The Stone Quarries
Were it not for the pits, Headington Quarry village would be situated on a featureless plateau: instead it is built in a rabbit warren of hollows and waste heaps. The Henry Taunt photograph below shows how close parts of the village were to the pits:
This scene near Quarry Hollow (left) looks fairly ordinary — just a slide going down a slope. But in fact the slide starts at the normal Headington ground level and descends into a huge pit dug by the quarrymen of Headington to extract stone to feed the insatiable demand of the Oxford colleges.
Oxford colleges would have preferred getting their stone from nearby Headington to reduce transportation costs: yet even for this short distance they paid a delivery charge of between 4d. and 6d. a load.
Quarrying in Headington started in earnest in 1396, when New College built its bell-tower from Headington stone. The stone would have been dislodged by means of a puggle (a flat spear-headed piece of steel on a long pole, the only method of quarrying until the late nineteenth century), and medieval carters would have brought the stone down to New College in 1,386 loads via the present Beaumont Road, Green Road, Old Road and Cheney Lane.
Another 6,140 loads of stone came by this route when All Souls College was built between 1438 and 1443: Headington provided the ragstone, which was mainly used for the foundations and walls. In October 1438 the college leased a quarry in Headington from Edmund Rede, and quarried its own stone. A gang of seven local stonecutters under Thomas Brackley squared and trimmed the stone in Headington before transportation to Oxford, where more skilled masons had a yard on the college site for working the stone.
Around this same time, Headington stone was also being used for the building of the Divinity School.
When Wolsey built his Cardinal College (now known as Christ Church) in the 1520s, he too chose Headington stone, and in order to facilitate deliveries repaired the bridge over the Cherwell at Milham Ford (now part of St Hilda’s College) and laid out the present Broad Walk through Christ Church Meadow.
By the seventeenth century, Headington stone was being used for every known Oxford building, including the Bodleian Schools quadrangle. It was during this period of frenetic quarrying that the hamlet of Headington Quarry started to grow up around the pits. Colleges that owned their own quarries in Headington included All Souls, Balliol, Brasenose, Christ Church, Corpus Christi, Lincoln, Oriel, Magdalen, and Queen’s. But by the mid-eighteenth century, the major disadvantage of Headington stone – that it eroded badly over time – was recognized, and from this period it was only used in places where it would not show.
This one-acre pit (left), formerly known as the Magdalen or Workhouse Pit, is situated just to the west of Gladstone Road. It was worked until 1949. It is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The three beds of rock exposed in the picture are about 145 million years old: the upper rocks are Wheatley limestone; in the middle are shell pebble beds; and the lower rocks are Beckley sand.
This pit (right), formerly known as Crossroads Pit, and now Rock Edge) has also been designated an SSSI. The cliff has exposures of Upper Jurassic rock, laid down about 160 million years ago. There are many fragments of coral and fossils including sea urchins, and this pit is thought to have been a former boundary between a coral reef and the surrounding shallow sea. The south end has Coral Rag outcrops, and there is Wheatley limestone at the north end of the cliff.
In the nineteenth century, however, brick became more important than stone, so that by the end of the century more than half the population of Quarry worked in the brickyards, making Headington responsible for much of Oxford’s “base and brickish skirt”.
The Chequers Inn and the quarry to the east, c.1820
The pictures above and below are of Headington stonemasons. Raymond Jacobs is second from the left
in the second row down on the top picture, and seated on the extreme right in the second picture.
Can anyone name any of the other men? Pictures donated by Ian Garrett