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Headington history

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Brief history of Headington


Many items discovered in Headington help to authenticate its proud boast that it was a long-established settlement when central Oxford was little more than a bog. Here are just a few:

  • Excavations in the field in Barton Lane opposite the Black Boy in 2001 indicate that Stone Age man lived there in c.1,000 BC
  • Pottery found on the Manor Ground in 2002 indicates that there was an Iron Age settlement there in c.600 BC
  • The clay of a mortarium (bowl, as in pestle and mortar) from the second century AD found in Headington is strengthened with local local gravel
  • A kiln found on the site of the Churchill Hospital indicates that the Romans had a pottery there in c.AD 300
  • Bones found by builders in a Stephen Road garden in 2002 indicated that there was an Anglo-Saxon burial ground there, in c.AD 500.

The Romans certainly preferred the dry, sandy, Mediterranean-type soil of Headington to the sticky clay and damp air of the river valley below. Old Road is believed to be the only Roman road in the Oxford area (although Thomas Hearne believed that Cuckoo Lane was too), and Roman villas, brickfields, and quarries have been found nearby. The Headington area was a major manufacturing centre that exported its clay pots as far as northern Europe. The complete Roman kiln found at the Churchill Hospital is on display in the Museum of Oxford.

The name “Hedena’s dun” (a dun being a hill) was first used in Saxon times, when it was the site of a palace or hunting lodge of the kings of Mercia: Ethelred the Unready (978–1016) is believed to have had his palace at Old Headington. In 1004 King Ethelred, by a charter “written at the royal ville called Headan dune”, gave land in Headington to St Frideswide’s Priory in Oxford, including the Headington Quarry area and a quarry.

The Domesday Book of 1086 records “Rex tenet Hedintone” (“The King holds Headington”). During the Norman period, Headington was overtaken in size by Oxford, founded as a royal new town in c.900, which by 1200 had a growing community of scholars. The old road from Oxford to London ran over Shotover Hill, so travellers veered off to the right up Cheney Lane to pick it up. This meant that the original village of Headington (now known as Old Headington) was off the beaten track: the only way it could be reached from Oxford was via Cuckoo Lane, which could be reached either from the Marston Road or from the top of Headington Hill.

Manor of Headington in the 13th century

The above map shows (1) the extent of the Manor of Headington marked in yellow and (2) the extent of the Forest of Shotover (marked with a border of trees) in the thirteenth century. Note that the Manor extended to the west of the River Cherwell, taking in much of the present North Oxford and reaching as far as Binsey.

Headington was important during the Civil War because of its commanding position on the top of the hill. Meanwhile down in Royalist Oxford, King Charles kept close watch on Headington from the top of Magdalen Tower in case there was an invasion.

In the seventeenth century a second village, Headington Quarry, grew up around the stone pits. From the start it literally turned its back on Old Headington, as it needed to be orientated southwards towards the present Old Road. Cardinal Wolsey repaired this road and the bridge over the Cherwell at Milham so that Headington stone could be brought down easily and then conveyed along the Broad Walk in the meadow to build his college (later known as Christ Church).

In about 1700 the terraced footpath that is still in use on the north side of Headington Hill was paid for by the University: but this just led to open countryside at the top, as the present Headington / London Road did not exist in any form at that time. It was only in the 1790s that a new turnpike road to London was cut through this countryside in order that stagecoaches could avoid the steep gradient of Shotover Hill. The new road to London had a dramatic effect on Headington (and still does more than 200 years later). The village of Quarry became a backwater; Old Headington (which for a thousand years had been orientated towards Marston) was forced to start looking southwards; and eventually, between the 1850s and 1880s, a new planned village was built in an inviting gap on the south side of the road. It was given the obvious name of New Headington, causing the original village of Headington to become known for the first time as “Old” Headington.

Until 1804, the Headington area was divided up into four great Fields, namely:

  • North Field (comprising the Barton district)
  • Pound Field (Old Headington, extending westwards to Pullen’s Lane)
  • South Field (to the south-west of Old Road)
  • Quarry Field (the Headington Quarry area, as far as Windmill Road)

These fields were divided up into Furlongs, e.g. Toot Hill Butts Furlong, which in turn were divided up into strips of land which were individually owned.

In 1804 the Headington area was enclosed, so that instead of having strips dotted about all over Headington’s Furlongs each landowner was awarded sizeable chunks. Major Headington landowners included the Lord of the Manor of Headington, Mary Jones, and Magdalen College.

Enclosure incidentally caused a rift between the people of Old Headington and Quarry, when Sir Joseph Lock built a wall around his newly acquired estate at Bury Knowle and blocked off the path by which the Quarry dead were transported to St Andrew’s Church. Thenceforth the Quarry people shunned Old Headington, building their own chapels or not attending church at all. The ungodliness of the hamlet led to the building of Holy Trinity Church in 1849, when Headington Quarry became a separate parish from Old Headington.

In the nineteenth century, the men of the three villages of Headington provided Oxford with its market-garden produce, its bricks and its stone. The women (who were renowned for the “Headington hump”, acquired by years of bending over the wash-tub) did Oxford’s washing, despite the fact that there was no piped water until 1902. It was always a backward rural area compared to the city of Oxford, and it had to wait until 1926 for gas and 1929 for electricity.

Headington was a popular destination for undergraduates’ country walks, possibly because it was the nearest sizeable place to the east out of the ambit of the proctors. Until 1929 the eastern part of the city came to an end at the boundary brook, where Oxford’s Headington Road ends and Headington’s London Road begins. (This brook, which is also the old boundary between Oxford and Cowley eventually reaches the River Thames. It now runs underground by the White Horse and under point where the Headington Road becomes the London Road, but passes through gardens in Brookside and Highfield Avenue before going under Old Road and running beside the Churchill Hospital.)

The dry and healthy air that had appealed to the Romans led to many Oxford hospitals being sited in Headington, starting with the Warneford in 1826 and the Wingfield Convalescent Home in 1871.

In 1893 two Headington worthies, Dr Robert Hitchings and the Revd John Holford-Scott (later Scott-Tucker), got together a village football team that was to become known as Headington United. This team was renamed Oxford United in 1960, and they played in central Headington for 108 years until 2001.

In 1899 a chance meeting in Headington between Cecil Sharp and William Kimber of Quarry, the “Father of English Morris” led to the revival of English folk music. The Quarry Morris dancers are still a familiar sight in Headington today.

New Headington village grew so rapidly at the beginning of the twentieth century that in 1910 All Saints Church was built and the separate parish of Highfield created.

Until 1913, the 1½-mile residence limit for members of Congregation meant that the only part of Headington populated by Professors and Fellows of colleges was Pullen’s Lane. In that year the limit was abolished, causing an influx of dons’ families to Old Road and Old Headington.

The growth of the Cowley car works caused an explosion in the size of Headington between 1921 and 1931, when its population increased by 79 per cent. In 1929, the three old villages came under the city of Oxford, and were henceforth considered a suburb. Oxford’s first council houses were immediately built in Headington.

Then the suburb of Headington started to get new suburbs of its own, such as Barton (completed 1948) and the Northway Estate (1950s) and Wood Farm (1960s).

The shark landed on a house in New High Street in 1986, and is now Headington’s most familiar landmark.

The metamorphosis of Headington Polytechnic into Oxford Brookes University in 1992 and the huge expansion of the hospitals is helping to make Headington the most vibrant suburb of Oxford. But to discover the original Headington, you have to leave the London Road and hunt out its three villages (the very names of Old High Street, New High Street, and Quarry High Street offer helpful clues).

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© Stephanie Jenkins

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