxford is situated where it is because it sits on river gravels, nicely defended on two sides by rivers, not just because the river could be forded here (the Thames, once full of shallows, could be forded in many places). Sandford provides a better example: Sandford’s rationale was that it was one among other places where the Thames could be forded.

Wikipedia provides a convenient list of generic forms in place names, Though note that different interpreters offer slightly varying interpretations of these forms.

Place names with water-related elements (

Some names are quite river-specific. One example is –hythe, landing place. Oxford-area examples are

Hythe Bridge (and its street), across the Castle Mill Stream;

And Bablock Hythe – south of Eynsham, where there was once a ferry over the Thames as it headed north to Wytham; a crossing point for those who wanted to follow the route to Oxford over the hills by Cumnor.

In a chapter on ‘Place name evidence for water transport in early medieval England’, Ann Cole also instances Eaton, from ea-tun, settlement by the river. Since there are only a few dozen such across the country, she suggests this means not any old river settlement, but one with some special function, perhaps to keep upper reaches of a river or its tributaries open to navigation, or to maintain fords or later bridges.

The Oxford provides several examples of this relatively uncommon name element.

Eaton by Bablock Hythe.

Wood Eaton and Water Eaton, of which Anne Cole notes that they ‘are situated on opposite banks of the Cherwell just below the confluence with the River Ray at Islip, itself the crossing place of an old route between London and Worcester’.:

John Blair in the same volume finds it suggestive that they were shortly down river from Islip, where there was a mill and mill dam,  and other ea-tun places were similarly located; he suggests this is evidence for such structures having effects on the river bed and banks

-ey, or island/gravel bank is also an element in several Oxford riverine place names

So Binsey, Hinksey, Osney..  (Echoed in the waterland around Cambridge: Ely .And see also Athelney, where King Alfred hid from the Danes).

Then there are the fords of course, more ambiguously located, since the name may come to attach  to the  place reached by the ford:

Oxford (where the eponymous ford was is uncertain – perhaps by Folly Bridge , where the ‘grand pont’  was later constructed, or alternatively by Hinksey, subject of the earliest locatable such reference, and where the river had a nice firm base. It’s been suggested that there may have been changes over time in what ford people had in mind).

Also Heyford Hill (now perhaps best known  as the site of a Sainbury’s. Apparently originally a ford to an ait in the river near Kennington; the name was then taken by a house and a lane, and more recently other features in the neighbourhood)-


There is marshland too: Mars(h)ton rests on a gravel base but with marshy surrounds.

-mor is said also to have meant marshy ground running alongside rivers. So Littlemore, little marsh (by the Littlemore brook), Peasmoor (Piece and brook), Farmoor.

And the occasional spring-related place: Sunningwell.

Place names with clearing or pasture, farm and hill elements (

It doesn’t seem inevitable – and the pattern isn’t invariable – but round about Oxford, –leys, that is clearings, or wood pasture, tend to be in and around the floodplain, though slightly raised above it.

Botley, Cripley, Cowley, Iffley. Blackbird Leys.  (But not Rewley, which is Loco Regali, a royal place)

For a counter example, see Beckley. Perhaps it’s just that around Oxford, lots of pasture land was by rivers. 

And see also mead, as in Sunnymead – otherwise preserved more in field or open-space names.

Whereas on higher ground we find –tons or –hams: homesteads, farms or enclosures, though in some cases the -tons are thought to be corruptions of something else, like -dun, meaning hill – which would explain why they’re concentrated on higher ground

Marston, Barton, Kennington. Wootton. Walton manor  – which gave its name to Walton st.

(Also Stanton St John, Yarnton, Cassington)

Headington – suggested to be a corrupted -dun.

Norham manor – gave its name to Norham Gardens. Wytham.

For an instance in which an elevated -ley is higher than the nearby -ton, see Bagley Wood behind Kennington – though Kennington is also elevated, at a point along the Thames  where the limestone surrounds close in.

Risinghurst is elevated woodland. Shotover is suggested to mean steep slope.

To say nothing of the more obvious ‘hills’: Forest Hill (attested from the eleventh century), Boar’s Hill; Sandhills.

Up at the northern end of Port Meadow (port as in portreeve, alderman – nothing to do with a maritime port) we find the locally more anomalous –

Godstow. Stow is place of assembly, possibly holy, according to Wikipedia. Godstow sounds pretty holy.

Cote, as in Wolvercote, is a cottage.

Then there’s Cutteslowe, where Cut(?) lies buried.

Wolvercote seenn from Port Meadow

Wicks are outlying settlements or dairy houses. Around Oxford we have Butterwyke Place off Thames St, East Wyke farm (now part of Oxford Spires Hotel) and associated ditch, and Wick Farm above Barton.

Most such elements in England derive from Old English. The Saxon invaders not only occupied but named the landscape. In the north east, some Old Norse is mixed in, but not around Oxford. Celtic survivals in local place names are rare, but Kidlington – Cydela’s -ton — provides one instance.

A website under development at the University of Nottingham provides county maps – including one for Oxfordshire   – which identify place names according to their language of origin.

Non-topographical elements in such names are often interpreted as the names of early settler leaders.  Thus (conjecturally) Osa’s -ey (Osney); Bina’s -ey (Binsey); Cufa’s-ley (Cowley); Hedena’s dun (Headington). -ing names may be early Saxon names, the -ing element relating to a band: thus Sunningwell, the well (spring) of Sunna’s ing.

Otherwise name elements often relate to other natural features or functions, thus Walton, farm by the city wall, or possibly by the well or spring; Barton, part of a farm with a grange where grain (bar) was stored; Stanton, farm on stony ground.

Antiquaries were showing interest in what place names might reveal about the history of English places by the sixteenth century, when speculations along these lines figure in Camden’s Britannia. Places with -chester/-cester/-caster elements provided an easy way in, being suggestively Latinate: therefore names of Roman forts or settlements (like, locally, Dorchester). Many early speculations haven’t stood up to subsequent scrutiny.

One challenge is the corruption of names. The form in which we know a name may not perfectly reflect ancient usage (thus Headington being corrupted from early forms that seem to derive rather from Hedena’s dun, to give an example already cited). It’s necessary therefore to check guesses by referring to ancient documents, the most ancient usable for this purpose often being charters. Historical studies of charters, insofar as they yield name evidence, provide a basis for more informed speculation. Scholars have revealed thus that the older form of Bullingdon is Bulseden – dene meaning narrow valley. Moor can be a corruption of mere, or pond. Thus it’s not clear whether Peasmoor Piece originates from its marsh/moor state or from it’s having a mere, pond.

Blackbird Leys was recorded in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as Blackford Leys – so that’s a name with two topographical elements.

Frozen pond/meer at Peasmoor/ ?meer Piece

In the later nineteenth century, with the development of more technically rigorous medieval history, this line of enquiry was more systematically and discriminatingly pursued. In the early twentieth century, a professor of the English language, Alan Mawer, teamed up with medieval historians James Tait and Frank Stenton to establish the English Place Name Society, which set out to survey river, village and town names, and to publish toponymical gazetteers on a county basis. (Now accessible also in a digital version).

Aggregated evidence was also used to ground other insights: into historic patterns of settlement, Anglo-Saxon dialect boundaries, and the like.

These volumes also probe the etymology of river names.

In Oxford, Thames is a rare Roman survival, from Thamesis (not surprising in a river, though: ‘Compared to most other toponyms, hydronyms are very conservative linguistically, and people who move to an area often retain the existing name of a body of water…The names of large rivers are even more conservative than the local names of small streams.’) Already by the fourteenth century the false notion had developed that this was a compound of two elements: Thame and Isis. Hence the designation of the upper river, around Oxford, as ‘the Isis’, that survived in general use into the early twentieth century, but now chiefly in a rowing connection.

At Henley bridge, two faces carved by the eighteenth-century sculptor Anne Seymour Damer depict Thame and Isis, as man and woman.

19th century reproduction from Mary Craven, Famous beauties of two reigns (1906); engraving of reliefs by Anne Damer, Public Domain,

The Place Name volumes don’t dig much below the level of the parish or manor: the compilers were primarily interested in administrative units. Some attempt was made to survey field names, but it was noted that much more could be done on them from modern records.

In fact, much subsequent work has been carried out on more localized place names, including field and associated names as they appear on more recent (early modern to nineteenth-century) estate or enclosure maps. In Oxford, the ArchEOx project team has published separately and in their general report several studies of east Oxford field names, including studies of Cowley, Iffley and Rose Hill and Headington.

There has equally been much work on street names — I’ve instanced many to illustrate lines of enquiry in this blog.

And name studies continue to find new applications. Anne Cole, in the chapter mentioned above, used place name evidence to try to build up a picture of activity on medieval rivers.

And now a Leverhulme-Trust-funded project, ‘Flood and flow‘, involving the universities of Leicester, Nottingham, Southampton, and Wales, proposes to use place name evidence to provide a context for understanding flooding. As they explain on the project website ‘Place-names (particularly those that are over a thousand years old) might feel a strange place to start to look for answers and solutions to modern flooding. But place-names were originally designed to say something about the places they were attached to; and very often what place-namers chose to describe was the local environment. These names, many familiar to us but which we rarely stop to think about, are one of the most valuable records we have when it comes to mapping the presence, characteristics and behaviour of water in the landscape. We are interested in exploring the value of these names for our own times. .. Can we learn from the information they contain? What warnings do they hold for us in terms of where we might build? Might they be useful in guiding where we might restore wetlands or replant woodland in order to Slow the Flow? It is these aspects of place-names that we want to explore..’ The great name-giving age, they suggest, potentially has much to teach us, because ‘The period 700-1000AD was the last major episode on record of rapid global warming before the present day.’

The site includes a list of water-related name elements. It’s suggested that ‘The spectacularly rich water vocabulary that particularly speakers of Old English (the Anglo-Saxons to you and me) had at their disposal, really reveals them to have been not just acute observers of their surroundings but masters of it, possessing the kind of profound knowledge of their environment which today should be much envied.’

Oxfordshire specifically hasn’t at this moment — Feb 2021 – been studied in the context of this project, but several regional, river-catchment-focussed studies are in progress.

Anne Cole’s chapter can be found in John Blair ed, Waterways and canal-building in medieval England (2014)

Thanks to Roey Sweet and Benjamin Thompson for discussing the history of place-name studies with me.

Groundwater: meanings

People manipulate the natural phenomenon, groundwater — a phase in the water-cycle — for various practical purposes. They also endow it with meanings. Meanings have changed over time, if through longer and more subtle processes than might have been supposed. In relation to springs and wells, themes of magic or miracle, health and good works recur, in changing guises. In relation to the logic of the phenomenon, providential themes endure, again in changing forms, through the nineteenth century. In later centuries, this theme co-existed with scientific forms of analysis and explanation. During recent decades, it’s repeatedly been said that understanding has just been revolutionised, but one might equally be struck by the long, slow evolution of evaluative tools and explanatory frameworks.

Holy wells

In his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells, Charles Hope listed and mapped ‘ancient and holy wells’, in Oxford among other places – stretching the ‘holy well’ category by blurring it with ‘ancient’. Of course, all kinds of wells can be credited with some loosely ‘holy’ characteristics. All springs can be seen as manifestations of God’s providence. Their appearance may be deemed miraculous. Insofar as it’s important that water sources should be pure, there’s reason to seek religious protection for them: the well is protected by its holiness. Varying mineral content gives a different character and taste to different waters, and some have gained a reputation as healing wells – an idea preserved in later ‘spas’ (deriving their generic name from Spa in present-day Belgium). The ‘wishing well’ idea perpetuates to this day the notion that wells and other water features possess quasi-magical properties. So there’s a cluster of possible associations, blurring the boundary between the holy and the workaday.

But some wells have stronger and clearer holy resonances than others.  Four Oxford wells stand out from the sources as sites of veneration.  St Edmund’s well; St Margaret’s well (also associated with St Frideswide); Stockwell by St Bartholomew’s hospital, and Holywell.

Sites of holy wells, plotted on 2nd series OS map, 1887-1914 (

Among these, two – St Edmund’s and St Margaret’s – were associated with specific religious narratives, and were in their day places of pilgrimage.

St Edmund’s well bubbled up in the parish of St Clements (probably now in the grounds of Magdalen College School, or possibly St Hilda’s). The VCH tells us that Edmund Rich, later archbishop of Canterbury, had a vision of the Christ child there when he was a student at Oxford. The spring began to be venerated shortly after his canonization (1246). (St Edmund Hall takes its name from the same saint, who’s supposed to have lived and taught on its site).

The well supposedly attracted hordes of pilgrims, such that one function of the hospital whose site Magdalen later acquired was to house such visitors (along with visitors to St Frideswide’s, later subsumed by Christ Church). Its water was reputed to cure wounds and sickness, but it attracted official church condemnation as superstitious at the end of the thirteenth century.

Nonetheless it continued to attract visitors until the early seventeenth century. Anthony a Wood (who offered an alternative account of its origins, linking it with the student days of Pope Innocent IV) thought that it lost its last shreds of popularity only when Milham bridge — which spanned the Cherwell between Christ Church meadows and St Clements, presenting foot passengers with an alternative to Magdalen bridge, and much used by ‘country people’ — was knocked down ‘by the violence of the ice’ in the great frost of 1634, such that the well ceased to stand beside a thoroughfare. This account, though, suggests that popular interest in it was by this point fairly casual.

St Margaret’s Well, a few miles up the Thames, at Binsey — still extant — was also an object of pilgrimage.

Legend had it that St Frideswide caused it to be opened up, when she prayed to St Margaret of Antioch to cure the blindness that had struck an unwelcome suitor pursuing her.  According to a Wood ‘To this Well and her Image, and Reliques in the Chapel, did the People come on Pilgrimage with as great Devotion to ease their burthened Souls, and obtain an Answer of their Doubts as they would to an Oracle. And here also, when the maimed or unsound had been cured by bathing in, or drinking of this Water, they hung up their Crutches as a special Memorandum of their Cure, for which Reason several Priests inhabited here, appointed by the Prior of St Frid[eswide] to confess and absolve them’. He claimed that pilgrim traffic from Eynsham across the hills to the west was heavy enough to support a flourishing hamlet at Sackworth, well furnished with inns, though subsequently decayed to rubble. A ‘little house of stone’ was set up around the well to preserve it from the throng. But this was taken down in the 1630s, possibly (the historian Alex Walsham has recently suggested) in the context of reviving religious tensions, which led some to fear that the achievements of the Reformation were in jeopardy.

Well of St Margaret at Binsey — Lewis Carroll’s ‘Treacle’ ie healing well

Well ceremonies associated with St Bartholomew’s chapel had a different trajectory – finding a new lease of life after the Reformation. St Bartholomew’s hospital (originally for lepers, later for the poor) stood on a little elevation athwart the watery slopes beneath Headington, near Cowley Marsh. According to a Wood’s Antiquities, it housed an image of St Bartholomew, besides which ‘many other Trinkets in the Chapel drew the Adoration of the People. In King Ed. IIId’s Time was here, St Edmund the Confessor’s Comb, St. Bartholomew’s Skin, the Bones of St. Stephen, and one of the Ribs of St Andrew the Apostle’. They ‘were on high Days indulged to view; and happy was he that could come near either to touch or kiss them. –Pilgrims came from afar to be cured by the Reliques,– Such as were troubled with continual Head-Achs, by combing their Heads with St. Edmund’s Comb, received Cure; such as had a Weakness of the Joints, by handling and applying these Bones to the Places affected, were restored to their pristine Strength; with many other like Accounts. …’  In order to attract visitors, and gifts for the lepers, Oriel – which had acquired the chapel and hospital — secured a grant of indulgences, but later in the century moved the relics to St Mary’s, to attract ‘a greater Conflux of People, than a retired and obscure Place.’  

‘Retired and obscure St Bartholomew’s, in Covid times

Still, the chapel remained a site of seasonal festivity: Cooks from Oxford flocked here, bringing in on Whitsun week the Fly. The Boys on May-Day the First-fruits of Flora, with their Lord and Lady’s Garland, Fifes, Flutes and Drums, to acknowledge with Dancing and Musick, and salute this gladsome Occasion.  And this Injunction and Custom was with great Earnestness and Zeal kept up by the Oxonians and the adjacent Country-Men, till the Reformation of Religion. When Q Elizabeth’s Act against Images &c. appeared, this Idol was pulled down.– Whence this Custom for a while slept, and the Alms-Folk by Degrees reduced to Poverty, and became the Objects of Compassion. …’

Yet, it seems not very long after, ‘the worthy Fellows of New College principally amongst others’, revived their former Ascension Day devotions’ (Ascension Day because Magdalen College Men and the Rabble of the Town came on May-Day). These involved fellows and their choir singing at the chapel, and (according to Hurst’s base text, Leonard Hutten) ‘haveing made their Oblations, and sung Anthems for a space, [concluding] this wholl Ceremonie and their Visitation with a passing along through the Grove to the Well, and doeing the like observance there.’ The well in question seems to have borne the name of Stockwell, like that by Hythe bridge (and suggesting mundane functions). The observance apparently came under some critical pressure, because whereas the choir originally ‘like the ancient Druids, echoed and warbled out from the shady Arbours harmonious Melody, consisting of several Parts, then most in Fashion.– [and on some later occasions] ‘sung an Oriana, or else one of Mr. J. Welby’s Songs of 5 Parts, beginning thus, “Hard by a Chrystal Fountain, &c.”, they subsequently reformed their ways and ‘sang only the Collect of the Day of  divers Parts; which done, they go up to the Grove’ – presumably by this means aiming to avoid any imputation of pagan or Popish well worship. In vain if so, because,‘the Presbyterian Times totally abolished it.’

In 2009 and 2013, New College briefly revived the custom. The then-choirmaster wrote an account of what transpired: ‘We … sang a short office in the exquisite chapel (with the East window bursting with morning light), and made our procession to the Well, at the top of the Oriel playing field. We were looking rather for a Spring, and in the wet season you could indeed find some water seeping out of the ground, if not bubbling. Little sign of it however on our bright if blowy Ascension Day morning. Unperturbed, we sang ‘Now is the month of maying’, a jollier number than Morley’s calculated ‘Hard by the crystal fountain’. The procession was led by pipe and fiddle, and we strewed the route with flowers as tradition demanded. Plenty of curious onlookers turned out to witness this spectacle: curious and genial’,

This was an assertion of the spirit of the place, intended to encourage respect for it (and to discourage encroachments).

In the case of Holywell, I have found neither reports of pilgrim hordes descending, nor of special ceremonies, though by report it did attract visitors. Indeed is said by Hearne to have brought ‘a vast amount of money to the place’ (what place?) No particular saint or story seems to have been associated with this well — or wells (for there was more than one in the Holywell neighbourhood).

Indeed, candidates jostle for the status of ‘the holy well’. One was incorporated under the altar of the manor house (perhaps when that was occupied, as Merton’s lessees, by the Catholic Napier family, champions of the old faith?). This well was rediscovered in 1897; a ‘tubular well stone’ found at that time was said to be Anglo Saxon work. Another adjoining on the exterior of the building apparently once served as a cold bath – perhaps this is the one reported to me to be still visible in the Praefectus’s garden. Another, called Jenny Newton’s well, lay or lies further to the east, and yet another beyond the bridge that now leads to St Catherine’s (called Napper or Napier’s bridge). Is St Catherine’s water feature fed by a holy well?    

According to a Wood or his continuator, whichever the holy well was, it was deemed ‘holy’ because reputed so; because its waters were often employed for holy uses, and because ‘certain Holy Men and Hermits’ chose to live in this ‘shady and arboreous place’. ‘About the year 1488, Dr Fitzjames, Warden of Merton, built a fair House over it of Stone, with a roof to it of Free-Stone, to receive the Prayers of People; a Token of which Bounty remains over the door of it at this Time, being a Dolphin neant, carved on a Shield, the Arms of this worthy Doctor.’ So not the one then under the altar, but one of the others.

During the seventeenth century, according to professor of chemistry and curator of the Ashmolean Robert Plot, it continued to be resorted to by people with bad eyes, which it was reputed to help. Again which of the wells exactly is in question is unclear.

Physic wells

Holy wells were often associated with miraculous cures. Belief in the curative properties of some springs or wells survived the Reformation, now being reframed in scientific terms. Indeed, interest in healing springs and associated ‘bathes’ or ‘spas’ took an upturn from the later sixteenth century, to peak (at least in England) in the eighteenth century. Having shrugged off one now-negative set of associations, springs became available for other kinds of appropriation. Their promoters often included local doctors who perhaps hoped to profit from attracting custom.

Springs were understood to acquire distinctive characteristics because of minerals in the rocks through which they passed. In the seventeenth century, the theme attracted the attention of chemists, who experimented to determine what was different about different waters, and speculated about how springs were generated and how precisely they acquired their different characters.  It’s perhaps not surprising that Robert Plot, the Ashmolean curator, who was not only generally curious about the properties of things but also specifically a professor of chemistry, interested himself in this debate (of which more in a moment) and, in his Natural History of Oxfordshire, drew attention to the reported healing qualities of Oxford’s holy well.

Crowell (outside the east wall of the old city, where Holywell st means Longwall st) is also reputed to have cured bad eyes.

The same was said of Child’s well — possibly adjoining Castle Mill Stream, though another Child’s well has given its name to the Chilswell valley on the slope above South Hinksey, and BBOWT believes that that was once thought to heal sick children and to have been honoured by Good Friday picnics – another tradition recently revived. It’s not always clear which traditions have been garbled or enlarged in the telling.

Of the Physic well further north along that range of hills, near Cumnor, south of Farmoor reservoir, Anthony a Wood wrote in June 1667: “This month about the middle, the well at Comnore in the high way going downe to Bablackhith was discovered and frequented. It will never be famous because there is not water to supply a multitude. Much resorted to by scholars; the water brought to Oxford.”   In 1806 it was said to be ‘long disused’ (Lysons, ‘Magna Britannia: Berkshire’). Henry Taunt photographed the well, noting of it “’In the Long Leys, on the way down to Bablock Hythe is what is called “Physic” Well which in 1674 [not clear why he picked on that year] was also much frequented by scholars of Oxford in search of a pick-me-up (it was reputed to have healing powers). It was here that the great cowslip grew that had three hundred heads’.

The route on which the well lies – a Wood’s ‘high way’ (and it is high) – survives as a bridleway link between two roads: Leys Road, Cumnor and a road at Bablock Hythe, whence a ferry used to cross the Thames.  According to Joan Tucker, the route remained long in favour for rambles from Oxford, so many must have passed by the well when in pursuit of other objects. It can still be walked – I met several couples and a family when I traversed it on a January Sunday afternoon — and the well survives.

Cumnor to Bablock Hythe walking route, from “nd series OS map (

A comparison between 2006 and 2011 photos on the Megalith site, and my 2021 photos of the Physic Welll underlines how much maintenance a site like this might need to be well-presented..

The ‘discovery’ theme in a Wood’s account is interesting. Discoveries had previously sometimes been framed as miracles. By the seventeenth century, not so, but could clearly still arouse interest. Plot was excited by news of a chalybeate spring (characterised by iron salts) being discovered near Osney bridge: ‘my worthy friend Dr Tho. Taylor has found so strong a Chalybeate Spring in Fulling-mill-ham-stream near Oseney Bridge [possibly the stream that now runs by Osney Mead], that notwithstanding last hard Winter (when the greatest Rivers were froze) this continued open and smoaking all the time, tinging all the Stones, by reason of its not running, nor mixing with other Water, with a deep rusty Colour’.

Explaining the water-cycle

What natural processes give rise to springs?

Two theories about the origins of springs were canvassed in the ancient world. One was that they came from rainfall — observation suggested some connection, since springs flowed more bounteously after heavy rain and dried up in droughts. Another theory was that they originated in the sea, seawater sinking into the earth and then percolating up through rocks, having changed character on its journey.

In the seventeenth century, these theories came back into debate. Plot referred to ‘this great controversy’. He was less interested in the position that some others continued to maintain, that intermitting springs portended dearths, wars, plagues, and other such prodigies. He professed himself ‘very diffident’ of this, and disinclined to discuss such notions further.

Hypotheses about the relationship between rainwater and springs rested on impressionistic judgements – more or less rainfall and more or less spring water. During the seventeenth century, work began on developing instruments to allow more precise assessments of these relationships: ‘Pioneers of the modern science of hydrology include Pierre Perrault, Edme Mariotte and Edmund Halley. By measuring rainfall, runoff, and drainage area, Perrault showed that rainfall was sufficient to account for the flow of the Seine. Mariotte combined velocity and river cross-section measurements to obtain a discharge, again in the Seine. Halley showed that the evaporation from the Mediterranean Sea was sufficient to account for the outflow of rivers flowing into the sea’.   

Stephen Switzer, whose summary of Halley’s calculations about the Mediterranean I’ve reproduced above, also nicely diagrammed the evaporation theory that Halley espoused, though he didn’t accept it himself, finding the rival ‘capillary’ theory more persuasive. Switzer is best known as a garden designer (he also served for a while as park quarries supervisor at Blenheim). His interest in springs arose from his interest in fountains and other decorative ‘waterworks’ (all the rage in the formal gardens of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries – as in Oxfordshire notably at Hanwell).  Switzer’s case nicely illustrates the diversity of preoccupations and backgrounds from which people might be drawn into this field of enquiry.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the evaporation theory seems to have carried the day, though I’m not sure how that happened.

Hydrology and hydrogeology

During the eighteenth century ‘hydrology’ caught on as a name for the science of water. It was established as a branch of natural history  and as a topic in applied mathematics.    

Thence to the end of the nineteenth century, several lines of development interacted.

It had long been clear that understanding groundwater depended on understanding the earth, or geology, and what would come to be called ‘hydrogeological’ processes. Late eighteenth and nineteenth-century developments in geology accordingly provided important context for new approaches to groundwater. William Smith, maker of the first geological map, explored the relation of spring lines to stratigraphy, and drew on his conclusions to advise landowners and canal companies. Conybeare and Phillips’ pioneering early nineteenth-century geology text book tried to make sense of springs and wells, and developed a technical vocabulary, distinguishing ‘porous’ from ‘impervious’ strata. In his Bridgewater Treatise, Geology and Mineralogy considered with reference to Natural Theology, (1836), the Oxford geologist William Buckland provided a notably clear explanation of the principle of the artesian well, until then known only to specialists: that is, a well which taps trapped groundwater, which rises within the well in response to pressure in the underground trap.

Alongside geological advances, techniques for measuring water volume and flow continued to develop, and a bank of data about British rainfall, springs and rivers was built up.

John Dalton remains a name to conjure with. His work built on a tradition of quantitative work on weather, and was written up in his Meteorological Observations and Essays.  In the words of Nathaniel Beardmore’s early manual of hydrology, Dalton ‘investigated the subject of the relative fall of rain and supply to springs and rivers…..he contrived the percolating gauge, and made extensive experiments on the subject from 1796 to 1798 at Manchester’. He is celebrated now as having been ‘the first to express the basic components of the evaporation process from a free water surface in quantitative terms.’ But Dalton’s law wasn’t expressed by its author in mathematical terms; that came later. Although quantification was in vogue and advancing through this period, mathematicization was only incipient.

Dalton’s gauge, fro the Illustrated London News 1876, and tthe title page to an 1834 reprint of his essays

Beardmore’s mid-nineteenth-century manual started out as a book of tables: both tables useful in calculation and tables of quantitative data. Including for instance rainfall data for different parts of the country:

From Beardmore’s Manual of Hydrology (

This table covers a year of very heavy flooding: 1852.

Later commentators had a lot of quantitative data at their fingertips.  When the geologist Joseph Prestwich (in his Letter on the Oxford Water Supply, 1874), considered the option of redeploying the spring at Hinksey (which had once fed the Carfax conduit, and the city’s early modern piped water system), he statd it yielded 10,000 gallons a day, and could easily be made to yield more. He said that he regretted that even the nearest Cotswold springs, near Fairford, were too distant to be usable, for they yielded no less than 4-6 million gallons a day. In the following decade, de Rance, who worked for the British Geological Survey, in his book on The Water Supply of England and Wales, cited a civil engineer on ‘the summer delivery of the Isis at Oxford’ being 73m gallons a day, and in winter 320m gallons.

Hyetographical’ (rainfall) map from de Rance Water Supply

Hydrogeological mapping was an offshoot of geological mapping – but such maps might also include other kinds of water-related data, including quantitative data. Prestwich has been hailed for having, in 1851, produced ‘the first geological map that included groundwater information’ (in relation to possible sources for the supply of London). Charles Lucas, a staff member on the British Geological Survey, not only coined the term ‘hydrogeology’ but also ‘produced the first real hydrogeological map’ in 1877.

Advances in chemistry made a contribution: ‘Analysts became more confident in their determination of the constituents of water.’

Religious perspectives were not initially superseded by these scientific developments.  The tradition of natural theology, which took the hand of God the designer to be manifest in the natural world, informed the presentation and perhaps helped to motivate some of these enquiries. Buckland’s Geology and Mineralogy was one of a series of Bridgewater Treatises, focussing ‘On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation’. Nor was this perspective confined to men trained in Church-linked universities.  The civil engineer Beardmore, in his manual, wrote of wells that they were ‘provisions for the wants of humanity, ordained by providence, so that man shall have water in detail where he may require it for his daily use…the chemist informs us that carbonic acid and other minerals in the natural soil will constantly purify the percolating water in the slow passage (filtration) downwards…so that the earth, synonymous with corruption, is also all-powerful in production and support of new life, as described by the great apostle before chemistry was known.’ The role of modern applied science was, in his account, to compensate for civilisation’s unbalancing of this natural order: ‘Wherever immense populations are gathered together, these conditions are interfered with so as to upset the ordinary economy of nature, and give rise to the complications which the engineer is called on to adjust.’

Developments in scientific understanding made it possible to push God further and further into the background in explanation; they didn’t of themselves require that he be expelled.

Developments in knowledge and understanding were deployed in practice in a series of mid and later nineteenth-century discussions and debates around public policy, above all around the question of how to keep increasingly densely populated towns supplied with sufficiently pure water. There was more to that debate than just an understanding of the production, location and destination of groundwater, but changing ideas about that informed policy debate, and fresh work was also stimulated by it.

Geologists with Oxford connections of one kind or another were among contributors to these debates. These — like the Oxford geologists already cited — are all men we’ve met before (in my posts on Geomorphology, Dinosaurs or Dredging). 

The Rev James Clutterbuck, inspired as a student by Buckland, interested himself especially in water supply and came to prominence for his role in a fierce argument about how best to supply London. A leading historian of British hydrogeology says that one of his achievements was to recognise that groundwater was a finite resource – though this seems implicit in older discussions of its origins in rainwater. ‘He was the first British worker to apply observations of groundwater levels in a practical and innovative way to the study of groundwater flow.’ So perhaps it was his ability to give practical form to his ideas that was crucial.

Joseph Prestwich, initially like Clutterbuck a keen amateur (he made his living as a wine merchant) also interested himself in the challenge of supplying London, and wrote a major book on the topic, his Geological Enquiry into the Water-bearing Strata of the Country around London (1851). He was made a member of the Royal Commisson on the Pollution of Rivers in the 1860s, serving alongside (among others) the engineer Nathaniel Beardmore. He became Oxford’s first professor of geology in 1874 – the year in which he published his pamphlet on Oxford’s water supply.

None the less, there remained significant disagreements, especially between geologists and engineers, about how much underground water was available. Public policy debate brought people with various forms of expertise to a common table; it didn’t ensure that they would resolve their differences.

Hydrogeology now

Twentieth and twenty-first-century hydrology has continued to build upon and expand these inherited understandings, techniques and databanks (though is much less likely explicitly to invoke providential design).

There were centuries of cross-fertilisation between British and European work in the field. Latterly, concepts and techniques developed in America also began to shape British research and practice (‘aquifer’ was an American coinage).

Look backward from any point, and the advance in knowledge and understanding always seems notable. Look forward, and what strikes commentators is what, at any point, had yet to be achieved. Thus, it’s noted that, in Britain, ‘[T]he collection of rainfall data was not taken over by a Government Department until 1919, and it was not until 1935 that the systematic collection of data on both surface and groundwaters finally began’.

Since 1945, developing national legislative and governance frameworks have shaped British research and practice.  The BGS map portal gives access to the latest version of the official British hydro-map.

Meanwhile, computer assisted modelling has helped modern hydrogeologists to cope with the extreme complexity, variability and even randomness which are now stressed to be features of water systems.

Thanks to Benjamin Thompson and Nancy-Jane Rucker for information about New College’s recent revival of the Ascension Day ceremony at Bartlemas and its well, in which both of them played a part. Also to Stephanie Uenkins for finding Anthony a Wood’s account of the ‘discovery’ of the Cumnor Physic Well, which is in his Diaries.

Alexandra Walsham has interesting things to say about holy wells and physic wells, in her Reformation of the Landscape. In relation to physic wells, I have also benefited from reading Noel G. Coley, ‘”Cures without care”: “Chymical physicians and mineral waters in seventeenth-century English medicine’, Medical History, 1979.

.I was put on to Switzer’s illustration of Halley’s theory by Asit K. Biswas, ‘Edmond Halley, FRS, hydrologist extraordinary’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 1970.

For the history of hydrogeology, I have found especially useful works by John Mather (several of which are also available online to Bodleian readers): see eg ‘From William  Smith to William Whitaker: the development of British hydrogeology in the nineteenth century’, in DJ Blundell and AC Scott eds, Lyell: the Past is the Key to the Present, 1998; ‘National water supply, debates between geologists and engineers and the role of the Society of Arts’, Earth Sciences History 2018 (I don’t have access to this, but a summary can be found here); and J.D. Mather ed., 200 Years of British Hydrogeology 2004.

Joseph Prestwich’s works cited here are available online to Bodleian Library readers.

Groundwater: uses

Rain falls on the hills and the plains, and drains into rivers and brooks. Or else it pools within permeable rocks, forming a ‘water bed’, or ‘aquifer’. The surface of the saturated area is the water table, which, the National Geographic tells us, ‘unlike the tables you’d find in your house… usually isn’t flat, or horizontal’, This stored water sooner or later pours or seeps out of the ground, in the form of more or less ebullient springs, at places where gravel, or chalk or permeable rocks meet clays or less permeable matter, that is, at the ‘spring line’.

Or, as the first Ashmolean curator Robert Plot expressed it, in his Baroque prose, springs take the water, ‘that we see they dayly vent, from Rains, Mists, Dews, Snows, Haile &c. received into the Spungy tops of Mountains and sent forth again at the feet of them, or somwhere in their declivities’.

We now usually derive the water we use for washing, cleaning or drinking from captured, piped water. But in the past, springs or wells (which tapped subsurface water) played a more obvious role in life. Plot (1686) thought of springs as something that ‘we’ see vent ‘dayly’, and, almost two hundred years later, in his Manual of Hydrology (3rd edn., 1862), Nathaniel Beardmore took it to be common knowledge ‘that ordinary wells fail in summertime, and … few wells have a never-failing character’.

Springs and wells figure in numerous of Henry Taunt’s photos of the countryside around Oxford (though this may reflect his particular interests) . A Historic England image search on ‘Taunt well’ and ‘Taunt spring’ produces lots of regional images, including numerous of St Edwards’ well, near Stow-on-the-Wold; but also of wells in Hook Norton, Chipping Camden, Guiting Power, and Aldworth, West Berkshire.

English hill-dwellers sometimes lacked easy access to water. Much depended on local geology. In the 1860s Rev James Clutterbuck, a passionate student of geology, who had studied with Buckland at Oxford, and had a special interest in water supply, noted that on chalk hills, impermeable layers sometimes trapped water close to the surface, so that it could easily be recovered, encouraging hill-top settlement. Nonetheless, in such districts ‘a rigid economy in the use of water is forced on the agricultural and other populations, as, on the failing of the supply, no resource is left but the streams in the valleys, or very deep wells’ He had in mind places such as Ipsden in the Chilterns, where, according to the VCH, ‘water supply until the twentieth century was from [shallow] wells, ponds, and rain-water tanks, resulting in shortages in dry conditions: at Stoke Row [it was] fetched from ‘dirty ponds and deserted claypits’, and passed in times of drought from cottage to cottage for cooking’’  Clutterbuck (and the VCH) note the solution ultimately found: ‘an Indian magnate, the Maha Rajah of Benares intrusted to my friend, Mr EA Reade, C.B., a sum of money to be employed for the benefit of the poor, on an object not of a religious character. He expended it on a well in the chalk, 358 feet deep, furnished with simple but most serviceable machinery for raising the water – large buckets, chains passing over iron sheaves, wound up by a winch and flywheel’. The VCH notes that  ‘Another Indian ruler friendly with the Reades paid for a 125-ft well at Ipsden church in 1865.’

Oxford doesn’t suffer these chalk hilltop problems. It receives its waters from far and near.

Springs and rivers

The Thames and Cherwell originate in springs: the Thames at Thames Head, in Gloucestershire, and in the numerous other springs elsewhere, which poured into its tributaries. There springs have their source in aquifers in the Cotswolds – from the great belt of oolitic limestone that runs NE/SW, and from the cornbrash intermingled with it. Some of these spring waters then run as rivers through the clay.

The photographer Henry Taunt – such a fan of the river that he renamed his house Rivera —  certainly seems to have made a point of visiting and photographing this set of springs, often repeatedly. Eg at Thames Head; at the source of the River Leach; the Windrush, and the Churn. His enthusiasm didn’t extend to drinking unfiltered Thames water, nonetheless: he pressed for its improvement, demonstrating that what came out of the Oxford water company’s taps contained shrimps as well as plant matter.

The Thames remains the main source of local drinking water, now purified naturally by passing wetlands at Pinkhill Meadows, on the western arm of the Thames, thence being pumped up and run through filters into Farmoor reservoir, where its quality is monitored. It’s then further filtered and treated before being passed on to customers.  A report on a field trip made by the Oxford School of Geography and the Environment provides a good account of how Farmoor works.

Farmoor Reservoir and control tower

Canal reservoirs

Where does canal water come from? (a good question that I hadn’t thought to ask until it was put to me). The Canal and River Trust states that ‘When the canals were first built over 200 years ago, finding a reliable water supply to ensure that freight could be transported around the country was critical to the success of those early canal companies’…Canals don’t discharge into the sea, but they lose water to evaporation and seepage. And when locks are opened, waters move down canal. ‘Supplies of water come from a network of reservoirs, rivers and streams, as well as being pumped from underground.’  Water supply has to be calibrated to changing need.

The Oxford canal more particularly gets topped up from three reservoirs above Banbury, around the canal summit (so that gravity can carry the water down): Clattercote and Wormleighton (both established in 1787) and Boddington [completed 1805].  Clattercote was once the site of a priory, whose lands were granted to Christ Church at the Dissolution. The priory’s leper pond became a fishpond, which formed the basis for the later reservoir.

James Clutterbuck noted the favourable geology of the district where these reservoirs sit: ‘the base of the valley is the lower lias [clay;]…the intervening marlstone, usually charged with water, adds another source of water’.

The engineer Nathaniel Beardmore told the 1866 Thames enquiry that he thought that if the Thames around Oxford were to be improved for navigation, reservoirs might need to be constructed to keep it topped up as needed, in similar fashion. He said that in his view ‘the portion of the valley above Oxford is destined some day to have large reservoirs’.

Springs, brooks and fens

Around Oxford, the rivers receive more run-off from brooks and groundwater originating in another aquifer NE/SW, this one composed of looser Corallian rag, rich in fossils. Local springs arise on the surrounding hills at points where permeable rock rests on Oxford clay, though rocks may be layered and springs follow accordingly complex patterns.

Robert Plot, in the late seventeenth century, noted springs on the Headington side of Shotover, which rose out of the ground and then quickly disappeared back into it. An image of a ‘pothole spring’ on Headington Moor is preserved in one of Henry Taunt’s photographs.The British Geological Survey’s ‘Geology Viewer‘ suggests that around here, limestone gives way to clay. Here one finds ‘Spring Lane’ (but the Shotover reservoirs, on the Kimmeridge clay that tops the limestone, have water pumped into them from elsewhere).

Somewhere to the south of here lie the origins of the Lye Valley (though a recent geological surveyor failed to find the Lye’s exact source).

Of the springs on the hills around Oxford, some give rise to superficial patches of wet ground: thus on the hillside above Botley, now the Fogwell estate.

Cumnor slope ravine, from Google Earth, data from Landsat/Copernicus, spring 1984

Other springs give rise to brooks which sometimes carve deep channels into the relatively soft stone as they descend: thus especially the ‘ravines’ on the hillside beneath Boar’s Hill, but also the Lye valley. These channels may be associated with fens. ‘A fen is a type of mire which receives at least part of its water and nutrients from soil, rock or groundwater… Fens contrast with bogs which mainly receive water and nutrients from rainfall alone’.

Many Oxford brooks pick up lime from the base stone, and accordingly have the potential to nourish alkaline fens. This is the case with the various watercourses associated with the Wild Oxford project (Chilswell, Raleigh Park, the Lye Valley and Rivermead) as well as the Hinksey Heights Nature Trail all of which Judith Webb has played a part in restoring – though she expresses more excitement about the large rich areas of fen around tributaries of the Ock around Sunningwell and Sandford.

Marley Fen in Wytham woods is another alkaline fen.   

Alkaline fens may form ‘tufa’ deposits. Robert Plot noted this phenomenon. ‘In the Parish of St. Clements in the Suburbs of Oxford, about a quarter of a Mile distant on the right Hand of the first Way that turns East-ward out of Marston-Lane, there is a Ditch, the Water whereof incrustates the Sticks that fall out of the Hedge’ (though he thought this ‘inconsiderable’, scarcely worth mentioning).

Having the potential to produce alkaline fens doesn’t mean that fens necessarily result, or survive. Urban development, changing the character of ground cover and drainage, or introducing new elements into the water flow, may affect them, as may tree and plant growth that harvests the water. Preserving these fens involves preserving the water flow, maintaining its chemical composition, and stripping away some trees and other vegetation.

By contrast to these alkaline areas, Shotover supports acid marsh and grassland.

Wellhouse, Wick Farm -spring fed from hills above Barton

See also the ornamental well-head at Shotover Park, presumably fed from the heights of Shotover.

City wells, springs and pumps


Down in the valleys, the clay over which the rivers run keeps rainwater close to the surface, where it pools in gravel terraces. Clutterbuck suggested that the ready availability of subsurface water, which could easily be tapped for wells, will have been one reason why the site of Oxford (like the site of London) attracted early settlement.

Modern archaeologists surveying builders’ trenches commonly find well pits associated with late Saxon house sites – thus in (what’s now) Queen st and Cornmarket. Later wells (for example to the northeast of the north gate) provide an indicator of the expansion of settlement. It seems that wells aren’t always easy to distinguish from simple pits, though one assumes the wells will have been a bit deeper – or else the pits wouldn’t have been good for much. Water-filled pits could perform other functions. There’s a nineteenth-century instance of a backyard fishpond in St Ebbes.

Such traces have long been recognised for what they are. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, people digging for gravel ran across ‘Tokens of Trenches, and round hollow places in the fashion of wells’ and knew that they were looking at ‘Vestigia of venerable Antiquity’ – in this case, of Beaumont Palace, which, between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, when it was finally demolished, stood around what’s now St John’s Street.

A few institutional wells survive: a rather grand ‘well chamber’ was built into the motte (the mound) at Oxford Castle in the thirteenth century, the motte being raised higher to house it. Perhaps implying that the ten-sided stone keep, which survived until the eighteenth century and was presumably served by this well, was only built after this time. The chamber lies 20 feet below the surface. Henry Taunt’s collection includes a photo of carved panels in this clearly quite grand well chamber.

Not an obvious site for a well

St Edmund Hall proudly displays a thirteenth-century well, rediscovered only in the early twentieth century, Merton has a flagstone marked ‘well’ in the northeast corner of the front quad.

For how long did wells continue in use, and what proportion of houses had their own wells? As the surface of the city rose over time, ground water presumably became less and less readily accessible (though still probably only a few metres down). A Christ Church 1829 list of tenements (published in the Oseney Cartulary) doesn’t list wells among appurtenances, though it does list privies and washhouses, and sometimes pigsties. Were wells not present, or did they just not merit inclusion in the list? Does ‘wash house’ – a laundry shed – imply a well? We learn from other sources that the poorest lodgings didn’t have access to water. When a scheme to provide a public wash-house and baths for the ‘industrious classes’ of Oxford was launched in 1850-, its supporters said that 600 families in the western part of the city had no provision whatever for bathing or laundry. An appeal for funds to establish public facilities bore fruit in 1853, but the enterprise did not pay its way, though it limped on until 1867. Bigger houses, with more ground of their own, were probably more likely to have wells. They remained common enough in the 1860s for Clutterbuck to relate that a new drainage trench cut through corrugations in the clay at Oxford had laid dry ‘the house wells…through a considerable district’.

(On the Berinsfield website – a new village SSE from Oxford — there’s an account of gravel diggings in the post-war period draining water from local wells and making it necessary to deepen them).

Extra-mural springs and wells

The spring/well distinction is by no means clear-cut in the case of shallow wells. Indeed, the Old English ‘welle’ meant a spring.

Medieval proto-surnames, as they appear in the Oseney Cartulary, quite often made reference to what were presumably neighbourhood springs or wells, doubling as landmarks, thus ‘de Bradewell’, ‘de Bugwelle’ ‘de Cokeswell’ ‘de F(o)ulewelle’ ‘de Fretewell’ ‘de Haliwelle’  de Hertewell’ ‘de Lodewell’, ‘de Siwelle’ ‘de Stokwelle’ ‘ ‘de Warmwelle’. Also Attewelle.  The majority of these don’t relate to later known wells, though ‘Haliwelle’ and ‘Stokwelle’ are exceptions.

The public wells which attracted notice in medieval and early modern texts, and which appear in modern lists, seem essentially to have been springs, around the margins of the city, or further out. Their framing for use could be rudimentary: Walton Well, as shown by Henry Taunt, was a hole in the ground framed by an oblong of stones (this was shortly before it was channelled into a slickly presented ‘fountain’).

They lie in areas close to where we know watercourses ran, and it’s easy to imagine that water might have been quite easily accessible through the gravel at these sites — though something about the topography must have made these spots distinctly fertile in water.

Wells in relation to the walled city. Based on R.C. Hope, The Legendary Lore of Holy Wells of England (1893)

  • A series of wells run more or less along the later course of the canal. Stockwell, also called Plato’s well, lay by Hythe Bridge. Old maps show the little watercourse to which it gave rise running into Castle Mill stream.  Stockwell Street, now Worcester Street and Walton St, took its name from this well; Worcester College grounds now embrace its site. It’s said that Stockwell Street was once much used by travellers coming by the old paths over Port Meadow towards the city. It’s hard to tell what the land/water configuration was here before the building of the railway, but ditches along by the railway suggest more or less canalised water along this route. North of Plato’s well lay Boumann’s or Aristotle’s Well, along what’s now Aristotle Lane; also Walton Well, in Walton Well Road. Renaming the wells in honour of Greek philosophers seems to have been an early modern joke. As a Wood put it, because ‘frequently in the Summer Season visited by our Peripatetics’, university men rambling around.
  • The old north wall of the city was once flanked by a moat or ditch, probably incorporating natural water sources, which survived the ditch as fishponds. Along this line lay St Mary’s well, by Smith gate (now Catte st). In the late nineteenth century, Hurst, in his Oxford Topography, noted that a stream of water still ran across Catte st.
  • Along and around the city’s eastern wall was once a marshy area; Hurst says it was once ‘a morass’ and that the subsoil here is ‘peaty’, unlike that found elsewhere in the city. Here lay the holy well, and others clustered around it, such that which one was particularly holy is now uncertain. Other wells along the line of the wall heading south were Crowell, by the corner of modern Holywell st and Long Wall street; and the Postern well.
  • Along the old south wall of the city, Slaying well (by a slaughterhouse), giving it name to Slaying well lane, later Brewer street, running west from St Aldate’s.

Though the topography made these wells possible, they all had their own history of establishment, development and use, elements of which have come down to us. I say more about some of those that were particularly venerated in a forthcoming post on ‘Groundwater: meanings’, but among the others, the history of Crowell seems especially well recorded, if not easy to piece together. It was first mentioned in the thirteenth century, when a cross was said to stand nearby. A culvert running down the ditch in Longwall Street, excavated in 2002, is believed to have carried the water from the spring to the hospital of St John the Baptist, which preceded Magdalen on the site. According to the antiquary Anthony a Wood, it was subject to a series of improvements in the seventeenth century, when Dr Rawlinson built a little house or cot over it, with his arms and the inscription ‘None will hurt this Well that’s wise/ For this hurts none, but cures the Eyes.’ During the Civil Wars, the ‘little house’ (lying as it did near the defensive wall) was knocked down, ‘and the spring suffocated by the town ditch, to which it joined’. Nonetheless, a spring there was turned into a well and surrounded with stone 1651, and 1666, a little seat was set by it. Hurst, writing in the late nineteenth century, recorded that the sluice (presumably to control the flow of water from the spring) had been dug out about twenty years before.


Within the city, by the seventeenth century if not earlier, pumps may have provided the public face of public wells – perhaps reflecting developments in technology which made such urban pumps feasible. A Wood (cited by Hurst) noted that in 1662, a well was dug for a pump at the east end of the Bocherew’ (ie Butcher Row, now Queen St) (the point of the story was not the digging of the well but great old timber posts found by the diggers). Plot mentions pumps at the Cross Inn (ie Golden Cross) near Carfax, one near the Mount in New College Garden and a third at Buckley Hall. His interest was in the mineral content of their waters. It’s not clear if these were accessible for public use. The VCH mentions a tall stone pump with carved heads in the High Street, called the two-faced pump.

In the 1770s, one of the first tasks addressed by the Improvement Commissioners was the removal of the many pumps obstructing the streets.  

Survivor. By St Mary’s, University Church.

My earlier Managing the Waters post came at this topic from a slightly different angle. It gives complementary detail about past and present efforts to organise community water supplies.

Groundwater now

Institutional and domestic wells are not (to my knowledge) a feature of Oxford water provision now, other than on allotments eg Town Furze – though, alongside river water, groundwater continues to play a part in modern water supply.

Statistics that I’ve found relate to the Thames basin, rather than Oxford specifically, don’t agree with each other, and are probably heavily skewed by London patterns, but Thames Water says groundwater supplies 30%  of local water supply to the river’s 70%. The Groundwater Forum rates groundwater’s contribution higher, at 51% (possibly these are breakdowns of different things).

I take it that the switch from wells to piped water was driven by changing estimates of health effects (fear that wells would take in polluted groundwater, in relatively undiluted form), and perhaps also by convenience: a tap might be preferred to a pump. But changes in the availability of water from different sources may also have been a factor in decisions about supply. An account of central London notes that the yield of wells declined notably during the nineteenth century as a result of increasing use, encouraging a turn to rivers. In London, the effect of that switch has been that the groundwater has risen again, sometimes to challenging levels.

Valued as a source of water for use, groundwater is less welcome when presents itself uninvited in the form of floods. In Grandpont, some residents find them homes flooded not from rivers but from groundwater – supercharged by rain and brimming rivers. The role of groundwater in Oxford floods is the subject of a joint project by the Environment Agency and the British Geological Survey, involving

  • Setting up of a monitoring network: … Over 150 groundwater sites and some 50 surface water sites are now routinely monitored across the area, a large number using digital water level recorders on a 15-minute interval…
  • Development of a conceptual model of the groundwater system: … The development of the conceptual understanding has been aided by the creation of a 3D geological model, which is based on the large amount of data for the area in BGS’s borehole geology database.
Aftermath of Boxing Day floods 2020: Christ Church meadows doing its flood-meadow work

For older accounts of springs and wells, I have relied especially upon Hurst’s Oxford Topography, which offers a commentary on an early seventeenth-century account by Leonard Hutten (itself looking back to the previous century); on Robert Plots’ Natural History of Oxfordshire; and on an eighteenth-century edition of Anthony a Wood’s accounts of Oxford, The Antient and Present State – within which it’s not always easy to separate a Wood and his editor’s prose. I’ve also drawn on work by nineteenth-century geologists and engineers, whom I encountered first when looking at Dredging.

I have visited the Maharajah’s well at Ipsden, but don’t have any digital photos of it, so will have to visit again. Wells in the Chilterns are discussed in an article by Pat Preece in the Oxfordshire Local History Association’s Journal, Winter 2000-1.

Techno fix: dredging

Flooding in recent years has generated controversy — among other things, about whether to dredge or not to dredge. There have been exchanges about this in many places, eg the Somerset Levels, but also around Oxford. People on the ground often argue that dredging ought to help: it’s common sense; rivers, and canals, get silted up; why not clear them out, let the water flow? Authorities further from the action, or more able to take a general view, argue that dredging provides at best a temporary fix, and that it costs more than its limited benefits justify. There are also concerns about the environmental impact of dredging (though equally, not dredging has its own environmental impact).

It isn’t intrinsically a high-tech operation. It may involve no more than removing recently accumulated silt from watercourses, though if the aim is to deepen them to unaccustomed depths, it may entail removing gravel or more compacted soil. It’s essentially a raking operation which, in some circumstances, can be done by hand. Or with the aid of very simple equipment. A photograph by Henry Taunt of dredging on the river at Oxford in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century shows men on punts with, attached to the punt in the foreground, what looks like a large wooden rake, which would be dragged along by the boat as the boatmen poled it. .

I’m guessing that some kinds of dredging must long have played a part in the improvement and maintenance of local watercourses – not least of man-made ditches, which need to be kept clear to perform their work (though not so clear as to carry off too much soil and nutrient). There were ambitious dredging operations in the ancient world, so in principle a range of more and less ambitious technologies were available. In the Low Countries, for obvious reasons, new techniques were developed and skill built up in the early modern period, and some of that was imported into England. Dredging played a part in the management of East Anglian fens (where some argued in the early eighteenth century that it had made flooding worse, others that more was needed to alleviate flooding. Both could have been right: dredging may help to determine where floodwaters go). 

Archaeological work carried out at Godstow weir found evidence of historic dredging there, possibly in the 1780s. The excavated material had been used to strengthen one side of the channel . An important feature of dredging, as of all forms of excavation, is that it involves reciprocal operations, on the one hand, taking material out and on the other hand, depositing it somewhere else. Sometimes gathering material to deposit is the main point: gravel serves many construction functions, both on land and in water.

Interest in dredging probably grew alongside other forms of enthusiasm for improvement, even in the absence of major technological breakthroughs.  But steam power, when applied to dredging, in the 1830s if not before, probably made an impact too. Dredging machinery could be steam-powered, as well as boats. Moreover, the advent of steam boats increased demand for dredging, because expensive steamers risked getting damaged by river shallows and shoals.

Oldest surviving steam dredger, 1844
Chris Allen / Bertha being demonstrated on the Exeter Canal Basin / CC BY-SA 2.0

Google ngram suggests that the first mention of a steam dredger in a text in its database came in 1832 .Thenceforth, mentions both of dredging and of stream dredgers shot up, though during the twentieth century they fell back again.

The graph — from — shows the proportion of texts in the British-English part of the Google Books corpus using the words ‘dredging’ (in red) or ‘steam-dredger’ (in blue) between 1800 and the present. I’ve multiplied ‘steam dredger’ by 100 to make it visible on the same scale as the much more common ‘dredging’

This is not to say that steam dredging carried the day. Different kinds of dredging remained appropriate for different kinds of job. See, to this effect, not only the Taunt photo discussed above, but also an index entry for the Oxford Journal Illustrated, which reports a picture from 1925 showing two men hand-dredging the Long Bridges’ bathing place. The point of the picture, in a February publication, was to hint, longingly, at summer enjoyments to come; the low-tech operation was not being reported as remarkable in itself.

Nonetheless, the advent of steam dredging as one among other dredging options plausibly helped to increase interest and ambition – in tandem with changing assessments of what dredging was good for, and the appearance of fervent dredging advocates.

A comparison of parliamentary reports on Thames Navigation in 1793 and 1866 suggests a shift in the terms of debate. Though the occasional shallowness of the river was a concern in 1793, dredging as such wasn’t mentioned – whereas by 1866 it was at least an intermittent theme, and there were dredging advocates among those giving evidence.

In the 1790s, Thames navigation had attracted attention because the advent of canals increased interest in the navigability of the river. By the 1860s, the setting was very different. The coming of the railways had ended the heyday of the canals, and reduced river traffic. There was little commercial river traffic above Oxford; the few boats going to and from Eynsham tended to use the canal to bypass the river from the King’s Weir (above Wolvercote) down to the city. Some goods, notably coal, brought to Oxford via the canal, were shipped on down river. But some suggested that the upper Thames could — indeed should — cease to support navigation. The popularity of pleasure boating provided one argument against that. (A table in the parliamentary report suggested that 450 out of 1502 pleasure boats in the upper river were based around Oxford, of which about three quarters were for hire, the rest private boats).

It was possible, some thought (though they didn’t put it in these terms) that a vicious circle was at work. The decline of navigation had reduced income from tolls, so the commissioners responsible for the upper Thames no longer had the money to maintain the river. Although they had once done some dredging, all dredging undertaken by this date was on a commercial basis (it was said), by those whose aim was to excavate gravel for sale. The river was left to silt up, to form shoals and ‘hills’ in its bed. And of course that discouraged navigation.

Engineers in their presentations to the committee had an answer to this, in which repairs to locks and weirs played a part, but dredging was key. Dredging would create a ‘fine, deep’ channel, and then navigation would revive – admittedly at a diminished, post-railway level, but still, water remained an attractive medium for the conveyance of some goods; some revival could be expected. They were prepared to imagine doing away with some, if not all mills, and their associated locks and weirs. The Iffley mill should certainly go, it was argued; then a deep channel could be established between Oxford and Sandford.

The engineers in question were Stephen Leach and Nathaniel Beardmore. Leach was an insider, engineer to the Thames Commissioners, and later to the Conservators who replaced them. Beardmore, reported in Leach’s obituary to have been a long-term friend, was a more exalted character, a man whose skill and confidence won him a series of jobs, consulting positions, advisory roles and professional honours in the rapidly institutionalising terrain of civil engineering and related public service. He wrote what became a standard textbook on hydrology, and rates a Wikipedia entry.

There were plenty of other issues in play. The issue immediately in question – the one which had occasioned Parliament’s involvement – was the proposal to extend the jurisdiction of the Lower Thames’ ‘Conservators’ up-river, doing away with the upper river’s distinct ‘Commissioners’’. These were very different sorts of body: the first compact, run by naval men, with some representation from London shipping and boating interests, as payers of tolls; the second in theory a huge body representing urban interests, the university and landowners, and in practice affording a voice to barge and boat owners and millers (though in terms of the normal conduct of business, it was said, the Commissioners ordinarily followed the lead of engineering advisors). Much discussion in the parliamentary committee revolved around issues of representation: who should be given a voice on the governing body? Could those who knew only the lower river understand the issues of the rather different upper river – with its multiplicity of mills and its troubles with flooding? The view, repeatedly urged on the committee and expressed by its MP members, that the Conservators would staunchly pursue the public interest so there was nothing to fear, didn’t really address the local-knowledge question.

From the viewpoint of residents of the lower river, a major concern was now public health. Some London water companies took water from the river. They therefore didn’t want it to be polluted by sewage from upper river towns, or run-off from paper mills. The sewage problem was getting worse, it was said, as towns shifted from earth closets and cesspools (now feared to be polluting wells) to water closets and sewage drainage.

In the upper river, landowners were troubled by a paranoid fantasy that the Conservators would embank the river, thereby raising the river above the fields, and impeding land drainage, while making landowners pay. (It’s true that some critics said new systems of land drainage took too much water too quickly off the land, leading to floods in winter and a parched river in summer, and it may be that these hints sparked the anxiety). Millers for their part staunchly asserted their property rights. Why should they be allowed to run waste into the river? Well, because they always had; it was a right, whose loss would damage them; it therefore demanded respect. Milling was older than navigation, they said (in a local context).

Some of these issues had recently engaged official attention under other heads. A Royal Commission had enquired into the pollution of rivers, and another into ways of utilising sewage. An 1861 drainage act, responding to the reigning fashion for drainage, had replaced the old system of local ‘commissions of sewers’ with a new system involving on-demand local drainage boards; these could be established on application to the Board of Trade, and then run under the general auspices of the Enclosure Commissioners.

Discussions around these initiatives, and others in and around the metropolis, all played knowledge-forming roles. Among expert witnesses, not only engineers but also academic scientists figured. A professor of chemistry, who was also an advisor to the General Board of Health, shared his understanding of the pollution problem. The geology of the region was invoked. A former pupil of William Buckland (professor of geology), now vicar of Long Wittenham, gave evidence. His map of the Thames was waved around by one MP, and provided the basis for some of his questioning.

Navigation issues loomed quite large in the early part of the committee’s discussions; less so later, as London and millers’ concerns were heard (though millers argued that they were not in competition with navigation; the two interests were complementary, inasmuch as both wanted to keep up the flow of the river).

The act as passed did extend the jurisdiction of the Lower Thames Conservators over the Upper Thames. They took over all powers previously vested in the (upper) Thames Commissioners. In addition (among other things), all locks and weirs were put into the Conservators’ hands, though the right of millers to a sufficient flow of water was affirmed. What the Conservators were to do with their new responsibilities was left open.

The Conservators’ brand by Iffley Lock

Three years’ later, engineers Leach and Beardmore had a go at putting their grand vision into practice. Leach was now engineer to the Conservators; Beardmore had been given a consulting role. They had used the intervening time to flesh out their vision with surveys and estimates. It entailed repair of locks and weirs, removal of Iffley Mill, dredging of the river, and some straightening of its course. For some £30,000, the engineers stated, they could eliminate flood risks; for a few thousand more, they could make additional improvements to render the river efficient for navigation. In their view, their plan recommended itself ‘alike by its completeness and simplicity’. It did not recommend itself to local opinion, nonetheless, and was not adopted.

For Leach, this was clearly a signifcant disappointment, noted in his obituary: ‘The Conservancy fund not being available for the purpose, Mr. Leach was unable to carry out the much-needed works for relieving the valley of the Thames from the effects of the periodical floods to which it is subject; but he did what was possible with the limited means at his disposal, and in designing a new work he took especial care that it should be constructed so as to form a useful part of the comprehensive drainage scheme which he foresaw would some day have to be undertaken.’

Local critics saw things differently. In a letter to Jackson’s Oxford Journal, local landowner Edward Harcourt observed that eliminating flooding from the land was neither practicable nor desirable, though a competent engineer who truly understood the problem might help to ensure that water did not lie on the land for protracted periods. He thought that, whatever they said about reducing flooding, the engineers’ vision was in fact chiefly designed for the benefit of navigation. Its presentation as an anti-flood scheme (he hinted) represented an attempt to make landowners pay for others’ benefit. He observed, tartly, that the Conservators had spent a great deal of money on salaries and expenses, relative to what they had spent on repairing locks and weirs, or the paltry £3000 they had invested in dredging – that moreover chiefly in contexts in which they could turn gravel to profit.

Though the engineers’ vision of a deeply dredged and streamlined river was not realised, under the Conservators’ regime, dredging did resume. And from the 1880s, steamers, previously confined to the lower river, made their appearance on the upper.

Thanks to Stephanie Jenkins for useful references to Jackson’s Oxford Journal, and the Oxford Journal Illustrated Index. Steve Rayner and Simon Wenham, though passing comments (in Simon Wenham’s case, in writing), first set me thinking about dredging.

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.


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).

Afterthought: geomorphology

I was much struck by an episode of the hit BBC TV series Walking with Dinosaurs which I watched on its release in 1999. As it opened, a huge dinosaur was shown standing in bright sunlight at the edge of a Jurassic lake, or shallow sea, its head scanning the waters. A voice-over (Kenneth Branagh) told us that this was in the neighbourhood of what’s now Oxford, and that the hunter was looking for its prey. But in relation to the last, we were being misdirected. All of a sudden, an even bigger dinosaur reared out of the water and snatched the one we had thought to be the ‘hunter’, dragging it down (so the sea was presumably not that shallow).

This was the context in which the geological raw material of the Oxford region was laid down. Oxford clay (from sea silt); limestone coral reefs (‘Corallian limestone’).

Corallian rag on view in a former quarry: Rock Edge Nature Park, Headington

Later — after the globe had moved on its axis, continents had moved around a bit, and after water had been first locked in ice, and then (repeatedly) melted out of it — water drained through the region, riving through the land cover, incising valleys and layering them with broken stone: gravel. Successive discharges (over extremely long periods) carved diverse channels through landforms, creating a series of gravel terraces. Rivers might also carry silt, and in periods of lower discharge, this settled to form surface soil.

This kind of story about landscape formation was developed in broad outline, in Britain and Europe, between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, out of a combination of practical observation of soil and rocks by people who wanted to make use of them, and speculative interest in understanding formative processes on the part of scholars and others scientifically inclined. Robert Plot, in his 1677 Natural History of Oxfordshire, catalogued different soil and rock types discretely, but interest in the patterns in which they occurred was developing, to the point where Martin Lister could in 1684 already conceive of (though not yet execute) a geological map. (Plot, who was by then first keeper of the Ashmolean – in its early form, a science museum — edited the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, in which Lister’s proposal appeared).

During the eighteenth century, ‘geology’ gained its name, and the respective contributions of volcanic and water action to the formation of landscape were debated. In the early nineteenth century, these theories were synthesised with the fruits of an increasingly broad range of empirical observation (aided by a good deal of cutting into the earth in the making of roads and canals).

Insofar as the Oxford region attracted close attention this was not so much because of its mineral resources as because it was a hive of scholarship. William Conybeare, who had studied there, author of a pioneering 1822 textbook on the geology of England and Wales, and mentor to William Buckland, Oxford’s first reader in geology, delivered a paper to the (London) Geological Society in 1829 ‘On the hydrographical basin of the Thames’.  (Of course such a major river basin was bound to attract interest). Conybeare was especially interested in a debate as to whether valleys could have been formed by rivers such as those then visible, or whether it was necessary to posit more ‘violent’ flows in the past. On several grounds, he favoured the latter hypothesis. Had it not been for such violent action, he said, the Corallian limestone  which narrows the floodplain south of Oxford – in the form of what he called ‘Oxford chain’ – might never have been breached, in which case the site of Oxford would have lain beneath a lake that would probably have drained into the Ouse.

Geological maps compared: Conybeare 1822, Phillips 1871 Compare the modern British Geological Society map
Phillips 1871: the geology of city and neighbourhood (marking gravel deposits). For a modern geological map of the region, see Oxford Landscape Character Assessment, p. 18.

John Phillips, nephew and protégé of renowned geological mapmaker William Smith, himself one of Buckland’s successors, and the first Oxford geologist to hold the title of professor, half a century later published a book-length Geology of Oxford and the Valley of the Thames, which drew on material he had given in lectures.  Phillips profited from the extension and refinement of knowledge that had resulted from the launching of a government-sponsored Geological Survey of England and Wales, from 1833. He was especially preoccupied with using the geological record to illuminate the fossil record, and the reverse, using the collections in the Oxford Museum (the current Natural History Museum, which he helped to found). He had previously used its feeder collections, such as the comparative anatomy collection of Henry Acland (last encountered mapping the physical and social context of Oxford’s mid-century cholera epidemic).

Nineteenth-century geologists were commonly interested in base rocks and their interrelations with the fossil record (though also in gravels, inasmuch as they illuminated formative processes). In the twentieth century, more attention came to be directed towards more superficial deposits, and to their interaction with the archaeological record (archaeology gained scholarly definition later than geology: the name came in the 1840s, cf. geology 1750s; the first Oxford professors were appointed in the 1940s, cf. geology 1860).

Of course methods, and conclusions, have changed over time. In the 1920s Kenneth Sandford tried to date Oxford gravel terraces, in part from archaeological evidence, and in the process bestowed on them the names they still officially bear, including ‘Wolvercote’ and ‘Summertown-Radley’ (though his ‘Peartree Hill gravel’ seems to have gone the way of all rock). In the 1980s, Lambrick and Robinson argued (on the basis of Oxford-region studies) that more attention needed to be given to the effects of human action on the environment during the Holocene (post-glacial period). Conversion of woodland to pasture increased run-off, they suggested, initiating occasional flooding; meanwhile conversion to arable, when and where it happened, determined that rivers and floods, carried silt, producing ‘alluviation’. In 2010, Macklin, Jones and Lewin riposted, on the basis of accumulating Carbon 14, drift-ice and peat-bog data that this story needed rebalancing to give more weight to climate change. Changes in flooding, in their account, had less to do with ground-cover changes than with background temperature shifts. They argued also that it was not until the early middle ages (more precisely, from the tenth century) that farming – using ploughs, hay and manure — promoted significant alluviation.

Meanwhile, practical concern with flooding has stimulated modelling work on the exact distribution and depth of local gravel beds.

If the gross picture that arises from recent accounts – setting aside differences over mechanisms and timing — is one of increasingly significant human impacts on the formation of the rock and mud environment, evidence of historic small-scale interaction is all around us. The earth has been quarried for building stone – on display across colleges and other Oxford buildings; later increasingly for brick. Less obvious but often underfoot is evidence of its quarrying for gravel, also manifest in the various gravel-pit lakes to be found especially alongside the railway line which the gravel now supports: thus Wolvercote Lakes; Hinksey boating lake; Kennington ponds. Seepage from the gravel can now be seen as a nuisance, threatening some householders’ basements, but, in former times, scattered springs and subterranean watercourses running through water-friendly gravel supplied wells and pumps.

Read into the history, and it becomes ever clearer that the most basic and taken-for-granted features of the local physical setting embody, in direct ways, the effects of human actions over the course of centuries, as people have reshaped for their own multifarious purposes the mud, gravel and water constituents of the floodplain: channelling the waters; deepening the waters; cutting new routes for the waters; digging into earth and gravel to extract building material or to lay foundations, and then relocating that earth and gravel, as opportunity has presented itself, or to make other terrain more usable; levelling the land here and raising it up there.

Mark Davies’ and Catherine Robinson’s A Towpath Walk in Oxford provides lots of pointers, if it’s read with this theme in mind. For example, p. 21 ‘It was over Aristotle Bridge between 1849 and 1852 that thousands of tons of gravel were taken by tramway from Cabbage Hill (later to become Kingston Road) and Lark Hill (later to become Chalfont Road). The gravel was used for the construction of the Great Western Railway…The removal of the gravel bank [the destruction of these ‘hills’] cleared the way for the eventual development of this part of north Oxford’.

Run the history backwards in your mind’s eye and substantial chunks of land crumble away, resolving themselves back into chaotic assemblages of mud and gravel. The railway embankment is disassembled; the western edges of Jericho sink and becomes watery and flood-prone. The braided strands of the Thames sometimes gain, sometimes lose water, but what’s now its deepest course becomes shallower, and prone to dry up in summer. Christ Church meadow walks disappear back into the foundations of Christ Church, exposing the soggy Frideswide flood meadow. The fields of Medley, the urban-fringe parishes of St Thomas’ and St Ebbes are seamed with petty streams. Humanity clusters on larger and smaller gravel ‘islands’: scattered across north, central and parts of east Oxford, in Osney, Grandpont, and north eastern parts of Port Meadow. As time is put into reverse, the landscape becomes ever less made, ever more given; ever less analytically understood, ever more intimately known.

Still a long long long way back to the dinosaurs.

For photographs of Oxford’s layers, see The British Geological Society’s Geoindex map, and click on the camera icons at Wolvercote, Littlemore and Headington.

Modern articles cited are:

Kenneth Stuart Sandford,’ The River Gravels of the Oxford District’, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 1924

M.A. Robinson and G.H. Lambrick, ‘Holocene Alluviation and Hydrology
in the Upper Thames Basin’, Nature, 1984

Mark G. Macklin, Anna F. Jones and John Lewin, ‘River Response to Rapid Holocene Environmental Change: Evidence and Explanation in British Catchments’, Quarternary Science Reviews 2010

See also a vivid and well illustrated talk by Bruce Levell on the geology of the region with special reference to Iffley.

Envoi, and thanks


I had intended to write a last post about blackberries, which I hoped would have ripened at about the time I planned to complete my plan of posts. And so they have, but Who owns the floodplain? turned into a monster that had to be spread over two posts (and still didn’t answer the question – though I hope my later revisions come closer to doing that). As a result, blackberries were squeezed out. So instead I’ve begun this Envoi post with a few photos of blackberries from late May (my first blackberries’ photo) through July. Blackberry-ripening season seems an appropriate point to stop.

Flipped Oxford

The project of this blog has been to explore a flipped Oxford: an Oxford with a focus on the low ground, rather than the high ground where its residents mostly live and work.

My discovery – or invention – of this flipped Oxford was a product of a shaken-up period in national life, when our homes and outdoors took on new functions and acquired new meanings, and we all had in some degree to reinvent ourselves, though largely with the aid of resources we already had to hand, which vary greatly from case to case.

I always meant this to be a finite exercise, and as I realised how much of my time it was consuming, became all the more determined not to spin it out! In any case it’s both a product of and in some respects a record of a very particular period: life under lockdown.

The blog grew out of walks that I began doing in April, after some weeks in which my outdoor life was focussed on overhauling my garden. As I found myself in new (though nearby) places, observing new things, asking myself new questions, and beginning to put together some new answers, I decided to try embodying them in a blog. I started that in May. By June, the blog was beginning to determine the walks, some of which became quests for photos to illustrate particular posts. In any case I was running out of new places nearby to walk to, so the walks were becoming longer, and more episodic. Meanwhile, lockdown was loosening. It became possible to walk alongside friends, even to feel relaxed about driving to the start of a walk. If life isn’t back to normal (and my own regime remains cautious), in terms of options, it’s back to something much more like normal. The last walk post concludes with my first post-lockdown visit to a pub. And I’ve finished the programme of posts that crystallised in my mind after the first month or so of writing. So this is the time to stop.


..especially to:

Sue Clark (leading in the kayak below), who first took me to the Kidneys and Aston’s Eyot on the eve of lockdown, passed on ideas for walks from her friends, shared some of her knowledge of our neighbours and their interests with me, and has been a wonderfully supportive next-door-neighbour throughout. Someone you can talk to over the garden wall: a great asset during a lockdown.

Also to Mark Philp and Lucie Ryzova, for keeping me company on numerous walks (in Lucie’s case, some of my scrappiest and most perverse walks), and for their interest and enthusiasm. Though as Lucie observed, When you’re talking to me, you don’t take enough photos.

Also to other occasional walking companions: Myungsu Kang, Katherine Paugh, John Robertson, and (as a duo) Benjamin Thompson and Nancy-Jane Rucker. Even if Benjamin does have a rather constricting idea of what makes a ‘walk’. Paul Slack girded his loins and went to Cutteslowe Park with me – discovering in the process that it was much larger than he’d appreciated. Rebecca Nestor accompanied me on an after-the-fact walk to see the North Hinksey Conduit House and to inspect Raleigh Park more closely.

Tony Morris was an unknowing instigator of this project, by means of his own blog, Morris Oxford, through which I first heard of the Trap Grounds, and was made to realise that there were hidden places in Oxford that I didn’t know, some of them, as it turned out, on my doorstep. He’s been another enthusiastic supporter, once I revealed to him my own efforts along these lines.

Thanks also to Peter Hill, for advice on the technicalities of blogging, Chris Crocker, for advice on a wide array of tech-y matters (‘I never thought you’d be interested in pylons’), and Dave Marshall for his wonderful topographic visualisations.

For botanical instruction: Liz Frazer and Lucie Ryzova (again). And Felicia Gottmann for her interest, even if she does know only half a dozen flowers. To Steve Poole and Alastair Reid, for encouraging my ventures into eating the neighbourhood. And to Steve also for tipping me off about the VCH’s Historic English Places app.

Also for help and advice in relation to particular topics: Wilf Stephenson, Mary-Clare Martin, Katrina Navickas, Chikashi Sakashita and Otto Saumarez-Smith. To Philippa Brodie, for sharing her observations and photos of badgers; Oliver Tickell for walking around Aston’s Eyot with me and talking about landscape and conservation; Christopher Fance for putting me in touch with Malcolm Graham, and suggesting a flower identification; Malcolm Graham for letting me use his property map.

Since I completed the basic programme of the blog, but while I’ve still been tinkering with it, Tim Marshall and Elizabeth Wilson kindly met with me to talk about planning, flooding and Oxford. Kate Jury took the time to show me round Barracks Lane Community Garden, and talk about how it’s developed. Margaret Thompson gave me a tour of the Fairacres Road allotments, and Wendy Stringer-Smith not only presented me with a copy of the ODFAA centenary history of Oxford allotments, but also talked me through some of her own experiences and perspectives. I’m grateful to them all for their interest, time and trouble.

Thanks finally to my readers, many of them unknown to me, not just the Oxford locals for whom I chiefly intended this, but spread over several continents (Word Press tells me), and comprising more than just my already-acquired friends.


Feet, eyes, brain

Look, ask questions. Why? and How? are good question words; What?, When? and Who? generally have to precede them. Without good questions there are no interesting answers — only facts.

Floodplain map

The map in the Oxford Area Flood Information Guidance booklet — which I found online, by means of a search I can’t remember, and which I’ve used as the main icon for this blog — provided crucial information in getting me started, by suggesting to me that the complex mesh of waterways that I encountered when I started poking around the open spaces outside my door was intrinsically intelligible. The streams even all had names.


Given that, in lockdown, one’s exceptionally dependent on what can be found online, any historian wanting to look into the history of an English locality must then all the more treasure the VCH: the Victorian county-history project, which, after one or more lapses, in some counties continues to this day. It’s more and less good for different counties, but for Oxfordshire, where much of it is recent, it is generally good. I’ve used esp. Oxon vol 4, City of Oxford — though it doesn’t cover all topics and ends in 1979 (and for many purposes, some decades earlier). For the continuing VCH Oxfordshire project, see its website. This gives links to older volumes, freely available online, and to drafts based on ongoing research on areas of the county as yet not written up.


My working method has basically been to triangulate between on-foot observation, maps and texts. Maps have been central – starting with the floodplain map noted above.

As to more general maps: Google maps is an invaluable tool for anyone wanting to find their way around, and ponder the relationships between things. The Google Earth app offers in addition a ‘time slider‘, which gives access to historic aerial photography, back to 1945, though in the Oxford area after that there’s a big leap into the early twentieth century.

The National Library of Scotland provides access to historic OS maps, through a very good interface, which allows smooth switching from map to map. I have used (and acknowledged) this collection extensively in this blog. The Oxfordshire History centre makes available a very detailed 1876 map of Oxford, as I discovered only late in the day: I’ve made no significant use of this. (Yet). It also provides links to a wealth of other local maps. Vision of Britain is a very good local history reference tool, maintained by historical geographers at the University of Portsmouth with support from JISC, bringing together maps, topographical descriptions and statistical data for particular places. It’s most obviously approached by a place search, but it also provides access to an excellent collection of maps, including First Series (circa 1830) OS maps (not found in the NLS collection) and some other maps, such as boundary maps, that I’ve used (and acknowledged) in this blog.

To understand parishes I’ve found useful this city and this county parish map.

After having finished the main tranche of the blog, as I started reading more into the city’s prehistoric, medieval and early modern history, I discovered a useful online collection of historic maps. Digital Bodleian also has zoomable versions of several historic maps of the city. For the same and later maps, and more detailed discussion, Daniel MacCannell, Oxford: Mapping the City.

Other recent discoveries are:

The Oxfordshire Public Rights of Way map – also gives you zoomable versions of larger and smaller scale OS maps as context.

The Environment Agency’s Main River map. Especially useful for anyone interested in watercourses, since its function is to map those watercourses which have been made the responsibility of the Environment Agency in the context of flood planning. See my Redbridge Stream post for some discussion of related policies and practices.

The Blueskymapshop. They want to sell you online maps, but will also show you a series of maps for free, including lidar maps (showing height data) – type in a postcode, and similarly any specified section of the national tree map.

Finally, just for fun, the City Roads website does both more and less than it says, in that its map of Oxford (derived from Open Street map) shows in skeletal form not just roads but a variety of features, including rivers, footpaths and parking bays. A little puzzle to work out what’s what!

Other websites (and people behind websites)

I did lots and lots of keyword searching on Google.

As anyone following up my links will quickly realise, I’ve made extensive use of Wikipedia for information about both places and people – a source all too often disparaged for its inaccuracies. Please show me a perfectly accurate reference source. When it matters, I’ve preferred to have corroborating evidence from sources lower down the food-chain — but footnotes in Wikipedia articles can lead one to these. And its accessibility makes it a great site to which to point readers.

There are some excellent local websites, which I discovered when they kept showing up in response to my keyword searches: notably Thames Smooth Waters, Oxford History (more miscellaneous than it sounds, but great on some topics), Headington History, South Oxford Community Centre and Dereliction in the Shires, an account of ‘urban exploration’, all of which combine deep local knowledge with great photos and other illustrations. I quickly became aware how beholden I was, as any online local-history researcher must be, to some of the people behind these, like John Eade, Liz Woolley and Stephanie Jenkins. Also Mark Davies – he’s the waterwalks guy. There are lots of very informative pdfs available on line about Oxford history and biology. Freelance ecologist Judith Webb‘s name is all over the latter.

The Oxford Mail online archive (on which I found hits through Google searching) was often informative, not only about new events but also about memories of the past.

Other web resources I have found useful include the Council website, mainly insofar as it provides information about open spaces – and very recently, in July 2020, the Council presented information in a new way, with the object of postively encouraging people to make the most of Oxford’s open spaces. The series of ‘heritage’ assessments also include much historical information, about what used to be and what remains. I’ve also found useful the Oxford Preservation Trust website; the Oxford Conservation Volunteers website; BBOWT website (I was already a subscribing member of BBOWT, whose site information first prompted my search for fritillaries). Also the websites of the Floodplain Meadows Partnership and the Oxford Wildlife and Landscape Society. Oxford Archaeology’s website includes a large digital library of reports on their local and other observations, to which I’ve supplied links at various points.

Listed buildings or places can be surveyed using the map search function on the Historic England website. Clicking on the blue triangles which mark listed sites leads to basic information about the site, and usually a picture. See also their Heritage Gateway, which provides access to a variety of place-specific databases.

I’ve used a number of online guides in trying to identify flowers (often whatever comes up when I type into Google ‘UK wildflower like dandelion’ or something along those lines. The Garden Without Doors weed guide is especially extensive, and supplies many helpful pictures showing leaves and the like.


All the photos in this blog are my own (except the one of badgers in the Badgers post — courtesy of Philippa Brodie, and of Sue Clark, above). Almost all my photos were taken with an iPhone, during the lockdown period. I began (or rather continued) taking photos of things around me weeks before I thought of doing this blog. They form an initially non-instrumental record of things that caught my eye, as I explored, through changing seasons and changing times. Mostly I’ve been able to remember where I took a photo, from its place in the sequence and my memory of walks, but digital photos are geolocated and it’s also possible to locate them retrospectively on a map by searching their ‘Properties’.

I have profited greatly from looking at pictures and photographs online and in books, and have provided links to some. But overall I haven’t made as much use as I might have done of online pictorial resources.

Some into which I have dipped are:

The Britain from Above archive of historic aerial photography, and the more recent, though more local and limited Air Experiences website.

The Oxfordshire County Council’s Picture Oxon site looks like a treasure trove, but I’ve barely penetrated it.

Oxford University Images is keyword searchable. Try eg ‘mill’, ‘ferry’, ‘barge’ ‘wharf’, ‘pump’. I’ve retrospectively included links to a few of these images within posts.

14,043 old photographs of Oxford (and other places) by Henry Taunt can be found on the Historic England website (not where the Picture Oxon site says they can be found – a major problem with digital resources, of course: they move or disappear. And the links in this blog will start dating quite quickly too, for that reason). The Historic England Image Collection can also be searched by place, but the search function is not very powerful.

Books and other less readily obtainable resources

I made some though only limited use of such scholarly resources as the Bibliography of British and Irish History, and Bodleian online resources.  I was, through the Bodleian, able to access some volumes of the multi-volume History of the University of Oxford — though mostly that’s a bit ‘dry land’ for my purposes.  As also some parliamentary reports and the like. Whenever possible, I’ve provided links to generally accessible resources for books, e.g. to that great open resource

I latterly discovered that many useful local history examples can be found online through the Oxford Local History Association website and the website of Oxoniensia – resources that I’m far from having exploited to the full.

Although lockdown has made reading for this project difficult, it’s also made it manageable, by allowing me to set limits to what I feel obliged to consult!

Regrettably I wasn’t able under lockdown conditions to get hold of Mark Davies’ Towpath Walk in Oxford or Malcolm Graham’s On Foot in Oxford guides. (Though in August I got hold of a copy of the former from Mark Davies, and have now added about a dozen references to that).

I paid for and downloaded or had sent by post a number of useful local guides: Mayon-White and Yorke, Exploring the Thames Wilderness (which set me on the track of several of my early destinations; Joan Tucker, Ferries of the Upper Thames; Nancy Hood, Oxford Waterways through Time;  Liz Woolley, Oxford’s Working Past and Graham Salmon, Beyond Magdalen Bridge: the growth of East Oxford (the Amazon delivery person told me he thought this was a good book).

Simon Wenham got in touch and very kindly gave me a copy of his book: Pleasure Boating on the Thames. A History of Salter Bros.

I’m glad that I already owned a copy of Mary Prior’s great study Fisher Row: Fishermen, Bargemen and Canal Boatmen in Oxford 1500-1900. Paul Slack did me a service in lending me his copy of Tanis Hinchcliffe, North Oxford. Malcolm Graham’s thesis, ‘The Suburbs of Victorian Oxford: Growth in a Pre-industrial City’ (Leicester, 1985), is a significant scholarly contribution. The demands of my writing schedule mean that I haven’t yet given it all the attention it deserves.

I’ve tried to reference all sources used for any given post within the posts, either via links or by means of notes at the end of posts – though usually not to the extent of specifying page numbers in longer documents. Sorry, scholars.

Who owns the floodplain? II

Colleges and university

In contrast to aristocrats, colleges at some point owned large swathes of Oxford. Some of them were also more direct beneficiaries from the Dissolution. Indeed, the Dissolution was, for colleges in general, just another, if relatively dramatic episode in an ongoing story: some had benefited from the more piecemeal redirection of church properties for some centuries.

Here’s Malcolm Graham’s circa 1860s Oxford suburban property-ownership map again, now coloured in to show not only aristocratic but also college holdings. Christ Church (in orange) was clearly a major player, with extensive holdings in northern parts of the Thames floodplain and along the southern reaches of the Cherwell (since the map doesn’t cover property ownership in the old city, it doesn’t reveal the extent of Christ Church and Magdalen’s holdings along the Cherwell, but I’ve indicated the sites of the two colleges, Christ Church in orange, Magdalen in red, to compensate). Otherwise Magdalen, Merton (pink) and St John’s (yellow) along the west bank of the Cherwell; St John’s (commandingly placed across north Oxford) also along the canal. South of the river, different players, Brasenose (brown) and Univ (cream). Corpus (dark red) is represented by discrete holdings behind the railway line and to the north of the Botley Road.

In reconstructing how colleges came by these properties, I’ve relied heavily once again on the Victoria County History.

Christ Church’s position had everything to do with its having acquired the lands of first St Frideswide’s and Littlemore priories (via Wolsey’s intermediate foundation, Cardinal College) and then Osney Abbey and part of the land of Rewley Abbey. Insofar as they were largely in the floodplain, however, they were much less advantageous than the lands St John’s acquired in high, dry north Oxford.

Christ Church cathedral spire – once St Frideswide’s abbey church (with — probably- Hawksmoor’s early eighteenth-century All Saints spire beyond)

Magdalen was the beneficiary of earlier dissolutions, notably of St John’s hospital (1458), which provided its site.

Merton gained its holdings by the Cherwell by its even earlier (1294) appropriation of the church of St Peter in the East, and its manor of Holywell.

St John’s, a new foundation in the sixteenth century, was an indirect beneficiary of the Dissolution. Its founder, the London merchant, Sir Thomas White, bought the buildings of a dissolved Cistercian college, St Bernard’s, from Christchurch, but otherwise gave the college London land, with the advice to sell it and buy locally. Their chief local purchase was St Giles Fields, once largely occupied by manors of Osney and Godstow abbeys, from a family which had invested heavily in Dissolution property. (I’m not sure when the acquired their Botley Road holding).

Corpus’ was among the beneficiaries of the dissolution of Rewley Abbey, which may be how it acquired its land along the Botley causeway. Its first president built the first Bullstake bridge around 1530, which certainly suggests that this land was in the college’s possession very early in its history. When and how the college acquired its holding by Hogacre stream is unclear to me.

Then, south of the river:

University College’s holdings around Grandpont, which remained meadow land into the early nineteenth century, are certainly older – they petitioned king and parliament in relation to a dispute over 17 acres of meadows there in the 1380s. At some point they also owned Folly Bridge Island (sold to permit redevelopment of the bridge 1824).

However, the dissolution of Abingdon Abbey 1538 set the scene for Univ’s acquisition of lands south and west of the Thames (which brought it East Wyck Farm).

Also Brasenose in 1538 acquired land south of Folly Bridge previously held by the abbey. This land and the bridge are shown on a c. 1600 college estate map.  The pub The White House, which stands on this land, was once the residence of the bursar of Brasenose.

Malcolm Graham’s map shows a post-enclosure landscape. Before enclosure (that is, before 1830 in North Oxford and Iffley, and before the 1850s around the Botley Road, old Osney island and Cowley), the picture will have been much more complicated – presumably with the same colleges dominant, but with other colleges and various individuals also holding scattered small holdings (a pre-enclosure listing of holdings in Botley Meadow, reproduced by Salter in the appendix to vol 2 of his Oseney Cartulary illustrates this).

So what did colleges do with the power and opportunities that this ownership gave them?

Much of this ‘suburban’ land, even when amassed into disposable clumps following enclosure, was floodplain land, and topography placed limits on what could be done with it. One would think that some colleges – St John’s, University College, Brasenose – should have benefited from leasing some land as wharves. When the coming of the railway changed the attractions first of the Abingdon Road, then of the Botley Road, Brasenose, Christ Church and Corpus developed their neighbouring property.

But much of the land remained open. Merton sold land to the University to form the Parks. Some kept the character of farmland – as around Medley, north of the Botley Road (which is still farmed), or East Wyck farm east of the Abingdon Road (farmed until the 1990s). Lands surveyed here have figured in previous posts among properties used to site public parks, sportsgrounds, and dumps.

Keeping the land open wasn’t just a matter of the kind of land it was, though. Colleges also had a vision of the sort of place they wanted Oxford to be, and this was not somewhere sprawlingly urban and industrial.

Many colleges owned plots scattered throughout the old city. But St John’s was unusual in moving, from the late 1820s, to obtain an enclosure act for St Giles’ Fields (of which it wasn’t the sole owner), and to develop housing there (and even it had to be spurred into action by the development of the Park Town estate). To the west, by the canal and railway (as Tanis Hinchcliffe explains, in her history of North Oxford), St John’s developed more working-class housing (also in keeping with the existing pattern of building). But in the central and eastern part of their estate – the part closer to the college itself – the college offered land to developers prepared to build large, more socially ambitious houses, aiming to make that part of North Oxford a decidedly up-market suburb.

Other colleges were less adventurous. Christ Church allowed and profited from the development of housing in the part of old Osney island that was on the old urban fringe; sold land to the Great Western Railway, and (after a long pause) allowed the development of New Osney alongside, and of the more socially ambitious Cripley Estate to the north of the Botley Road. In the 1860s and 90s (late in the day) they made some effort to show themselves good urban landlords by sponsoring model housing in the Hamel and along Hollybush Row.

But (Malcolm Graham tells us in his first On Foot in Oxford book – from the castle), they chose to preserve the castle mound, as a ‘venerable Monument of Antiquity’, when the New Road was built, and wouldn’t let railway companies plunder castle stone. They didn’t develop their meadow lands in the way that land in St Ebbe’s, on the other side of Castle Mill Stream, were developed. And they blocked early nineteenth-century attempts to enclose Cowley Fields (Graham, p. 85), motivated ‘by a sense of what is best for the beauty of the entrance into Oxford on the Cowley Road’ and hoping ‘to prevent the building of shabby or unsightly houses within view of [Christ Church] Meadow and path.’ Yet Cowley fields were ultimately enclosed, at the demand of those with a different vision, in 1853; St Thomas followed in 1854. 

In the case of New Hinksey, similarly, private, not corporate or aristocratic owners were to the fore in developing the suburb. According to Malcolm Graham (p 113), Pembroke and University sold land for development only when encroaching urbanism undercut its value as meadow land, and they found themselves repeatedly pestered with offers from (small) developers. By this point they were being advised by surveyors whose advice they sought that sale for development was their best course.

Now — in accordance with new guidelines associated with their charitable status, colleges may pursue development through linked trading companies. Both Christ Church and St John’s have named theirs after founding fathers: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas White.

New Cherwell colleges: Wolfson

A new riverine development from the later nineteenth century was the establishment of new colleges along the Cherwell, whose heavily collegiate character I’ve noted. Some though not all of these were established on land owned by the great-landowning colleges.

LMH’s early property history is traced by Tanis Hinchcliffe. LMH, and the co-eval Somerville, both established themselves on St John’s property in 1879 (though not, she makes clear, on the basis of any great enthusiasm for these ventures on the part of St John’s). Somerville purchased its freehold from the start, but LMH originally took its Cherwell site on lease – at that point St John’s preferred mode of proceeding. LMH acquired its freehold only in the 1920s.

Although St Hilda’s (1893), at the southern end of the Cherwell, stands between different parts of Magdalen College school, its land had – exceptionally — long been in private hands. It was purchased in the later eighteenth century by the then professor of Botany, who acquired ‘a Ham of meadow ground in Milham’, ‘the waters and fishings in the River called Milham from the East Bridge to Christ Church Walks’, and 4 acres of arable land in Cowley Fields, and there built for himself ‘Cowley House’. A series of professors followed him, until St Hilda’s took over.

Catz acquired land from Merton’s ‘Holywell Great Meadow’ for its site, in 1960. The land between the college and the main stream of the Cherwell remains Merton’s recreation ground.

Wolfson College (1966) — the furthest upstream — stands on land that was once St John’s land, and may still have been when acquired.

Pandemic Radcliffe Camera: the return of nature

The University as such emerges relatively late in this story, though as a corporate body it was entitled to own property, and presumably did own its central campus, around Radcliffe Square and the Bodleian. Unlike many colleges, the University does not appear as an acre-ocrat in Bateman’s list.

When it did begin acquiring more Oxford land, it often acquired it from colleges: thus, land for the Parks and the University Museum from Merton; for sportsfields between Iffley Road and the Thames, from Christ Church. The Science Area was initially constructed on Parks land, but in the twentieth century the University emerged as a snapper-up of city properties to house other departments, including, for example, the old powerhouse at Osney (along with many high-and-dry land properties).

Its vastly increased financial heft has also — in symbolically resonant fashion — allowed it to emerge as successor to the aristocrats. It acquired Wytham Woods in  1942 and Nuneham House at Nuneham Courtenay in the mid 50s, in each case, developing them partly as study centres. In the case of Nuneham, the Harcourt Arboretum has been built around what was once the Harcourts’ tree-planting enterprise, its pinetum. In the early twenty-first century, a neighbouring acquisition at Nuneham took the form of arable land, now in the process of conversion to woodland and meadow. The University sold land around Nuneham in 2016, occasioning local controversy.

Oxford City as landowner

The land held longest in continuous possession in Oxford must be Port Meadow – though precisely in whom title is now vested is said to be unclear: notionally the freemen of Oxford, in practice the City Council.   There are said to be three owners of the ponies grazing on the meadow. Not clear if they are they freemen.

The 1835 Municipal Corporation Commissioners report suggests that over half the city’s income at that point came from property: from renewals of leasehold estates and quit rents within the city bounds, and also from estates at Garsington and especially Eynsham (purchased 1611 with the proceeds from the sale of what was later Wadham College’s site; subsequently enlarged).  But cities – which did not, as such, have rating powers until this point – did not have huge turnovers. Rating powers were bestowed by the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act and thereafter, though initially frugality was urged.

Only in the later nineteenth century did cities’ ambitions and powers significantly expand. It’s from that date we find Oxford City purchasing recreation grounds and allotment sites.

Overall though the City was notably loathe to spend, resisting such pressure as there was to build municipal housing when that became possible in 1890. Malcolm Graham suggests that the role played in City affairs by some of the largest local landlords may help to account for this.

The City’ did embark on some council-house building from the 1920s, with (to focus on riverine regions) developments at Cold Harbour and Weirs Lane from the 1920s, and at Rose Hill (initially to rehouse people from St Ebbe’s and Jericho) from the 1930s. The Donnington estate — judging from successive maps — was developed by the 1960s (preceding the construction of the bridge); St Ebbe’s was reconstructed under a slum clearance rubric from the same decade.

By 1980 Oxford City Council possessed a significant portfolio of open-space property, in addition to large swathes of council housing. The 1980 Housing Act set in train the erosion of the latter — though the Council does continue through intermediaries to provide social housing. Constraints on council budgets that have made both the acquisition and maintenance of open spaces difficult, meanwhile, mean that there’s little if any recreational land in the City’s possession that wasn’t already there by 1980.

Rise of the private freeholder

Historically, people generally didn’t own their own homes. Landowners who sponsored development on their lands often sold off leaseholds, retaining the freehold: that is, the ownership of the land, and reversion of the property at the end of the leasehold period (perhaps 99 years). Those who bought the leaseholds and developed the land often then rented out dwellings or parts of dwellings – though small builder-developers might take one house for themselves and rent out a few others (as was the pattern in St Ebbe’s); middle class investors might also sink their money in a few houses.

Over the last century and more two major trends across the country have been a shift from leasehold to freehold and from renting to owner occupation. The rise and decline of council housing aligns with this: those who occupied council houses would probably previously have been private renters; it was possible for them to acquire their own homes, and from the 80s there was more encouragement to do this, though there remains a significant ‘social housing’ rental sector.

This chart from the English Housing Survey captures the long-term shift across the nation in favour of owner occupation, though also a more recent change in pattern, back towards renting. Legislation in recent decades has increased the attractiveness of buying to rent (by strengthening landlords’ hands), as has the availability of buy-to-let mortgages. As has been widely remarked, the shift is concentrated in the younger age group: they’re the ones who are now more likely to be renting than were their peers in the recent past.


According to the Office of National Statistics, there’s been a sharp swing against leasehold in recent years, building on longer term trends. They estimate that only 7% of domestic houses are now held on long leases, and mainly in the north. In the SE excluding London (the district in which Oxford sits), the proportion is only 2.6%. The story is different for flats. The ONS estimates that, across the nation, 94% of owner-occupied flats are leased (having an overall freehold owner offers one answer to the question who is responsible for maintaining common facilities?) But opinion is swinging against leasehold in this context too, and new forms of ownership are being developed, such as the condominium.

All these trends have left their mark on Oxford – though the distinctive (but by no means unique) presence of a mass of short-term student renters adds a further element to the mix.

As Malcolm Graham tells the early part of the story, ‘suburban’ development in later nineteenth-century Oxford took place through the activities of a mix of corporate and private sponsors. Corporate bodies, esp. the colleges, tended to prefer to offer their properties on lease, being able to take the long view — though they sometimes sold freeholds when pushed for cash. They also let some properties at rack rents – by the year. Tanis Hinchcliffe tells us that St John’s judged this more appropriate at the lower end of the market, in Walton Manor and Jericho. By contrast, private developers tended to want to release their capital, so were readier to respond so a rising tide of interest in freehold purchase, which is where much of the later nineteenth-century action was. Freehold-land societies (set up to provide access to property needed for the vote) served as intermediaries for some such developments. Freehold purchases by not very wealthy individuals were financed in important part by building societies (this included financing small building-to-rent). In the later nineteenth century, particularly vigorous activity by these societies allowed levels of owner occupation in Oxford to outstrip those found in numerous other towns, yet still it remained a minority practice. In Oxford as elsewhere, not until the twentieth century did owner-occupation become truly widespread.

Some larger developers held on to houses they built. In her history of the pre-eminent local building firm Kingerlee’s, Liz Woolley writes: ‘Kingerlee kept many of the houses that he built, rather than selling them, and by 1905 he owned 186 houses, far more than any other individual in Oxford. Most of them were in west oxford, where they accounted for almost 20% of the suburb’s tenanted properties’. N. Moss and Sons built houses in various parts of Oxford in the 1920s and 30s; their Florence Park estate was built to rent. Wimpeys the builders were building flats on leasehold in Rose Hill in the 1960s.

In the third quarter of the twentieth century (Tanis Hinchcliffe again), St John’s at least moved away from leasehold, as century-old leases moved towards their terminus, and new, pro-tenant legislation made leasing less attractive from a landlord’s point of view.

The upshot of this long-sustained and complex series of developments was that, viewed in the long term, houses in Oxford came to be more commonly on the one hand freehold and on the other hand owner-occupied.

In terms of the freehold/leasehold divide, possibly only a few dozen houses in Oxford are now held on leasehold. By contrast, in the apartment sector, leasehold has remained common (the freehold perhaps being held by the builders, perhaps by a finance company).

A comparison between national and Oxford census data shows recent changes of trend in Oxford in terms of the mix of owner occupation and various forms of renting broadly comparable to the national picture (with some differences of timing and scale):

The census also documents a shift within Oxford in favour of apartment-living.

How do new floodplain developments fit into this picture? New floodplain developments offer a mix of houses, apartments and student accommodation. Houses are probably usually sold as freeholds (though may then be rented). But floodplain apartments are owned in very diverse ways. Some are sold freehold – judging from property adverts, this is the case in Osney Lane and perhaps Rewley Road (though many there seem to be rented). Lion Brewery apartments are however sold on leasehold, while Lucy’s remain the owners of their Jericho development, and rent these and other properties directly (that is, not through letting agents).

And then there’s building for student accommodation, by the two universities, other colleges and also private companies. Oxford University’s students were originally housed in colleges. Accommodation in lodging houses was officially permitted only from 1868, when a delegacy was established to monitor their quality, and respond to complaints about student conduct: the university and the town grew symbiotically. Numbers of students living in city lodgings may have peaked after the Second World War. But in the 1950s and 60s colleges started building more housing; in parallel (and encouraging this form of expansion), old-style lodging ceased to attract either landladies or students. St Catherine’s College, which had started life in the 1850s as an institutional base for ‘unattached students’, joined the mainstream by becoming residential — on a site that it acquired amidst the braided streams of the Cherwell — in 1962. In 1970 the Delegacy was reconfigured as an ‘Accommodation Office’. Though students continue to rent rooms, this is proportionately less common, and now usually on a basis of self-sufficiency.

Keeping institutional provision in line with swelling numbers of students — now at two universities, and diverse other institutions — remains a challenge. (The city estimates that, in 2017, 37% of students at Oxford attended institutions other than the two universities). Though students continue sometimes to rent privately – for lack of options or by preference — institutional provision is now generally preferred, not least by students who in this context are charged only for periods of residence required by their courses. Those who live in institutional accommodation are omitted from the statistics cited above. Their total continues to grow; it rose from 14,000 to almost 18,000 between 2001 and 2011; undoubtedly this growth has continued. The City favours institutional accommodation, so that student renters don’t occupy potential family homes; but of course new building for students also potentially competes with new building for homes. The City therefore aims to confine such building to particular kinds of site.

Overall and in the longer term, the headline story in Oxford, as elsewhere, is the rise of the private, owner-occupying freeholder. But that’s evidently not the only story, nor is it currently the main direction of travel.

The rise of a multitude of petty private owners entails a fragmentation of power. In that context, the role of planning authorities potentially takes on additional importance. The planning powers of local authorities developed from the later nineteenth century (initially, under sanitary auspices). In recent decades, following late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century floods, planning for flooding has been given special emphasis in its own right. But there’s a constant tenstion between injunctions to plan more collaboratively and holistically and the government’s (especially Conservative governments’) appetite for liberating development.

This series of developments has made the locus of power over property increasingly elusive.


I have now revised the final section in the light of further reading. Malcolm Graham’s thesis, ‘The suburbs of Victorian Oxford‘ and Tanis Hinchcliffe, North Oxford remain key sources.

But I have also now used data from the Office of National Statistics and the English Housing Survey, as indicated. For larger trends, I also found useful two government-commissioned articles published in the journal Land Use Policy (2009): Robert Home, ‘Land ownership in the United Kingdom: Trends, preferences and future challenges’ and Tim Dixon, ‘Urban land and property ownership patterns in the UK: trends and forces for change’. I’ve sourced local census data chiefly from Oxford City Council’s occasional reports. I have also consulted the Oxford City plan:

Information on college-linked property companies from Stephanie Jenkins.

See also now the new and developing website Who owns Oxford? (part of a larger Who owns England? project.