Holywell Manor House, the Manor, and the Holy Well

Holywell Manor Holywell Manor House exterior in 2009

Holywell Manor, 1930s Holywell Manor House: 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 House stands on the east side of St Cross Road (formerly Church Street). It is a Grade II Listed Building: List Entry 1047132.

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

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 manor (and this Manor House) remained in the hands of St Peter-in-the-East until that church was appropriated by Merton College in 1294. Merton College thenceforth owned the whole Manor of Holywell, and even today it still retains a large amount of property in Holywell parish.

In 1516 Merton College rebuilt the original Manor House and parts of this remain. In 1531 it leased the manor to Edward Napier, and it remained his his family until the end of the seventeenth century.

The Cold Bath House at Holywell Manor (1772–1851)

The 1772 Survey of Oxford lists a cold bath house owned by Mr Jennens (with a frontage measuring 12yds 2ft 7in) next to Holywell Church, and this was probably at the Manor House.

Pigot's Directory for 1830 lists John Pinfold as the proprietor of cold baths in Holywell Lane, and the 1851 census reads: “The old Manor House or Bath House uninhabited.”

The Female Penitentiary at Holywell Manor (1857–1929)

In 1857 the sisters of the community of St. John the Baptist of Clewer in Berkshire took on the tenancy of the Manor House and ran Oxford’s Female Penitentiary here. Its 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.

On 30 January 1858 it reported on the annual general meeting of the supporters of the Penitentiary. Those present included the Bishop of London, the Bishop designate of Antigua, the Principal of Jesus College, the Rector of Exeter College, the Senior and Junior Proctor, many other leading members of the University, Dr Acland, and Alderman Ward. The Revd. H. E. Moberly, Sub-Warden of New College, read the report, which included:

Some of their inmates are very young, one not yet 15—almost all below 21; a large proportion very poorly educated; some have had miserable homes; others owe their fall to the mischievous neighbourhood of soldiers and militia. In other words, lack of education, bad dwelling houses, the system of billeting soldiers, and, it must be added, insufficient wages, augment, if they do not create, prostitution.

The Committee entertain no Utopian expectation that they can cause this sin to disappear, but they earnestly point to those evils which can be abated, as social impediments that may be encountered and overcome.

Lodging-houses for young men and for young women respectively would relieve the over-crowded dwelling houses. Soldiers ought not to be thrown upon a town for a length of time without proper provision for lodging and instruction; a barrack and a chaplain ought to be ready for a militia regiment before they are quartered in a town. Now they create and they suffer evil; prostitution and disease are the invariable accompaniments of their presence.

Again, finding as many employments as possible for women would, in part, it is believed, relieve the mischief of insufficient wages. Something is done in the Penitentiary in this direction by attempting to teach several occupations, but neither the women themselves, nor the present accommodation, allow of their being very numerous.

The 1871 census 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.

In 1888–90 the architect Henry Wilkinson 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

By 1914 the Oxford Female Penitentiary & House of Mercy at the Manor House was headed by F. A. Dixey, M.A., M.D.

The Penitentiary closed in 1929, and Balliol College bought the site the same year.

Balliol College and the Manor House (1930–present)

George Kennedy restored the old Manor House for Balliol in 1931 to make a Jacobean residence and duplicated its façade on the roadside. The Chapel of the Holy Well was pulled down to make a garden for the Praefectus (the administrator of the college residence).

Holywell Manor House was opened in 1932 as a Balliol College undergraduate hostel, and in 1938 the college added a north-east quadrangle in neo-Georgian style adjoining the sixteenth-century house.

Since 1963 Balliol has used it as an annexe to house graduate students, and until 1984 shared it with St Anne's graduates. Since then it has been used for Balliol graduates only (currently about 120).

Holywell Manor in the censuses


The Manor House is hard to identify.


The census entry reads: “The old Manor House or Bath House uninhabited.”


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.


The Penitentiary, Manor House, Oxford
Sister Fidelia Maturin (66) still headed the penitentiary, which was described as having 38 rooms and five dormitories. On census night it was occupied by 45 laundrymaids, ten housemaids, one cook, six visitors living on their own means, and six boarders.

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

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