Open fields to narrow streets

Jericho meadows around 1850. Behind, left to right, are the Radcliffe Observatory, the Jericho Tavern and the smokestack of Oxford University Press.
Jericho meadows around 1850. Behind, left to right, are the Radcliffe Observatory, the Jericho Tavern and the smokestack of Oxford University Press.

New research into the origins of Jericho

Posted - January 07, 2013

The land through which the Jericho section of the canal was dug in 1789 was known as Little and Great Bear Meadows.

By the 1780s, the Meadows were in the possession of the Reverend Peter Wellington Furse, living in Devon. In July 1825, Furse sold the plot on which the Oxford University Press was to be built, and soon after relinquished the adjacent fields for Jericho’s first houses. Finally, in 1827 he auctioned the remaining 14 acres of Little and Great Bear Meadows (which lay more or less to the west of today’s Albert Street).

The coal merchant Henry Ward, with his dock already established at Walton Well, purchased a plot close to Worcester College at the southern end of Great Bear Meadow, and then established a wharf there.

It took six decades for the open fields to be transformed into the narrow streets of compact houses which still distinguish the Jericho of today. The Bear Meadows resisted development longest, due to their waterlogged nature, and by 1850 building had reached only as far as today’s Albert Street.

Difficulties of sanitation were another deterrent to growth, and in 1848 Dr W.P. Ormerod described in ‘Sanitary Condition of Oxford’ ‘a drain of the filthiest kind’ running ‘quite open to the end of Nelson Street’ – to the point at which a track from Ward’s wharf encountered the first houses.

In her 1956 ‘Scrapbook of Jericho’, Miss C.L.M. Hawtrey recorded the persistent tradition that the part of Jericho next to the canal was ‘first a marsh and refuge of footpads and then to all intents and purposes a slum, through which policemen preferred to walk in couples’.

With improved sanitation and building techniques, residential Jericho eventually edged closer to the canal, and Canal Street was laid out in about 1860. For the first time, canal boatmen and Jericho residents came face to face on a regular basis. Richard Gillett, a Canal Company engineer, in 1865 observed that in Jericho the boatmen ‘had the reputation of being extremely illiterate and very much addicted to a beer which went by the name of “Fourpenny” and was extremely intoxicating’.

If some of Jericho’s residents were wary of the boatmen, outsiders continued to fear Jericho itself, as this example from the Scrapbook shows. As a boy, Montague Brown (a lifelong worshipper at St Barnabas’ Church until his death in 1937) used to walk from his home in the High Street to watch the new church taking shape in the late 1860s. But he and his brother were allowed to do so only if they promised their parents that they would ‘keep to the middle of the road and pay no attention to anything they heard or saw on the way. Furthermore on no account were they to go at night, for they would probably have rats’ tails and oyster shells thrown at them, so deep seated was the general distrust of Jericho’.

By this time, the distinction between the canal and Jericho had become blurred. During the exceptional ‘Town and Gown’ disturbances of 1867, for instance, the Daily Telegraph claimed that ‘Oxford has suburbs, like the one nicknamed “Jericho”, containing plenty of rough bargees and railway labourers glad to “lick a lord”, and the young and hot blood of the students regards it as an equal luxury to thrash a cad’.

A Towpath Walk in Oxford

This article is extracted from the new edition of ‘A Towpath Walk in Oxford’ by Mark J. Davies, and Catherine Robinson. Highly recommended, this second edition has extended sections on Jericho and the canalside site. Available at £6 from the Albion Beatnik Bookshop, 34 Walton Street. Another book by Mark, Alice in Waterland, also includes a section on Jericho.

Did you know?

Where we work?

According to the 2001 Census, in Jericho 28% of those working were self-employed, while 18% worked part time. Around 20% were in higher professional occupations compared with 14% for Oxford. We also tend to work nearby: 72% of people worked within five kilometres of their home; 18% went to work on foot, 13% by car and 6% by bike

The origins of Nelson Street?

Nelson Street takes its name from a local pub, the Lord Nelson, subsequently renamed Carpenters’ Arms—which has since been converted to housing.