Street numbering in Oxford

Before the late 1830s

Until the 1830s, it appears that most of the streets of Oxford had no organized numbering system. This was true of most streets in England that had grown organically; the only houses to have numbers before the 1830s were likely to be in terraces (as in Bath) that were built completely afresh.

People would thus find their way by directions such as “Two doors to the right of the Angel”. This would have worked well in central Oxford, as its old streets were punctuated at regular intervals not only by shops, and inns and pubs, but by colleges and university buildings.

Holywell Street was an exception here, and there are traces left on some of the houses of a pre-1830s numbering scheme. New Inn Hall Street (see below) may also have an example.

Late 1830s to mid-1880s

Robson’s Commercial Directory of 1839 is the first directory of Oxford to show numbered houses, and the inauguration of the Penny Post the following year must have precipitated almost universal numbering of city streets in England. (Villages managed without numbers until the 1920s, however, and many houses in the country continued with house-names instead of numbers until the 1960s.)

From the 1830s to the mid-1880s, houses were numbered continuously, with 1, 2, 3 etc. from the main junction of a street to the end, with the numbering being picked up on the other side of the road and continuing back to the starting end. This means that the lowest and highest numbers would always be opposite each other: for instance, in Oxford’s High Street, Lloyd’s Bank at No. 1 faces the Edinburgh Wool Mill shop at No  143.

Most of the pre-1880 streets of Oxford are still burdened with this old numbering system, which makes it impossible to estimate from the number where the house is.

Hunt’s Oxford Directory for 1846 shows that most of the streets of central Oxford had the same numbers then as they do today, give or take a bit of infilling. Besides the High, the other Oxford streets which still have this old-fashioned numbering system include Beaumont Street, Broad Street, Cornmarket Street, King Edward Street, Magdalen Street, New Road, Pembroke Street, Queen Street, St Giles, and Turl Street, as well as most of the streets of the old dense suburbs of East Oxford and Jericho (including Walton Street itself).

The Town Improvement Clauses Act of 1847 covered street numbering as follows:

64 Houses to be numbered and streets named.

The commissioners shall from time to time cause the houses and buildings in all or any of the streets to be marked with numbers as they think fit, and shall cause to be put up or painted on a conspicuous part of some house, building, or place, at or near each end, corner, or entrance of every such street, the name by which such street is to be known; and every person who destroys, pulls down, or defaces any such number or name, or puts up any number or name different from the number or name put up by the commissioners, shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding £25 for every such offence.

65 Numbers of houses to be renewed by occupiers.

The occupiers of houses and other buildings in the streets shall mark their houses with such numbers as the commissioners approve of, and shall renew such numbers as often as they become obliterated or defaced; and every such occupier who fails, within one week after notice for that purpose from the commissioners, to mark his house with a number approved of by the commissioners, or to renew such number when obliterated, shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding £20, and the commissioners shall cause such numbers to be marked or to be renewed, as the case may require, and the expence thereof shall be repaid to them by such occupier, and shall be recoverable as damages.

1880s to present

In the 1880s, a new, more practical, method of numbering new houses was implemented. This put odd numbers on one side of the road and even numbers on the other (starting in both cases with the lowest numbers at the main junction of the road). This means that without any prior knowledge whatsoever, anyone can deduce from a map roughly where a number will fall in a street.

Usually the odd numbers are on the left and the even ones on the right as you stand at the end with the lowest numbers, but there are exceptions, e.g. Sandfield Road in Headington.

When the odds and evens system was introduced, it was primarily just used in Oxford for newly built streets (e.g. Boulter Street, Marlborough Road, and Walton Well Road). A few roads which had not had time to settle into the old numbering system were renumbered (e.g. Plantation Road and Catherine Street by 1887, and Norham Gardens by 1889), but on the whole the numbering of the old streets was left in the old consecutive system.

When old streets which formerly only had house-names and no numbers (such as the Woodstock and Banbury Roads) were given rational numbers for the first time in the 1880s, the new system was of course used from the start. This does not mean, however, that the numbers remained static: subsequent infilling often still made renumbering necessary.

Other streets which once had widely spaced houses with swathes of spare land have been subject to so much infilling that renumbering became essential between the 1930s and the 1950s. Hence the Marston Road (greatly infilled) has the modern style of numbering, while Marston Street (where the houses are terraced and could not be breached) the old. And in central Oxford, George Street was renumbered in 1895/6 when the building of the Old Fire Station and the Corn Exchange knocked a hole in the old numbering system.

As for the outlying villages that became suburbs of Oxford in the twentieth century, numbering there was treated summarily by the city. When Headington and Cowley became part of Oxford in 1929, their old-fashioned numbering system was generally modernized in one fell swoop.

Warning: Numbers often changed more than once, sometimes only a few years after the previous change

Examples of number changes

Museum Road, Oxford

Iffley Road, Oxford

Lime Walk, Headington

More complications: The example of New Inn Hall Street/St Michael's Street in Oxford

Streets themselves could also change in layout. Before 1872 New Inn Hall Street did not run up to George Street at all, but did a sharp right turn opposite the Methodist Church and ran to Cornmarket via what is now St Michael's Street.

In 1872 New Inn Hall Street was extended northwards to George Street, but it was not until the early twentieth century that the name St Michael's Street was introduced. Initially the street was considered to have two forks, so that both the new part that ran north and the old part that ran east to Cornmarket were both called New Inn Hall Street.

Hence from 1872 to at least 1900, the numbering ran as follows:

  • It started on the west side of the present New Inn Hall Street starting with 1–2–3 New Inn Hall Street at the Queen Street end and reaching No. 11 at George Street. (The reason for the low total was that some of the large buildings on this side were schools and there were also two churches, all unnumbered.)
  • It then continued along the north side of the present St Michael Street starting with 12–13–14 and getting up to No. 20 New Inn Hall Street by the time in reached Cornmarket.
  • It then ran in a westward direction along the south side of the present St Michael Street starting with 21–22–23 New Inn Hall Street, with the number continuing around the corner and down the east side of the present New Inn Hall Street, reaching No. 50 on the corner of Queen Street.

There are signs of a pre-1830s numbering system on the wooden lintels over the two doors of Morton's Café at the present 22 New Inn Hall Street, with the house on the north side numbered XIII (13) and the one on the right XIV (14). This shows that the east side of the present New Inn Hall Street must have been numbered from north to south at this point, although it is hard to see how the numbering worked, as it should have started at Cornmarket on the south side of the present St Michael Street.

New Inn Hall Street

Stephanie Jenkins, 2013