Oxford History: The High


Quotations about the High

Shops with tree

The sycamore tree on the left next to the Warden's Lodgings of All Souls College (above) was much admired by J. M. W. Turner, and Jan Morris said that it was at a perfect point in the curve of the High and was the most important tree in Oxford. Thomas Sharp in Oxford Replanned (1948) said: “The tree between All Souls and Queen's is one of the most important in the world: without it this scene would suffer greatly” and that it was

an inspiring example of a single object, and one which is not intrinsically special of its kind, contributing in an immeasurable degree to a total effect in which the main constituents are both far larger and more numerous than itself, and are in themselves among the noblest of their kind.

1674: Anthony Wood

The High Street, the fairest and largest wee have, partly divides North-East and South East Wards and therefore pertaineth to them. It reacheth from Quatervois [Carfax] to East Gate through the parishes of S. Martin’s, All Saints’, S. Marie’s, and S. Peter’s in the East.

c.1700: Miss Celia Fiennes

The high-Streete is a very Noble one, soe large and of a Greate Length. In this is ye University Church Called St. Maryes, which is very large and Lofty but Nothing very Curious in it.

1773: The Revd E. Tatham

High-Street is the glory of Oxford. 

1781: A new Pocket Companion for Oxford

The principal Street of the City runs from East to West, the entire Length of the Town, but under different Names; the High-Street, beginning at Magdalen Bridge, includes at least two Thirds of that Length; the Remainder is from Carfax to the End of Castle-Street.* The High-street is perhaps without a Rival; being of a spacious Width and Length, adorned with the Fronts of three well built Colleges; St. Mary's and All-Saints’ Churches; terminated at the East End with a View of Magdalen College Tower, and the beautiful new Bridge; which consists of six large Arches, and five smaller ones. Every Turn of it presents a new Object, and a different View; each of which would make an agreeable Picture in Perspective: Whereas, had it been strait, every Object would have been seen at one and the same Instant, but more foreshortened than at present.

* Here Queen Street and Castle Street regarded as a continuation of the High Street, as in the 1791 directory below.

1782: C. P. Moritz

One of the most beautiful streets in Europe.

1791: Universal British Directory

The principal street is the High-street, running from Magdalen-bridge to Carfax church. Its length and breadth are hardly to be paralleled, and is remarkably clean and well paved. It derives its principal grandeur from the fronts of three* magnificent colleges, together with the churches of St. Mary and All Saints. This street would be less beautiful were it in a strait line. From its tendency to a curve, it affords a gradual and unexpected display of its parts, and successively surprises us, at every turn, with a new object. This street, but under different names, is continued towards the castle. 

* The three colleges referred to are All Souls, Queen’s, and University College. Magdalen College to the east is not included, presumably because the High Street at this time only started at the East Gate (although just three years later, the next example does include it).

1794: William Combe

The eastern entrance into the city is by the high-street, which is without a rival in this or any other country. It is two thousand and thirty-eight feet in length, and eighty-five broad; is admirably paved, and contains Queen’s, All Souls, University, and Magdalen Colleges; with the fine churches of Saint Mary and All Saints … all together forming a most superb range of finely contrasted structures; while its curvated direction, by affording a gradual display, heightens the impression of its magnificent objects

c.1817: John Keats

From Lines rhymed in a letter from Oxford:

The Gothic looks solemn,
The plain Doric column
Supports an old Bishop and Crozier;
The mouldering arch,
Shaded o’er by a larch
Stands next door to Wilson the Hosier.

1820: William Wordsworth

The stream-like windings of that glorious street

1838: Gustave Friedrich Waagen

The High Street of Oxford has not its equal in the whole world.

1852: Gardner’s Oxfordshire Directory

High-street, the principal street of the city, is spacious, well paved, upwards of half a mile in length, and so superbly edificed, as to be generally esteemed one of the most beautiful streets in Europe…. At almost every step, the stranger is regaled with a fresh display of architectural grandeur…. One view of this street, near its middle, where there is a graceful curve is particularly captivating and impressive, and may challenge comparison for mingled beauty, variety, and effect, with almost any street scene in the world.

1868: G.V. Cox

Writing about the early 1830s:

The propensity of our Undergraduates to abbreviate all academic names and phrases (as well as their hours of study) [meant that] the High Street, with all its beauty, was put upon short allowance, and became ‘The High’.

1874–5: Shotover Papers

The High.—A Street in Oxford, so called because the rent of rooms and the price of commodities there is excessive.

1881: Oscar Wilde (The Burden of Itys)

Magdalen’s tall tower tipped with tremulous gold
Marks the Long High Street of the little town.

1895: Hastings Rashdall

There is probably not a single yard of ground in any part of the classic High Street that lies between St Martin’s and St Mary’s which has not, at one time or another, been stained with blood. There are historic battlefields on which less has been spilt

1898: Thomas Hardy

And there’s a street in the place – the main street – that ha’n’t another like it in the world….’ (a carter describing the High to Jude)

1944: Lawrence Dale

The High Street, avoiding some long-forgotten obstruction, threaded the centre in a curve that unrolled a continuous succession of delight. The vertical shaft of Magdalen stood sentinel at the east poised miraculously on the horizontal bridge, and St Mary’s spire arose from the concavity of the street as though by a stroke of genius.

1948: Thomas Sharp

The perfect subject for railway-carriage photography.

1974: Nicolaus Pevsner

The High Street is one of the world’s great streets. It has everything.

The High was an important shopping street in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. On 19 August 1910 The Times (of London) reported thus on the loss of shops to colleges:

To return for a moment to the High, those buildings for Oriel and Brasenose … are a convenience to the colleges and an architectural improvement; but the citizens of Oxford look upon them with a certain jealousy. They have meant the eviction of many shopkeepers and the demolition of their shops. It is certainly a serious thing for a tradesman of the High, perhaps one of old standing, to be forced to migrate to the Turl or St. Giles's. The colleges cannot be blamed; they have the first claim upon their own land; but how to find sites for shops which shall be as good for custom as the High has always been is a problem as yet unsolved.


©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 26 March, 2023

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