Headington history: People

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Barbara Woodhouse, née Blackburn (1910–1988)

Barbara Kathleen Vera Blackburn (later Mrs Mill and finally Mrs Woodhouse) was born in Ireland on 9 May 1910.

Her father was the Revd William Blackburn and her mother was Leilah Alice Masterman. William was already living in Headington when the banns for their marriage were called at St Andrew's Church in May 1905, and they were married in the Basingstoke area.

In 1897 Barbara's father had come up to Oxford to read Literae Humaniores at Oriel College, and after ordination served as Chaplain of that college until 1909. He had played football for the University and was in in the University of Oxford Touring Team that went to Austria and Vienna in 1899, and later played for the Oxford City Football Club. He continued to play for them after his marriage, and on 24 March 1906 he was in the Oxford City team that beat Bishop Auckland to win the Football Association Amateur Cup at Stockton.

Their first two children Blackburn children were born at Sandfield Cottage: Charles Michael Blackburn (baptised at All Saints Church in central Oxford on 24 July 1906) and Nadine Eleanor Blackburn (baptised at Old Marston Church on 30 November 1908).

In 1909 William Blackburn was appointed Warden (headmaster) of St Columba’s College in Dublin, and their next two children were born there: Barbara herself in 1910, and Hazel Madeline Blackburn in 1912. He was still in that post when he died suddenly at the age of 41 on 18 November 1919, when Barbara was nine years old and her mother was pregnant with her fifth child. His family had to move straight out of their home as it was needed by another teacher, but they were well provided for, as Blackburn's estate (including Sandfield Cottage) came to over £9,000.

They came back to England, but although they still owned Sandfield Cottage it was then let out to the Rowells who owned a jeweller’s shop in Oxford, and Mrs Blackburn had to give them a year’s notice to leave. She therefore temporarily moved to Brighton, where Barbara’s youngest brother Desmond was born near the end of 1920.

Very soon afterwards they moved back to Sandfield Cottage in Headington: it was not really a cottage, but a large house with extensive land fronting the London Road (see separate page about the house). Barbara’s mother Mrs Blackburn is listed there in Kelly’s Directory from 1921 to 1960.

Barbara trained her first ponies there, and was sent to Headington School nearby, where she recalled that every mistress hated her “because I always went to school smelling of horse”. She was one of the first girls to join the school in its new (present) building, and Barbara reports that when she and her two sisters entered the school there were only twelve girls there.

The following two postcards sent by Barbara when she lived at Sandfield Cottage emphasize how horse-mad she was. The first, sent to Keith Keynes, Esq. in Porthleven, Cornwall, was postmarked in Headington on 14 September 1923, when Barbara was aged 13. Addressed to Keith Heynes in Portleven, Cornwall, it reads:

Tommy arrived quite safely yesterday & was very frisky[,] an expert on horses said he was a jolly good horse. I had a lovely jump over a hurdle yesterday[,] he does jump splendidly[.] I am going to give him a basin of oats & a basin of bran per day extra to the grass & I am going to keep [him] in at nights[,] he will be a great pet with everyone & should be happy. I will write often & tell you how he is. Yours truly B. Blackburn

1923 postcard

The second postcard (to the same recipient) was postmarked in Headington on 1 July 1924, when Barbara was aged 14, and it reads:

Tommy has just won 1st Prize at a Gymkhana on Thurs 29th for musical chairs he competed against horses of 17 & 18 hands. I thought you would be interested to know. B. Blackburn.

Woodhouse postcard 1924

Barbara left Headington School at the age of 14, and spent a short period at a Swiss finishing school before starting at the Harper Adams Agricultural College in Shropshire in 1926.

In 1928 she came back to Headington and opened a riding school and boarding kennels at Sandfield Cottage. The advertisement below, from Kelly’s Directory of 1933, shows Barbara, then aged 23, described as Principal of “The Headington Riding School and Boarding Kennels”.

Advertisement of 1933

On 15 August 1934 Barbara Blackburn (24) was married at St Andrew’s Church in Headington to her first husband, Allan George Mill (25), the manager of Manor Farm, Claverdon, Warwickshire. Two of her siblings were also later married at St Andrew’s:

  • 22 June 1935: Hazel Madeline Blackburn (an artist) married the botanist Frederick Gustav Chapple (1911–1990), who was the curator of the Druce Herbarium in Oxford
  • 23 December 1940: Desmond William Edward Blackburn (an army officer) married his first wife Rosalind Marion Wallis Jewitt (a WAAF officer).

On 28 September 1934, a month after their wedding, Allan and Barbara Hill set sail for Buenos Aires, where they spent a few years managing a series of estancias. But the marriage ended in divorce, and on 29 July 1939 Allan Hill returned to Buenos Aires on his own.

Barbara returned to live with her mother in Headington. The 1939 register shows Barbara (then still Mrs Mill) descrbied as a horse dealer living at Sandfield Cottage with her mother Leila Blackburn and her older brother Charles Blackburn, who was a tyre remoulder.

On Saturday evenings Barbara used to run dances at Sandfield Cottage to which she invited her girl friends to meet the young doctors from the Radcliffe Infirmary. It was at one of these dances that she met her second husband, Michael Clayton Woodhouse. They were married on 5 August 1940, and they moved to Wiltshire, where her husband had a medical practice in Melksham, and Barbara managed several farms and well as bringing up three children.

Meanwhile Barbara's mother Leilah Alice Blackburn remained at Sandfield Cottage (numbered first 5 and eventually 43 London Road) and continued to run the Sandfield Dog Boarding Kennels there until about 1960. She died at the age of 79 at Cheadle Royal Hospital in Cheshire, and was buried at Headington Cemetery on 4 December 1961 (R91/5). Her effects came to £13,846 18s. 9d., and her executor was Barbara's brother, Charles Michael Blackburn, now described as a retired tyre factor.

Sandfield Cottage was demolished in 1965 (photograph), and its grounds redeveloped.

Barbara Woodhouse became famous at the age of 70, when she started to present the television programme “Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way” in 1980. She died in hospital in Buckinghamshire on 9 July 1988.

Blackburn Close

Blackburn Close on the former Manor Ground site is named after Mrs Barbara Woodhouse's family.

There is a much fuller entry on Barbara Woodhouse 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: Barbara Woodhouse

See also Barbara Woodhouse, Just Barbara (M. Joseph, 1981)
Autobiography including reminiscences of her time at Sandfield Cottage
— but overlooking her first marriage at St Andrew’s Church in Headington

© Stephanie Jenkins

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