Headington history: Non-listed buildings

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British Workman, 67 Old High Street

British Workman

The British Workman movement started in the north of England in the 1860s with the aim of establishing alcohol-free public houses for working men. The idea soon spread, and numerous British Workman temperance hotels, tea/coffee houses, and clubs were opened throughout the country: in Oxford, for example, there was one at 98 St Clement’s Street.

The Church of England Temperance Society (CETS) was set up in Headington in 1874 by Lewis Stacey Tuckwell, then curate of St Andrew’s Church; and in 1876 Colonel Desborough of the Priory converted 9 The Croft (where the Headington subscription reading room had been founded in 1858) into a British Workman. This rented cottage, however, proved to be too small to meet the demand.

It was two women of Headington who got together in 1880 to provide the land and money for the New British Workman building, which still stands today at 67 Old High Street (formerly 27 High Street). They were Mrs Ballachey (aged 83) of Bury Knowle House, who donated the land, and Miss Mary Ann Nichol (aged 64) of Jessamine (also known as Jesmond) Cottage at 83 Old High Street, who paid for the building costs. (Paradoxically, the fearsomely teetotal Miss Nichol was the niece of Edward Latimer of Headington House, one of Oxford’s biggest wine merchants.)

Plaque on British Workman


Right: The inscribed plaque on the front of 67 Old High Street reads:

“This site was given by Mrs Ballachey and the buildings were erected at the expense of Miss Nichol for the promotion of temperance in this parish”

The New British Workman opened on 30 December 1880. An anonymous parishioner wrote in the Headington Parish Magazine of February 1881 that its aim was “the promotion of three genuine R’s – Reading, Recreation, and Refreshment, to which may be added a fourth most important R, viz., Religious Instruction”. The first caretaker of the building was Joseph Cripps, a gardener aged 34 with four children.

British Workman coins

Left: Obverse and reverse of a token for the Headington British Workman (image kindly contributed by David Powell).

It is dated 1880 and represents a “check” for 2d.

In his book Good for One Pennyworth of Refreshment: Tokens of Coffee Taverns, Cocoa Houses and Coffee Palaces, Trevor Owens quotes as follows from an article on the Bradford Company, which explains why members of the Headington British Workman used tuppeny tokens rather than cash:

Several hundred pounds worth of checks have been sold to charitable persons for distribution among the poor. These are exchangeable only at the coffee taverns for good food and beverages, therefore donors know their charity cannot be abused.

On p. 83, Owen also has a photograph of the members' badge of the Headington British Workman The obverse appears identical to the above, and the reverse simply says “MEMBERS BADGE”. A hole drilled at the top allowed members to hang it from a thread around their neck.

In 1883 a large room at the back was added that could hold 200 people or be partitioned off into three rooms. This was the gift of a third woman, Miss Isabella Watson-Taylor of Headington Manor House.

Room at back of British Workman



in 1891 a gymnasium (right) was built at the back of the British Workman at a cost of £100.

It was definitely a club for working men, despite the fact that it had been set up by women. The neglect of the girls did not go unnoticed: the Headington Parish Magazine of October 1892 states:

For some time past it has been thought desirable that a Social Union should be formed for the young women of this parish. The lads and young men have various pleasant resources at their disposal: there are the Gymnasium, the Choral and Dramatic Society, the Junior Guild of Bellringers, and now the new scheme for lectures on different branches of Technical Education. So far there has not been anything in especial provided for the amusement and instruction of the girls and young women.

That month the Young Women’s Social Union was formed for unmarried women over 16 and of good character: they met at New Headington Infant School to hear lectures on subjects such as cooking, dressmaking, and knitting.

By 1893 the British Workman also housed Headington’s first proper lending library, where people could borrow books on every Wednesday evening from 6.30 to 8pm: non-members of the British Workman had to pay the Librarian, Edwin Smith, a modest 3d. a quarter for this privilege.

The manager of the British Workman lived in the house. The 1911 census shows Charles Clinkscales (47), a London-born police pensioner described as club manager, living here with his wife and four children.

The British Workman in Old High Street in many ways resembled the community centre of today. The following are some other examples of its use between 1881 and 1930:

  • Headington Provident Medical Dispensary (1881)
  • Soup kitchen (dispensing a total of 1,960 pints of soup at under a 1d. a pint to the poor of Headington on Wednesdays and Fridays during just six weeks at the beginning of 1881)
  • Entertainment, e.g. talks interspersed with songs and instrumental music in 1884, and a tea and concert on 12 June 1894 after the laying of the foundation stone of the new Headington National School
  • Celebration meals, e.g. the annual supper of the Headington United Cricket Club on 8 October 1885
  • Meetings of the Church of England Temperance Society
  • Meetings of Headington Sports Ground Limited in the 1920s(which later became Headington Football Club, then Headington United, and finally Oxford United)
  • Mothers’ Meetings (held every Monday at 2.30pm in the winter of 1886)
  • Meetings of the Headington Women’s Missionary Association (on the first Friday of each month from 3 to 5pm in 1886)
  • Baby health clinic from 1915 to 1930.

Front of the British Workman


In the early twentieth century, the club was used for dances, whist drives, and other social occasions which women were allowed to attend as guests.

In about 1920 three public baths were installed in an extension, and these survived until 1946.

During the Second World War the British Workman was the headquarters of the local Home Guard, and ration books were issued here.

In the 1960s the old malthouse (the flat-roofed building to the south) and the old gymnasium behind it were leased to the Viking Sports Club, while bingo was played in the main club.

The British Workman's Club at 67 Old High Street was still listed in Kelly's Directory for 1976 (the last one to be published), but it appears to have closed by 1980. The main building fronting Old High Street was converted into two small houses in 2001, but the Viking Sports Club behind survives.

Headington Parish Magazine, February 1881:

The History and Origin of the New British Workman

In 1858 a small cottage was rented and, under the auspices of Mr Wootten (then Undershell), Mr Sturman Latimer, and others, a Reading-room was established, and an exceedingly good Library collected and supported by donations and yearly subscriptions. Ordinary members limited to 50, and not admitted till above 16 years of age, being required to pay 1/- a quarter. No smoking was allowed, no refreshments provided, and silence enjoined, but quiet games such as Chess, drafts and Dominoes supplied and allowed. Penny Readings were held in the Field School-room, in connexion with this Institution, and very well and beneficially sustained through many winters. When these fell off the number of members declined, and latterly the attendance of the men ceased altogether in consequence, it is said, of the disorderly conduct of the boys. In 1863 Miss Nichol and her elder sister (then living) offered to build a larger room and cottage for the Manager and family, if the Committee of this Reading-room would agree to modify and enlarge their plan, so as to include refreshments, and more games, and allow smoking, and talking; they promised to provide all necessary furnishing: site, plan, and estimates, were all prepared, they undertook to guarantee against loss the first year; the manager even was fixed upon; but the negotiations failed, and their offer was declined. They subsequently lost the money they had devoted to this purpose, and the project dropped to the ground. In the year 1864 our beloved and reverend Pastor, the Rev. John Robinson (brother to Miss Robinson so widely known for her Christian Philanthropy) came to minister among us, and in 1865 (at the time of his lamented death)* had taken up this subject and was negotiating for some rooms in the High Street, since turned into three cottages, but which had then been used as a Boys’ School and Class Rooms, and were admirably suited for the Refreshment and Recreation-rooms he had planned, and intended to purchase and set going on his own account, as a needed addition, but not as superseding the Reading Room. This also, with Mr Robinson’s death, went to the ground.

Subsequently to this, the Rev. J. W. A. Taylor proposed to Miss Nichol to furnish a cottage, with all necessary apparatus, as a Refreshment and a Recreation-room, and to guarantee the manager against loss for the first year, if Miss Nichol could find for him amongst the villages any sober, well-connected couple who would undertake it, and make what profit they could out of it, upon temperance principles. This project also fell through, as no such couple could then be found.

In 1876 Gen. (then Col.) Desborough took up his residence in this village and at once putting himself at the head of the Temperance movement (which had been hitherto carried on under the leadership of the Rev. L. S. Tuckwell) and seeking out means of Christian usefulness offered to take the old Reading-room, which had now fallen considerably into debt, into his own hands and give it a new career under the title of a British Workman Tea and Refreshment Rooms. The Library was sold to pay off its debt, and it has started in its new career, which has been very successful so far as it has attracted men and boys to its rooms by games and teas; but no payments have been exacted, and in a pecuniary point of view it has I fear been a heavy tax on its promoter, and the want of a large room has proved a great hindrance to making it in any measure self supporting. This it is which has prompted Miss Nichol, with the kind aid of Mrs Ballachey, to lay out her money in the erection of a larger building in the hope of extending its usefulness and aiding General Desborough in his philanthropic and Christian efforts.

* In fact the Revd Robinson died from smallpox in 1864: see stained-glass window to him in the church.

Headington Parish Magazine, April 1881:

The British Workman

An interesting ceremony took place in this new building on Thursday, March 10th, when an illuminated address was presented to Miss Nichol, at whose expense this house has been erected. The words of the address were appropriate and expressive, beautifully got up, and nicely framed. The chair was filled by Mr West, a member of the Temperance Society. The business of the meeting was preceded by a tea, which was numerously attended, and towards the middle of the proceedings the room became full to overflowing. The Chairman requested Miss Nichol’s acceptance of the address in the name of the working men of Headington, who had, with the utmost readiness and pleasure, contributed to it. Mr West spoke of the loving and untiring work which that lady had carried on in the village for a long series of years, and the various means of usefulness that she had inaugurated…. A similar presentation was prepared for Mrs Ballachey, to be forwarded on the following day, the 11th being the anniversary of her birth. This lady had kindly given the land on which the “Workman” was erected. Several working-men spoke, and were followed by our genial President, Major-Gen. Desborough, who is always ready with words of cheer. The Rev. W. H. Kewley also addressed a few words to the meeting, which were received with much cordiality. The meeting was closed with the singing of the National Anthem and with prayer.

© Stephanie Jenkins

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