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Headington history: Non-listed buildings

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Headington Union Workhouse


Headington Union workhouse, designed by George Wilkinson, opened in 1838 on the Headington Quarry section of the London Road (just to the east of the present Wharton Road). It repllaced an earlier workhouse at Titup.

Workhouse pillar

This pillar (left) and a portion of wall in a Gladstone Road garden are the only remaining signs of the workhouse. It was once a massive hexagonal building with an infirmary to the west, as shown below on the 1876 Ordnance Survey map of Headington:

Headington Workhouse in 1876

During the mid-nineteenth century it was the only building between Windmill Road and Green Road, and must have presented an imposing and solemn facade. Even on this map, dating from the very end of that century, showing the London Road from St Andrew's School eastwards to the junction with Pitts Road, it was very isolated:

Workhouse in c.1899

Headington workhouse served all 22 parishes of the Headington Union, namely Beckley, Chippinghurst, Cowley, Cuddesdon, Denton, Elsfield, Forest Hill & Shotover, Garsington, Holton, Horspath, Horton-cum-Studley, Iffley & Cockmore, Littlemore, Marston, Stanton St John Stowood, Studley, Wheatley, Woodeaton, the parishes of St Clements, St Giles and St John in the city of Oxford, and of course Headington itself.

Headington Workhouse

Above: Headington Union Workhouse building. The date is uncertain, but as it is a postcard and is softened by attractive planting, it is likely to date from about 1930, when the 1838 building had been converted into a hospital called The Laurels.

The following notice appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 10 October 1835:

HEADINGTON UNION.
WANTED,—A PIECE of GROUND, at Headington, or in the immediate neighbourhood, containing 5 Acres or thereabouts, for the purpose of erecting a Workhouse.

This was followed by a notice on 16 January 1836 inviting tenders for building “a Workhouse of Stone, to be dug on the spot”.

Jackson’s Oxford Journal for 13 February 1836 (page 3c) reported that Mr Wilkinson’s plans for Witney, Headington, Thame, Woodstock, and Chipping Norton workhouses had all been approved.

On 28 January 1837 the following advertisement for staff appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal:

HEADINGTON UNION. PORTER AND SCHOOLMISTRESS WANTED.
THE Guardians, at their Weekly Meeting on Thursday the 2d of February, will appoint a PORTER to the Workhouse of the Union at Headington. He must be a married man, strong and active, without family, and able to write and keep common accounts. His Wife must be competent to act as SCHOOLMISTRESS to the Girls in the Workhouse, and to perform such other duties as the Guardians may direct. Salary £25 per annum, with lodging and such provisions as may be furnished from the ordinary stores of the house.

List of inmates of Headington Union Workhouse in 1841 (PDF file)

In the early days, as well as taking in the unemployed, it served as an orphanage and a home for unmarried mothers, destitute widows, the blind, and the elderly. Many of the inmates in their 60s and 70s whose occupation is given in the census as “Farm labourer” would have been totally incapable of such backbreaking work; and who would have employed the 86-year-old female “Domestic Servant” from Iffley who was an inmate in 1861?

Within thirty years the new workhouse was no longer big enough. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 17 October 1868 reports:

The continually increasing requirements for those parishes in Oxford belonging to the Headington Union have induced the Guardians to consider the best means of adapting their workhouse to the increased number of inmates. Acting upon the advice of Mr Codd, the Guardians have determined to remove all the sick into a new infirmary, to be immediately commenced, adjoining the present buildings, and to devote the space thus gained in the House to relieving the overcrowding among the aged people and children.

Much information about the meagre diet and miserable life of the inmates can be gleaned from the Minute Book of the Headington Union Guardians, which survives from August 1841 to 1873 (Oxfordshire History Centre, ref. A61ff.). There is also an excellent thesis by N. T. Simpson based on this minute book entitled “The Headington Union Minute Book” at the Oxfordshire History Centre in Cowley, ref. 362.5 (SIM) Stack).

In its latter years, the regime softened, and the Oxford Times of 28 December 1923 reported thus on Christmas at Headington Workhouse:

Workhouse Christmas: Festivities opened at Headington workhouse on Christmas Eve when the staff sang carols to the sick. Breakfast on Christmas Day was followed by communion in the chapel. Dinner included roast beef, port, vegetables and Christmas pudding and custard. The staff did their best to ensure a happy time for those under their care. At the conclusion of the day the inmates gave a carol concert which lasted for nearly two hours. A Christmas tree was heavily laden with presents which afterwards were distributed.

All the same, as Edith Musselle’s reminiscences show, there was still a great stigma attached to being in Headington Workhouse.

Peter Higginbotham’s excellent Workhouse site gives useful general information about how workhouses were run, and includes a page on the Headington Union Workhouse.

Workhouse party in 1910The picture above shows the inmates of the workhouse
in June 1911 celebrating the coronation of George V.

In 1929 Kelly's Directory described the Headington Workhouse as follows, avoiding the pejorative term “workhouse”::

The Institution, a plain stone building, in Headington Quarry, is available for 250 inmates, & attached to it is an infirmary containing 60 beds. Rev. Ernest Basil Roberts, M.A. chaplain; Robert Hitchings M.E.C.P., L.R.C.P. Lond. medical officer.

The last entry in Kelly’s Directory for “Headington Union Poor Law Institution” was in 1930, and in 1931 it was turned into a hospital and renamed “The Laurels”, but it was also known as the London Road Hospital. The map below shows the former workhouse in 1939:

Workhouse in 1939

The last entry in Kelly's Directory for the former workhouse building was in 1960, when it read “250 [London Road] Laurels (The) (Oxford City Services Welfare Committee)”. It was the only building listed between Gladstone Road to the west and Pitts Road to the east.

The Laurels was closed in about 1960 and the former workhouse building was demolished in 1964. The relevant planning applications for The Laurels estate between 1965 and 1975 are as follows:

  •  65/16008/A_H
    The Laurels London Road –1 shop, 156 flats and 43 dwelling houses and garages for private cars
  • 66/17427/A_H
    The Laurels London Road – Estate layout for dwelling houses, flats and shops
  • 66/17427/AA_H
    The Laurels London Road – Erection of dwelling houses with garages for private cars
  • Douglas Veale House (even) 48–74 Gladstone Road, Tilehouse Close, Trafford Road, and John Snow Place
    68/20161/A_H
    The Laurels London Road - Outline application for residential development including shops and garages with roads and footpaths, and the closure to vehicular traffic of the junction of Pitts Road and London Road
  • 48–74 Gladstone Road
    69/20161/A_H
    The Laurels London Road - Erection of 6 No five-bedroom houses, 10 No four-bedroom houses, 23 No three-bedroom houses, 28 No three-bedroom houses, 3 No three-bedroom bungalows, 4 No one-bedroom flats for old people, 1 No two-bedroom flat, 1 No shop on ground floor, 17 garages and hardstandings.
  • 1–43 Colemans Hill, Tilehurst Close (odd) 1–11 (even) 14-34 (even) Trafford Road and John Snow Place
    75/00086/A_H
    The Laurels London Road – (Phase 2) Erection of two four-storey blocks with a two-storey link block for residential use, comprising 18 no. maisonettes, 22 no. flats, 3 no  bungalows and 36 no. garages. (Contract 1)

© Stephanie Jenkins

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