61 Old Road
The present 61 Old Road has had the following names and numbers over the years:
15 Old Road
27 Old Road
61 Old Road
This house marks the very beginning of the development of the Highfield Farm estate. When it was built in 1878, Lime Walk, Stapleton Road, and Bickerton Road did not exist, and there was no building whatsoever on the north side of Old Road between Cheney Lane and the Wingfield Convalescent Home on the corner of Windmill Road.
Highfield Cottage at 61 Old Road was one of the the first two houses to be built on the land of the old Highfield Farm. The owner of that farm, the Revd John Taylor of the Rookery School in Old Headington, had tried unsuccessfully to sell the farm lands to developers in 1875. In 1877 he had two houses built himself: a large villa facing the London Road (now Dorset House), and this sizeable cottage.
The following advertisement appeared in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 29 June 1878:
The pair were eventually auctioned at the Roebuck Hotel in Oxford on 20 November 1878. The advertisement for the sale in Jackson’s Oxford Journal describes what is now 61 Old Road as follows:
The newly-erected Brick-built and Blue-slated FREEHOLD COTTAGE RESIDENCE; containing 2 good sitting rooms, kitchen, scullery, pantry, and closet on the ground floor, and 5 capital bed rooms on the first floor, together with a piece of garden ground, the whole being in extent 20 Poles.
The house stands adjoining the Shotover Road, on a high elevation and dry soil, and gives extensive views of the surrounding country.
There is irony in the last sentence: the “surrounding country” was the land of Highfield Farm, just about to be developed. Although described as a cottage, it was in fact a substantial house with a 20-pole garden (approx. one-third of an acre).
The Adamson family, who were in this house at the time of the 1881 census, were probably the first people to live here. They may have used it as a country retreat, as at the time of the census William Charles Adamson and his wife Julia were staying over their tailor’s shop at 100/101 High Street, while their children Horace (7) and Bertie (6) were being looked after in this house by their maternal grandmother (Mary Seager) and their aunt. Although it was still known by the humble name of Highfield Cottage, there was a live-in servant described as a porter.
The next occupant (who renamed the house Merton Lea), was Frederick Blackwell, the collector of water rates for Oxford. Born in 1851, he was the younger son of Benjamin Harris Blackwell, founder of the famous bookshop. The 1891 census shows him living in the house with his wife Annie (née Fitchett), his sons Frederick and Arthur, his mother-in-law, and their servant-girl of 13. In about 1895 he married his second wife, Mary, and by the time of the 1901 census Frederick junior had left home and Arthur (aged 17) is described as a mechanical engineer. At the time of the 1911 census Frederick Blackwell (58), still a rate collector for Oxford Corporation, was at Merton Lea with just his wife Mary (45) and one servant.
In about 1922 Frederick Blackwell senior built himself a smaller house called Morningside (now 50 Bickerton Road) in his back garden and sold the main house.
The new owner of 61 Old Road was Percy Simpson (1865–1962), Fellow of Oriel College and University Reader in English textual criticism, and his wife Evelyn Mary Simpson (1885–1963). They were both well-known renaissance scholars, and remained in the house until 1960.
In 1961, 61 Old Road was converted into three flats with new garages built in what was left of its garden. The final remnant of the original 20-pole garden of Highfield Cottage was lost in 1987, when two detached houses (52 & 54 Bickerton Road) were squeezed into the garden of 50 Bickerton Road (which itself was a back-garden development of 61 Old Road).
The building was refurbished in 2005/6 by BradAndrews and now consists of seven apartments. In addition another new house was built in the garden behind.