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Headington history: Non-listed buildings

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Headington Union Workhouse


Workhouse pillar

Headington Union workhouse, designed by George Wilkinson, opened on the London Road (just to the east of the present Wharton Road) in 1838, replacing an earlier workhouse at Titup. It was then the only building between Windmill and Green Road, and must have presented an imposing and solemn facade, as this pillar (left) indicates.

This pillar and a portion of wall in a Gladstone Road garden are the only remaining signs of the workhouse, once a massive hexagonal building (shown below on an 1898 map).

Map of workhouse

Jackson’s Oxford Journal for 13 February 1836 (page 3c) reported that Mr Wilkinson’s plans for Witney, Headington, Thame, Woodstock, and Chipping Norton workhouses had all been approved.

Headington workhouse served all 22 parishes of the Headington Union, namely Beckley, Chippinghurst, Cowley, Cuddesdon, Denton, Elsfield, Forest Hill & Shotover, Garsington, Holton, Horspath, Horton-cum-Studley, Iffley & Cockmore, Littlemore, Marston, Stanton St John Stowood, Studley, Wheatley, Woodeaton, the parishes of St Clements, St Giles and St John in the city of Oxford, and of course Headington itself.

In the early days, as well as taking in the unemployed, it served as an orphanage and a home for unmarried mothers, destitute widows, the blind, and the elderly. Many of the inmates in their 60s and 70s whose occupation is given in the census as “Farm labourer” would have been totally incapable of such backbreaking work; and who would have employed the 86-year-old female “Domestic Servant” from Iffley who was an inmate in 1861?

Within thirty years the new workhouse was no longer big enough. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 17 October 1868 reports:

The continually increasing requirements for those parishes in Oxford belonging to the Headington Union have induced the Guardians to consider the best means of adapting their workhouse to the increased number of inmates. Acting upon the advice of Mr Codd, the Guardians have determined to remove all the sick into a new infirmary, to be immediately commenced, adjoining the present buildings, and to devote the space thus gained in the House to relieving the overcrowding among the aged people and children.

Much information about the meagre diet and miserable life of the inmates can be gleaned from the Minute Book of the Headington Union Guardians, which survives from August 1841 to 1873 ( Oxfordshire History Centre, ref. A61ff.). There is also an excellent thesis by N. T. Simpson based on this minute book entitled “The Headington Union Minute Book” at the Oxfordshire History Centre in Cowley, ref. 362.5 (SIM) Stack).

In its latter years, the regime softened; but although between 1919 and 1931 it was known by the name of “Hill House”, the Oxford Times of 28 December 1923 still used the old name when it reported thus on Christmas at Headington Workhouse:

Workhouse Christmas: Festivities opened at Headington workhouse on Christmas Eve when the staff sang carols to the sick. Breakfast on Christmas Day was followed by communion in the chapel. Dinner included roast beef, port, vegetables and Christmas pudding and custard. The staff did their best to ensure a happy time for those under their care. At the conclusion of the day the inmates gave a carol concert which lasted for nearly two hours. A Christmas tree was heavily laden with presents which afterwards were distributed.

All the same, as Edith Musselle’s reminiscences show, there was still a great stigma attached to being in Headington Workhouse.

In the 1920s Hill House at Sandhills opened as a home for the elderly poor. The last entry in Kelly’s Directory for “Headington Union Poor Law Institution” was in 1930, and in 1931 it was turned into a hospital and renamed “The Laurels”.

In the 1950s the former workhouse building was demolished to make way for the houses just to the east of Gladstone Road, known as The Laurels housing estate (including William Kimber Crescent, opened in 1958).

Peter Higginbotham’s excellent Workhouse site gives useful general information about how workhouses were run, and includes a page on the Headington Union Workhouse.

List of inmates of Headington Union Workhouse in 1841 (PDF file)

Workhouse party in 1910

The picture above shows the inmates of the workhouse
in June 1911 celebrating the coronation of George V.

© Stephanie Jenkins

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