St Ebbe’s is not designed for pedestrians; it's a space that people usually hurry through to get somewhere else, frustrated by pavements disappearing along Thames Street and the awkward placement of pedestrian crossings. Friars Wharf, an area to the south of Thames Street, is a 1960's development of maisonettes around leafy courtyards that borders the Thames, but so hard to access on foot because of fast roads and the river.
Housing between Preachers Lane and Friars Wharf
Copyright Rachel Barbaresi
Not long ago there was another St Ebbe’s (also known as ‘The Friars’). It is when talking to an older generation of Oxonians that eyes light up at the mention of St Ebbe’s. But even the older generation is divided. I am discovering that for many, St Ebbe’s was an area that they would avoid, or they might just venture into a few shops at the fringes, whereas for others it is a place rich with stories and memories.
In 1945, Thomas Sharp wrote in ‘Oxford re-planned’ “The other Oxford, the Oxford of the slum districts is almost entirely unknown to the outside world, and is apt to be ignored and forgotten in many pleasanter quarters of the City itself. But in St Ebbe’s and in Jericho, St Clement’s and Botley Road there are between 3,000 and 4,000 houses that are actually slums or so outworn and badly blighted that they should be pulled down along with the slums.”
This comparison with Jericho creates an immediate picture of St Ebbe’s - characterful workers' terraces, Georgian and Victorian housing, small shops and businesses, old Victorian industrial buildings – but even this doesn’t do justice to St Ebbe’s which is one of the key areas where the town (as opposed to gown) of Oxford began to emerge, growing up around the Franciscan and Dominican monasteries which were established outside the West Gate of the city in the 1200’s. St Ebbe’s had evolved gradually over a period of 800 years and many medieval cottages and fragments of earlier times had survived as the area adapted and grew to reflect a changing city.
Penson's Gardens, St Ebbe's
Copyright Oxfordshire History Centre
St Ebbe’s was an interface between urban and rural with market gardens, a mill, abattoirs, tanneries, a fishing community and dairies. It supplied the City’s beer and bread, printed the City’s ideas and imaginings, connected Oxford with other cities via the river and more recently powered Oxford with gas. Though St Ebbe’s, like other parts of Oxford, had experienced change and turbulent times, the community was relatively stable and had evolved gradually. In the 21st Century we don’t know what it is like to be as embedded in a community as the people of St Ebbe’s seemed to be. There are many stories to share with you that reflect the sense of connection between neighbours and the security (and therefore freedom) for children as they grew up in this vibrant and close-knit community. “We didn’t have much, but we were very happy.” “The people of the Friars were a bit rough and tough, but we always looked out for each other.” “You always left your door unlocked in the day, even when you went out shopping.” “People shared what they had.”
When the quote from Thomas Sharp was shared with a reminiscence group they were understandably indignant at the use of the word ‘slum’. This didn’t fit at all with their perception of St Ebbe’s, probably because the word ‘slum’ is so emotive and negative. Conversations with people from St Ebbe’s suggest people were incredibly hard-working and took good care of their homes, despite the lack of modern sanitation. By the 20th century houses had cold running water and outside toilets, resolving the public health issues faced in the 1850’s. People bathed in front of the fire in old tin baths with hot water from the ‘copper’. Janice and Diane described how their father had himself paid to bring electricity to their rented home after narrowly avoiding an accident with a gas lamp when Diane was a baby. He had also asked the council for permission to install a proper bathroom in their house – a request that was turned down. Gillian has memories of her mother scrubbing the doorstep and pavement in front of the house regularly. This was standard practice back then.
If St Ebbe’s was already slightly cut-off from the rest of Oxford, the label ‘slum’ may have made the situation worse. Similarly today the term ‘sink estate’ is used for housing on prime land that could conveniently be demolished and sold off. How does the label affect the on-going reputation of the estate as a place to live? Words like these become excuses for withdrawing maintenance and investment, triggering a downward spiral until eventually demolition seems inevitable and the label is proved correct.
Despite experiencing the neglect and isolation of an area set for demolition, the residents valued St Ebbe's and many didn’t want to leave. New housing was much needed to resolve overcrowding, and many people were keen to have a new life at the edge of the City in a home with modern amenities. The new estates were attractive with lots of green space and well-designed homes, so a good alternative was offered and many welcomed the move to the suburbs. But some who had spent their lives in St Ebbe’s resisted leaving, and for those who had built up their livelihoods and businesses in St Ebbe’s, the suburbs were not the ideal place to be. Unfortunately decisions were made at a high level and the idea was imposed top down. Those making the decisions had little investment in the area beyond seeing the flattening of St Ebbe’s as a convenient solution to managing traffic and parking for the City. The ‘slum’ quote from Thomas Sharp opens a chapter about creating parking for the city centre. The motive behind the demolition is not even disguised.
View of the Multi-storey car park from Turn Again Lane, mid 1970's
Copyright Elizabeth Richardson
With Jericho, St Clements and Botley included in the list of slums, it is easy to see how close we were to losing an even bigger swathe of housing and history in Oxford. Thankfully Councillor Olive Gibbs, who had grown up in neighbouring St Thomas, realised what a mistake it had been to place traffic concerns above the life of the City. Some parts of Jericho were demolished but plans to continue Oxford’s inner ring-road were ditched. Visions of the City as a finely-tuned machine that prioritized the car were questioned and eventually superceded by a model that aims to encourage pedestrians, public transport and cycles.
Oxford/Paris Correspondence no. 3, Barbaresi & Round, 2009
This work is based on one of Thomas Sharp's diagrams showing proposed inner and outer ring-roads for Oxford. There is an elegance and sense of order in the diagram (and throughout Sharp's proposals for Oxford) which defies the organic and disorderly way in which cities usually grow. In this work the forms of the road plan are intermingled with imagery from Wytham showing sheep being herded down a lane and put inside boundaries while cars queue up.
Usually a starting point for understanding a place is the space itself, the streets and houses, the shops and businesses, geographical features. In St Ebbe’s the footprint of the pre-60’s streets and houses has mostly been erased and replaced by new roads, two small housing developments, civic buildings and offices. There is little left in St Ebbe’s to tell its previous story and the residents were dispersed throughout Oxford, many of them losing touch with friends and neighbours in the process.
With the help of the team at the Museum of Oxford and word of mouth it was surprisingly easy to find people who had lived or worked in St Ebbe’s. There seems to be enthusiasm for re-visiting memories, particularly in response to recent archaeology on the site of the new Westgate Oxford development.
It is not yet clear to me what I will find of St Ebbe's and my outcomes will only reflect a small trace of this place, but people are sharing fascinating stories and material that are well worth passing on. Through this project I want to enable a wide spectrum of people in Oxford to engage creatively with St Ebbe's as a way of extending the way we imagine and think about the city. The first stage of this will be an artist's book which will be exhibited in the autumn.
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