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Oxford in 1840

Oxford is on the left or north-east bank of the Isis or Thames, just above the junction of the Charwell, which flows on the east side of the town. The Isis is divided at and near the town into several channels.

The origin of Oxford is unknown. The name is probably derived from there having been a ford or passage for oxen across the Thames here : it was written in Domesday, Oxeneford. Early in the eighth century a monastery was founded here and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Alfred is said to have coined at this town money which bore the inscription Ocsnafordia. In the Danish ravages Oxford was repeatedly injured or destroyed. Edmund Ironside died at Oxford in the year 1016, probably by assassination. Canute, his successor, frequently resided at Oxford, and held the great council of the nation here several times. Harold Harefoot. son and successor of Canute, was crowned and died at Oxford.

On the invasion of England by William the Conquer, the townsmen of Oxford refused to admit the Normans, and in the year 1067 the town was stormed by William. In consequence of this disaster or of the other oppressive measures of the government, it suffered so much, that, according to Domesday Book, only 243 houses were able to pay the tax, while 478 houses were so ‘wasted and decayed,’ that they were not able to pay it ; yet the unhappy townsmen were compelled to pay three times as much as in the time of Edward the Confessor. Further to bridle any attempt at revolt, a castle was built by Robert de Oilli, or Oilgi, on the site now partly occupied by the county gaol and the house of correction. The foundation of Oseney Abbey by Robert de Oilli, nephew of the builder of the castle, and the erection of a new hall or palace by Henry I, contributed to revive the prosperity of the town. In the beginning of the reign of Stephen (A.D. 1139), Oxford was the scene of a tumult, in which some persons of consequence were slain, and in consequence of which two bishops and other persons were apprehended. In the subsequent civil war, the Empress Maud was besieged in Oxford Castle by Stephen, but escaped in the night with three attendants, and the castle surrendered next morning. The ground was covered with snow, and the empress, with her attendants clothed in white, passed unnoticed through the posts of the besiegers, and crossed the Thames, which was frozen over, on foot. The accommodation between Stephen and Henry II, by which the civil war between those two princes terminated, took place at a council held at Oxford. Severeal councils of state, or parliaments, were held at Oxford in the following reigns.

In the reign of Edward III there were great dissensions arising from the theological or other disputes among the students, many of whom retired in a body to Stamford in Lincolnshire. The university and town suffered much at the same period from a pestilence, which carried off a fourth part of the students. The doctrines propagated by Wickliffe occasioned, in the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV and V, much discussion and dissension at Oxford, insomuch that at one period the University was threatened with dissolution. These tumults, together with the civil war of the Roses, which occurred several years after, much depressed the place, and a dreadful pestilence soon after the accession of Henry VII nearly depopulated the city and the colleges. The same reign was marked by the revival of the study of Greek by Erasmus, who was at Oxford in 1498. The troubles of the Reformation further tended to depress the University. In the martyrdoms of Mary’s reign, those of bishops Ridley and Latimer (October, 1555), and a few months later that of archbishop Cranmer (March, 1556), took place at Oxford, in front of Baliol College.

In the reigns of Elizabeth, James I, and Charles I, the University, on which the prosperity of the town much depended, recovered in a great degree from its previous depression, and in the civil wars of Charles I, after once or twice changing masters, Oxford became the head-quarters of the king, who collected here those members of parliament who adhered to him. The members of the University supported the royal cause with great zeal ; but Oxford was at last obliged to surrender, after the battle of Naseby, to the parliamentarians under Fairfax. The University was depressed under the Commonwealth, but revived on the Restoration, and in the reign of Charles II. Two parliaments were held at Oxford, A.D. 1665 and 1681. In the reign of James II the University firmly resisted the illegal proceedings of that prince, who paid Oxford a visit, and sternly rebuked and then expelled the contumacious members, whom however, from motives of fear, he afterwards restored. Subsequent to the Revolution, Oxford was regarded as the seat of Jacobite principles ; and in 1715, during the rebellion in Scotland, General Pepper, with a body of dragoons, took possession of the city, confined the students to their respective colleges, and after apprehending some individuals and seizing the property of others, retired to Abingdon. A regiment of foot was afterwards quartered at Oxford to over-awe the disaffected.

The city lies on a point of land nearly insulated. The city and liberty, exclusive of the borough of Woodstock and the extra-parochial district of Blenheim park, which are included in the liberty, comprehended, in 1831, an area of 3,400 acres. On the east it is bounded by the Charwell or Cherwell, on the south by the main channel of the Isis, and on the west by the smaller channels of that river. It is irregularly laid out ; the two principal lines of street are Bridge Street, Fish Street, the Corn Market, and St. Giles’s Street, which form one line running from south to north, from the Abingdon road to the Woodstock and Birmingham road ; and (Magdalen) Bridge Street and High Street, which run from the London road on the east into Fish Street and the Corn Market on the west, thus forming a ‘T’ with the line just described. The other streets are for the most part parallel to these, or open into them at right angles. The town is nearly surrounded by meadows.

Oxford has much increased of late years ; new streets, elegant houses, both in rows and detached, and a number of smaller tenements, have been erected. The streets are well paved and cleansed, and are lighted with gas. The police and night watch, which are regulated by the University authorities, and maintained at their expense, are very effective. The public buildings, chiefly connected with the University, are numerous, and many of them striking from their magnitude, antiquity, or beauty.

On entering the city on the east side by the London road, over Magdalen Bridge, the buildings of Magdalen College present themselves on the north side of Bridge Street, immediately adjacent to the banks of the Charwell. The college buildings are for the most part of the fifteenth century, and present some very curious features. The hall, chapel, cloisters, and entrance tower are ancient ; the tower is characterised by elegance and simplicity ; it is crowned with eight rich pinnacles. Queen’s College, in High Street, is of Grecian architecture. Nearly opposite to Queen’s is University College ; it presents a front of more than 260 feet to High Street, and has two gateways, each surmounted by a tower ; the architecture presents some examples of Italian details, mingled with more ancient (or Gothic) forms. On the same side of High Street as Queen’s is All Souls’ College, at the corner of the opening from High Street into Radcliffe Square. It has a gateway, and some other Gothic portions of good perpendicular character, but these ancient parts are mingled with others of later and incongruous architecture. Several parts of the interior, separately considered, are worthy of admiration. The opening from the High Street, just referred to, presents numerous edifices of striking character. The eastern side is occupied by All Souls’ College, and the buildings of the now extinct foundation of Hertford College. On the western side is Brasen-Nose College, the buildings of which are chiefly of the earlier part of the sixteenth century, with some modern alterations or additions ; the entrance-gate is a fine Gothic composition, with very good details. Between the eastern and western sides of the opening from the High Street are St. Mary’s church, forming the south side of Radcliffe Square, the Radcliffe Library in the centre of the square, and the Schools forming the north side. Near the Schools the square communicates with Broad Street and Holywell Street, which form a line parallel to High Street. St. Mary’s is a fine church, of good perpendicular character, except the steeple, which is of decorated character, and a porch which is of later and incongruous architecture, with twisted pillars. The church consists of a spacious nave and aisles, and a chancel without aisles. The steeple is plain, and is surmounted by a spire. The total height is 180 feet. The members of the University commonly attend divine service here. The building which contains the Radcliffe Library has a rustic basement, forming a regular polygon of sixteen sides, and of 100 feet diameter ; from this basement rises a circular story divided into sixteen compartments by pairs of Corinthian columns, and surmounted by a balustrade, the compartments being occupied alternately by windows and niches. An upper circular story of much smaller diameter, surmounted by a cupola and lantern, completes the elevation. The interior is splendidly adorned, and the whole building constitutes one of the most striking edifices in the city. The Schools, with the picture-gallery and part of the Bodleian Library, form a quadrangle to which the rest of the Bodleian Library adjoins. The architecture of the Schools is chiefly Gothic, the exterior of a debased character, except some small portions, which are of fine composition : the interior of the Divinity School is fine, especially the roof. The Bodleian or public Library is one of the most valuable in Europe : the picture-gallery contains some interesting portraits. To the north of the Schools is an open square, the north side of which, towards Broad Street, is formed by the Clarendon (formerly the University) Printing-Office, a fine building of two stories, 115 feet long, with a Doric portico. The building was erected in 1711, from the designs of Vanbrugh. Near the Clarendon Printing-Office is ‘the Theatre,’ used for the more public or solemn assemblies of the University, and calculated to hold nearly 4,000 persons. It is a commodious building ; the part opposite the Divinity-School has a fine elevation adorned with Corinthian columns. The University press was formerly worked in the Theatre, and many of the books printed in it have a representation of the building as a vignette in the title-page.

The Museum, sometimes distinguished as the Ashmolean Museum, occupies a building adjacent to the Theatre. The collection was originally formed by the Tradescants, celebrated naturalists and herbalists of Lambeth near London, augmented by Ashmole, who presented it to the University, and further augmented by Dr. Plot and Edward Llwyd, the first keepers of the Museum, by Borlase, the historian of Cornwall, and by Reinhold Foster. The building was erected by Sir Christopher Wren. Not far from the Museum, situated back from the main streets, are Lincoln, Exeter, and Jesus Colleges. The chapel of Exeter College is a neat Gothic erection of perpendicular character. On the north side of the town, not far from the Clarendon Printing-Office, is Wadham College, the architecture of which presents an intermixture of Italian features with the older Gothic style.

In the notice of the above-mentioned buildings we have arranged them according to their locality, proceeding from the London entrance into the centre of the town. The following are near the southern or Abingdon entrance, which is by a long bridge, or succession of bridges, over the arms of the Isis or Thames. Christ-Church College is on the eastern side of Fish Street, and consists of the great quadrangle, and another quadrangle called Peckwater, besides smaller portions. The buildings are partly of Gothic architecture and perpendicular date ; but chiefly belong to a later period. The hall, built by Cardinal Wolsey, is very fine and the entrance tower, containing the great bell, ‘Tom of Oxford,’ is much admired. Near the college is the cathedral of Christ-Church, which is so enclosed by college buildings and by gardens, that no good view of the whole can be well obtained. It formerly made part of the monastery of St. Frideswilde, founded about A.D. 727, for nuns, afterwards occupied by secular canons, and afterwards by regular canons of St. Austin. The monastery was suppressed by the Pope at the desire of Wolsey, in order to the establishment of the Cardinal’s intended college of Christ-Church, and was subsequently (A.D. 1545), by Henry VIII, made the seat of a bishopric. The church, which is inferior to most of our cathedrals, is in the shape of a cross, with a tower and spire at the intersection of the nave and transepts. The nave and choir have each two side aisles ; the north transept has an aisle on the west side ; the south transept an aisle on the east side. The dimensions are given by Browne Willis as follows:- length 154 feet (155 feet Britton’s Cathedral Antiquities) ; breadth of body and side aisles 54 feet (52 feet 10 inches, Britton); length of the transepts from north to south 102 feet ; the north transept is longer than the south by one arch ; the height of the roof in the western part is 41 feet ; in the eastern part or choir part, on account of the vaulting, 4 feet lower ; the height of the steeple is 144 feet (146 feet, Britton). On the north side of the choir are two large chapels, the Dean’s Chapel and the Latin Chapel ; and on the south side of the building are the cloisters and the chapter-house, and some other apartments. The general character of the building is Norman (or, as it is sometimes called, ‘Saxon’), with additions and insertions of later date. Some of our antiquaries have ascribed the erection of this church to Ethelred II (A.D. 1002 or 1004) ; others, with better reason, fix the erection in the twelfth century. The chapter-house is of later date than the main building, and is a valuable specimen of the early English style, with a doorway of enriched Norman ; the tower is of plain early English architecture, and the remains of the cloisters are of perpendicular date. The roof of the choir is curiously and beautifully groined, with pendants. The interior of the church has many portions deserving of attention ; some of the most striking parts are of perpendicular character. The cathedral is not unfrequently overlooked by those who visit Oxford, their attention being drawn rather to the colleges than to this church. Oxford cathedral is the chapel of Christ-Church College.

In the same line of street with Christ-Church College are the churches of St. Aldate, St. Martin (or Carfax church), St. Michael, and St. Mary Magdalen, and St. John’s College. The college is of mixed Gothic and Italian architecture; the church of St. Michael has an elegant though plain perpendicular porch, and some other ancient portions ; that of St. Mary Magdalen is mostly in the decorated style, and has some parts of remarkably beautiful composition. St. Giles’s church, in the same line of street, near the northern entrance of the town, has various early English portions. The other buildings of Oxford lie back from the principal streets. New College is behind Queen’s College and the late Hertford College; it has a hall, chapel, cloisters, and a bold bell-tower, of excellent perpendicular character ; the chapel has been restored, and a rich screen and organ-case erected. Baliol and Trinity Colleges are near St. Mary Magdalen church ; the former has some ancient features. Corpus Christi, Oriel. Merton, and Pembroke Colleges are near Christ-Church College and the cathedral. Merton is rich in ancient portions, and has one of the finest chapels in Oxford ; it consists of the choir and transepts of a cruciform building, without any nave ; there is a tower at the intersection. The choir is of decorated English character, the transepts and the tower are of perpendicular character ; the tower is short and massy, surmounted by an elegant belfry story, with a pierced battlement and eight pinnacles. Worcester College is on the west side of the town. There are, besides the colleges, five halls. Of the churches, besides those already mentioned, the most worthy of notice is that of St. Peter in the east ; it is originally of Norman architecture, with rich and well executed details. There is a fine Norman crypt beneath the choir. The additions are chiefly of perpendicular character.

There are some remains of Oxford castle and of the ancient town wall, as well as of the works raised for the defence of the town in the civil war of Charles I. The town and county hall is a spacious stone building ; the county is on the site of the castle, and there is a town-gaol or bridewell. The other chief public buildings are the Music-hall and the Radcliffe Infirmary. There are several almshouses or school-houses, a Catholic chapel, and some Methodist or Dissenting places of worship. In the western part of the city are some remains of Rawley Abbey.

The population of the city of Oxford, in 1831, was 20,649, including the inmates of the several colleges, who amounted to 1,634. The population of the adjacent parish of Binsey which is in the liberty of the city, was 74. No particular manufacture is carried on. The prosperity of the town depends mainly on that of the University, and on its being the mart for the surrounding agricultural district. Considerable traffic is carried on, partly by land, partly by the river or by the Oxford canal, which here communicates with it. Oxford claims to be a borough by prescription; the earliest known charter was granted by Henry II. The corporation, by the Municipal Reform Act, consists of ten aldermen and thirty councillors. Quarter-sessions for the city, petty-sessions weekly, a mayor’s court, and a court of hustings are held. The city magistrates have no jurisdiction over members of the University. The city is divided into five wards. Its boundary, both for municipal and parliamentary purposes, was enlarged by the Boundary and Municipal form Acts, the additions are not included in the statements of area and population given above. Two members are returned to parliament by the University ; the right of election is in the doctors and masters of arts, the vice-chancellor being the returning officer ; and two members are returned by the citizens ; the number of qualified electors, in 1835-6 was 2,506. The University first sent members in the reign of James I ; and the city has sent members from the commencement of our present system of popular representation.

The livings in the city are all of small value ; four are in the presentation of the lord-chancellor, nine in that of one or other of the colleges. The living of Binsey, a village adjacent to Oxford, also of small value, is in the gift of Christ-Church College.

The Education Returns of 1833 give for the city three infant or dame schools, with 150 children of both sexes ; fifty-three other day-schools of all kinds, containing 972 boys, 688 girls, and 252 children whose sex was not stated. There were besides two boarding schools, and one or two schools connected with Dissenters, of which no return was obtained. Some of the day-schools were also Sunday-schools ; and there were nine other Sunday-schools, with 182 boys, 261 girls, and 70 children whose sex was not stated. Binsey contains only one school, a small Sunday-school with 10 children, supported by endowment.