The churchyard known as Bonn Square


For 700 years, from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries, the seating area of Bonn Square was the churchyard of St Peter-le-Bailey church The parish of St Peter-le-Bailey included the west half of the present Queen Street and the whole of New Inn Hall Street and of course (since the word “bailey” means the outer wall of a castle) Castle Street. A church stood near each of the main gates in the wall of the medieval city of Oxford, and this was obviously the church that stood by the West Gate.

There is no record of the burials that took place in this graveyard in the first 400 years of the church's existence, but in the next 263 years (1585 to 1848) the parish registers from list about 6,250 burials. This explains why the ground of Bonn Square is considerably higher than the roads alongside it. (From the autumn of 1848 onwards, although the St Peter-le-Bailey parish register continues to lists burial, they took place in the new parish cemetery at Osney.)

The ancient church can be seen on this plan dating from the sixteenth century:

The tower of the medieval St Peter-le-Bailey Church fell down in 1726, destroying the church, and the new church (below), built by local mason William Chipps apparently without an architect, was begun in 1728 but not opened until 1740.

The print below was published on 1 May 1835 (by J. H. Parker of Oxford, C. Tilt of Fleet Street in London, and J. Le Keux of Harmondsworth). shows the second St Peter-le-Bailey Church when it was nearly a hundred years old, looking looking eastwards along Queen Street from New Road. The church faced west, and was reached by the road on the left which continued up to the Baptist Church, The carriages in the distance have just passed New Inn Hall Street (then very narrow) on the left, and St Ebbe's Street on the right, and are entering Queen Street. The picture was drawn by F. Mackenzie and engraved by J. Le Keux, and

St Peter-le-Bailey

Below is the same scene in 2018, with the widened road occupying the site of the church, and Bonn Square the raised land of the churchyard. Carfax Tower and All Saints' spire are no longer visible because of modern high buildings on the north side of Queen Street.

St Peter-le-Bailey Church was demolished in 1874, but this extract from the map of 1876 shows the site of the former church (now part of the road) and the churchyard to the north (now the site of Bonn Square):

Bonn Square area in 1870

See Helen Webb and Andrew Norton, “The medieval and post-medieval graveyard of St Peter-le-Bailey at Bonn Square, Oxford”, Oxoniensia lxxiv: 2009 (2010).

The three Churches of St Peter-le-Bailey

More information here in the Victoria County History

(1) The medieval church (12th century–1726)

Fell down

The first St Peter-le-Bailey church was built in the twelfth century at the front end of the present Bonn Square, with most of the church where the widened road is now. The medieval churchyard behind is now entirely paved over and known as Bonn Square.

The tower of this medieval church fell in 1726, demolishing the rest of the church.

(2) Another church on the same site (1740–1874)

Demolished in 1873 as part of a road-widening scheme

The second St Peter-le-Bailey church (shown on the1850 map below) was rebuilt on the same site and opened in 1740, and the churchyard behind continued to be used for burials. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 27 May 1871 reported that Parliament had granted the necessary powers for the removal and rebuilding of the church, emphasizing “the magnitude of the improvement which will be secured by the widening of the principal thoroughfare from the Great Western and London and North-Western Railways into the City”, and stating that “The sharp angle which now exists at the junction of Queen-street with the New-road, caused by the projection of the Parish Church into the highway, has occasioned  – as is well known – many accidents, some of which have been severe and one at least fatal”.

Bonn Square area, 1850

(3) The new church further up New Inn Hall Street (1874–1961)

Surviving today as the chapel of St Peter’s College

Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 27 May 1871 reported that it was proposed to rebuild the church “on an eligible site in New Inn Hall-street, which has been purchased by the Rector for about £1,300, and will be given by him for the purpose. The estimated cost of the New Church, which ought to be substantial and good, and a great improvement upon the building about to be taken down, is £5,000.”

On 15 August 1872 the foundation stone for the third St Peter-le-Bailey church (designed by Basil Champneys) was laid by the Biship of Oxford. This church was built further north in New Inn Hall Street and opened in 1874.

The population of the parish of St Peter-le-Bailey, however, started to fall steadily: it was 1,240 in 1871, 656 in 1901,and 502 in 1921. The church finally closed in 1961 and was incorporated as the chapel of St  Peter’s College.

The churchyard under Bonn Square

The burial registers of the church from 1585 still survive. Burials would have slowed down after 1848 when St Sepulchre’s, Osney, and Holywell cemeteries opened, and in 1855 it was ordered that burials should cease in all the ancient parish churchyards of Oxford (including St Peter-le Bailey), except in existing vaults or walled graves.

When the church moved north in 1874, the old churchyard was left as a memorial garden. The Tirah Memorial (the first war memorial ever erected in Oxford) was appropriately placed in this garden in 1900.

In 1974 the memorial garden was named Bonn Square after Oxford’s twin town in Germany.

In 2008 Oxford city council made radical changes to Bonn Square, and many fine graves (including those shown below) were exposed for the first time in 125 years. Any bones found were reburied under the square. (When the Tirah Monument was erected in 1900, it was necessary to go to a depth of twenty feet for its foundations, and the human remains found at that time were reburied in Osney Cemetery.)

The Oxfordshire Family History Society has put online a transcript online of all the gravestones exposed.

Inscribed tombstone

Red-brick grave

Brick vault two days later

Pale brick grave

Concrete in tomb

Brick grave

Broken stones

Two graves




Bonn Square skeletons to be reburied
(Oxford Mail, 31 January 2008)

Bones found as site is cleared
(Oxford Mail, 30 January 2008)

Approved planning applications
06/00487/FUL, 06/00488/CAC, and 06/00489/LBC

Tree cut down as protester arrested
(Oxford Mail, 15 January 2008)

The work on Bonn Square was completed in November 2008, and it was unofficially reopened on 28 November 2008. The official civic opening, attended by representatives from Bonn,took place in May 2009.

The trees of Bonn Square

There was opposition to the city council’s plans to fell four mature trees in Bonn Square, and Gabriel Chamberlain camped in the last tree (below) for eleven days.

Gabriel in his sycamore tree

The paved churchyard today

The square on 3 April 2009:

Bonn Square 3 April 2009

Another lost churchyard in Oxford City (now the Plain roundabout)

Full history of (1) the medieval and (2) the 1740 St Peter-le-Bailey Church
(Victoria County History)

Brief outline by Oxford Archaeology on the Bonn Square finds

Oxfordshire Family History Society transcript of the monumental inscriptions discovered


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© Stephanie Jenkins

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