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Open Magdalen, Open Brasenose, and Brasenose Wood

The 1881 map below shows that Magdalen Wood was more properly known as Open Magdalen, while Brasenose Wood and Open Brasenose were two adjoining areas to the south, separated by a field.

Since 1959 the eastern bypass has split the Open Magdalen in two: Magdalen Wood West and Magdalen Wood east. As the field is now itself wooded, the area to the east of the bypass is all loosely termed Brasenose Wood, and it is part of Shotover Country Park.

The road to the left of the map is the Slade, and the current eastern bypass runs roughly along the line of the old Roman Way, although it veers more to to the west at the south end, so that Brasenose Farm is on the east side. The farmhouse still survives, but has been very much altered, and together with a barn now houses a kitchen design firm. (The farmhouse at Wood Farm no longer exists.)

Magdalen and Brasenose Woods

Note: this area was split across two Ordnance Survey maps which have been joined together to produce the above image. The left map is dated 1879 and the right map 1881 (the year that Open Magdalen and Open Brasenose became part of Headington). Wood Farm can be seen to the north-west of Open Magdalen, and Brasenose Farm to the south-west of Open Brasenose.

The Elder Stubs to the east, which had just been absorbed into the new part of Forest Hill and Shotover in 1881, should not be confused with the Elder Stubbs Allotments off the Cowley Road. The definition of an elder stub is uncertain: it may have been a type of pollarded elder.

This 1899 map of Open Magdalen, Open Brasenose, and Brasenose Wood side-by-side with a current aerial view shows how very little of this area has been built over.

The present Magdalen and Brasenose Woods were both once part of the ancient Royal Forest of Shotover.

There were four open areas near Headington Quarry, known collectively to local people as “The Moors”, comprising Open Magdalen, Open Brasenose, the Ridings, and Slade Common. None of them was officially a common, but common rights were exercised over them, and villagers from both Headington and Cowley cut fuel from them.

On 9 August 1581 the will of Robert Alcock of Headington, servant and woodherd of Magdalen College, was proved in the University Chancellor's Court.

On 29 September 1821 a notice appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal stating that application would be made to Parliament in the next session “for leave to bring in a Bill for dividing, allotting, and inclosing … certain pieces or parcels of commonable land or ground called Open Magdalen, Open Brazenose, and Elder Stubs, or by whatsoever other names the same are respectively known”. This enclosure, however, does not appear to have taken place.

These commons in Bullingdon Green were ex-parochial parts of Cowley until 1881 when the civil parish of Forest Hill with Shotover was formed: the 32 acres of Elder Stubs or Cowley Common to the east were amalgamated with the new parish, but the 46 acres of Open Magdalen and the 25 acres of Open Brasenose were then amalgamated with Headington. Even after this date, however, the people of Cowley still expected to have rights in the pasture of both areas. A Cowley Vestry Meeting (reported in great detail in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 23 April 1892) explained the historic rights of the people of Cowley, who had the right of “ingress through Open Magdalen and egress through Open Brasenose”, and went on to say:

For the space of two hundred years or thereabouts the owners of commons in Cowley have depastured their cattle on this land, driving them up Open Magdalen to the common, and down Open Brasenose home daily in the summer months, grazing them each way…. Since 1800 the Cowley people had enjoyed such a right to the pastures of Open Magdalen and Open Brasenose that the tenants of Magdalen and Brasenose farms had frequently been fined for allowing their sheep to graze in the pastures when driving them from one part of their farm to another, and the tenant of the Brasenose farm had paid an annual rent for rebuilding a hovel about a couple of feet beyond its original position on Open Brasenose.

Open Magdalen

Open Magdalen is now known as Magdalen Wood and the main western section is reached via Atkyns Road in Wood Farm and also by other footpaths. It is owned and managed by Oxford City Council

According to the former Magdalen College Archivist Robin Darwall-Smith, It is reasonably certain that Magdalen College acquired Open Magdalen (sometimes known as Open Magdalen's) at the time of its foundation in 1458 as part of the lands which had been once owned by the Hospital of St John, and which were passed to this new college, along with the site of the hospital itself, by the agency of the college's founder William Waynflete.

On 22 May 1705 a group of more than twenty residents of Church Cowley, Temple Cowley, and Hockmore Street armed themselves with axes and shovels and set about tearing down the fences around Magdalen Open Wood: this suggests that attempts were already being made to take away the rights of local people.

Until 1830 William Fox leased the adjacent Wood Farm (then known as Magdalen Wood Farm).

By 1851 Richard Pether (the maternal grandfather of Lord Nuffield) had taken on the lease of Wood Farm from Magdalen College, and he fenced off Open Magdalen in 1862 and began to cultivate it in 1869. The poor of Headington ignored this and the fight for the Open Magdalens continued for about thirty years, taking the form of mass trespasses, large-scale raids for wood, and the illegal grazing of cows.

On 26 January 1861 Jackson's Oxford Journal reports how seven men of Headington parish were charged by Richard Pether with cutting the oak trees growing in Open Magdalen, and stealing and carrying the same away. They said that they had done it “under a supposition that they were entitled to the wood, as well as the feed, as a right of common, the place not having been inclosed at the time of the Headington Inclosure”. The Justices showed some sympathy, and fined the defendants the minimum amount.

On 23 February 1861 it was reported that at the Petty Sessions Thomas Coles was ordered to pay 6d. damage and 11s. costs or to be imprisoned for two days for wilfully cutting furze at the Open Magdalen, even though he claimed to have a right to do so. In another case on the same day Robert Coppock charged by Richard Pether with stealing two faggots of furze, was sentenced to two days' imprisonment: the solicitor Mr Hawkins, who attended on behalf of Magdalen College, “intimated to the Justices that the only object the college had in view was to put a stop to these depredations, and not severe punishment, but if these convictions had not the desired effect, he must in all future cases of this kind press for the heaviest penalties”.

Soon afterwards it was reported that Charles Webb, Charles Girl, and Thomas Wharton, labourers of Headington Quarry, were charged by Richard Pether, farmer, with stealing 19 furze faggots from the Open Magdalen, and were each sentenced to seven days' imprisonment with hard labour.

Raphael Samuel recorded that in 1871, Open Magdalen was “almost entirely covered with timber trees some of which are of great age, and underwood and thick brakes of furze bushes and thorns with very little grass by the sides of the … driftway”. On 19 August 1871 it was reported in Jackson's Oxford Journal that parishioners of Headington had met at the Britannia Inn to assert their right and agreed to take possession “ by stocking it, and thus trying the issue”. John Coppock, William Gurl, and Joseph Trafford were charged with having broken a fence and gate, the property of Magdalen College:. Then on 2 September 1871 the following longer description appeared:

The Disputed Common Rights at Headington.
The claimants to the disputed soil at Headington appear determined to persevere in asserting what they allege are their rights. As will be seen by our Petty Sessions's Report, two men were convicted on Saturday last for breaking a fence to put some cattle on a portion of the land, which had been enclosed and cultivated by Mr. Pether. On Sunday last the claimants stocked with a number of horses and donkeys about nine acres of the common right on which there was a splendid crop of oats, belonging to Mr. Pether. In order to save as much of his property as possible, Mr. Pether set a number of his men to work, after 12 o'clock on Sunday night, cutting the oats with a machine, and carting them on to his own land adjoining. About four o'clock on Monday morning the machine broke, but by this time no less than five acres out of the nine had been cut and removed. The men subsequently proceeded to cut the oats with scythes, &c., but were unable to get on so rapidly as before About six o'clock, however, many persons, who claimed the common rights, discovered what had taken place, and feeling annoyed at Mr. Pether's proceeding, also commenced cutting the oats and taking possession of them. The whole of the corn was cleared away by ten o'clock. On Monday evening a large number of persons assembled on the Common with fiddles, tambourines, &c. Summonses have been issued against several persons, and the hearing of the cases will take place at the County Hall this day (Saturday).

A long report on those cases appeared in the newspaper on 2 September 1871, with Frederick Morrell prosecuting on behalf of Magdalen College and Coppock, Gurl, and Trafford defended by J. J. Bickerton, the latter insisting that the summons be amended to read “Open Magdalen's Common”. Pether stated he had occupied Magdalen Wood Farm for 21 years as a tenant of Magdalen College: the farm comprised 177 acres, including the 44 acres of “Open Magdalen”. Pether had ploughed up eleven acres of Open Magdalen and said that no common right had been maintained on it since he had been tenant, and for twenty years he had seen no cattle but his own there. The three defendants lost their case, but Mr Weyland stated that there were mitigating circumstances:

The Magistrates have considered the case. They consider that you (the defendants) had not reasonable cause for doing what you did — that you committed an illegal act, and therefore must be convicted. As, however, you appear to have acted under a mistake, the Magistrates wish to deal leniently with you. You will therefore have to pay 6d. each fine, and costs, and the damage.

Just a week later on 9 September 1871 there was a report on the case of Charles Knight, accused of stealing oats from the Open Magdalen. Knight elected to go for trial.

On 27 June 1872 a sale of “upwards of 652 Oak Trees, all felled and stripped, many of large dimensions, and suitable for Navy and Railway purposes” were put up for sale at “Mr. Pether's Farm, Open Magdalen”.

On 22 June 1872 the following report on an attempt to settle the dispute appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal:

—The dispute between the Headington Commoners and Magdalen College, respecting the rights of the former to “Open Magdalen” was the subject for discussion at a meeting of the parishioners held about a fortnight since, and from the present aspect of affairs it seems probable that the matter will shortly be brought before a Court of Law. Mr. Bickerton, solicitor, Oxford, stated at the meeting that he had put himself in communication with Messrs. Morrell and Son, solicitors to the President and Fellows of Magdalen College, respecting the matter, and had offered, on behalf of the Committee appointed by the Commoners, suggestions for a friendly settlement, which were to the effect that a partition of the lands should be effected—that Magdalen College should give half the land absolutely, or another piece nearer to the village. In reply to this Messrs. Morrell and Son had threatened an injunction against Messrs. Bateman and Coppock, two of the Headington Commoners. After some discussion as to the course that should be adopted, it was resolved “that they appoint a day to meet Magdalen College on the Common, and take something with them.” It was also decided that the following Thursday should be the day for the appointment referred to. Accordingly on the 30th ult. a party assembled on Open Magdalen Common, where they met Mr. Pether and two policemen. They went up the Common and into Open Brasenose. We understand that it is contemplation to appeal to the public, and to hold a meeting in the Town Hall, Oxford, for the purpose of enabling the Commoners to obtain indisputable possession of the Common.

The following week there was a report on an inconclusive meeting of the Commoners, where it was ultimately resolved “that Mr. Bickerton should be instructed to enquire of Messrs. Morrell and Son whether the College were prepared to give an answer to his last letter, and as to the institution of proceedings at law”; and “that subscriptions be collected to provide the means of litigation”.

On 25 August 1872 it was reported that a bill had been filed in Chancery on 16 August against the claimants to Open Magdalen Common, namely Messrs. William Bateman, Thomas Snow, George Coppock, Thomas Coppock, William Coppock, Charles Godfrey, Richard War, Henry Harris, Emanuel Honey, Thomas Trafford, Robert East, William Berry, Stephen Goodgame, Thomas Phillips, and Richard Franklin, praying that:

it might be declared that the claimants are not entitled to the right to the common, or any right to cut timber, or other trees, turf, furze, underwood, &c.; also that they might be restrained by injunction from the Court of Chancery from exercising their pretended right to the common.

On 30 November 1872 it was reported that the 15 defendants were asking for contributions to the “Headington Common Defence Fund” to fight Magdalen College in Chancery, stating:

that the common has alays been open to the public, and that the commoners of Headington have from time to time been in the habit of pasturing their cattle on this open ground whenever they chose to do so, but in consequence of the growth of furse and indigenous trees this right has been sometone neglected lately, and the tenant of the adjoining land of Magdalen College has during the last four or five years been gradually making encroachments.

In 1877 Quarry Recreation Ground in Margaret Road was given to Headington people in exchange for the disputed rights over the Magdalens. The dispute rumbled on, however, and the following report of an unofficial meeting appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 19 July 1879:

COMMONERS' RIGHTS.—A “public meeting” was convened for Monday evening last in Union-square, Old Headington, for the purpose of taking proceedings at once by claiming the right as owners of “Open Madalen” and other rights belonging to the parish. The assemblage numbered about 60, of whom the majority were women and children, and the “proceedings” consisted of the reading of three sections of an Act of Parliament of 1801, referring to the rights of the commoners to certain stone, sand, and gravel pits, to allotments to the poor, and to small allotments being held together and in common. The reader of the above having descended from the top of the barrel on which he had been perched, the “meeting” separated.

In 1881 the Open Magdalen officially became part of Headington.

In 1892 Magdalen College leased the sporting rights of Open Magdalen to Thomas W. White, who had succeeded Richard Pether as the tenant of Wood Farm.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Magdalen College claimed that the right of way across it had been “extinguished”.

On 4 April 1934 Magdalen College sold Lord Nuffield all the lands of Wood Farm, including Open Magdalen, for £26,000. Nuffield agreed “at all times hereafter to preserve as a permanent open space or permanent spaces” the present Magdalen Wood. He now of course owned the land where his grandfather Richard Pether had worked as a tenant farmer, and which he knew well as a child.

By the early 1950s, Wood Farm and Open Magdalen (Magdalen Wood) were owned by the City Council. They started developing the Wood Farm estate in 1953, but Open Magdalen remained intact because of the agreement made between Magdalen College and Lord Nuffield. The eastern chunk of it, however, was separated from the main part when the Eastern bypass was cut through it in 1959.

Open Brasenose and Brasenose Wood

Brasenose Wood is on the eastern side of the Eastern Bypass, opposite Homebase. Although it is in Horspath parish, it is managed by Oxford City Council, and was historically considered to be part of Headington.

Below: Brasenose Farmhouse in 1916

In 1520 the Principal of Brasenose (Matthew Smyth) and a Fellow of the College (Hugh Charnock) purchased a tenement and land at Forest Hill near Oxford for £9 from Antony Caryswall. This land at Forest Hill was exchanged in 1579 for Mynchery Wood (which became known as Brasenose Wood) with Sir Christopher Brome (Lord of the Manors of Headington and Holton from 1558 to his death in 1589).

Brasenose College managed the woodland by letting it on a series of 21-year leases. In 1654 the woods were let to William Combes for £22, and conditions of the lease were that the tenant should “repair, cleanse, and scour the ditches, hedges, fences, mounds and watercourses in the woods and to surrender all in good condition”. Combes recovered a great deal of his rent to the college by selling them timber from the woods for building in the college.

This Brasenose College map of 1759 shows Brasenose Wood, the Open Brasenose, and Brasenose Farm at Headington. It is entitled “A Survey of Mr Salisbury's Easte in ye Parish of Heddington and County of Oxon belongning to Brazen Nose College in Oxon taken in ye Month of June 1759”.

On a Christ Church map of 1771, the Open Brasenose is described as "Oaken Brasen Grove", and Magdalen Wood as “Magdalen Oaks”.

Open Brasenose was the part to the south east where commoners exercised their rights. Raphael Samuel explains how the land was simultaneously in private occupation and subject to commoners' rights:

It was an extra-parochial common land, on which common rights were established by usage but denied by law: the right of the villagers to take a “man's load” of furze bushes or brake, “but not to take a cart within the boundary”.

In 1835 Lord Macclesfield attempted but failed to enclose Open Brasenose,

The above rights were taken away when both Open Brasenose and Brasenose Wood appear to have been enclosed for the first time under the Cowley Enclosure Act of 1853, although their exact position was always in dispute. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of reported the following two cases at Bullingdon Petty Sessions:

18 December 1858:
John Coppock, of Headington, mason, was charged by Mr. Edward Hurst with trespassing in search of game, &c., at a place called Open Brasenose, near Bullingdon Green, on the 14th of December, but the defendant claimed a right to be there, as it was not mentioned in the award as an enclosed piece of land, and that he had a right to stock the land, as his father had done before him; the prosecutor not being prepared with legal evidence to rebut the claim set up, the case was dismissed.

25 February 1860:
John Coppock, of Headington, mason, was charged by Mr. Edward Hurst with maliciously cutting and carrying away a part of a live fence at a place called “Open Brasenose”, near Bullingdon Green. — Mr. Brunner appeared for the defendant, and admitted the cutting, and said that it should be repeated, as defendant had as much right to it as Mr. Hurst, upon which Mr. Hurst was examined, but the case seemed too mysterious a matter to be decided in a summary way, and the Justices dismissed it.

28 June 1873:
George Webb, of Headington Quarry, labourer, was charged with being in search of conies, in the day-time, in Brasenose Wood, on the 15th instant. Wm. Windows, a gamekeeper, in the employ of Mr. Hurman, stated that his master rented the farm [Brasenose Farm] from Brasenose College, and the land in question was that known as “Open Brasenose,” which was about thirty acres in extent, and open at one end. He saw defendant, with two other men, at half-past six in the morning of the above-named day, with two dogs and sticks, beating about among the bushes. Witness told defendant that he was doing wrong, but he made no reply. Mr. Hurman had never prosecuted any one before for trespassing, and there had been a good deal of dispute about Brasenose Wood. Webb, in defence, denied having a stick in his hand. The Magistrates considered that the case had not been sufficiently proved, and therefore dismissed it.

In the 1870s Brasenose College attempted to start clearing Open Brasenose, but there was resistance, and Raphael Samuel records that the college “agreed, 'for the sake of peace', to leave about one third of the common unenclosed”.

Jackson's Oxford Journal of 8 February 1879 reported that “Vincent Gurden, James William Webb, and Willoughby Kimber, all of Headington, labourers, were charged with maliciously cutting an oak tree, in the parish of Headington, the property of the Principal and Scholars of the King's Hall and College of Brazenose”. The defendants believed that they had the right to cut boughs as far as they could reach. John Jones, a witness, stated that

he had lived at Headington for 35 years, and it had been the custom as long as could remember to lop and top the trees in Open Brazenose for fuel, and take the wood away. His father, who lived to be 75, used to do the same, and he himself had climbed trees to cut the branches.

In 1881 Open Brasenose became part of Headington, but it appears that Brasenose Wood came under Horspath.

Open Brasenose was now part of Brasenose Farm, which John Chillingworth then leased from Brasenose College. In 1883 he had trouble from villagers (this time from Cowley), and the ambiguous status of Open Brasenose is indicated by the fact that it is described oxymoronically as an “enclosed common” by Chillingworth in the report below of a case at the summer assizes in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 14 July 1883:

William Cross, 21, labourer, of Cowley (on bail) was indicted for setting fire to certain gorse and furze at Headington, on the 5th of May, on land in the occupation of John Chillingworth, of Cuddesdon, and the property of the Principal and Fellows of Brasenose College…. Frederick Surman, keeper to Mr. Chillingworth, who occupies Brasenose Farm, at Headington, said on the 5th of May he was on a part of the farm called Open Brasenose, where there were growing gorse and 3000 tied up faggots. The place was a sort of enclosed common, and it adjoined Brasenose Wood.

In the late 1880s Richard Pether, the unpopular farmer who leased Wood Farm from Magdalen College, also took on the lease of Brasenose Farm from Brasenose College.

On 26 February 1887 Jackson's Oxford Journal reported the “shocking murder” of a gipsy woman by her husband when they were camping under a blanket on what was described as “Open Brasenose Common, Cowley”.

Brasenose Wood (as shown on the map above, not including Open Brasenose) seems to have been managed commercially following the enclosure of Cowley in 1853, and sales of wood from there are regularly advertised. Jackson's Oxford Journal of 24 October 1857 has a notice of four acres of underwood to be auctioned by Mallam at the Chequers Inn, Horspath, with Isaac Munt, the woodman, showing the lots.

In 1935 Brasenose College sold Brasenose Wood to the City of Oxford, but the ownership of Open Brasenose, which was still part of Horspath, was under dispute as late as 1982.

Magdalen Wood west, Brasenose Wood, and the Open Brasenose were completely cut off from the main part of Headington when the Eastern bypass was created in 1959, and they are now often loosely referred to as Brasenose Woods.

During the Second World War Brasenose Wood was used by the army and their large collection of huts was known as Slade Camp. First, Fourth, Eighth, and Ninth Avenues still exist and are marked on this current map of the woods. After the war this camp was renamed Slade Park and homeless people moved into the army huts until they were finally demolished in 1961: more information.

The part to the west of the bypass was completely redeveloped in the 1970s and kept the name Slade Park, but the part to the east is still part of the woods.

For more information on Open Brasenose and Open Magdalen, see:

  • Raphael Samuel, “‘Quarry roughs’: life and labour in Headington Quarry, 1860–1920. An essay in oral history”, in Raphael Samuel (ed.), Village Life and Labour (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975) , esp. pp. 154 and 210–213.
  • Holland, Jack, Howkins, Alun, Samuel, Raphael, Headington Quarry and the Fight for the Open Magdalens (History Workshop pamphlet)

The Dragon of Magdalen Wood in 2015

© Stephanie Jenkins

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