The Municipal Boundary of Oxford prior to 1886

This following long article was published in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 10 July 1886. It was written by the antiquary John Gilbert (whose Historical and topographical notes relating to Oxford are available in the Bodleian Library). He identified no fewer than thirty pre-1886 stones marking the boundary of Oxford, most of which no longer survive.

The original article has long footnotes, and edited versions of those relating to boundary stones have been inserted in square brackets in the text. Extra paragraphing has also been added to make the text easier to read.


It has been customary to follow the ancient practice of commencing the perambulation of the City Franchise at Magdalen Bridge, but as a considerable tract east of it is, and has been since the passing of the [1835] Municipal Corporations Act (5 and 6 William IV.), as much a portion of the City as Carfax itself, the most convenient point of departure now would appear to be King's Mill.

Commencing then at King's Mill, the hedge on the left of the short lane leading to the Marston-road is the Municipal boundary as far as the said hedge extends. The mill and this lane, formerly extra parochial, are now annexed to the parish of Marston. Crossing the Marston-road, which is in the parish of Headington, a boundary stone will be seen on the opposite side, and as it will facilitate the description if the stones are numbered as they occur, I will take the liberty of calling this boundary stone No. 1 [inscribed C.J.S., Mayor, 1837: Charles Sadler was Mayor 1836/7].

Pursuing the well-known path from the Marston-road to Joe Pullen's Tree, we find built in the wall on the right hand of the path at the back of the stables of Headington Hill Hall boundary stone No. 2 [inscribed C.J.S., Mayor, 1837] likely to be this stone, now set on the left-hand side.

About midway between these two stones the boundary leaves the parish of Headington and enters that of St. Clement's, the course being – not the path – but a straight line from stone to stone.

The next boundary stone, No. 3 [inscribed C.J.S., Mayor, 1837] is in the bank of the hedge on the south side of the Headington-road, near the entrance to a private road leading to Woodbine Cottages [to the east of the reservoir]. The district map shows a direct line passing through a portion of Mr. Morrell's grounds as the boundary between stones Nos. 2 and 3.

Another arbitrary line passing diagonally across the said private road and through certain tenements and gardens on the south side of the Headington road conducts to stone No. 4 [inscribed C.J.S., Mayor, 1837], in a hedge somewhat east of the end of the short lane skirting the Reservoir, and being situated on the property of Mr. G. H. Morrell is only accessible by the permission of that gentleman, or his representative, Major Drage. This hedge, which forms the boundary, leads to the west side of Gipsey Lane, from whence the Municipal boundary proceeds along the west side of the lane to stone No. 5 (a plain one), in the fence opposite the lodge of the Warneford Asylum.

After leaving stone No. 2, the boundary continues in St. Clement's parish, but re-enters Headington about midway between that and stone No. 3. At stone No. 4 it abuts again on the parish of St. Clement's, and from thence to the bottom of Divinity-walk the Municipal boundary is identical with that of St. Clement's. But at stone No. 5 Cheney-lane is crossed, and entering Divinity-walk, the Asylum wall on the left, and then a row of smaller stones on the south-east side of the path down the hill is the boundary as far as to the last of the said stones; here it abruptly diverges from the boundary of St. Clement's, and goes through the Workhouse and its grounds in that parish in a direct line to stone No. 6 (also a plain one), at the corner of the greenhouse in Mr. Fortescue's garden at the junction of East Avenue with the Cowley-road; thence it proceeds by another direct line, as shown on the map, cutting unmercifully through all sorts of property in Bullingdon-road, St. Mary's-road, and Hurst-street, to boundary stone No. 7 [inscribed C.J.S., Mayor, 1837], a conspicuous one, on the north-east side of the Iffley-road, at the corner of James-street.

Another arbitrary line now passes westward through the fields on the south-west side of the Iffley-road to the centre of the river Cherwell, opposite the entrance of the new cut into the Isis. Here the Municipal boundary touches that dividing the counties of Oxon and Berks, and then returns at Deep Martin up the centre of the Cherwell to a point opposite to where the City Ditch (commonly so called) crosses Christ Church Meadows, the Cherwell path intervening. The parochial divisions have become a little perplexing. The stone in Mr. Fortescue's garden (No. 6) marks an angle of St. Clement's parish. The Cowley-road at that point is in Cowley parish, but we re-enter St. Clement's on the other side of that road, and continue in it as far as stone No. 7, after leaving which it is wholly in the parish of Cowley to the centre of Cherwell river at the county boundary referred to above. On returning up stream the river divides the parish of Cowley from the domain of Christ Church, which House claims to be a parish of itself [but Hearne says it is in the parish of St Aldate].

The boundary hitherto traversed is that known as the New Boundary, being no older in fact than the Municipal Corporation Act, 1835, when it was added to the existing franchise upon the report of the Boundary Commissioners. Previously the Municipal boundary from King's Mill to this point was down the Charwell [sic], and it may not be out of place here to refer to its history. In the preface to Turner's “Calendar of Bodleian Charters” reference is made to — “A most valuable document in French, being the earliest known description of the boundaries of the City of Oxford, and formerly preserved amongst the Frideswide's evidences.” The document itself is translated at page 312 of that work; from it we learn that the liberties of the town (which, strictly speaking, cannot be said to have become a City until the founding of the Diocese, temp. H. VIII.) commenced

at the pile bridge (pountretable) above Pety Pount, and following by the course of the River Charwell as far as to a ditch called 'Creddelak', otherwise 'Mountagueslake', running between the meadow of St. Frideswide, which meadow is within the said liberty, and the meadow called 'Mountaguesmede', which ditch separates the Counties of Oxford and Berks.

It will at once be seen that this “Creddelak” [query: Creed Lake] is the ditch which still separates the upper from the lower part of Christ Church Meadow, and it was known to Wood, Hearne, Gutch, and other local historians as a part of Shire Lake. Its south-west bank must be followed until we reach the other end at Trill Mill Stream, the centre of which now becomes the boundary to its outfall below Folly Bridge; in its course Trill Mill Stream receives Shire Lake Ditch, which is the boundary of Oxford and Berks, and here the two boundaries, i.e., the City and the County, are identical as far as to where Trill Mill Stream empties itself into the Isis. At this point the Municipal leaves the County boundary and proceeds along the north-east bank of the river, crossing the mouths of the Charwell, the new cut, and the stream that flows round Aston's Eyott to a point immediately opposite the Free-water Stone, No. 8 [a large plain stone], where a line drawn across the Isis marks the limit of the franchise in this direction.

At the Free-water Stone we turn and ascend the south-west bank of the river until we reach the stream flowing under Grandpont House; the boundary passes under the northernmost of the two arches upon which this house is built and through Bell Founders' arch, emerging on the other side of the Abingdon road. In the wall above, on the west side of the road, is stone No. 9 [which bears the heraldic device of the City, but has no name, initials, or date].

On emerging from Bell Founder's arch keep to the left bank of the stream until Mr. Salter's boat-houses are arrive at; they are built upon the site of an old osier bed formerly surrounded by the boundary ditch; this, however, has been filled up; the boat-houses must be rounded until the river bank is regained a few yards from the towing path at the end of the wooden bridge leading from Folly Bridge. Follow the towing path now as far as Cobden Crescent, the northern fence of which will, when finished, be the Municipal boundary as far as it extends, i.e., to Marlborough Road. This fence takes the south side of a once famous free fishing stream known as Backer Lake, now converted into a culvert at Cobden Crescent. We shall resume its course presently.

Here, however, it is necessary to explain that from the embouchere of Trill Mill Stream to Cobden Crescent (except a detached bit of South Hincksey at the Freewater Stone) the Municipal boundary is wholly within the liberty of Grandpont, in the parish of St. Aldate's, in the county of Berks. We may also halt here a little and mark how we have diverged from the fourteenth century boundary. The Charter as far as quoted brought us to the ditch called “Creddelak”. It proceeds thus—

and the said ditch runs as far as to the Thames at Grauntpoint, running under an arch called 'Dencheworthese-bowe', and thus along the Thames between the friars preachers, who are within the said town, and a meadow called 'Erlicheseyt' and the meadow of the Abbey of Abingdon, which meadows are without the said liberty, and the meadow called Kingsmeade, which is within the said liberty, and thus as far as to the passage at Henxsie.

It is evident from the first part of this description that when this ancient boundary left the Cherwell it proceeded up a ditch or stream flowing out of the Thames above Folly Bridge across St. Aldate's-street (Grauntpont) and Christ Church (then St. Frideswide) meadow — because “Dencheworthese-bowe” was a single-arch bridge carrying the road over Shire Lake, which was then known throughout its entire course from Thames to Cherwell as the County boundary, and even in much later times, as I have already shown. At what period the County and Municipal boundaries were diverted down Trill Mill Stream, and the latter extended down to the Free-water Stone, I have been unable to ascertain, but it is plain that the present boundaries were unknown to the compiler of the 14th century Charter. Looking from Cobden Crescent across the river, we can see where Shire Lake formerly flowed out of it; and while the ancient boundary tends away up on the main stream towards the Gas Works, our path lies across the Marlborough Road, on the Grandpont side of the stream referred to as Backer Lake.

Continuing along the south bank of this stream, we reach an old stone bridge near the new gasometer, and still keeping the south bank we pass under the Great Western Railway to where Backer Lake divides into two streams, the southernmost of which (Hog Acre Ditch) must be followed all round to the spot where it leaves the Bulscote Stream between Ferry Hincksey and the Railway (or Boney's) Bridge. At the bottom of Hog Acre Meadow the ditch takes a turn westward, and at this place is boundary stone No. 10 [inscribed Wyatt Mayor, Warburton Sheriff, 1842: James Wyatt was Mayor 1842/3]. At the upper end of Hog Acre Ditch the boundary pursues the left bank of the river to the “passage at Henxseie”, the mention of which takes us back to the Bodleian Charter, where we find the old boundary, instead of the route across the meadows by Hog Acre, passed along the Thames between the friars preachers and a meadow called “Erlicheseyt”. Who was “Erlich”, and where was his “eyt” (eyott or island) situated? The first of these questions is beyond the range even of speculation, but I take it that “Erlicheseyt” was undoubtedly the island in St. Ebbe's parish at the confluence of the streams flowing from Ferry Hincksey and the Castle Mill. The situation answers exactly; it was opposite the Dominicans, or Preaching Friars, whose estate reached from the north end of Abbey Place to and including the site of the present Gas Works. They were “within the said liberty”. “Erlicheseyt” and the field of the Abbey of Abingdon on the opposite side of the river were “without the said liberty”, and the old boundary then kept the river to the passage at Henxseie, passing on the right hand the meadow known from time immemorial as “Kingsmead” [the large meadow lying south of Osney Mead], opposite to which, at the upper end of Hog Acre Ditch, the ancient and modern boundaries combine and proceed along the south bank of the stream as far as Ferry Hincksey.

The City boundary on the Ordnance Map keeps the left bank of the river for some distance past Ferry Hincksey. Mr. White, however, discovered a divergence at that place, but before describing it is may be as well to bring the Parochial boundaries up from the east end of Cobden-crescent, where the franchise commenced to ascend Backer Lake. From that point to the old stone bridge near the new gasometer the Municipal boundary coincides with that dividing Grandpont on the south from North Hincksey on the north; thence to boundary stone at Hog Acre, No. 10; it separates Grandpont from St. Thomas's, and from stone No. 10 to the upper end of Hog Acre Ditch the Municipal boundary is identical with that dividing North Hincksey from St. Thomas's.

At Ferry Hincksey Mr. White discovered that the Municipal boundary, instead of continuing along the left bank, crossed the river and made a rather singular incursion into the meadow on the Oxford side, where a ditch (generally dry) and a row of willows runs in a northern direction for the space of about 200 yards; this must be followed so far and then return to the river by the way of another ditch running parallel to the new road, and the river must be re-crossed a few yards south of Colonel Harcourt's new bridge.

About midway between Hincksey Ferry and Botley Bridge the river has to be crossed again to the back water of the Mill, the left bank of which must be followed, and the boundary continues under the easternmost arch of Botley Bridge, i.e., the one nearest to Oxford, thus placing Botley Mill itself outside the franchise. On emerging from the arch the same side of the same stream must be kept until it regains the Mill head water about 100 yards to the north of Botley Bridge, and now entering Seacourt Stream, the boundary proceeds along the left bank as far as the boundary stone No. 11 in that parish. This stone is on the left bank, at a bend of the stream; it may be reached by descending from the road between Botley and Wytham, entering a gate by a stone-built barn, cross the ditch at the south end of that field, and turn to the left to the bend above referred to when the stone may be readily found. On the opposite sure is a marshy tongue of land [locally known as a radam], on the other side of which a stream flowing from Godstow Holt discharges itself into Seacourt River a short distance below stone No. 11.

The Municipal boundary is a straight line from this stone to the stream on the other side of the tong of land above referred to, and the left bank of the stream must be followed as far as Godstow Holt; on the way it will be found to enclose a small island nearly opposite Binsey Church. Through Godstow Holt a ditch crosses from the stream we have been following to another on the opposite side of the Holt, the east or right hand bank of which is now the boundary until we reach its ostium at the small wooden bridge carrying the towing path over it — above the new navigation bridge at Godstow. In its course this ditch passes through a stone arch under the Godstow and Wytham road, at the west side of a small close known (since the Civil War) as the Sentry Field; at the north end of this close the stream turns eastward, and joins with a ditch flowing round the ruins of Godstow Convent, and at this junction, on the Godstow side, will be found boundary stone No. 12, bearing this inscription—

Here Ends
the Liberties
of the City
of Oxford

From this stone the boundary ditch proceeds round a copse to the point where it flows out of the river under the wooden foot bridge above referred to. Here a turn is made down the towing-path and across the navigable river to the south-west end of Godstow old bridge; following its south-eastern parapet the boundary turns into the garden of the Trout Inn; halts opposite the front door, passes through the house, and turns a few yards eastward to a ditch which continues on the north-east side of the bowling alley and pleasure ground, and this ditch is the boundary now around the Fair Close until the road is reached opposite the entrance to Trigg's Lane, about a hundred yards west of Toll Bridge, at the foot of which, on the river bank on the Port Meadow side, another stone (No. 13) will be found, marked C.J.S., 1837. Probably this stone

The boundary from Godstow ditch having kept the south side of the road to this point proceeds on the same side to stone No. 14, situated in the garden of the first cottage on the right, where the road turns into Wolvercote; this is a well preserved stone, lettered—

[Thomas Mallam was Mayor in 1839/40]
Probably this stone

A City stone, bearing the same inscription, is also built in the wall on the north side of the road just before it winds round into Lower Wolvercote; but this has been removed from some other position and erroneously placed there, as it is not on the boundary at all; (it is a pity this stone should be allowed to remain where it is). Probably this stone

From the upper end of Hog Acre Ditch, for about forty yards, the Municipal boundary is still the same as the Parish boundary, dividing North Hincksey and Saint Thomas's; then it runs entirely through North Hincksey as far as a ditch 270 yards below Botley Mill, where it rejoins the boundary of North Hincksey and St. Thomas's, and coincides with it until it regains the main stream above Botley Bridge, and from that point to the south-west corner of Godstow Holt the Municipal boundary is also that dividing the parishes of Seacourt and Binsey.

The boundary (as before stated) passes through Godstow Holt by means of a cross ditch communicating with one on the east side of the Holt and for a short distance, i.e., from the south-west corner of the Holt to the west end of this cross ditch, it separates Seacourt from Godstow (detached), and from that point nearly to the north-west corner of the Copse beyond stone No. 12 — it divides Wootton (detached) from Godstow. At this corner it joins the Wytham parish boundary ditch, and from thence to the river we have Godstow on our right and Wytham on our left.

The Municipal boundary now passes through the parish of Godstow to Toll Bridge, and from Toll Bridge to stone No. 17 (to be arrived at), it is identical with the boundary between Wolvercote and Port Meadow. Reverting to the ancient liberties as described in the Bodleian Chart, we find them from the “passage and Henxseie”, thus stated –

And from thence as far as to a ditch called 'Soundreseyes Lake', and beyond as far as to the Mills of Botelee, and from thence as far as to 'Wowelake', and from thence and from the isles of Midley, Cropley, and Portmanseyt, which isles are all within the said liberty, and thus as far as to the bridge at Godstowe.

“Soundreseyes Lake” was therefore below Botley, and was probably the stream flowing under the eastern arch of Botley Bridge, and “Wowelake” was above the Mill, and although it would be hard to say that the old boundary corresponded exactly with what is understood as the present one, it is evident, from its enclosing the Wyke, Binsey, Medley, Cripley, and Port Meadow, that, “as far as to the bridge at Godstowe”, it followed much the same lines.

A short distance east of stone No. 14 (i.e., the stone in the garden at the corner of Lower Wolvercote), at an angle of the ditch outside the gardens abutting on Port Meadow, and another ditch which crosses Port Meadow towards the Trap Grounds, is boundary stone No. 15 [much weather worn, but the name Mallam is still traceable]. Proceed along the north-east bank of this ditch for about 650 yards, where there should be another boundary stone, No. 16 [but there are no traces of it]; three hundred and twenty yards further on is another stone, No. 17 [inscribed Mallam, Mayor; Wyatt, Sheriff, 1840]. This at the present time lies prostrate at the angle of a ditch coming from the Great Western Railway and the Trap Grounds. The west bank of this ditch (which will be the path on the east and north-east side of Port Meadow) must be followed to stone No. 18, standing at the corner of a field about 130 yards on the west side of the said railway, and here the boundary turns abruptly to the north-east in the direction of the railway to stone No. 19, on which the words—


can be made out from the railway (between the 64¾ and 65 mile posts), from the western fence of which it is separated by a wide ditch [date would be 1842].

The municipal boundary now crosses the Great Western and London and North-western Railways obliquely in a south-eastern line to a fence leading to the Oxford Canal, and this canal has to be crossed to the western end of the fence on the north side of Mr. Turner's brickfield, where there is another stone, No. 20 [markings unknown], and from thence to the boundary proceeds by the line of this fence (part hedge and part rail) to the Woodstock-road, crossing it obliquely to a point immediately opposite Keble College Cricket Pavilion; cuts thence in straight line across the fields south of St. Edward's School to stone No. 21 [the most ancient one on the circuit, dated 16?0, mayor's name commencing with M] on the west side of the Banbury-road at Summertown. The boundary now keeps to the west side of the Banbury-road to a point a few yards south of St. Margaret's-road (lately Rackham's-lane). On the other side of the road, built in the front wall of one of the new houses immediately opposite, is stone No. 22 (T.W., Mayor, date hidden). Presumably this stone, now set into the wall of 78 Banbury Road. This house, named “Sunnyside”, is built on the boundary line, which passes through it direct from stone No. 22 to stone No. 23 (a small one simply marked C.O.) in Mr. Gee's garden, and nearly opposite the dwelling house.

Here it strikes in a north-east direction, at a declension of about 45 degrees, for about 60 yards, and then leads due east to stone No. 24 [C.O. still distinguishable], which is also in Mr. Gee's garden, nearly in line with the gate leading into it from the lane at the back of The Crescent. Leave the garden by means of this gate, and the next angle is at the private entrance to Miss Johnson's garden, at the bottom of a short lane from the Norham-road; enter this and take the path down to the gardener's house, where is another small stone, marked C.O., No. 25. This also is a right angle, and the boundary then strikes southerly to another small C.O. stone, No. 26, in the south-west corner of a field in Mr. Gee's occupation; a hedge here runs direct east to the Cherwell.

About 20 yards from the river is another stone, No. 27 (a more imposing one), which I was informed was presented by Mr. Herbert Parsons, who was Mayor in 1810 and 1820; it is so embedded in the thick hedge that the inscription cannot be made out, but I understand it is to that effect.

Arrived at the Cherwell the boundary at once takes up the centre of the stream, encloses the Isle of Rhea, and keeps to the centre of the channel to stone No. 28 [marked Tawney, Mayor; Hunt, Sheriff, 1841: Charles Tawney was mayor in 1840/1], situated at the west of a ditch immediately opposite a shrubbery and seat in the lower (Cherwell) path in the University Parks. Presumably this stone

The south bank of this ditch must now be followed to the end of the field where it turns southward. Here there should be another stone, No. 29, and was similar to No. 28, but there is only a portion of it remaining; from which point the west side of the ditch must be traversed as far as to where it rejoins the Cherwell just below Parson's Pleasure bathing place. In a field on the right, on the river bank, is the last stone on the circuit, No. 30 (marked as No. 28). The Municipal boundary now keeps to the centre of the Mill head as it runs along the east side of Mesopotamia Walk, finishing its course at King's Mill.

We must now return to the small stone bridge over Backer Lake, near the new gasometer, from whence the Municipal boundary coincides with that dividing the Counties of Oxon and Berks all the way round to the main river above Godstow navigation bridge, beyond which the Municipal boundary is entirely in the County of Oxon. We carried the Parochial divisions as far as stone No. 17. From that stone to the corner of the Trap Grounds the Municipal boundary divides Port Meadow from Godstow (detached); thence to stone No. 18 it separates the Trap Grounds (formerly extra-parochial) from Godstow (detached); then it enters upon the boundary of St. Giles's, Oxford, having Godstow (detached) still on the left hand as far as to the centre of the Woodstock Road, from which point to the Cherwell the Municipal boundary runs entirely through the parish of St. Giles. The centre of the Cherwell, from where the boundary takes it up, to a ditch opposite the north-east corner of the University Parks, divides St. Giles' from Marston; thence to stone No. 28, where the boundary leaves the Cherwell, we have the Parks (which are in Holywell parish) on our right and Marston on the left. The fields enclosed by the detour made by the ditch are wholly in Marston, and when the river is regained below Loggerhead the centre of it again separates Holywell from Marston, to which parish King's Mill (formerly extra-parochial) has been annexed.

The Bodleian Charter concludes as follows:—

and the said liberty descends from the said bridge at Wolgarcote, and from thence as far as to a ditch, called 'La Grenediche'; and beyond this to Charwell, which runs from (? to) Halywell and the Hospital of St. John, as far as to the said pile bridge above Petypount, the which Halywell and hospital are within the said liberty.

Roads, railways, and canals have been constructed since those lines were penned, and divisions of properly, diversion of water courses, and other innovations have contributed to the effacement of the old lines, but, indefinite as the first part of the description is, it will be seen that it corresponds generally to the boundary which has thus existed for at least five hundred years.

Stephanie Jenkins