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Headington history: Streets

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Wilberforce Street (formerly William Street)


Wilberforce Street, which dates from 1851, was originally called William Street and was probably named after King William IV (reigned 1830–37). But the extension of Oxford’s boundaries in 1929 meant that there were three William Streets in the city: in Marston, St Clements, and Headington. The confusing situation was not remedied until 1959, when the latter two changed their names. The William Street in St Clements was renamed Tyndale Road after William Tyndale; and it seems likely that the one in Headington was renamed after another famous William, namely William Wilberforce, well known in connection with the abolition of the slave trade. But it could jointly commemorate his son, Samuel ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce (Bishop of Oxford 1845–1869), who was instrumental in getting Holy Trinity Church built in Quarry in 1849.

To confuse matters, however, the eleven very small cottages to the east of The Willows on the south side of the street were known by various other names. In the 1871 census they were named as Silman's Row (see below), but the 1876 OS map (below) labels them as Bath Buildings. This name may have been given to them by John Mattock of rose fame, who had come to Headington from Bath and lived in one of the cottages himself until he moved into his grand new house at 88 Windmill Road in 1890. Bath Buildings later became known as Mattock's Row, and the name William Street does not appear until the 1891 census.

Wilberforce Street 1876

As well as Bath Buildings, this 1876 map also shows what is now the Butcher’s Arms pub and two other houses on the north side of the street, and to the south a large house called ‘The Willow’ with a smaller house next-door. The Butcher’s Arms was New Headington village’s beerhouse, and was probably one of the first buildings erected there, as William Bleay, the first known landlord, is listed as a Headington beerhouse keeper from 1853. The footpath (shown above) that has connected the bottom of New High Street to Wilberforce Street since 1852 meant that the pub was convenient for all the villagers to the south of New Headington village, where all the small cottages were built.

When Headington was taken into Oxford in 1929, the street was properly numbered, running from Gardiner Street to Perrin Street. There were still only three houses on the north side, numbered 1, 3, and 5 (the last being the Butcher's Arms). On the south side were 2, 2A, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, and 18, indicating that some of the eleven cottages had either been joined together or were already demolished.

The map below shows Wilberforce Street (then still called William Street) in 1939. Although the Mattock brothers now lived in the two large detached houses shown on Windmill Road to the east, the nursery buildings bordered the street both to the east and the south, where there is a large greenhouse.

Wilberforce Street in 1939

Every nineteenth-century building in the street was demolished and rebuilt after World War II, except for the Butcher’s Arms and ‘The Willow’ (now No. 18), shown below. There is an identical house in New High Street and in Bateman Street, and it is likely that they were built at about the same time. This one appears to have had its central front door moved around to the side.

House in Perrin Street

Cottages on south side of Wilberforce Street in 1871

After enumerating the two semi-detached houses at Shotover Prospect in Gardiner Street, the enumerator worked his way along the south side of Wilberforce Street, which he described as Silman's Row. He numbered the first house as 1, but thereafter just put the name of the row. The houses were occupied as follows:

  • James Boulter, a brick merchant's labourer, and his wife and five children
  • George Jacobs, a stone mason, and his wife and six children
  • William Horwood, a brickfield labourer, and his wife and five children
  • Charles Medcraft, a brickfield labourer, and his wife and two children, and a stepson
  • Richard Franklin, an agricultural labourer, and his wife and stepson
  • Thomas Goodgame, a bricklayer's labourer, and his wife and four children, and baby niece
  • Richard Mills, a labourer, and his wife and four children
  • Joshua Trinder (70), a retired labourer, and his wife and daughter, who were laundresses, his son, who was an agricultural labourer, and his granddaughter
  • John Durham, a brickfield labourer, and his wife and three children
  • Elizabeth Bushnell, an unmarried agricultural labourer; her unmarried sister Martha Bushnell, an assistant laundress, and Martha's 11-year-old son, and Elizabeth's adopted son Richard Stanley
  • John Giles, a labourer, and his wife and four children, plus a lodger
  • William Green, a labourer, and his wife and four children, and his mother.

All the children up to the age of 10 who lived in this row of cottages were at school, and one aged 11 and two aged 12 were too: this is impressive, given that education between the ages of 5 and 10 was not to become compulsory until Mundella’s Education Act of 1880. The ones aged between 3 and 7 would have been at Headington National School (St Andrew's) on the London Road, but as New Headington Infant School was not built in Perrin Street until 1876, the younger ones would have been at Old Headington Infant School in Old High Street. The boys were destined to become labourers like their fathers, and William Boulter at 1 Silman's Row was already at work as an agricultural labourer at the age of 12.

© Stephanie Jenkins

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