Headington history: People

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Barbara Woodhouse, née Blackburn (1910–1988)

Barbara Kathleen Vera Blackburn (later Mrs Mill and finally Mrs Woodhouse) was born in Ireland on 9 May 1910.

Her early years were spent in Dublin, where her father, William Blackburn, was the clergyman headmaster of St Columba’s College. He died suddenly at the age of 41 on 18 November 1919 when Barbara was nine years old. The family had to move straight out of their home, as it was needed by another teacher, and they came to England.

Barbara’s father had been a student at Oxford, and had bought Sandfield Cottage on the London Road, presumably with a view to his retirement. At the time of his death it was let out to the Rowells who owned a jeweller’s shop in Oxford, and Mrs Blackburn, who was pregnant with her fifth child, could not move here right away with her children, as she had to give them a year’s notice to leave. She therefore temporarily moved to Brighton, where Barbara’s youngest brother Desmond was born near the end of 1920.

Very soon afterwards they moved to Sandfield Cottage in Headington: It was in fact a large house with extensive land fronting the London Road (see separate page on the house). Barbara’s mother Mrs Blackburn is listed there in Kelly’s Directory from 1921 to 1960.

Barbara trained her first ponies there, and was sent to Headington School nearby, where she recalled that every mistress hated her “because I always went to school smelling of horse”. She was one of the first girls to join the school in its new (present) building, and Barbara reports that when she and her two sisters entered the school there were only twelve girls there.

The following two postcards sent by Barbara when she lived at Sandfield Cottage emphasize how horse-mad she was. The first, sent to Keith Keynes, Esq. in Porthleven, Cornwall, was postmarked in Headington on 14 September 1923, when Barbara was aged 13. Addressed to Keith Heynes in Portleven, Cornwall, it reads:

Tommy arrived quite safely yesterday & was very frisky[,] an expert on horses said he was a jolly good horse. I had a lovely jump over a hurdle yesterday[,] he does jump splendidly[.] I am going to give him a basin of oats & a basin of bran per day extra to the grass & I am going to keep [him] in at nights[,] he will be a great pet with everyone & should be happy. I will write often & tell you how he is. Yours truly B. Blackburn

1923 postcard

The second postcard (to the same recipient) was postmarked in Headington on 1 July 1924, when Barbara was aged 14, and it reads:

Tommy has just won 1st Prize at a Gymkhana on Thurs 29th for musical chairs he competed against horses of 17 & 18 hands. I thought you would be interested to know. B. Blackburn.

Woodhouse postcard 1924

Barbara left Headington School at the age of 14, and spent a short period at a Swiss finishing school before starting at the Harper Adams Agricultural College in Shropshire in 1926.

In 1928 she came back to Headington and opened a riding school and boarding kennels at Sandfield Cottage. The advertisement below, from Kelly’s Directory of 1933, shows Barbara, then aged 23, described as Principal of “The Headington Riding School and Boarding Kennels”.

Advertisement of 1933

On 15 August 1934 Barbara Blackburn (24) was married at St Andrew’s Church in Headington to her first husband, Allan George Mill (25), the manager of Manor Farm, Claverdon, Warwickshire. Two of her siblings were also later married at St Andrew’s:

  • 22 June 1935: Hazel Madeline Blackburn (an artist) married the botanist Frederick Gustav Chapple (1911–1990)
  • 23 December 1940: Desmond William Edward Blackburn (an army officer) married his first wife Rosalind Marion Wallis Jewitt (a WAAF officer).

On 28 September 1934, a month after their wedding, Allan and Barbara Hill set sail for Buenos Aires, where they spent a few years managing a series of estancias. But the marriage ended in divorce, and on 29 July 1939 Allan Hill returned to Buenos Aires on his own.

Barbara returned to live with her mother in Headington. The 1939 register shows Barbara (then still Mrs Mill) descrbied as a horse dealer living at Sandfield Cottage with her mother Leila and her older brother Charles, who was a tyre remoulder.

On Saturday evenings Barbara used to run dances at Sandfield Cottage to which she invited her girl friends to meet the young doctors from the Radcliffe Infirmary. It was at one of these dances that she met her second husband, Michael Clayton Woodhouse. They were married on 5 August 1940, and they moved to Wiltshire, where her husband had a medical practice in Melksham, and Barbara managed several farms and brought up three children.

Meanwhile her mother, Mrs L. Blackburn, remained at Sandfield Cottage (numbered first 5 and eventually 43 London Road) and continued to run the Sandfield Dog Boarding Kennels until about 1960. Sandfield Cottage was demolished in 1965, and its grounds redeveloped.

Barbara Woodhouse became famous at the age of 70, when she started to present the television programme “Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way” in 1980. She died in 1988.

Blackburn Close

Blackburn Close on the former Manor Ground site is named after Mrs Barbara Woodhouse's family.

There is a much fuller entry on Barbara Woodhouse in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The ODNB online is available free to many public library users, including those in Oxfordshire:
enter L followed immediately by your library ticket number in the “Library Card Login” box

Wikipedia: Barbara Woodhouse

See also Barbara Woodhouse, Just Barbara (M. Joseph, 1981)
Autobiography including reminiscences of her time at Sandfield Cottage
— but overlooking her first marriage in St Andrew’s Church in Headington

© Stephanie Jenkins

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