Divinity Road Area History

(Extracts from Cowley Road, by Annie Skinner, published by Signal Books, Oxford, 2005, reproduced by kind permission of the author)

A Gallop Through Time

What we now know as Cowley Road once formed part of the main route from London to Oxford. It crossed over a marsh and passed St Bartholomew’s Hospital, a leper hospital founded in the twelfth century. A track led from Oxford to the hospital and established an early link between the city and what would later become East Oxford.

Bartlemas Hospital and Chapel

Henry I had founded St Bartholomew’s Hospital for twelve lepers, near the Cowley Marsh, in 1126. The entrance to this site is opposite the former bingo hall. Leprosy was a contagious disease, and in the Middle Ages it was common practice to isolate lepers from their communities. Lepers were also treated as social pariahs in that period and needed somewhere to go to be cared for while suffering from the disease, which was particularly prevalent during the first part of the thirteenth century.

St Bartholomew’s Chapel, built some 200 years later, was also part of the hospital. By the fifteenth century there were 200 leper houses in England, but St Bartholomew’s Hospital stopped admitting lepers at the beginning of that century and became an almshouse, then a hospital for plague patients, an alehouse, and then by the mid-seventeenth century, a farmhouse. During the cholera epidemic in 1832 an ad hoc Board of Health turned the hospital into a convalescent home.

Cowley Road Workhouse

When the workhouse in Wellington Square (Rats and Mice Hill) became inadequate for the city’s poor, a new workhouse was created on the Cowley Road in 1865. The mixed workhouse accommodated up to 330 inmates but was feared by many, as admission carried a great stigma. In 1930 the administration of the workhouse, which was by then known as Cowley Road Hospital and mainly used for the care of old people was taken over by the Public Assistance Committee. In 1946 the hospital came under the jurisdiction of the National Health Service and was converted into a geriatric unit. Cowley Road Hospital was closed in 1981 and later demolished (this is now Manzil Way).

Development of the Divinity Road area

Cowley Road really came into its own in the mid-nineteenth century when the area was developed as a suburb of the city. Although Oxford University had been a major landowner in the city for centuries, at this time the institution did not exert a monopoly in East Oxford. The suburb was instead developed by a number of new landowners from the 1850s onwards, and the community developed from then on, albeit on a piecemeal basis. The national Freehold Land Society (NFLS), founded in 1849, had Liberal backing and was one of the first building societies. Political motives lay behind its activities, as providing land and freehold plots undoubtedly increased the voting population. The Conservative Land Society was formed in 1852, effectively providing political opposition. Regardless of the political implications, these societies provided cheap building plots and encouraged home ownership among working men. Alma Place was one of the first NFLS developments in 1852. Marston Street was developed in 1853 and Temple and Stockmore Streets in 1856. Others followed later. The Oxford Industrial and Provident Land and Building Society laid out Southfield road and Divinity Road in 1891. Meanwhile, building continued along Cowley Road at different paces.

One of the outcomes of varied landowners and a gradual process of development is that each street had, and continues to have, its own individuality and character. Another feature of East Oxford is that its gradual development allowed for changing styles in house building, from the mid-nineteenth century to modern homes built today. Houses ranged from small terraced cottages to grander detached dwellings, differing markedly from street to street.

Malcolm Graham in his On Foot in Oxford books takes the reader on a journey through the area and identifies buildings of particular significance, explaining their place in local history.

Houses were purchased by building societies or estate agents and duly sold. Owners had the option of renting out their houses, which some did. Lodging houses were also quite common in the area during the first half of the twentieth century. Many houses were suitable for this purpose, and it was not unusual for people to take in lodgers.

Essential Services

St Clements parish included part of the Cowley Road from Divinity Road to the Plain, and was incorporated into the City of Oxford in 1835 under the Municipal Corporations Act. The Paving Commission, established in 1771, was responsible for cleaning the city streets and the removal of nuisances. Following the 1832 cholera epidemic, when St Clements suffered a third of all deaths in Oxford, drinking water was brought from Headington to pumps at the end of each street in 1849. Drainage began to appear after 1854.

The Oxford Electric Company was formed in 1890. In the early days changing over to electricity was expensive for many in poorer areas of the town, but gradually during the first half of the twentieth century residents in the area began to have access to electricity. Upon nationalisation in 1948, Oxford was served by the Southern Electricity Board. A local depot was set up in Marston Street. The Oxford Gas Company was formed in 1818, and similarly after nationalisation became part of the Southern Gas Board. Telephones, also an expensive service, came to Oxford in 1878, but in East Oxford this facility was initially confined to people in commercial occupations.

The ‘Respectable’ Working Class

Earlier in the twentieth century the people living on or near Cowley Road were from all sorts of backgrounds. There was a mixture of house owners and tenants, and among these were many college servants and local tradespeople. (Link to 1901 census)

Later workers from Morris Motors, the factory which produced the first cars in Cowley in 1913, settled here as did other workers from developing industries in the area. Robert Waller, who has written on Oxford’s political history, observes that East Oxford was judged to be “a rather conservative, deferential, stable community of college servants and the so-called ‘respectable’ working class”. Another writer on Oxford’s history, Richard Whiting, supports this view and suggests that the area was populated by a mixture of skilled and unskilled workers and among them a significant number of car workers.

St Mary and St John Church (Church of England)

One of the most influential figures in the area’s history was undoubtedly Richard Meux Benson (1824-1915), known as Father Benson, as he played an important role in the development of Cowley Road. He was the vicar of Cowley parish in 1850 and while there, was instrumental in forming the parish of Cowley St John in 1868. Father Benson became the first vicar of this expanding parish in 1869. Before St Mary and St John Church in Cowley Road was built, parishioners congregated in a specially constructed temporary church in Stockmore Street, which Father Benson had organised. This was known as the ‘Iron church’, and was used by parishioners for quite a few years until the new church was ready. St Mary and St John church had the foundation laid in 1875 and was consecrated in 1883.

Father Benson was strongly influenced by the Oxford Movement, a religious group keen to follow some of the original teachings of the Catholic Church under the Anglican doctrine. John Henry Newman, a Fellow of Oriel and later Vicar of St Mary’s, the University Church, along with Keble and others, was one of the founder members of the Oxford movement in 1833. Following his further doctrinal interpretations which caused uproar in the university, Newman was denounced as a traitor and left the Movement. He retired to Littlemore in 1841 and continued his religious studies, was ordained a Catholic priest in Rome and made a Cardinal in 1879.

All this was happening whilst Father Benson was developing his parishes.  During his time as vicar of Cowley parish, he founded the Society of St John the Evangelist, a congregation of mission priests that moved into the mission house in Marston Street in 1868. A church was built in the grounds, and they became known locally as the Cowley Fathers and were regularly seen in the area. Father Benson was also influential in founding schools in the area, and the Society ran a successful boys’ club in Marston Street.

Today the graveyard of St Mary and St John Church offers a restful and shady space, maintained by a band of volunteers who meet on Saturday to clear the undergrowth, and undertake a planting programme. Further details can be found at www.sageoxford.org.uk/churchyard.htm

Graham, Malcolm, On Foot in Oxford, 12. East Oxford. Oxfordshire County Libraries, 1987
Graham, Malcolm, On Foot in Oxford, 3. St Clements. Oxfordshire County Libraries, 1987
Graham, Malcolm, Images of Victorian Oxford. Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1992