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Parson Woodforde (1740–1803)


James Woodforde first mentions visiting Headington in his diary for 1760, when he was an undergraduate aged 20 at New College. In common with many members of the University at this time, his favourite walk was to climb Headington Hill, no doubt using the raised footpath created by the Revd Pullen in 1700 and still in use today. It appears that local Oxford traders who had their home at the top of the hill exploited these walkers, for Woodforde mentions several purchases made up there, including lambskin breeches from Haynes, artificial loadstones from Denton’s, and buckles and buttons from Goldwire. He also describes a visit to a circulating library at the top of the hill.

In the eighteenth century, most members of the University would have made Joe Pullen’s Tree the turning point of their walk. The turnpike road that is now the Headington and London Road was not built until nearly 1800, so after reaching the settlement at the top of the hill, there were only fieldpaths to follow to the east. But Woodforde used to proceed to Headington village itself, probably via Cuckoo Lane, in order to visit his shoemaker, Mr Sellar, on whom he spent a great deal of money. William Sellar the cordwainer is shown in the Rolls of the Manor of Heddington as inheriting Church House (14 St Andrew’s Road) from his father in 1765, and it seems possible that James Woodforde may have first explored St Andrew’s Church while his shoes were being mended across the road.

Woodforde took his BA early in 1763, and was ordained deacon in May that year. He accepted a curacy in Somerset immediately, and during the next ten years he made only brief visits to Oxford, walking up to Headington just twice, on both occasions to buy shoes from Mr Sellar. But in 1773 he returned to Oxford and spent three years as a Fellow of New College in the hope of acquiring a good position. During these three years Parson Woodforde undertook relief duties from time to time at St Andrew’s Church. On Saturday 27 August 1774, for example, he writes:

“I went to Headington at half past 11 o’clock this morning on foot, and married a Couple there for Blisse before the Clock struck 12 – I recd. for it 0: 10: 6. The People’s Names were Lazarus Cox of Headington Labourer & Mary Ayres of the City of Oxford. They were married by Licence. Very heavy Thunder Storms flying about this morning. Going over the Temporary Bridge 0: 0: 1.”

Woodforde is not referring to the couple’s wedded bliss, nor to his own bliss at uniting them (indeed for him the half guinea seems to be the most happy feature of the occasion). The Bliss in question is his friend, the Revd Nathaniel Alsop Bliss, who may have bribed him with what appears to have been a rather higher than normal fee to brave the thunderstorms and walk up to Headington. (The route at this time was longer than usual, because Magdalen Bridge had been taken down as a result of the Oxford Mileways Act of 1771, and while it was being repaired people had to use temporary bridges over the Cherwell from the Broad Walk in Christ Church Meadow, the toll for foot passengers being ½d each way. The amount of walking Woodforde does may explain the many visits he makes to his Headington cordwainer for new shoes and for repairs.)

Since 1547, the Lord of the Manor of Headington had appointed the vicars of St Andrew’s Church. Most of these vicars were fellows of Oxford colleges, and they used curates to relieve them of their parish duties. It would appear that Bliss, who at 27 was seven years younger than Woodforde, was the curate of St Andrew’s Church at this time.

The day after marrying the Coxes, on Sunday 28 August 1774, Woodforde wrote:

“As it was very wet this morning I did not go to Headington, but as it held up in the aft: I walked there in the afternoon & read Prayers & christned [sic] a Child there by name William. – N.B. No Sermon.”

The arrangements for services at St Andrew’s at this time seem rather lax: the entry suggests that because it was wet on the Sunday morning, there was no morning service. The parish register for St Andrew’s records the baptism of the “Child by name William” thus: “1774: August ye 28: William the son of John and Mary Goslin baptised”. The next Sunday, 4 September, the weather was foul again (did Bliss shirk his duties every time it rained?) and Woodforde had to go to Headington once more:

“I walked to Hedington this morning and read Prayers, Preached & christned a Child there for Blisse. I was wet through coming from Headington.”

The parish register dutifully records: “1774: September ye 4: Alice the daghtor [sic] of John and Alice Freeman baptised.”

Over the next five months Woodforde continued to make his usual trips up to Headington, either going for walks with friends or visiting his shoemaker. On 30 December 1774 he gives a handsome tip of a shilling to Sellars’ 12-year-old apprentice son, William junior, who was baptised at St Andrew’s on 18 July 1762. (The son’s luck didn’t last: Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 22 September 1781 records that his mother, who had been carrying on the cordwaining business through her son William since her husband’s death in 1779, intended to employ another person, because William, being a minor, had married without her consent.)

Woodforde did his duty at St Andrew’s Church again on Sunday 5 February 1775, and received an invitation to dinner from Sir Banks Jenkinson, the sixth Baron Walcot, who had built the present Headington Manor House (now dwarfed by the John Radcliffe) in 1770. His entry for that day reads:

“After breakfast I took a Walk to Headington by desire of Proctor Webber and read Prayers and Preached there for Blisse, he being in the Country. Sir Banks Jenkinson of Headington sent his Servants to desire me to dine with him, but did not like it. Going over the temporary Bridge 0: 0: 1.”

Sir Banks Jenkinson was a high Tory, and Woodforde probably refused his invitation because he was highly critical of toryism. John Webber, who desired him to go, was another New College friend who served as Proctor of the University from 1774 to 1775, and Woodforde was his Pro-Proctor.

This appears to be the last time ever that Woodforde officiated at St Andrew’s Church, although he continues to take many walks “up the hill” and “to Eddington” throughout 1775. The most interesting description is on 23 June 1775, when he takes some boys from New College choir to visit Headington Quarry and the windmill at the south-east end of Windmill Road:

“Took a long walk after [the 5 p.m. chapel service] with Boys, thro’ Eddington to the Windmill, round by Shottover Hill &c. To some Men in a Quarry near Eddington gave 0. 0. 6. The Windmill being going we went into it & saw it.”

Regrettably, however, Woodforde did not always behave in a way that befitted a sub-warden of New College, pro-proctor, and officiating clergyman of St Andrew’s Church. On 16 August 1774, for example, he spent the whole night at the Chequers Inn in Oxford with his friends, and writes, “We had a very jolly Night of it, we did not go to bed till near 6 in the morning, & some not at all.” Even more shamefully for St Andrew’s Church, the Revd Bliss is recorded as having lost the most at cards that night. The next day Woodforde did not get up until 2 p.m., “very hoarse to day by hallowing so much last night”. Present at that night’s revelling was another Headington man, Richard Finch of the Rookery (now Ruskin College), who features a number of times in the diaries. On 14 July 1775 Woodforde wrote: “We put about the Wine pretty brisk it being Finch’s Birth Day to day, who is now 35 Years old.” Richard Finch was a wine merchant with cellars under the Town Hall. He never seemed to do anything in life other than be a “gentleman”, and is only mentioned in the local press when he married Laetitia White in 1778, and in the context of renewing his game licence. The Finches had five children baptised at St Andrew’s Church between 1779 and 1794. Richard, who died at the age of 62, was buried in the churchyard in 1802; Laetitia, who lived to be 96, was buried there in 1846.

Parson Woodforde left Oxford for good in May 1776 when he was offered the living of Weston Longville in Norfolk, taking with him the diaries containing his memories of Oxford and Headington.

This piece first appeared in The Norman Arch, the parish magazine of St Andrew’s Church, in January 2002


There is a much fuller entry on James Woodforde in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The ODNB online is available free to many public library users, including those in Oxfordshire:
enter L followed immediately by your library ticket number in the “Library Card Login” box

Wikipedia: James Woodforde

© Stephanie Jenkins

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