House numbering in Holywell Street

The present numbering of Holywell Street has remained virtually unchanged since 1837, when the street was complately renumbered. Hence it is the old-fashioned style, which always runs 1-2-3-4-5 etc. along one side of the road, crosses over and continues down the other side, which means that the highest number is always opposite the lowest.

When the present numbers were allocated, Holywell Street had 99 houses or shops, plus the Music Room, and no college buildings. No. 1 Holywell Street is at the north-east corner of the street at the junction with St Cross Road. Numbering then proceeds in an anti-clockwise circle, reaching 40 at the King’s Arms, crossing over and coming back to No. 100 near Longwall.

The larger, better houses were all on the north side of the street, with views of the University Parks: hence there were only forty houses lined Holywell Street there, compared with sixty on the south side.

Since the 1830s, 32 of these houses have disappeared completely:

  • 1883: Four houses (Nos. 41, 42, 43, and 44) demolished to make way for the Indian Institute
  • 1872–1894: Twenty-six houses (Nos. 70–95) demolished to make way for New College’s new buildings
  • 1891: Two houses (Nos. 22 and 23) demolished to make way for Mansfield Road.

In 1976 and 1981 the façades of Nos 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, and 50 were incorporated into Hertford College’s Holywell Quad.

Many of the suriviving former houses are now part of the four colleges which lie adjacent to the street ( Wadham, Hertford, Harris Manchester and New College), while Merton College (which once owned the whole Manor of Holywell) also has many student annexes in the area.

There are now only six buildings in Holywell Street that not used by the University or its colleges: one is part of the Kings’ Arms pub, one is a hotel, one is a café, and three are shops (a photocopier’s, a newsagent’s, and a delicatessen).

The numbering system before 1837

Some of the old numbers can be found in Jackson's Oxford Journal: for example, on 17 October 1807 there was an advertisment to view a live crocodile at “No. 32 Holywell Street, opposite the Music Room”, so it must have been near the south-west end.

The first directory in which Holywell Street is numbered as it is today is Robson’s Commercial Directory of 1839. The houses are unfortunately not numbered at all in the 1841 census, but the numbers of 1839 can be matched with those of Hunt’s 1846 Directory and the 1851 census and then followed through until the last Kelly’s Directory of 1976.

The big number change must have taken place in the autumn of 1837, as the address of Jonathan Lowndes, the printer of Jackson’s Oxford Journal (which was printed at 100 Holywell Street) is still given at the end of each edition as 60 Holywell Street up to 9 September 1837, but by 14 October 1837 it is recorded in each newspaper as 98 Holywell Street.

As there are just two large houses in the street after Lowndes’s home, it suggests that before the late 1830s the numbers stopped at 62. As the layout of buildings had not then changed radically since the eighteenth century, the numbers must have been allocated differently from today, perhaps with groups of houses in one building being allocated just one number.

Obviously most of the old numbers were obliterated to avoid confusion, but some of the old roman numerals that were carved into the stone lintels helpfully remain.

Nos. 1 and 2 were probably as they were today, and then the lintel of the present No. 3 appears to have III on the right, III again in the middle, and IV on the left, perhaps indicating that most of this house was numbered III, but the section on the left was IV:

Old number 3

The present No. 26 (below) has H.P. XVIII (presumably Holywell Parish No. 18) carved over its door:

Old number of 26

No. 53 (below) is numbered XXXII, and this squares with a newspaper report of 1807 which mentions that the house then described as No. 32 Holywell Street was opposite the Holywell Music Room:

Old number above 53

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© Stephanie Jenkins

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