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History Scroll

The History of Oxford City

By Tim Lambert




Oxford was founded in the 9th century when Alfred the Great created a network of fortified towns called burhs across his kingdom. One of these was at Oxford. There may have been a village already existing there or Alfred may have created a new town. The streets of Oxford were in a regular pattern suggesting a new town but we are not certain. Oxford is first mentioned in 911 when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a sort of national diary, said: 'King Edward recieved the burhs of London and Oxford and London with all the lands belonging to them'.


Oxford probably had a market from the time it was made a burh and it soon became a flourishing town. In the 10th century Oxford had a mint with 4 moneyers (coin makers). But Oxford was a fortress as well as a town. In the event of war with the Danes all the men from the area were to gather inside the burh. However this strategy was not entirely succesful. In 1009 the Danes burned Oxford. (An easy task since all the buildings were of wood with thatched roofs). However Oxford was soon rebuilt. In 1013 the Danish king claimed the throne of England. He invaded England and went to Oxford where 'the people soon bowed to him and gave hostages'. In 1018 a conference was held in Oxford to decide who would be king of England.


By the time of the Norman Conquest there were said to be about 1,000 houses in Oxford, which meant it probably had a population of around 5,000. By the standards of the time it was a large and important town (even London only had about 18,000 inhabitants). It was said at the time that Oxford was the 6th largest town in England. Oxford probably reached its zenith at that time. About 1072 the Normans built a castle at Oxford. In the 11th century the towns defences were a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden stockade on top. Later the stockade was replaced by a stone wall.


In the 1140's there was civil war between Stephen and Matilda. In 1142 Matilda was at Oxford castle but her rivals troops burned the town and besieged the castle. However one snowy day Matilda managed to escape across the frozen river. Oxford soon recovered from this disaster and began to flourish once again.


The university at Oxford was founded in 1167. During the Middle Ages there was much tension between townspeople and students. In 1209 a woman was killed. Afterwards 2 students were hanged by the townsfolk. Some of the students fled to Cambridge but in 1214 they were invited back. Evidently the merchants in the town missed their custom. In 1121 a Chancellor was appointed with power to discipline the students. Nevertheless further riots followed in 1228, 1236, 1238, 1248, 1272, 1298. Tension continued because kings granted the students certain priveleges, which harmed the merchants of the town. The tension came to a head in 1355 when a fight occurred between them which lasted for 3 days. Afterwards an investigation was held and as a result the university staff and students were given still more priveleges. Despite this the conflict between the townspeople and the university died down.


In 1258 Simon de Monfort and 23 other rebellious barons held a meeting in Oxford and forced the king to accept a number of reforms known as the Provisions of Oxford.


In the 12th and 13th centuries Oxford was a manufacturing town. It was noted for cloth and leather. In Oxford wool was woven then fulled, that is it was cleaned and thickened by being pounded in water and clay. There were many tanners in the town and leather workers such as shoemakers and saddlers. But in the 14th and 15th centuries manufacturing declined. Oxford came to depend on the custom of students. It became a town of brewers, butchers, bakers, tailors, shoemakers, coopers, carpenters and blacksmiths. In the later Middle Ages Oxford declined in importance.


In 1122 an Augustinian prory (small abbey) was founded. It was dedicated to St Fridewide. The priory was given the right to hold a fair. In the Middle ages a fair was like a market but it was held only once a year for a few days and it would attract merchants from as far away as London. The priory charged the stallholders tolls. An Augustinian abby, was founded in 1129. A Ciscerstian abbey, Rewley Abbey was founded in 1280. In the Middle Ages the only hospitals were run by the church. A hospital dedicated to St John the Baptist opened outside the east gate in the 12th century. It was closed in 1485. A leper hostel dedicated to St Bartholomew opened east of the town in the late 12th century. In the 13th century friars arrived in Oxford. The friars were like monks except instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach and help the poor. In Oxford there were Fransiscan friars, known as grey friars because of the colour of their habits. There were also Dominicans friars (known as black friars) Carmelites and Augustinians.




In the 16th century Oxford declined further in terms of national importance though it remained a fairly large town by the standards of the time. In the mid 16th century it may have had a population of about 3,500. Oxford was economically dependent on the university. The students provided a large market for beer, food, clothes and other goods. oxford was full of craftsmen who supplied these needs. By this time hostility between 'town and gown' had died out. Like all towns in the 16th and 17th centuries Oxford suffered outbreaks of plague. Severe outbreaks occured in 1603 and 1625-26.


In 1538 Henry VIII closed the abbey, the priory and the friaries. In the Middle Ages the priory and one of the friaries had the right to hold annual fairs and to charge tolls. After they were closed this right was transfered to the town. Yet both fairs declined and had virtually ceased to exist by the middle of the 17th century. In 1542 Oxford was made a city and was given a Bishop.


Henry's daughter Mary tried to undo the religious changes of the previous decades and restore Catholicism. During her reign 3 famous Protestants were tried in St Marys church in the town. They were Thomas Cramner, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Nicholas Ridley the Bishop of London and Hugh Latimer. All three were condemnded to death for heresy. Latimer and Ridley were burned in Broad Street.


In 1642 came civil war between king and parliament. Opinion among the townspeople was probably divided but in 1642 a royalist army occupied Oxford. For the rest of the war the king made Oxford his headquarters. By this time the walls around the town were in disrepair so the king foced the townspeople to erect earthwork defences. However by 1646 the king was losing the war and he was forced to flee in disguise. Oxford eventually surrendered to a parliamentary army. Although there was a fire in 1644 Oxford was not seriously damaged by the civil war.


In 1651 the first coffee house in England opened in Oxford. Coffee was a new drink at that time but it soon became popular. Many coffee houses were opened where middle class and upper class men could meet, have a drink, read newspapers and talk shop. In 1659 a free grammar school was founded in Oxford.


At the end of the 17th century a travel writer called Celia Fiennes described Oxford as 'pleasant and compact. The theatre is the highest of all (the buildings), encompassed by the several colleges and churches and other buildings whose towers and spires appear very well at a distance. The streets are very clean and well paved and pretty broad. The High Street is a very noble one, so large and of great length'.




In this century Oxford remained a market town where produce from the surrounding area was bought and sold but most industry in Oxford was still geared to supplying the needs of the university. The city was full of brewers, bakers, butchers, tailors and grocers. In the 1720s a writer described the city as 'large, strong, populous and rich'. He was also impressed by the university buildings.


In 1708 a charity school for boys was founded. It was called the Bluecoat school because of the colour of the school uniforms. Hollywell Music room was built in 1748. Radcliffe Infirmary was built in 1770. In 1772 a workhouse was built to house the destitute. As the name suggests the able bodied were expected to work. In the 18th century the streets were becoming increasingly congested on market days as the stalls interfered with traffic. So, in 1774 a covered market for vegetables, meat and fish was built. There had been a prison in Oxford since the Middle Ages. It was rebuilt in 1789.


In 1771 East Gate and North Gate were demolished. In that year a group of men called the Improvement Commissioners was founded with responsibility for paving, cleaning and lighting the streets (with oil lamps). New Road was built in 1776. Magdalen bridge was rebuilt in 1779. In 1790 a canal was cut to Hawkesbury near Coventry. St Giles fair began in the late 18th century. By the middle of the century Oxford probably had a population of about 8,000. By the end of the century it was nearly 12,000.




From 1819 Oxford had gas street lighting. Warneford hospital was built in 1826. Littlemore hospital followed in 1847. There were some drains and sewers in Oxford in the early 19th century but the sewers emptied into the river. In the 1870s a modern system of sewers was built. In the 18th century a private company provided piped water - to those who could afford it. In 1808 the council took over the water company but many people continued to rely on wells. It wasn't until the 1880s that everybody in Oxford had piped water. Despite these improvements there were outbreaks of cholera in the town in 1832, 1849 and 1854. The first electricity generating station was built in 1892. A railway from Oxford to London was built in 1844. Another to Banbury was built in 1850. In 1860 the natural history museum opened.


A martyrs memorial to the 3 Protestants who were burned in Marys reign in the mid-16th century was built in 1843.


In the 1820s and 1830s working class houses were built at Summerstown. This suburb officially absorbed by the city in 1889. After 150 a middle class estate was built at Park Town. In the 1830s and 1840s a working house suburb grew up at Jericho. In the 1870s houses were built at Northam Manor. Oxford was made a county borough in 1889.


In the late 19th century a marmalade making industry began in Oxford. There was also a publishing industry and an iron foundry. Yet Oxford remained a city of craftsmen producing things for the university not a manufacturing centre.




Oxford gained its first cinema in 1910. Christchurch memorial gardens were laid out in 1926.


The fate of Oxford was changed in 1913 when a man named Morris began making cars in the city. In 1919 a radiator making company was formed and in 1926 a pressed steel company which made car bodies. By the 1930s Oxford was an important manufacturing centre. It was also a prosperous city. Furthermore it escaped serious damage during World War II.


Private houses were built around Woodstock Road in the 1920s In 1929 the boundaries of the city were extended to include Summertown, Wolvercote, Headington, Cowley and Iffley. In the 1930s more wre built at Cumnor Hill and Headington Hill. Council houses were built in Headington, Wolvercote and Cutteslowe. Oxford police station was built in 1936. In the 1930s many new houses were built in Botley, North Hincksey and Cowley. Hincksey park opened in 1934. The museum of the history of science opened in 1924. Nuffield Orthopeadic centre began life as a convalescent home in 1872. In the 1920s it began to specialise in orthopaedics. It was given its present name in 1931 when Viscount Nuffield gave a gift of money. Churchill hospital was built in 1940. Oxford airport opened in 1938.


In the late 1950s and 1960s a council house estate was built at Blackbird Leys. Other council houses were built at Rose Hill. Cutteslowe park was laid out in 1952.


St Clares college opened in 1953. The Cowley Shopping Centre was completed in 1965. The Westgate shopping centre opened in 1972. It was refurbished in 1986. A multi storey car park was built there in 1974. Queen Street was pedestrianised in 1970. The gallery of modern art opened in 1966. The College of Further Education was built in 1972. The Museum of Oxford opened in 1975. Ferry Pool opened in 1976.




Today the main industries are still car manufacturing and making vehicle parts as well as publishing. There is now a biotech industry in Oxford. At the present time a science park is being built. Today the population of Oxford is 121,000.

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The history of Oxford, by Tim Lambert.
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