Headington history

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The two roads to London

It is hard to imagine now, but the present main road through Headington did not exist until near the end of the eighteenth century. The extract below from Jeffries’ map of 1769 shows the situation before the road was built:

  • St Clement’s is in the bottom left-hand corner. The first turning to the left is Marston Road, and then on the right (marked in bold as a highway) is Cheney Lane, leading seamlessly into the present Old Road, which was then the turnpike route to London via Shotover and Wheatley.
  • The present main road up Headington Hill stops abruptly at the top where it meets two footpaths running eastwards through fields. The one left-hand one is the present Cuckoo Lane, leading to the village of [Old] Headington, and the right-hand one roughly followed the course of the present Headington and London Roads to the hamlet of Sandhills.
  • Carriages had to travel to Old Headington via the Marston Road, the present Northway area, and what is now called Dunstan Road. Quarry was better placed for transport, with direct access to the original turnpike road, and cart loads of stone could easily be carried down to Oxford this way.

Jeffries 1769 map

Old London Road through Headington

Before 1789, coaches travelling from Oxford to London had to turn right half-way up Headington Hill into Cheney Lane, which led to the Old London Road. (The name “Cheney” is thought to refer to a chain that once formed a barrier across the road to ensure that carriages stopped to pay tolls.) There is a mileway stone dated 1667 near the end of the lane which reads “Here endeth Oxford mile hy way”, marking the end of the mile of road beyond the city gates which the corporation was bound to repair, underlining the fact that this was then an important highway.

In c.1630 Dr Bracegirdle (a physician of Oxford after whom Bracegirdle Road in Wood Farm is is named) set up a mounting stone at the foot of Shotover Hill in Headington “out of good intent to ease passengers there to mount their horses”. It now stands on the grass just east of the bypass, but was originally sited where the bridge now passes over the bypass. Mounting stones were also provided at the top of the hill, and at the bottom of the hill at the Wheatley end.

Kings and queens who visited Oxford would have passed along Cheney Lane, and they were usually escorted into the city from the foot of Shotover Hill. According to Anthony Wood (Diaries, I:412) Shotover could be seen from the tower of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, and he records how on 7 September 1661 when the senior members of the University were gathered in that church to await the visit of the Earl of Clarendon (Lord Chancellor of England and Chancellor of the University), they “caused a man to goe up to the battlements of the steple and there to watch his coming over Shotover Hill”. This enabled them to process to Magdalen College, by which time the Chancellor’s coach, drawn by six Flanders mares, was “comming out of Cheyney lane”.

The first public coach service between Oxford and London (via Old Road, Shotover, and Wheatley) started early in Charles II’s reign. At first the journey took two days, breaking overnight at High Wycombe or Berkhampstead; but from April 1669 the “Flying Coach” achieved the journey in one day, leaving the Mitre in Oxford at 6am and arriving in London at 7pm. It operated in summer only, departing from Oxford on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday and returning from London on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Anthony Wood describes a journey he took on the very first coach on Monday 26 April 1669:

Munday, was the first day that the flying-coach went from Oxon to London in one day. A.W. went in the same coach, having then a boot on each side. Among the six men that went Mr. Richard Holloway a counsellour of Oxon (afterwards a judge) was one. They then, according to the vicechancellour’s order stuck up in all public places, entred into the coach at the tavern dore against Alls. Coll. precisely at 6 of the clock in the morning, and at 7 at night they were all set downe in their inn in London.

In 1671, this was extended to a daily service, and an advertisement slip for that year reads:

To London Every Day
These are to give notice that every day in the week there will be a coach set out (at six aclock in the morning) from Thomas Moor’s house over against All-Souls Colledge in Oxford which shall commodiously perform the whole journey to London in one day, and from the Saracens Head on Snow-hill London to Oxford again the next day, and so constantly for this summer half-year. If God permit

Start of Shotover Hill

Shotover Hill (above) was too steep for horses to pull laden coaches, so passengers had to get out and walk. On 20 December 1689, Wood reports that Matthew Slade, a Dutch physician aged 63, died in the London stage coach between Shotover and Wheatley, his death “supposed to be occasion’d by his violent motion going up Shotover Hill on foot”.

In 1719 the Old London Road over Shotover was turnpiked as part of the Stokenchurch Turnpike, with a trust responsible for the road from Stokenchurch through Oxford to Woodstock (except for the mileways in the city of Oxford).

Highwaymen were a problem on this route, away from houses. Jackson's Oxford Journal reported on 12 January 1760:

Last Saturday Morning the Birmingham Stage Coach was robbed about Five o’clock in the Morning at Shotover Hill, near this City, by two young Fellows in blue close-bodied Coats, mounted on black Horses; they took from the Passenger about seventeen Pounds, and after giving the Coachman and Postilion a Shilling each, rode off.

Accidents also happened: Jackson’s Oxford Journal reports how on Friday 18 June 1779 a night coach turned over at the corner of Cheney Lane: one passenger was killed, one broke a leg, and three others were badly bruised.

Left: mounting stone foot of Shotover Hill in Headington; Centre: mounting stone at top
of Shotover Hill, Headington; Right: Mounting stone at foot of Shotover Hill, Wheatley

Once the new London Road came into operation, the Old London Road was no longer important, and In the Headington Enclosure Award of 1805 described the latter as merely the public road to Cuddesdon:

Also one other public Carriage Road and Driftway of the like breadth of forty feet numbered VII beginning at the East End of a certain Lane called Cheyney Lane and extending in the track of the said antient Turnpike Road crossing the said Carriage Road and Driftway numbered III [Windmill Road/The Slade] near to a house called Titup Hall [site of Crown & Thistle] and continuing from thence into the common called Quarry Coppice being part of the public Road leading from the city of Oxford to Cuddesdon in the said county of Oxford.

Shotover PlainThe Old London Road over Shotover, looking towards Headington and Oxford (13 February 2017)

New London Road through Headington

On 16 August 1773 the Trustees of the Stokenchurch, Wheatley, and Begbroke Turnpikes held a meeting at the Swan Inn at Tetsworth, and it was agreed:

That the consideration of a Scheme and Estimate, made for altering the Course of the Road from the Plough Alehouse near Wheatley-Bridge to Oxford, by carrying the same from the Islip Road, near the said Plough Alehouse, through Holton and Forest-hill enclosures and Headington Fields, to come into the present Road between Shotover-Hill and Oxford, instead of going down the said Hill, be adjourned to a Meeting to be held at the White Hart Inn in Wheatley, upon the 24th Day of September next; when the Attendance of a numerous Meeting of Trustees is desired, the Subject Matter being deemed of great Consequence, and a large number of Trustees necessary for the purchasing of Land, in case the Scheme should be adopted.

At that meeting in Wheatley, the Trustees of the Stokenchurch Turnpike resolved to apply to Parliament “for power to divert the Road, and entirely avoid Shotover Hill”

In 1775 the natural hollow way of Headington Hill was cut out more deeply from Cheney Lane to the top, but progress on the new road was slow because of disputes over the exact route and a shortage of funds.

In 1788 the terms and powers of the previous act were enlarged, and the following notice appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 14 August that year:

Notice is hereby given, That Application is intended to be made to Parliament the next Session for enlarging the Term and Powers of an Act passed in the eighteenth Year of the Reign of his present Majesty King George the Third, entitled

“An Act for repairing and widening the Road from Stoken-Church, in the County of Oxford, to Wheatley Bridge, and from the said Bridge to Enslow Bridge, and from Wheatley-Bridge to the Mileway leading from Saint Giles's Church near the City of Oxford, by Begbrooke to New Woodstock, in the said County.”

—And also to impower the Trustees to compleat a Road from the Bottom of Cheney-Lane, upon Headington-Hill, to Forest-Hill, and from thence to the Enslow Branch of Road, near certain Stone Pits in the Parish of Holton, to be used instead of the present Road up Cheney-Lane and Shotover Hill to the said Enslow Branch; and which intended new Road lies in the Parishes of Headington, Shotover, Foresthill, and Holton, the said County of Oxford.

The new London Road appears to have been completed in 1789. The three milestones situated in Headington (at the top of Headington Hill, near Wharton Road, and at Thornhill Park & Ride) all still survive.

The Britannia Coaching Inn, originally known as the White House, had opened by the 1790s on the London Road.

Turner painting
J. M. W. Turner’s painting of a coach on Headington Hill in 1803

The cost of travelling to London by coach was astronomical: for instance in 1794 people paid 19 shillings to travel inside the London coach from the Golden Cross Inn (which would have picked up Headington passengers at the Britannia), and ten shillings to sit outside in all weathers:

Coaches in 1794

In the 1805 Enclosure Award, the London Road is described as “One Public Carriage Road and Driftway of the breadth of sixty feet numbered I in the plan hereunto annexed being the new Turnpike Road leading from London to the City of Oxford which is to be continued in its present track and direction”.

In 1818 the Headington Vestry contracted for the repair of the Turnpike Road from St Clements to Wheatley Bridge, and offered the responsibility for maintaining the section from the “4-mile stone” (to the east of Sandhills) to Wheatley bridge to the Parish Officers of Wheatley for £110 a year.

The Headington Toll House and Gates (1825–1878)

On 24 December 1825 the Clerks of the Stokenchurch, Wheatley, Begbroke, and Islip Turnpike Roads inserted an advertisement in Jackson's Oxford Journal inviting tenders for the erection of a toll house, weighing engine, and gates in Headington, “with a side Gate across the Road leading from Headington to Cowley [Windmill Road]”. The toll house was duly built near the south-east corner of the central crossroads, and was described as being near the Britannia public house. In 1826 this gate and weighing engine produced £844 (above the expense of collecting the same); and in 1833 it raised £986. By 1835 side toll gates had been erected on the roads from Quarry and Barton, presumably to prevent the villagers and others from travelling toll-free on the first part of the road to London, and the profit for 1834 rose to £1,240, and in 1838 it was £1,320.

The tolls were let by auction for one year at a time. The lessees were not the people who lived in the toll-house: for instance, in 1839 the lessee of the tolls of both the Headington and Wheatley gates was George Jackson.

This report on an inquest published in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 13 May 1826 reports on a tragic accident at this new Headington turnpike gate:

Inquest 1826

On 16 March 1832 an advertisement for the coach service from Oxford to London via Headington, Tetsworth, High Wycombe, Gerrard's Cross, Uxbridge, and Southall stated that this was the direct and nearest road by four miles from Oxford, and that the charge had been reduced to 1s. 4d. per mile.

From the 1840s the new London Road was used less because of the railway, Costar & Waddell who ran a coach service from Oxford to London put up for sale on 8 August 1840 “10 useful COACH HORSES, just taken from constant work, in consequence of the further opening of the Railway”. The tolls raised at the turnpikes obviously went down too: in 1846 the Headington Gate, Weighing Engine, and Bars raised only £703 6s. 3d., and in 1854 it was £622.

In 1841 the gatekeepers living at the toll house were James Saunders and his wife Sarah, who were both aged about 50.

In 1851 the toll-collectors who lived in the toll house were John Skey (27) and his wife Hannah (40), who also had three young children. It appears that they employed a boy to help them as on 2 December 1854 Jackson's Oxford Journal reported:

Thomas Goodgame, aged 11, and Charles Louch (aged 13) were convicted, under the Juvenile Offenders' Act, for stealing the dinner of the turnpike-boy at Headington toll-bar. Goodgame to be imprisoned five days and whipped; Louch fourteen days and whipped.

By 1861 the toll gate keeper who lived in the toll house was John Heath: he and his wife and three children were all born in Staffordshire.

In 1871 there were two toll collectors: the widower Thomas Clinch (4) and his daughter Louisa (14). Thomas's son James (10) was still at school.

On 23 November 1872 the following notice appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal:

A Meeting of the Trustees will be held at the Crown Inn, Wheatley, in the County of Oxford, at Twelve o'clock, on Thursday the 19th day of December next, when the TOLLS arising at the Stokenchurch, Tetsworth, Wheatley, and Headington Gates and Side-Bars will be LET by AUCTION, in one lot, to the best bidder, for one year, from the first day of January 1873. The Tolls are let for the current year for the sum of £1206….

People were prevented from making a detour via Barton Road and Barton Lane to avoid payment at the central Headington toll house: John Gilbert wrote in 1886 that “a chain, serving as an auxiliary bar or turnpike to Headington Gate, not many years since barred the entrance of the lane leading to Barton and Old Headington”.

On 11 April 1874 there were reports of three cases at the Petty Sessions of the Bullingdon Hundred relating to the Headington toll gate and weigh bridge:

  • James Webb, a labourer of Headington, was charged with passing through a side-bar at Headington Quarry on 25 March with his cart full of laundry work with intent to evade the payment of 6d toll, and the toll-gate keeper, Mr Husted, and his son gave evidence;
  • James Messenger, a labourer of Wheatley, was charged with refusing to allow a wagon full of poles and believed to be overweight to be weighed at the Headington weigh-bridge on 21 March;
  • David Clare, a carter of Headington, was charged with evading 7d. toll by passing over land which was not a public highway at Headington toll-gate, stating it was his own.

The toll house is shown below on the 1876 map of Headington: it was then still the only building in this area, as the three villages of Headington each had its own high street for shopping. Also marked on the map are main the toll-gates across the London road, labelled T.P. (turnpike), the weighbridge, and the side gate across Windmill Road. The main gate had to be to the east of Old High Street, otherwise the people of Old Headington would have had to pay two tolls (here and at the St Clement's toll gate) if they took their carriages into Oxford.

Toll house

By 1876 the annual clear sums for the Stokenchurch, Tetsworth, Wheatley, and Headington Gates & Side-Bars had fallen again, to £1,160.

The end of the turnpike tolls

On 20 March 1877 the Select Committee of the House of Commons decided that the Annual Turnpike Acts Continuance Act of 1876 should cease to operate on 1 November 1878.

On 7 September 1878 the Turnpike Trustees inserted an advertisement in Jackson's Oxford Journal advertising an auction of items relating to their roads, including “the Freehold Brick-built and Tiled TOLL HOUSE, with Piece of Garden Ground” at Headington, and also the materials of its weigh bridge and three long gates and posts and railings. London Road ceased to be a turnpike road on 1 November 1878, and the section of the road from St Clement's to the top of Headington Hill was now the responsibility of the Oxford Local Board.

On 14 September 1878 an advertisement appeared in Jackson’s Oxford Journal  for an auction to be held four days later that included the following lots in Headington:

  • The Freehold Brick-built and Tiled TOLL HOUSE, containing three rooms and scullery, with a large Piece of Garden Ground adjoining
  • Two Long Gates, 1 Short ditto, and 3 pairs of Posts
  • One Long Gate, 1 Wicket ditto, Posts and Railing forming the Side Bar.

In 1889 the Co-op built Headington's first London Road shop on the site of the toll house, and it still survives on the south-east corner of the junction..

The three London Roads leading east out of Oxford

1789 map

The above map dated 1789 shows three London Roads leading off to the east from the old St Clement's Church (now the site of the Plain roundabout), labelled thus:

  • ROAD TO LONDON THROUGH UXBRIDGE [the present London Road]
  • OLD LONDON ROAD [the present Cowley Road, which used to be the route to London via Henley]
  • NEW LONDON ROAD THROUGH HENLEY [the present Iffley Road]]

This is of course in addition to the second Old London Road through Headington, now Old Road. The toll-house in St Clement's shown on this map was moved nearer the church in 1818.

The following advertisement from Jackson's Oxford Journal of 29 September 1832 advertises two services to London: (1) On the new London Road through St Clement's and Headington Hill via Wycombe and (2) via the present Iffley Road and Henley:


The following coaches advertised above would have passed through Headington on their way to London, picking up passengers at the Britannia en route:

  • Blenheim (leaving Oxford every day at 9am)
  • Retaliator (leaving Oxford every day at 12.30pm)
  • Champion (leaving Oxford every day except Sunday at 10pm)
  • Telegraph (leaving Oxford every day except Sunday at 11pm)
  • Paul Pry (leaving Oxford every day except Sunday at 11.30pm)
  • Royal Mail (leaving Oxford every day at midnight)

In 1878 the Stokenchurch Road was deturnpiked, as traffic had dwindled because of the advent of the railways. In 1889 the Co-op purchased the old turnpike house on the south-east corner of the central Headington junction and demolished it, putting up the building now occupied by Hampton's Estate Agents. But it was not until the 1920s, when the three villages of Headington had grown to meet each other and needed a central shopping area, that the London Road was fully developed as a shopping centre.

Old Road as a cheaper alternative

In the nineteenth century, by travelling to London by the old route over Shotover via Cheney Lane and Old Road, a fly could avoid the toll payments on the new London Road (and could presumably pick up passengers at the Warneford Asylum, the Windmill, and Headington Quarry).

In 1852 Mary Coppock is listed as a fly proprietor at the Black Horse in St Clement’s (to the east of the St Clement’s toll-gate), and on 24 June 1856 her fly was advertised as taking the route “via Headington windmill and Shotover” for a Grand Temperance and Peace Festival. (A fly was a one-horse hackney carriage.)

On 16 February 1878 Jackson's Oxford Journal reported on a Vestry meeting of the parishioners of St Clement's where George Herbert Morrell of Headington Hill Hall had proposed

to stop up, as unnecessary, a certain highway and footway in the parish of St. Clement, called Cheney-lane, leading from the Stokenchurch Turnpike Road towards Shotover Hill, and commencing at a point on Headington Hill opposite the middle lodge belonging to Headington Hill Hall, and terminating at a point near the entrance to Warneford Asylum, being a total length of 880 yards.

Morrell said that the ratepayers would be saved £100 a year in the repair of the road if it were closed, and implied that there would be no incentive to use Old Road once the London Road toll gate was removed in the coming November: but only one person at the meeting was in favour of closing Cheney Lane, which remained open until the 1980s.

After the coming of the railways, Old Road became a very quiet route, and even after the University abolished the one-and-a-half mile residence limit for dons in 1915, its development was leisurely. Until recently buses were not allowed to run along it because of the number of hospitals in the area. Since the development of the hospitals and the Old Road campus, however, it has once again become a busy route.

© Stephanie Jenkins

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