Holywell Church (Chapel of St Cross) and its parish

Holywell Church Holywell Church in 2009

Holywell ChurchHolywell Church in the early 1830s, drawn by W. A. Delamotte and engraved by Orlando Jewitt

Holywell church by TauntHolywell Church c.1905, photographed by Henry Taunt

Holywell ChurchPostcard showing interior of Holywell Church, c.1920

The Church in Holywell was originally a chapel belonging to the Church of St Peter-in-the-East, and was dedicated to the holy cross (hence its name, St Cross). The 1772 Survey of Oxford shows that the church (including its churchyard) had a frontage of exactly 61 yards. It stands on the east side of St Cross Road (formerly Church Street).

The church is a Grade I Listed Building (1369450). The church wall is separately listed as a Grade II structure: IoE Number: 245807. The chancel dates from c.1200, and the west tower was built in the mid-thirteenth century, with the top stage added in 1464. The north arcade and north aisle were rebuilt in the mid-fifteenth century. The north aisle was rebuilt again in 1839 (except for the west end), and the and south aisle in 1843. The north aisle was extended by organ chamber and vestry in 1876. The church was restored and new clerestory windows installed in 1893 by E. P. Warren.

In the church there is an interesting brass to Eliza Franklin, wife of the landlord of the King’s Arms, who died in childbed in 1622.

Bishop Samuel Wilberforce described the parishioners of Holywell Church thus in his Diocese Book on 26 January 1857:

Little shopkeepers very irreligious – very few poor & those demoralised by the number of gifts and charities from the college. Many religious persons, not the poor here – lodging keepers. College servants a most unsatisfactory set of men. Imitate those above them, extravagant eaters & drinkers. Live in better houses & take lodgers. Their lads & girls dressy & spoilt. Some few really religious. The recognized plunder destroys them, & absence from Church. Servants of certain colleges better. The upper the best. Care taken of them & better examples the cause.

The following memorial published in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 11 December 1858 was sent to the Bishop of Oxford by the parishioners of Holywell Church, who were worried that the services there were becoming “contrary to the spirit of the Reformation”, citing strange vestments, intoning, too many daytime candles, and extreme ornaments:

JOJ 1858

The reply of the Bishop was published in the edition of 24 December 1858: he found no fault in the changes, as the Vicar had already agreed to replace the stone slab with a “proper wooden table”.

In 1957, when St Peter-in-the-East Church closed down, Holywell (St Cross) Church took over its parish.

In 2008 Holywell Church closed down after over 800 years of worship, and is now Balliol Historic Collections Centre. The University Church of St Mary-the-Virgin will take over its former parish.

St Cross Church has its own ancient churchyard, which is not to be confused with Holywell Cemetery on the other side of the back wall: the latter only opened in 1848 as an overflow burial ground for six ancient parishes (including that of St Cross).

See also:

The Parish of Holywell (St Cross)

Holywell Street itself with its yards comprised most of the parish of Holywell. (The east side of Long Wall Street was in the parish, but had virtually no houses; while more populous west side of that street was in St Peter-in-the-East parish.)

In the nineteenth century (numbers given are from 1861 census) the parish of Holywell covered the following streets:

Holywell Street

  • Exactly 100 houses on the main frontage

Yards off Holywell Street

  • Park Passage (between Nos. 15 and 16): eight houses
  • Park Place (between Nos. 21 & 22): seven houses and Brazier’s Yard;
    and (between Nos. 23 & 24): four houses (later incorporated into Mansfield Road)
  • Wadham Place or Hope’s Yard (between Nos. 35 and 36): Six houses
  • Bailey Yard (behind No. 38): six houses
  • Bath Place (between Nos. 55 and 56): five houses
  • Brooks Yard (probably behind No. 65): two houses

Church Street or just “near Holywell Church” (roughly the present St Cross Road):

  • Twenty houses
  • House of the porter of Holywell cemetery
  • Holywell School House
  • Holywell Mill house
  • The Female Penitentiary

Broad Street

  • East side (Nos. 31–34): Four houses

Parks Road (“Park Street”)

  • Wadham College
  • Two cottages at the back of Holywell Street
  • Museum Court: two houses

”The Parks, Holywell”

  • One house

Brasenose stables

  • One house (possibly at the end of Park Place)

Holywell Church
Postcard of Holywell Church, c.1900

Board in the church
Board in Holywell Church recording donations of William Merriman (1628),
John Smith (1680), William Stirke, Vinter, Marjorie Coxeter, and
Benjamin Haynes (1828, after death of Susanna Binfield

Roof of Holywell Church
Above: the roof of the chancel of Holywell Church in 2011, after restoration

Holywell home

© Stephanie Jenkins

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