Tuesday, 31 May 2016

"The other Oxford"

When I tell people about my work around what used to be St Ebbe’s I am usually met with blank looks – even from people who have lived in the City for a while. Some people know where St Ebbe’s is but can’t understand why I am interested in the area. The old multi-storey car park (now demolished) is the key landmark everyone knows, along with the A420 which channels traffic past the ice rink and around the City centre. The car park is a piece of civic architecture most Oxonians loved to hate, though I have to admit that I always quite liked its well-thought out but functional design. The old car park control room is intriguing. I will write more about this later but you can see photos of it here. As a use of City centre space the car park made no sense, but at it’s opening it was clearly the source of civic pride.

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’sSt 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.

Thank you for reading this post. Please get in touch with your comments and contributions and feel free to share this with others.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The last bastion of the old St Ebbe's part 1

The Museum of Oxford carry out reminiscence workshops throughout the City and work with a network of organisations and people who are interested in Oxford's history. They have been very supportive of this project, connecting me with people who have been collecting, documenting, researching and reflecting on the history of St Ebbe's.

At the recent 'Memory Lane' event organised by the Museum, I met Ruth Waddle, archivist at the Oxford Centre for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Ruth's links with the centre go back to 1964 when she was seconded to work there. She went on to train in social work and continued supporting people who are deaf and hard of hearing or have disabilities throughout her career. Since retiring Ruth has organised the extensive archives at the centre and researched into the organisation's history enabling her to share this with members of the public at anniversaries and 'Open Doors' events.

The Oxford Deaf & Hard of Hearing Centre seen from the bottom of Littlegate Street

Through a combination of campaigning and chance a few buildings survived the demolition of St Ebbe's. I will write more later about the row of medieval cottages on Turn Again Lane which were saved by the Oxford Preservation Trust. The nearby Centre for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at the bottom of Littlegate Street also survived. The organisation bought the freehold of this old chapel in 1957 and, as an institution it was possibly easier for them to avoid compulsory purchase orders and demolition than it was for the streets of housing. 

A drawing of the Centre for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing thought to be by John Henry Brookes

The centre is made up of several buildings, including Mr Bulteel's chapel, a non-conformist baptist church built in 1832, an extension added on the back as a Sunday school room in 1884, the old manse which later became an undertakers and Tudor Cottage, which was built in 1647. Tudor Cottage revealed a surprise when renovations were carried out on the building in the 1980's. Whilst chipping plaster off the walls builders found a very old stone wall with an archway from an older monumental construction. This was a gateway and wall from the Blackfriars Priory of 1246. The only part of this historic structure still surviving.

Archway from the Blackfriars Priory 1246

It is difficult to photograph this grand structure in a small space surrounded by office paraphernalia. It is such a significant structure for St Ebbe's and Oxford, and so strange to find it in the cramped office of this small social enterprise. Seeing and touching these stones was a moving experience. They smell ancient and earthy and there's a sense of tangible connection with St Ebbe's distant past.

Archway from the Blackfriars Priory 1246

As well as saving some very significant buildings, the Oxford Centre for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing have archived the ephemera that is part of the organisation's day to day activities. They kept the kinds of items that most organisations would throw away - posters, flyers, letters and newspaper articles - giving a flavour of life at the centre and in the St Ebbe's area. The first two shown below - for the Grand Bazaar and Anniversary Bazaar - were manually typeset and printed by Halls, a local company who once had premises on nearby Brewer Street. The later posters were re-produced from hand-drawn originals, one of them - for the Food Fair - designed by an ex-student of  John Henry Brookes who studied at the Oxford Technical School which later moved to Headington to become the Oxford Polytechnic. The posters themselves give a sense of transitions during the 1970's. The changing technologies in the print seem to be mirrored by an evolving culture.

Ephemera from the collection at the Centre for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

There is more to share from my visit to the centre, and I suspect there's much more to discover in their archives. I will post more about Ruth and her work at a later stage.

In the meantime, if you have memories of attending any of these fairs and events in St Ebbe's or have your own St Ebbe's memorabilia to share please get in touch at westgateoxfordarts@landsecurities.com

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Excavations, a royal visit and an escaped dog

Becky Peacock and I were pleased to be able to spend some time reminiscing about St Ebbe’s with Ann Spokes Symonds, and Tom Hassall. It was special to see Tom and Ann together as part of our discussion focused on a photo which Ann brought to show us, taken when she was Chair of Highways for the City and when Tom was carrying out excavations before the 1970’s Westgate development.

Tom Hassall is seen on Queen Elizabeth's right, with the County Treasurer holding her umbrella.
Photo courtesy of the Oxford Mail
Here are Tom’s memories of the Queen’s visit.

“It was announced that the Queen was coming to Oxford. And when the Queen comes to Oxford she’s always actually coming to do something with the University. And in that case I can’t remember which building she may or may not have been opening, but the main thing, of course, is that she was what’s called the Visitor of Oriel college and she was going to have dinner in Oriel college.

But they tried to give the City a turn and the City said “Well, there’s going to be a re-development, let’s show the Queen the excavations.” Which was fine except that we had only just started the excavation. But that’s what happened. That’s what that photograph is. We’d chosen that site because we’d got two complete medieval properties on it, one of which was subsequently sub-divided and we knew we were going to get about two-thirds/three-quarters of two complete properties which at that time was virtually unheard of to excavate on that sort of scale. Except at Winchester – that was the only place where something similar had been done.

But when she came, in May I think it was, we’d got the site opened up and we’d mainly got 18th and 19th Century cesspits, so that was what I had to tell the Queen about. And she asked the sorts of questions that any other middle-aged housewife would ask. The only problem I had was that at that time I used to have a dog on the site with me and he escaped just as she appeared which was a bit of a drama.

Tom Hassall telling the Queen about excavations at St Ebbe's before the first Westgate development.
Photo courtesy of the Oxford Mail

It was quite funny because I was told many years later that that evening she went to Oriel as visitor to have dinner and the other senior lady present was Kathleen Kenyon the redoubtable and very famous excavator of Jericho. I mean the real Jericho not the Oxford Jericho. And apparently KK as she was known turned to the Queen and said “I don’t suppose you found much to see down in St Ebbe’s did you?” And the Queen apparently turned round and told her how important it was to find out about the everyday life of ordinary people. And apparently completely flattened Kathleen Kenyon, which was quite funny.”

The work to find out about the everyday lives of ordinary people is continuing at the Westgate. Oxford Archaeology are carrying out extensive excavations, and these have included some 19th Century housing. Becky Peacock is interested in finding out how the memories we are hearing relate to the finds in these recent excavations. I am interested in how St Ebbe's as it was relates to Oxford as a whole and in re-visiting connections between people and place.

If you have stories to share about St Ebbe's then please get in touch at westgateoxfordarts@landsecurities.com

Tom Hassall and Ann Spokes Symonds at a St Ebbe's reminiscence session. 

Ann Spokes Symonds was Lord Mayor of Oxford and later Chairman of Oxfordshire County Council. She has written extensively on the history of Oxford.

Tom Hassall OBE MA FSA Hon MCIfA was the founding Director of Oxford Archaeology.

Ann and Tom are both Trustees of Oxford Preservation Trust. You can find out more about their work on the Oxford Preservation Trust website.