Oxford History: The High


The High in the 1860s

The following extracts relating to the High as it was in the 1860s are taken from W. E. Sherwood, Oxford Yesterday (Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1927):

The road itself

“The main roads were pitched with kidney pebbles…. In the High Street there was also a strip of granite setts all down the centre of the road. The watering of the High was done by a very primitive method. The fire plugs were opened at Carfax soon after seven o’clock in the morning, and, as the water ran down the gutters, two men went with boards to which some kind of sacking or coarse material was attached, and with these they dammed the gutters at intervals and threw the water with wooden shovels across the road, passing gradually down the street until they came to Magdalen, and doing their work very thoroughly.”

Emptiness of the High in vacations

“When vacation came there was scarcely any business at all. In consequence, from the end of June till the beginning of October there was hardly anything doing here. The colleges were almost empty, the rooms all closed; there were no conferences, nor vacation classes, nor anything of the kind, such as now, to bring people here. Except on Wednesday, cattle market day, and Saturday, the general market, Oxford was almost a desert. The grass used to grow up between the pebbles in the High Street.”

Water supply to the High

“Originally the water passed through the Carfax Conduit now in Nuneham Park, but in 1858 there was a cistern behind what is now Lloyds bank buildings, from which a few colleges and private houses were supplied with excellent water.”

Fire Precautions

“Then there were no fire engines worth speaking of. The City had none. I suppose because the University [police] were responsible for us at night. The University had two small hand-worked squirts which were kept in St Mary’s Church.”


“Even in the shop windows the lights were very scanty, whilst all the poorer houses were still content with the gleam of a tallow candle.”

Deterioration of the High

“The fine old elms which bordered the street from Long Wall to Magdalen College, and which formed a great feature as we went down the High, are gone. B.N.C. [Brasenose College] and Oriel have broken out into the High, the latter at any rate destroying a most picturesque group of old houses in so doing, and, to put it gently, hardly compensating us for their removal, and, generally, I have seen the gradual disappearance of much of the domestic architecture for which Oxford was once famous, a disappearance due very largely to the arrival of plate glass and consequent increase of display in the shop windows.”

Life in the shops

“I have spoken of the typhoid which used to have its home here, but a far more deadly disease was consumption. In old days the death rate from this plague was terrible, at least twice the present rate. This was due largely to the housing of so many of our people in narrow, ill-ventilated courts, where sun and air never came, or, as far as the domestic servants were concerned, to the fact that when the ground floor was given up to the shop, and the upper part of the houses to the proprietor’s family, there was no place for the servants to work or to sleep in but the semi-darkness and often the dampness of the basement. ‘shop-girl’, which was commonly used of the shop assistants of those days, … always suggested to me, whenever I heard it, a delicate girl with a pallid face, evidently, as I should now say, trembling on the verge of consumption. It was not only the poor surroundings which caused this, but the long hours of work. Even luxury shops, like Ryman’s [the carver & gilder/Printseller at 24/25 High Street], did not close till after eight at night, whilst others kept open still later, and I think there was no regular break all day long. Meals were snatched as opportunity occurred, whilst as a rule the girls were forbidden to sit down.”

Headgear appropriate to the High

“Even in my undergraduate days, when I used to go for long traps to Brill and other distant places on Sunday, if I ventured to wear a black ‘bowler’ [rather than a high hat], I took care to avoid the High Street, and to slip back to college by the more unfrequented byways.”

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 16 September, 2012

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