Thursday, 21 July 2016

Searching for St Ebbe's in Blackbird Leys

St Ebbe's as a community and a place no longer exists, and yet it is possible that it is still there dispersed throughout the City of Oxford. Researching a place when the physical structures that defined it no longer exist requires a broader search focussing on material and memories that people are willing to share. I am interested in whether a place can still exist in some way when the physical elements of that place have been lost and the people have been re-located. In a sense, finding St Ebbe's is an impossible task, and yet it seems to be a project worth taking on.

Gillian was born and brought up in Littlegate Street in St Ebbe's. At our first reminiscence workshop she saw a photograph of her childhood home for the first time. The house had been demolished in the early 1960's. Memories came flooding back and since then Gillian has shown me some of the objects from St Ebbe's kept by her mother after they moved away and shared the memories that they triggered.

Albion Terrace. Gillian's house is mid-terrace with a gas light in front of it. 
Photo courtesy of the Oxford Mail

Gillian has spent most of her life living in Blackbird Leys, first in Evenlode Tower and later, as family circumstances changed, in a house nearby. Her house is full of objects that she has collected over the years, each with a story and most of them relating to family, friends and memories of the past. The objects are carefully arranged in cabinets and around an impeccably neat and tidy home. 

"My father was a painter. So everything in the house used to get painted. The trays that you put your cup of tea on. Plimsolls. Shoes. If you wanted a different colour (we couldn’t afford new shoes) he’d say ‘What colour do you want it?’.

Everything… The iron – that was painted. I can remember mum using that afterwards as a doorstop.

But mum used to put it on and then spit on it. And I can remember seeing her spit on it – to see if it was hot enough I suppose."

Gillian's father was a painter at Lucy's ironworks. Whether it was toxic fumes caused by spray painting or another vulnerability that caused him to develop pleurisy no-one knows, but he spent eighteen months in hospital and out of work when Gillian was a young child in the mid 1940's. At this point the welfare state was either in it's infancy or possibly just an idea. Either way, Gillian's childhood memories are of the impact this had on the family, her mother's struggle to manage and the support of their community.

"Dad – he had pleurisy. And he was in the old Slade hospital and I wasn’t very old. And I can remember furniture going actually out of the house. Only small. Not tables and chairs… small pieces of furniture… and maybe two weeks later they’d come back. And over the years we found out that mum used to put them in the pawn shop. Because Dad wasn’t there and dad wasn’t earning any money to look after us. She had to pawn and then get it out when she could. Eighteen months dad was in the Slade hospital.

I wasn’t allowed in the hospital, but there was woods. And I can remember my mum taking me in the woods first. Putting me by a fence and telling me to stay there. And then she used to go into the hospital and sometimes if Dad was allowed out he used to walk over to the fence to say ‘hello’ to me.

There was nothing. But you see I can remember neighbours bringing food. And me going to somebody and having something to eat. You never questioned it at all."

This experience was probably quite common. Others have talked of ill health and illnesses as a result of serving in the war and the impact this had on family finances before the days of sick pay and benefits. At a point when the country was on it's knees, having expended it's resources there was a clear need for the NHS and welfare state. 

"Now my sister. She was 8 or 9 years older than I was. She was the lady and I was the tom boy. We were different. She always wore a dress, I always wore trousers.

I didn’t like playing with the girls. I used to always play with the family of boys that lived next door. I used to go scrumping… they used to put me over the vicarage because I was a girl and I could get away with it. But do you know, I still had a clip round the ear from my mother! 'You shouldn’t do what them boys tell you to do!'

There used to be a policeman on a push bike and we used to wait until he’d gone round commercial Road or somewhere and then I used to hop over.

I never ever camped at the rec ground because I wasn’t allowed. But that was the play area and it had the mounds, and there was a bridge with little alcoves and that’s where you did your courting. That’s where the boys and girls used to go and have a kiss or whatever. And on the rec we used to play or swim. And you could go swimming. I was always getting told off for that. When you think now I wouldn’t go in the Thames. We used to be so daring.

We never had money but we had fun.

I can remember mum making me jam sandwiches and packing me off on Saturday morning and I’d be back at tea time."

"They were never used. I think Mum got them from Webbers. She got most of her glasses and suchlike from there."

"This was supposed to have belonged to my Great-Gran. I was given it by my mother. But I don’t know. They’re not painted on the back, she told me, because it goes flat on the shelf. And all it’s got on is a number. I’ve never really believed it but…  I wouldn’t sort of say yes it was…"

“This was under the floorboards of that bungalow that my son bought. He said “Do you remember senior service?” I said ‘Vaguely.’ But I never did smoke them because they never had a tip on them. He said ‘It was under the floorboards when we took up the floorboards of the kitchen of that bungalow.’ And he said ‘I told Kerry just dust off the dust and mum’ll have that!’”

Thursday, 14 July 2016


As I search for scraps of information and documentation of St Ebbe's, many former residents have pointed me in the direction of Kelly's directory, the 1960's equivalent of yellow pages, as a source of information. Of all the documents and material I might look through to find out about St Ebbe's, I had never imagined poring over a directory. Yet, scouring these pages and looking through the records, the directories bring many aspects of the city to life and create a snap shop in time of the people, organisations and businesses in Oxford fifty years ago.

Ruth Waddle, the archivist and a former employee at the Oxford Deaf and Hard of Hearing centre in St Ebbe's, used Kelly's Directory to trace the changes on Littlegate Street during the demolitions in the 1960's. In the listings it is possible to see which properties are occupied and which are vacant (the number is still listed but there's no name next to it). In later editions of Kelly's street numbers are removed as the shops and homes are demolished. Looking through these entries which mark the transition from thriving busy street to vacant houses with the occasional lonely householder clinging on, the loss and fragmentation caused by community break up is driven home. 

Below you can see pages from Kelly's showing the changes to Blackfriars Road from this busy thriving street in 1958... this much reduced neighbourhood in 1966...

... and eventually to a handful of houses in 1971. By the following year the entry for Black Friars Road has disappeared completely. As Black Friars Road shrinks, Blackbird Leys Road (two entries on) is growing. Many of the residents moved to this new development where they were faced with different challenges, living in a newly formed community on the edge of the City. 

As well as listings, Kelly's Directory is filled with adverts for businesses throughout the Oxford and Abingdon area. These give a sense of the types of businesses and industries in the City. Searching a directory loaned to me by Mrs Gladys Gardner to see what I could find out about St Ebbe's I saw adverts for businesses throughout Oxford, from Botley to Summertown and Cowley to Hinksey, but there were scarcely any adverts covering St Ebbe's. This seemed to confirm what had been said in reminiscence sessions about St Ebbe's isolation from the rest of the City.  Tom Hassall and Elizabeth Richardson remember going as far as Capes and MacFisheries, but no further. Other residents described shops which served the local residents rather than drawing people in from elsewhere.

Local retailers and businesses did advertise in the parish magazine for St Ebbe's alongside some more up-market City enterprises.  Gillian Williams saved the copy with a record of her baptism in 1944. 

The adverts give a sense of the range of businesses and diversity of the area. With so little visual information about the shops - their facades, signage, the colours and the window displays - the adverts begin to paint a picture. Coopers - with it's simple functional advert 'for Household requirements' - doesn't need to try too hard. The ornate ecclesiastical font for Reeves the undertakers reflects the solemnity of their work. Grainge & Co., with their wordy advert, seems to sell everything under the sun. I imagine a shop that is as overcrowded and chaotic as the advert.

These adverts give a sense of the number of small businesses in the area. Searching through the directory listings of the major roads in St Ebbe's reveals that there were many independents, from printers and repairers to furniture shops, grocers and butchers. The demolition didn't only result in the loss of home and community, but it also had an impact on businesses and employment. 

The businesses in this advert may kindle memories for some readers of this blog. I would be very interested in hearing your memories of these shops and descriptions of what they were like. You can get in touch via the comments section below.