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Street numbering in Oxford


Beware: There is no certainty that street numbers given in Kelly's Directory will match those of today, in some cases even as late as the 1950s. Here are some examples of nineteenth- and twentieth-century century number changes:

Oxford

Iffley Road

Museum Road

Park Town

            
 
Headington

Bickerton Road

Lime Walk

Old Road

London Road

Old High Street

Identifying houses from 1772 to 1837

Identifying houses becomes easier after 1772, thanks to the Survey of Oxford that year, and H. E. Salter's work on identifying the houses listed in that survey

The streets of central Oxford underwent many improvements and changes as a result of the Oxford Mileways Act of 1771.

Until the 1830s, however, it appears that most of the streets of Oxford had no organized numbering system. This was true of most streets in England that had grown organically; the only houses to have numbers before the 1830s were likely to be in terraces (as in Bath) that were built completely afresh.

People would thus find their way by directions such as “Two doors to the right of the Angel”. This would have worked well in central Oxford, as its old streets were punctuated at regular intervals not only by shops, and inns and pubs, but by colleges and university buildings.

At least four of Oxford streets do appear to have had an earlier numbering system, but it does not appear to have been consistently used and does not always match the numbers of today:

  • Cornmarket Street: On 24 March 1827 the linen draper John Breakspear announced in Jackson's Oxford Journal that he was closing his shop at 65 Cornmarket, and on 12 May 1827 C. Shillingford advertised that his grocery & tea warehouse was at No. 65. On 6 October 1827 Joseph J. Hemmings advertised his sausages at No. 4 and on 10 October 1829 T. & J. Greatbatch announced that they had opened a glass & china warehouse at 60 Cornmarket Street, and both of these matches today's numbering. On 3 April 1830 the hairdresser G. Goodwyn said he had taken over Mr Cox's premises at 34 Cornmarket “nearly opposite St Michael's Church”, which almost matches the current numbering, and on 23 February 1833 Messrs Preedy, grocers, announced that they had taken over the premises of Messrs Gee & Warton at 58 Cornmarket.
  • Holywell Street: there are traces left of a pre-1830s numbering scheme on some of the houses
  • New Inn Hall Street: there are signs of a pre-1830s numbering system on the wooden lintels over the two doors of the present 22 New Inn Hall Street (Morton's Café). The photograph below shows the house on the left numbered XIII (13) and the one on the right XIV (14). This shows that the east side of the present New Inn Hall Street must have been numbered from north to south at this point, although it is hard to see how the numbering worked, as it should have started at Cornmarket on the south side of the present St Michael Street.New Inn Hall Street
  • High Street: The numbers in the early 1830s appear to have been much the same as today. Richard Spiers the hairdresser, for example, stated in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 13 October 1832 that he was at 28 High Street and the draper Edward Bartlett on 20 April 1833 that he was at 14 High Street. J. Shayler's City & County Emporium was advertised at No. 114 on 22 March 1834, and Cruse Horn's hairdressing shop at No.141 on 8 October 1836.

Holywell Street was renumbered in the autumn of 1837, and is likely that Cornmarket and New Inn Hall Street were also renumbered at this time, while other streets in the city such as Broad Street appear to have been allocated numbers for the first time.


Late 1830s to mid-1880s

Robson’s Commercial Directory of 1839 is the first directory of Oxford to show numbered houses, and the inauguration of the Penny Post the following year must have precipitated almost universal numbering of city streets in England. (Villages managed without numbers until the 1920s, however, and many houses in the country continued with house-names instead of numbers until the 1960s.)

From the 1830s to the mid-1880s, houses were numbered continuously, with 1, 2, 3 etc. from the main junction of a street to the end, with the numbering being picked up on the other side of the road and continuing back to the starting end. This means that the lowest and highest numbers would always be opposite each other: for instance, in Oxford’s High Street, Lloyd’s Bank at No. 1 faces the Edinburgh Wool Mill shop at No  143.

Most of the pre-1880 streets of Oxford are still burdened with this old numbering system, which makes it impossible to estimate from the number where the house is.

Hunt’s Oxford Directory for 1846 shows that most of the streets of central Oxford had the same numbers then as they do today, give or take a bit of infilling. Besides the High, the other Oxford streets which still have this old-fashioned numbering system include Beaumont Street, Broad Street, Cornmarket Street, King Edward Street, Magdalen Street, New Road, Pembroke Street, Queen Street, St Giles, and Turl Street, as well as most of the streets of the old dense suburbs of East Oxford and Jericho (including Walton Street itself).

The Town Improvement Clauses Act of 1847 covered street numbering as follows in Clauses 64 and 65:

64. Houses to be numbered and streets named.

The commissioners shall from time to time cause the houses and buildings in all or any of the streets to be marked with numbers as they think fit, and shall cause to be put up or painted on a conspicuous part of some house, building, or place, at or near each end, corner, or entrance of every such street, the name by which such street is to be known; and every person who destroys, pulls down, or defaces any such number or name, or puts up any number or name different from the number or name put up by the commissioners, shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding £25 for every such offence.

65. Numbers of houses to be renewed by occupiers.

The occupiers of houses and other buildings in the streets shall mark their houses with such numbers as the commissioners approve of, and shall renew such numbers as often as they become obliterated or defaced; and every such occupier who fails, within one week after notice for that purpose from the commissioners, to mark his house with a number approved of by the commissioners, or to renew such number when obliterated, shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding £20, and the commissioners shall cause such numbers to be marked or to be renewed, as the case may require, and the expence thereof shall be repaid to them by such occupier, and shall be recoverable as damages.

Jackson's Oxford Journal of 21 August 1858 reported:

NUMBERING OF THE HOUSES IN OXFORD.—We understand that in consequence of the complaints which have been made on the subject, the Street Commissioners are turning their attention towards a better system of numbering the houses in those streets where at present there is no uniformity, but, on the contrary, several numbers alike. They have agreed to commence in St Aldate's-street, and to start from Plowman's Agricultural and General Agency Office, on the left-hand side, and to number the houses consecutively as far as Folly Bridge, when the numbers will be continued on the opposite, or right-hand side, back to Carfax.

The forthcoming 1871 census motivated the rationalization of street numbering: Jackson's Oxford Journal of 4 March 1871 stated that the Chairman of the Oxford Local Board “reported that the numbering of houses in the town was being rapidly proceeded with, in compliance with a request from the Registrar-General, in order to facilitate the labours of the collectors of the next census returns”.

One reason for renumbering a street was the addition of new houses. Here Jackson's Oxford Journal of 6 February 1886 reports how the General Purposes Committee decided to postpone the knotty problem of renumbering the Iffley Road:

Nine new houses having recently been built on the north-east side of Iffley-road, near the Cape of Good Hope, it appears necessary that they should be numbered, but as this would involve the re-numbering of the whole of the Iffley-road, which would probably cause incoveneince to the occupiers, the Committee have postponed the matter for the present, in order that the views of the inhabitants might be ascertained.

It took about another six years before the Iffley Road was renumbered as it is today.


1880s to present

In the 1880s, a new, more practical, method of numbering new houses was implemented. This put odd numbers on one side of the road and even numbers on the other (starting in both cases with the lowest numbers at the main junction of the road). This means that without any prior knowledge whatsoever, anyone can deduce from a map roughly where a number will fall in a street.

Usually the odd numbers are on the left and the even ones on the right as you stand at the end with the lowest numbers, but there are exceptions, e.g. Sandfield Road in Headington.

When the odds and evens system was introduced, it was primarily just used in Oxford for newly built streets (e.g. Boulter Street, Marlborough Road, and Walton Well Road). A few roads which had not had time to settle into the old numbering system were renumbered (e.g. Plantation Road and Catherine Street by 1887, and Norham Gardens by 1889), but on the whole the numbering of the old streets was left in the old consecutive system.

If streets had to be renumbered because of infilling, however, the new system was used. In November 1886 it was agreed that the Banbury Road should be renumbered, and this extract from the General Purposes Committee report published in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 9 April 1887 shows that householders were obliged to fix the new numbers to their doors:

That notice be served upon Mr. E. Ryman Hall, requiring him to affix the number “37” to the door of his house in Banbury-road, and that a like notice be served upon Mrs. Filsell requiring her to affix the number “50” tp her house, this being necessary in order to complete the arrangement for re-numbering the road, which was agreed to by the Board in November last

The Woodstock Roads was also renumbered under the new system at about this time. This does not mean, however, that the numbers henceforth remained static: subsequent infilling sometimesl made further renumbering of some roads necessary.

Other streets which once had widely spaced houses with swathes of spare land have been subject to so much infilling that renumbering became essential between the 1930s and the 1950s. Hence the Marston Road (greatly infilled) has the modern style of numbering, while Marston Street (where the houses are terraced and could not be breached) the old. And in central Oxford, George Street was renumbered in 1895/6 when the building of the Old Fire Station and the Corn Exchange knocked a hole in the old numbering system.

As for the outlying villages that became suburbs of Oxford in the twentieth century, numbering there was treated summarily by the city. When Headington and Cowley became part of Oxford in 1929, their old-fashioned numbering system was generally modernized in one fell swoop.

Warning: Numbers often changed more than once, sometimes only a few years after the previous change


More complications: The example of New Inn Hall Street/St Michael's Street in Oxford

Streets themselves could also change in layout. Before 1872 New Inn Hall Street did not run up to George Street at all, but did a sharp right turn opposite the Methodist Church and ran to Cornmarket via what is now St Michael's Street.

In 1872 New Inn Hall Street was extended northwards to George Street, but it was not until the early twentieth century that the name St Michael's Street was introduced. Initially the street was considered to have two forks, so that both the new part that ran north and the old part that ran east to Cornmarket were both called New Inn Hall Street.

Hence from 1872 to at least 1900, the numbering ran as follows:

  • It started on the west side of the present New Inn Hall Street starting with 1–2–3 New Inn Hall Street at the Queen Street end and reaching No. 11 at George Street. (The reason for the low total was that some of the large buildings on this side were schools and there were also two churches, all unnumbered.)
  • It then continued along the north side of the present St Michael Street starting with 12–13–14 and getting up to No. 20 New Inn Hall Street by the time in reached Cornmarket.
  • It then ran in a westward direction along the south side of the present St Michael Street starting with 21–22–23 New Inn Hall Street, with the number continuing around the corner and down the east side of the present New Inn Hall Street, reaching No. 50 on the corner of Queen Street.

The three-times-numbered Iffley Road: a Historic England photograph by Henry Taunt

Stephanie Jenkins