Corner of Cornmarket: Waterstone’s

William Baker House

This five-storey building, turning the corner from Cornmarket into Broad Street, is known as William Baker House. The Oxford Chronicle of 9 October 1914 reported as follows:

“The erection of important business premises has been commenced at the corner of Broad Street and Cornmarket Street which upon completion will provide extensive show rooms, etc., for Messrs. William Baker & Co., of Broad Street. Accommodation has also been arranged for Messrs Martyr’s hairdressing establishment. The buildings will take a curved line uniting the street improvement scheme, and will be in Ancaster stone with Stonesfield slating to the fronts. The elevation will be divided into six bays with coupled columns to the height of the first and second floors, above polished Ancaster stone piers on the ground floor; and enriched cornice occurs over the third-floor windows, above which the roof will spring.

It was designed by Messrs N. W. and G. A. Harrison, architects of Oxford, and built by Messrs Wooldridge & Simpson.

The building on this corner that had to be demolished to make way for William Baker House was unspectacular, flat-roofed, and low, with no name or number. It was occupied by three businesses just prior to demolition in 1914:

  • On the corner was the “Martyr” hairdressing establishment
  • In the middle (and also with advertisements plastered upstairs) was Robert Buckell, an auctioneer, who had been there since 1894. His business (which in 1911 had become Buckell & Ballard estate agents) moved to King Edward Street in 1915
  • To the east was the Oxford Drug Company Ltd., which had occupied this site since 1889. They moved around the corner to Cornmarket Street and are still there (in a new building now part of the former Boswell’s department store)

William Baker
William Baker, photographed by Hills & Saunders
in the early 1870s. Photograph supplied by Paul Plumb

William Baker did not have far to move into the new premises. From 1859 to 1915 William Baker & Co., “cabinet makers, upholsterers, carpet factors, house decorators and complete furnishers”, had been situated at 1 Broad Street, to the east of this corner.

In 1865 Baker’s built an additional showroom, and from 1882 to 1887 only was in partnership with Prior (probably Harry Neville Prior, who had a furniture shop in Queen Street and was married to his sister Martha).

In 1882 Baker & Prior built a new four-floor warehouse at the rear of 1–3 Broad Street, converting the upstairs of the original shop to the Ship Hotel: care was taken to preserve the Martyrs’ Tower (one of the bastions of the old city wall which ran through the premises), and it still survives behind the former Boswell’s department store.

Photographs from the 1890s indicate that as well as the warehouse at the rear, William Baker occupied the whole of the ground-floor area later occupied by Boswell’s. On William Baker’s death in 1902, William Baker & Co. were taken over by Elliston & Cavell, who in 1915 commissioned this new building. It was designed by Messrs N.W. & G.A. Harrison of Turl Street, in consultation with Payne Wyatt of London, and the builders were Messrs Wooldridge & Simpson of Oxford. The shop flows seamlessly into 1 Broad Street to the east and 31 Cornmarket to the south.

Elliston & Cavell’s was taken over by Debenham’s in the 1960s, and they closed the William Baker shop in 1987, after 141 years in Broad Street.

As the building has no number, it is still known as William Baker House. Since November 1987 it has been the home of two bookshops: first Dillon’s (opened by the Chancellor of the University, Roy Jenkins), and now Waterstone’s.

William Baker

William Baker was born in Bicester and became an Oxford cabinet maker. He married Eliza Ruth Williams, daughter of the prosperous tailor Adin Williams, at Summertown on 10 July 1855.

In 1861 they were living at the Terrace in Park Town, and William Baker was described as a cabinet maker employing 22 men, 8 boys, and 24 women. In 1871 they were at 4 Broad Street.

In 1881 they lived in St Giles' parish with their children William Henry Baker (8), who was born in Long Hanborough, and Hilda Millicent Baker (6), who was born in Oxford.

The 1891 census shows William Baker (48), described as a cabinet maker & upholsterer, living at 16 Rawlinson Road, Oxford, with his two children, plus a cook and a housemaid. His wife was having treatment at a hydropathic establishment in Matlock, Derbyshire.

Both William Baker and his wife died in 1902, but his business survived until 1987 (although latterly it only sold furniture, and did not make it).


Bookcase and clock


Right: Five-piece inlaid mahogany bookcase made by the William Baker firm with a plaque at the top showing that it was presented to William Brown in July 1920 (together with the clock on top) on his retirement from the Penrith & District Railway.


Below: plaque from inside the top left door showing that the bookcase was made by the William Baker firm

William Baker plaque


Photographs provided by William Brown's great-grandson John Hana

Occupants of William Baker House


William Baker Ltd, House furnishers


Dillon’s Bookshop


Waterstone’s Bookshop

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