Headington history: The quarries

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Were it not for the pits, Headington Quarry village would be on fairly flat ground; instead it is built in a rabbit warren of hollows and waste heaps. When the quarries were flourishing there was only one road in Quarry, namely the present Beaumont Road, which continued into Green Road (formerly known as Toot Hill Butts), and this in turn provided access to the Old London Road (and from the end of the eighteenth century to the new one too). Hence Beaumont Road stands higher than the rest of the village, as no quarrying was done there. All the other roads in the village, such as Quarry High Street and New Cross Road, were just cart-tracks leading to the pits.

The first evidence of quarrying in Headington comes from Etheldred's charter to St Frideswide's Priory of 1004, which mentions a “fulen pitte” as a landmark.

Headington stone was the main construction material for many Oxford buildings from the end of the fourteenth to the middle of the eighteenth century.

Quarrying in Headington started in earnest in 1396, when New College built its bell-tower from Headington stone. The stone would have been dislodged by means of a puggle (a flat spear-headed piece of steel on a long pole, the only method of quarrying until the late nineteenth century), and medieval carters would have brought the stone down to New College (in 1,386 loads) via the present Beaumont Road, Green Road, Old Road and Cheney Lane. Roads such as the present Quarry High Street, New Cross Road, and Pitts Road were just cart-tracks leading to the pits.

Another 6,140 loads of stone came by this route when All Souls College was built between 1438 and 1443: Headington provided the ragstone, which was mainly used for the foundations and walls. In October 1438 the college leased a quarry in Headington from Edmund Rede, and quarried its own stone. A gang of seven local stonecutters under Thomas Brackley squared and trimmed the stone in Headington before transportation to Oxford, where more skilled masons had a yard on the college site where they worked the stone.

Around this same time, Headington stone was also being used for the building of the Divinity School.

From 1468 William Orchard who lived in Barton was the master mason in charge of the building of Magdalen College.

In 1509 a quarry in Headington was leased for the construction of the new Brasenose College.

Oxford colleges preferred getting their stone from Headington to reduce transportation costs, but even for this short distance they had to pay a delivery charge of between 4d. and 6d. a load. When Wolsey built Cardinal College (now known as Christ Church) in the 1520s, he too chose Headington stone, and in order to facilitate deliveries he repaired the bridge over the Cherwell at Milham Ford (now part of St Hilda’s College) and laid out the present Broad Walk through Christ Church Meadow.

By the seventeenth century, Headington stone was being used for every known Oxford building, including the Bodleian Schools quadrangle. It was during this period of frenetic quarrying that the hamlet of Headington Quarry started to grow up around the pits. Colleges that owned their own quarries in Headington included All Souls, Balliol, Brasenose, Christ Church, Corpus Christi, Lincoln, Oriel, Magdalen, and Queen’s. One of the reasons for the Act of 1624 for making the Thames navigable as far as Oxford was to allow Headington stone to be transported to London.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the major disadvantage of Headington freestone – that it eroded badly over time – was recognized, and from this period it was only used in places where it would not show. The Headington hardstone, which was used for New College bell-tower, proved more durable. None the less this notice in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 27 July 1822 advertising two quarries to let praises Headington freestone:

TO LET on a Lease, for 12, 14, or 21 years, and either together or separately,–The two capital STONE QUARRIES on Shotover Hill, near Oxford, producing the celebrated Headington pave stone, and excellent free stone, in inexhaustible abundance. The multiplicity of new buildings, as well projected as in actual progress, in and near Oxford, and the extensive demand for stone from these quarries from distant places, must ensure to them for many years a brisk and never-failing trade; and they undoubtedly offer to persons in that line a most advantageous opportunity of a profitable establishment.
   The Quarries may be entered upon immediately.
   For terms and further particulars apply at the office of Mr. H. Taunton, Oxford.

On 23 April 1825 tenders were invited in Jackson's Oxford Journal from contractors for conveyancing c.6,000 feet of hard stone and 7,000 feet of free stone from the Headington Quarries to Marlow Pound Lock.

It appears that children worked in the pits: on 4 July 1840 an inquest was held “on view of the body of George Snow, aged eight years, who was killed at Headington Quarry by a large piece of clay falling upon him whilst he was at work. Verdict, “accidental death.” George, the son of the labourer William Snow and his wife Hannah, was baptised at St Andrew's Church on 24 June 1832 and buried in its churchyard on 7 July 1840.

There were many accidents in the pits: for instance on 25 May 1850 and inquest was held at Barton into the death of the labourer George Cooper (63): he was “at work in a stone-pit at headington, undermining some stone, and when he had removed the bed about three feet, the mass of stone fell, and so crushed the deceased that he expired almost instantly.”

In the mid-nineteenth century three important buildings in Quarry were built from its stone: Holy Trinity Church (1849), Quarry Methodist Chapel (1860), and Headington Quarry National School (1864)

In the later nineteenth century brick became more important than stone, so that by 1900 more than half the population of Quarry worked in the brickyards, making Headington responsible for much of Oxford’s “base and brickish skirt”.

Many of the stones used to build the walls along the alleyways of Quarry are made of local Coral rag and contain fossils.

Two pits in Headington Quarry – Magdalen Quarry and Rock Edge – are now sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Some Headington stonemasons


The pictures above and below are of Headington stonemasons. Raymond Jacobs is second from the left
in the second row down on the top picture, and seated on the extreme right in the second picture.
Can anyone name any of the other men? Pictures donated by Ian Garrett


© Stephanie Jenkins

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