The graveyard known as Bonn Square
Bonn Square was the graveyard of St Peter-le-Bailey church for 700 years, from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries. The parish of St Peter-le-Bailey included the west half of the present Queen Street and the whole of New Inn Hall Street and of course (since the word “bailey” means the outer wall of a castle) Castle Street.
There is no record of the burials that took place in this graveyard in the first 400 years of its existence, but in the next 300 years the surviving parish registers (from 1585 to 1870) list about 6,800 burials. This explains why the ground of Bonn Square is considerably higher than the roads alongside it.
The map below, which dates from 1876, shows clearly where the church used to stand in relation to the graveyard.
See Helen Webb and Andrew Norton, “The medieval and post-medieval graveyard of St Peter-le-Bailey at Bonn Square, Oxford”, Oxoniensia lxxiv: 2009 (2010).
The Churches of St Peter-le-Bailey
Although Bonn Square was always the graveyard of St Peter-le-Bailey church, there have been three different churches bearing that name:
(1) The medieval church (12th century–1726)
The first St Peter-le-Bailey church was built in the twelfth century at the front end of the present Bonn Square, with most of the church where the widened road is now. The medieval churchyard behind is now entirely paved over and known as Bonn Square.
The tower of this medieval church fell in 1726, demolishing the rest of the church.
(2) Another church on the same site (1740–1874)
The second St Peter-le-Bailey church (shown on the1850 map below) was rebuilt on the same site and opened in 1740, and the graveyard behind continued in use. This church was demolished in 1873 as part of a road-widening scheme.
(3) The new church further up the road (1874–1961: surviving as chapel of St Peter’s College)
In 1874 the third St Peter-le-Bailey church (designed by Basil Champneys) was built further north in New Inn Hall Street. The population of the parish, however, fell steadily: it was 1,240 in 1871, 656 in 1901,and 502 in 1921. The church finally closed in 1961 and was incorporated as the chapel of St Peter’s College.
The burial registers of the church from 1585 still survive. Burials would have slowed down after 1848 when St Sepulchre’s, Osney, and Holywell cemeteries opened, and in 1855 it was ordered that burials should cease in all the ancient parish churchyards of Oxford (including St Peter-le Bailey), except in existing vaults or walled graves.
When the church moved north in 1874, the old churchyard was left as a memorial garden. The Tirah Memorial (the first war memorial ever erected in Oxford) was appropriately placed in this garden in 1900.
In 1974 the memorial garden was named Bonn Square after Oxford’s twin town in Germany.
In 2008 Oxford city council made radical changes to Bonn Square, and many fine graves (including those shown below) were exposed for the first time in 125 years. Any bones found were reburied under the square. (When the Tirah Monument was erected in 1900, it was necessary to go to a depth of twenty feet for its foundations, and the human remains found at that time were reburied in Osney Cemetery.)
The Oxfordshire Family History Society has put a transcript online of all the gravestones exposed.
“Bonn Square skeletons to be reburied” (Oxford Mail, 31 January 2008)
found as site is cleared”
(Oxford Mail, 30 January 2008)
Approved planning applications
06/00487/FUL, 06/00488/CAC, and 06/00489/LBC
“Tree cut down as protester arrested”
(Oxford Mail, 15 January 2008)
The work on Bonn Square was completed in November 2008, and it was unofficially reopened on 28 November 2008. The official civic opening, attended by representatives from Bonn,took place in May 2009.
The trees of Bonn Square
There was opposition to the city council’s plans to fell four mature trees in Bonn Square, and Gabriel Chamberlain camped in the last tree (below) for eleven days.
The paved churchyard today
The square on 3 April 2009
Full history of (1) the medieval and (2) the 1740 St Peter-le-Bailey Church
(Victoria County History)