How to research an Oxford street

Tracing the history of a street is like tracing a family tree: the only sure way is to work is backwards from the known to the unknown. This way, you will soon see if any of the street names or house numbers have changed over the years.

Remember that present-day suburbs such as Headington, Cowley, and Summertown were not part of Oxford until 1929, so do not expect to find them listed under Oxford in directories until 1930 (and even St Clement’s did not become part of Oxford until 1835). Some parts of south and west Oxford were not even in the same county, and will be found under Berkshire.

Many roads in these suburbs were renamed (each village tended to have a High Street and Church Street of its own, and duplication was removed). So in Summertown, for example, look for Albert Road (not Hobson Road); Church Street (not Rogers Street); and George Street (not Middle Way):

Some streets were renumbered at much as three times in the twentieth century as they became more developed: this is particular true of long roads such as the Woodstock, Banbury, Headington, and London Road. Even streets which appear to have the same numbering system as they did in the 1840s have anomalies where the layout of buildings has been rejigged. The following link explains how the street-numbering system changed over the years:

Viewable from your own computer at home

Some of these links provide all the information you need on screen; but even those that only give an index can be helpful.

  • Historical Directories
    The most important thing to do when starting to research a street is to get hold of old street directories, and although you will eventually need to use each year's Oxford directory in the Oxfordshire History Centre, printing off your street in the years available here could give you a start.
  • Oxfordshire Heritage search
    This includes the Oxfordshire History Centre Business and People indexes (the names of Oxfordshire businesses and people compiled from local newspapers 1800–2006).
  • Picture Oxon
    Search half a million photographs of Oxfordshire from the 1850s to the present held by the Oxfordshire History Centre
  • Jackson’s Oxford Journal name index 1791–1800 (PDF)
  • Jackson’s Oxford Journal place index 1791–1800 (PDF)
  • Oxford Journal Illustrated photo index 1912–1928 (PDF)
    Sometimes the brief description is enough, and you do not need to look the article up on microfilm
  • Oxfordshire sales catalogues 1982–2006
  • Oxfordshire Buildings Index
  • “Domesday Survey”: District valuation records of property throughout the historic county of Oxfordshire (1910–1915)
  • Old Maps Online
    Search for your street and a modern map comes up. You can zoom in on the area if you are interested in if you wish. Then click the square with the diagonal arrow under the plus and minus sign, and draw a rectangle over the area that interests you. You will then be presented with a series of old maps for the area running down the right-hand side
  • Britain from Above
    Aerial views of most of Oxford and beyond are available via the Search function. You can see them without logging in, but if you do register you can zoom in on the photographs and get more detail, see the markers that people have added, and add markers of your own. You can b
    Browse all 412 pages of Oxford images here
  • Oxoniensia
    This online journal on the architecture, archaeology, and history of Oxford and Oxfordshire has a search function, so it is well worth taking a look
  • Victoria County History
    Search function here
  • Oxfordshire County Council: reference online at home
    If you have your Oxfordshire County Council library card number to hand, you can log in here and search the British Library’s copies of Jackson’s Oxford Journal from 1800 to 1900 at home (but note that some editions in the 1890s are missing). You can also search The Times, the Oxford DNB, and Who's Who (including Who Was Who) in this way.
  • Oxford Mail searchable archive
    This can be very useful for recent news about a building, as although it only goes back to 1998, it can solve some more recent mysteries.
  • Free BMD
    This charity run by volunteers indexes all births, marriages, and deaths in the UK between 1837 and 1983 (but the later entries are not yet complete). This is useful for determining when people moved in and out of registration districts. Be careful to note that areas such as St Clement's and north Oxford and Summertown were in the Headington registration district, so it is always safer to search two districts at once, Headington and Oxford, when looking for Oxford people.
  • Genes Reunited
    Search six sets of key records simultaneously
  • National Heritage List for England (NHLE)
    Search for listed buildings here.
  • Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Oxford, secular buildings section (published by His Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1939).
  • English Heritage ViewFinder
    You may find pictures of your street on the site. (If using Basic or Advanced Search rather than Quick Search, make sure that you put only the name of the street in the top box, and “Oxford” in the placename box, otherwise you will get no results.)
  • Planning applications online
    Oxford City Council’s planning applications site is surprisingly useful for understanding what happened to buildings in the second half of the twentieth century, and for filling the gap between the last Kelly’s Directory in 1976 and the present. It can also reveal when newer streets were first laid out.
  • National Archives Discovery
    Here you can find useful documents such as PCC Wills available for purchase (but sometimes you can get the basic information you need just by looking at the index). Note that PCC Wills are available free on Ancestry (in the Oxfordshire History Centre and at the top of the central library) and can be downloaded on to a memory stick.
  • Oxfordshire Wills
    Members of the Oxfordshire Family History Society have added Oxfordshire wills that they have transcribed here for everyone to use.
  • Prerogative Court at Canterbury wills (PCC)
    Prior to 12 January 1858, wills in England and Wales were proved in ecclesiastical courts. The largest one was the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1384–1858, and those wills are available on Ancestry (available in public libraries).

Oxfordshire History Centre

This research centre in Cowley combines the former Oxfordshire Record Office and Centre for Oxfordshire Studies. Always closed on Sunday and Mondays, but it is also worth checking the above link for opening hours, as they sometimes have other closures.

They have both primary and secondary sources, including:

  • Maps
    There are Ordnance Survey maps from 1876 to 1939 detailed enough to show every building in Oxford. You can download these on to a memory stick and crop and print off the street you are studying, and then it is easy to walk along the street and mark all the house numbers you are sure about. Enclosure award maps are also extremely useful, as many streets still follow the lines of the awards.
  • Street directories, including Kelly’s
    If you are doing a detailed history of a street, It is advisable to photocopy the street from every available directory published since the street was numbered (namely 1846 to 1976). (Photocopying a directory for every five or ten years just doesn’t work; but of course you can avoid all this photocopying if you are able to do all your work at the Centre.) There are also earlier directories that include Oxford from 1841 in the county directory section where you will find the houses listed alphabetically under the inhabitants, and with house numbers. Before the penny post in 1840, very few streets were numbered; and villages such as Headington and Cowley that later became suburbs were not properly numbered until 1930.
  • Censuses
    FindMyPast and Ancestry (including the censuses of 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, and 1911) are all available on computer at the Oxfordshire History Centre (also at the central library).
  • Telephone directories
    Oxford telephone directories go back to the nineteenth century, but before the 1970s so few people had telephones that they will not necessarily be useful. But the ending of Kelly’s Directory in 1976 means that the period from 1977 to the present makes the later directories valuable if you want to check when a person or business moved away and the next one came in
  • Oxford Historical Society books
    All the books published by this society are invaluable: see lists of titles here
    Two books by H. E. Salter are particularly valuable and will take you painlessly back into the seventeenth century: his Survey of Oxford in 1772 gives the occupant and the measurement of the frontage of every house in the city of Oxford, taken in consequence of the Mileways Act of 1771; and his Oxford City Properties lists rental details of the numerous properties that were owned by the city up to 1855
  • Newspapers
    The whole of Jackson’s Oxford Journal is available on microfilm with a bound index for the years 1753 to 1790. See above for online indexes from 1791 to 1800, and full online version from 1800 to 1900 only.
  • Building plans
    The Oxford City Engineer’s Department Deposited Building Plans for 1875 to 1934 are available on microfiche. They list every street in Oxford and clarify which buildings were rebuilt, and when.
  • Parish registers
    Transcripts of nearly all Oxfordshire parish registers both in paper format and available on the computers (also available at central library). These often give clearer details of where people lived than older directories.
    Don’t expect to find a street all listed under one parish: Broad Street and the High, for instance, each comes under four different parishes, and even St Giles’ Street is not all in St Giles’ parish.
  • Oxfordshire wills
    Often just the date of probate in the printed index book is enough to establish why and when a house changed ownership.
  • Alumni Oxonienses The grander houses of Oxford were often occupied by academics, and biographical information can be found here. (If you subscribe to Ancestry, it is also available there.)
  • Electoral registers and title deeds
  • Books with old photographs. These are too numerous to list, but are invaluable in understanding how buildings (whether surviving or not) were laid out. For shops in central Oxford, for example, see Michael L. Turner and David Vaisey, Oxford Shops and Shopping.
  • Oxfordshire Health Archives
    If your house had a medical connection, you will find information here.

Oxfordshire County Library at the Westgate (former Central Library)

Most of the local history resources that used to be here have gone up to the Oxfordshire History Centre in Cowley, but this library has longer opening hours and can be useful. if you go to the top floor of the library you will find following:

  • One microfilm reader and a duplicate set of microfilm for the Oxford Journal Illustrated and the Oxford Times. It does not have Jackson's Oxford Journal 1800–1900, because it is available online (but you may still have to go up to Cowley for that if you need the editions in the 1890s missing from the British Library version). Hint: You don't have to pay to take photographs here, so snap the articles that interest you with your phone for transcribing later.
  • A duplicate set of all the parish register transcriptions on paper made by the Oxfordshire Family History Society, and also available online

For those with an Oxfordshire library card:

  • A large set of online resources on a large number of computers including. Ancestry, FindMyPast, Oxfordshire Family History births, marriage, and burials indexes, maps

Remember to take a memory stick with you.

  • Oxford College archivists
    If your house was built on land owned by a college, you will be able to find out more by visiting college archives.

Online Books

Google are putting more and more old books online, so it is always worth searching Googlebooks for topics that interest you. It is also well worth seeing what books are available at the Oxfordshire History Centre, and the Central Library at the Westgate has a reasonable selection of local history books that can be borrowed.

House deeds

Don't forget your own house deeds, or those of your neighbours, which give useful information about the history of your house and usually reveal who originally owned the land.

Stephanie Jenkins, 2013