Street numbering in Broad Street

Before 1840, English city houses generally had no numbering system. People would have found their way around Broad Street by directions such as “Next to the White Horse” or “opposite the Sheldonian Theatre”. But once the Penny Post was introduced in 1840, postmen doing city delivery rounds would have needed superhuman powers to sort their mail away from such visual aids. Hence Broad Street, unnumbered at the time of the 1840 census, is numbered in Hunt’s 1846 directory almost exactly as it is today.

In the nineteenth century, the original style of numbering houses that was adopted went as follows:

  • Start at the junction of the road (selecting the more important and/or more central junction if there is one at each end)
  • Work left to right, thus commencing the numbering on whichever side allows this
  • Number the first side consecutively 1–2–3–4 until the end of the street is reached
  • Cross the street and resume numbering immediately, still working from left to right, with the result that the lowest and highest number are likely to be opposite each other (as in the High, where No. 1 faces No. 143).

The numbering system of Broad Street is unusual in two respects. The first is that it runs from right to left, rather than the more standard left to right. Starting with Boswell’s at No. 1 on the south side, it runs from right to left to the east end of the street, crosses the road, and then from right to left again to Trinity College. The reason is easy to guess: at the north-west corner of the street (where one would have expected the numbering to start) there is a churchyard, then an intervening road, then two large colleges: so there is nothing anywhere near that more usual starting point that could have been allocated the number 1. (Colleges and university buildings, like churches, were never given numbers.)

Eastern corner of Broad Street

The reason that Broad Street, Catte Street, and New College Lane all meet each other at one point is because until the seventeenth century they each hit the old city wall at this point and could go no further. The squared-off junction with the traffic lightshas made this hard to visualize today; but until the 1870s Parks Road did not exist: there was just a private way described as “Lane leading to Wadham from the Dog & Partridge” (the pub on the opposite corner to the King’s Arms). (To confuse matters further, Parson Woodforde evidently regarded this eastern side of Broad Street — where he frequented a bookshop, coffee house, and billiard rooms — as a continuation of New College Lane.)

Thus when the numbering of Broad Street came to a halt at No. 27 when it reached Turl Street, having hit Exeter College, the Museum, and the Clarendon Building, which were not given numbers, it picked up again with No. 28 at the north-east corner of New College Lane and ran northwards up to 34 (the former coffee house on the corner of Holywell). Only then did it jump to the north side of Broad Street, where the thirteen houses and shops that were demolished to make way for the new Bodleian Library were given the numbers 35 to 47, running right to left.

With nearly half the street taken up with college and university buildings, only 58 numbers were allocated to Broad Street, the last two being given to the pair of cottages next door to Trinity College lodge. Twenty of these numbers have now been lost: all seven numbers on the east side have been completely eliminated (28, 29, and 30 disappeared under the northern section of Hertford College, and 31, 32, 33, and 34 under the Indian Institute); and thirteen on the north side (Nos. 35 to 47 inclusive) were obliterated by the New Bodleian Library.

Old streets were only renumbered in the 1950s with the modern, unidirectional “odds and evens” system if a large number of new houses rendered the old numbering unworkable. This is never the case with the old, crowded streets of central Oxford, where replacement rather than infilling was the only option: so the numbers given to the street in the 1840s more or less remain today.

This makes the identification of Broad Street houses in old directories fairly easy, as the numbering is much the same as today’s. Directories before 1866, however, are a little shaky in several places, while Nos. 1-5 (on the site of the present Boswell House) are numbered erratically up to 1912, as warehouses came and went. Numbers obviously took a while to settle down, and some problems were probably caused by the fact that in the early days numbers were not always displayed. In the 1851 census, for instance, the enumerator has messed up the numbering of Nos 35 to 47  Broad Street (old houses that were on the site of the New Bodleian). He put down 42 for the grocer’s shop which was in fact numbered 41 and 42, with the result that he recorded the next six houses (35-40) as one number higher than their real number. It seems unlikely that this mistake could have been made if the shops had been displaying their numbers.


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Stephanie Jenkins

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