Holywell Manor and the Holy Well

Holywell Manor Holywell Manor exterior in 2009

Holywell Manor, 1930s Holywell Manor: postcard with 1936 postmark

Holywell Manor Holywell Manor House can be seen on the right of this “East view of Holywell Church”,
drawn by W. A. Delamotte and engraved by Orlando Jewitt, early 1830s

Holywell Manor stands on the east side of St Cross Road (formerly Church Street).

The original house was rebuilt in 1516 by Merton College and parts of this remain, but it was remodelled in 1931 with considerable additions. It is L-shaped in plan with a North and East wing.
It is a Grade II Listed Building: List Entry 1047132.

In 1082 the Church of St. Peter-in-the-East held the Manor of Holywell of Robert d’ Oilly. Holywell had land for one plough; there was 1½ plough working there; 23 men held gardens, and there were 4 acres of meadow.

The Holy Well (dedicated to SS Winifred and Margaret) after which the parish was named is likely to be the one discovered in the grounds of the Manor in 1935.

The manor remained in the hands of St Peter-in-the-East until that church was appropriated by Merton College in 1294. In 1531 it leased the manor to Edward Napier, and it remained his his family until the end of the seventeenth century.

In 1828 the Manor House was converted into three tenements.

The sisters of the community of St. John the Baptist of Clewer in Berkshire were tenants of the house from 1857 to 1929 and ran Oxford’s Female Penitentiary, whose object was to rescue fallen women. On 21 February 1857 Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported that

The Institution has been removed from a confined and inconvenient locality, in Brewer-street, to a situation at once healthy, commodious, accessible, and secluded…. Instead of an average of two or three persons admitted in a year, dating back as far as 1833, [the managers of the Penitentiary] have now to record a large increase, —- an increase they hope arising from the desire to reform. In 1856, 39 women received a refuge, of whom 10 are now in the house, 12 have gone away, and 8 have been sent to other Penitentiaries.

The 1871 shows 25 penitents living at the house: sixteen were working as laundry maids, six as needle women, two as kitchen maids, and two as house maids. Only four of them were born in Oxfordshire, suggesting that they may have “fallen” while working as servants.

In 1888–90 H. W. Moore enlarged the premises, which included a private chapel. The OS map below shows the area around the penitentiary in 1900:

Area around Holywell Manor in 1900

The penitentiary closed in 1929, and the Manor House was vacant for four years. Since 1933 it has been an annexe of Balliol College. In 1938 the college added a north-east quadrangle, in neo-Georgian style on the east, which adjoins the sixteenth-century house. It has been Balliol’s Graduate Annexe since about 1963.

Holywell Manor in the censuses


The 1841 census for Holywell does not give house numbers, but it is possible to deduce where people listed that year lived by examining directory entries between 1839 and 1842 and later censuses


Penitentiary near Holywell Church
Jane Pedder
(36) and Sister Mary Hopkin (35) were the only members of staff in residence, although they had four female visitors on census night. There were 29 female “inmates”, ranging in age from 15 to 29, of whom only seven were born in Oxfordshire


Oxford Women’s Penitentiary, Church Street
The manor house was occupied by Harriet Parish (52), the “Superior”, and nine other Sisters of Mercy aged between 31 and 76. There was also a laundry matron, one general servant, and one retired servant.

There were 33 women “penitents” on census night, aged between 15 and 35, and all had to undertake work in the penitentiary. There were 21 serving as laundresses, six as housemaids, two as needlewomen, two as kitchen-maids, and one as a cook. Notably only one of the penitents, Annie Scraggs (18) was born in Oxford. One other, Jane Golder (19) was born in Bricknell in Oxfordshire, but the rest came from counties further afield: Buckinghamshire, Devon, Gloucestershire, Kent, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Staffordshire, Suffolk, Surrey, and Wiltshire. Two were born in Wales, and one in Ireland; and the largest number (seven) were born in London.


This lists six Sisters of Mercy and 50 “inmates” (only six of whom were born in Oxfordshire).


Manor House, Holywell
Fidelia Maturin (56) was now the Sister Superior heading the penitentiary. There were also nine Sisters of Mercy and a domestic servant listed at the Manor House on census night: they are all described as “visitors”. In this census the “fallen women” are described as “servants”, and so the permanent servants are hard to distinguish from the inmates; but the cook, laundry matron, and housemaid listed near the beginning are likely to be on the staff. The 37 women aged between 16 and 40 who are listed as “laundry maids” are likely to have been rescued, and probably the parlourmaid, kitchenmaid, and eight housemaids listed amongst them. As before, most of the fallen women came from elsewhere: only two out of the 47 were born in Oxford, and one in Oxfordshire.

Occupants of Holywell Manor House listed in directories etc.

Survey of Oxford





Oxford Female Penitentiary & House of Mercy
(F. A. Dixey M.A., M.D., sec.) (Manor House)

1933 onwards

”Hostel for students of Balliol College


Balliol–St Anne’s Graduate Centre

Since 1984

Graduate Centre, Balliol College

Holywell home

© Stephanie Jenkins

Oxford History home