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Cowley Barracks, Oxford

Cowley Barracks© Trevor Coppock Collection: Photograph by the late Wilfred G. Coppock

When there was a proposal to build a Military Centre (as the Barracks were first known) in Bullingdon, the area between the villages of Cowley and Headington, the University of Oxford was very opposed to the idea. The vote was however carried in the House of Commons on 23 May 1873 (with 134 in favour and 93 against). Edward Cardwell (who as well as being Secretary of State for War was also Oxford’s MP) stated in the debate that this new centre would accommodate a lieutenant-colonel, a major, six captains, four subalterns, a paymaster, a quartermaster, a surgeon, 45 non-commissioned officers, and 50 old soldiers (many of them married), with all the rest being recruits.

On 24 October 1874 Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported as follows on the progress of the building the following year:

The new barracks for the Oxford Military Centre, to be erected at Bullingdon, about two miles from Oxford, at a cost of 50,000l., are being rapidly proceeded with by the contractors, Messrs. Downs and Co., of London

The two small villages of Church Cowley and Temple Cowley were transformed in 1876 by the opening of this military barracks on Hollow Way (shown above in the 1960s). As they were built on Bullingdon Green, they were originally known as Bullingdon Barracks, and were built for the 43rd and 52nd (later the 2nd) Foot regiments of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. When they were first built, they in the countryside and completely isolated. This photograph taken from the air in 1928 shows the new Bulan Road estate with Cowley Barracks on the other side of the road .

A new wing designed by T. G. Jackson was added in 1878, consisting of a three-storey block built of Headington stone forming the eastern side of the quadrangle: the ground floor contained classrooms and a master's rooms, and the top two floors were occupied by dormitories divided into 66 cubicles by wooden partitions, thus offering accommodation for 66 additional students.

Barracks photographed by Taunt

The above postcard (produced by Henry Taunt) was sent to Mrs T. H. Stewart of Westcott Barton on 4 September 1914 by her son Horace, a farm labourer aged about 18, who was serving as a Private in the 6th Battalion of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (Service No. 12477). His pencilled message on the back reads:

Dear Mother and Father, Just writing a few lines to let you know we are at Cowley Barracks but not for long there is hundreds. I expect we shall be shifted tomorrow. We have plenty of food to eat. When we know w[h]ere we are going I will let you know. With love to all From your loving son H. P. Stewart.

Sadly two years later on 3 September 1916 Horace Percy Stewart of Westcott Barton was killed in action at the Somme.

The postcard below was sent by “Ernest”, another new recruit, to Miss E. K. Metton of Epping in January 1915:

Barracks with flag

Below: 1878 map showing the site of the barracks:1878 map showing Cowley Barracks


History of Cowley Barracks

Jackson’s Oxford Journal for 7 November 1874 reported on the building work for Bullingdon Barracks, as Cowley Barracks were originally known:

The site of the Barracks is about two miles and a half from Magdalen Bridge, on the high land lying to the left of Horspath road, and between it and Shotover Hill. The position is a most healthy one, and the prospect from it most extensive, embracing as it does an unbroken view of open country for about 15 miles. The space bought by Government for the buildings, drill ground, &c., covers an area of 20 acres, and cost £120 per acre. The Barracks are being erected by Messrs. Downs, of Southwark, by Contract, for £45,000, and are to be of stone, a great quantity of which has been already brought from Charlbury. The two blocks of buildings for the accommodation of the men will be lined with bricks. The rooms will be lofty, well lighted, ventilated, and warmed. Each block will contain accommodation for 112 men, 56 on the ground floor and 56 on the storey over. One block will be occupied by the Depôt (i.e., two Companies) of the 52nd Regiment (Oxfordshire), and the other by the Depôt of the 85th Regiment (Buckinghamshire). Besides these there will be the Officers’ Quarters, Married Soldiers’ Quarters, Canteen, Library and Recreation Rooms, Sergeants’ Mess, Orderly Room, Quartermaster’s Stores, Workshops, Straw and Coal Sheds, Hospital, Chapel, School, &c. &c. There is also (already erected) a commodious Drill Shed, for Recruits, in wet or inclement weather. When the whole building is completed it will form a perfect garrison in itself, and have a most pleasant appearance. The Married Soldiers’ Quarters are now on the plan of the “Peabody Cottages”, and will be most comfortable and compact. The entrance to the Barracks will be through a handsome “Keep”, in which will be the “Armory”, “Guard-house”, “Prisoners’ Cells”, &c. Although the Water Works’ Company have laid down pipes to the Barracks, there is no doubt that an ample supply of well water can be obtained in the Barracks; as, during the past exceptionally dry season, a good supply of pure water was found at a depth of less than 50 feet; this, on such an elevated position, warrants the belief that a plentiful supply can always be relied upon within Barracks, should the Water Work Company’s service be insufficient or at any time break down.

Although the contractors are under agreement to complete the buildings by September, 1875, many causes may prevent them from being able to do so, as an Engineer Officer being on the ground to superintend the erection, no work will be put up in bad weather; and should we have a severe winter, as is possible, this would of course delay the works. Even supposing the Barracks are completed by the time specified, they would then be without equipment, and as this would naturally take time to accomplish, it is hardly expected that troops would be sent into the new Barracks in mid-winter. It is thought, therefore, that the Barracks will not be permanently occupied till the spring of 1876.

The opinion of many is that, when finished, they will be the centre of a large body of troops, whereas it will be nothing of the kind; the fact is, there will be only accommodation for about 300 of all ranks, exclusive of Officers, and so these Barracks are intended merely as a Depôt, where the recruit is to be made an efficient soldier before he is drafted to the Corps for which he enlisted, there may and will be times when the Barracks will not contain more than, say, 100 men, because as soon as the men are fit to join their respective Corps, they will be drafted to them, and recruiting will then be had recourse to to fill up their places.

Young men who join the Militia will have the option of being trained at once at these Barracks with the regulars, or they can wait until the annual training of their Regiments takes place, when they will then be drilled with an others that may require it at Bullingdon. As a rule, the Militia will also go through their annual course of drill at these Barracks, and the Staff of it will be at all times available for duty with the regulars during the non-training seasons.

The composition of the Sub-District, of which Bullingdon Barracks will be the centre, comprises the Depôts of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiments, as before explained, the Oxford Militia, Oxford City Volunteers, Oxford University Volunteers, Royal Bucks Militia and Bucks Volunteers, and is commanded by Colonel J. R. Sargent, C.B., an officer who has served with much distinction in China and the Crimea, where he succeeded to the command of the 95th Regiment at the battle of Inkerman, and brought that Corps out of action after doing good and arduous service.

On 15 January 1876 work was almost complete and an advertisement appeared in Jackson’s Oxford Journal advertising for sale the whole of the plant, surplus materials, and four cart-horses. Then on 18 March 1876 the following advertisement appeared, (preceded by a list of the 35 council members and followed by details of where to obtain prospectuses:

To prepare Candidates for the Army and Militia, to educate the Sons of Officers, and to enable Senior Pupils to enter as Unattached Members of the University.
The nominees of Shareholders have the preference for admission. To holders of twenty £10 Shares there will be a reduction of Twenty Guineas in annual fees. No extras will be charged.

The Oxford Military College (Cowley Barracks) duly opened on 20 September 1876.

A number of soldiers who died at Cowley Barracks between 1877 and 1892 have crosses in the churchyard of Cowley St James Church (which used to be the regimental chapel of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry).

Howard Kingscote was appointed Colonel of the Oxford Regimental District and Commander of Cowley Barracks in 1895. He lived with his novelist wife Adeline at Bury Knowle House in Headington, and must have regularly  ridden along the Slade to the Barracks. Following a scandal involving his wife, he retired on half-pay in 1899.

The Barracks ceased to be the headquarters of the regiment in 1959, and closed down completely in 1966. They were replaced by the Territorial Army barracks in Horspath Driftway.

Subsequent use of the Barracks site

The site today is occupied by residential homes and Oxford Brookes University student accommodation. The major plans for the site are listed below:

  • 1978 (78/01000/A_H): Approval of plans to construct 66 dwellings with estate roads (Kennedy Close, Hunter Close, and 1–16 James Wolfe Road) on part of the Barracks site. (The three new roads were named after Generals: James Shaw-Kennedy, Sir Martin Hunter, and James Wolfe)
  • 1982 (82/00264/CF): British Telecom (BT)'s plans for a telephone engineering department at the guardroom at the entrance on James Wolfe Road were allowed
  • 1980s: Part of the Barracks was refurbished as the peacetime national headquarters of No. 3 group of the United Kingdom Warning and Monitoring Organisation (UKWMO), and a new administration block was built alongside facing James Wolfe Road. The underground bunker still survives, with an enormous air vent still visible outside.
  • 1992 (92/00793/CF): The UKWMO was disbanded, and permission was granted for a temporary driving test centre on its former car park.
  • 1993 (93/00830/NF): Plans for a replacement permanent driving test centre were approved .
  • 1997 (97/01189/NOY): Permission was granted for the conversion of existing buildings and the erection of new ones to create Paul Kent Hall (243 student rooms, three wardens' flats & ancillary accommodation).
  • 2005 (05/02369/CEU): The existing use of the site by BT was approved for “covered and open storage, parking of motor vehicles, collection and storage of motor vehicles, open air vehicle wash, workshops, motor transport workshop, offices, training skills workshop, engineering workshop for repair and maintenance of telephone equipment”.
  • 2016: Two of the Barracks blocks were demolished (photograph)
  • 2017 (17/02140/FUL): Planning permission was granted to BT by the East Area Planning Committee for the following major application by Unite Students for the development of Parade Campus in James Wolfe Road:
    “Demolition of existing buildings. Erection of new student accommodation comprising of 885 student rooms (of which 46 would be fully accessible), communal areas and amenity provision, associated cafe and shop, laundrettes, plant room and electricity substation, new vehicular and pedestrian access to James Wolfe Road and closure of existing, cycle parking, landscaping and new enclosures. Use of student accommodation outside term time by cultural and academic visitors and by conference and summer school delegates”.
Barracks Memorial Stone

On 15 August 2019 a plinth was unveiled outside the Parade Campus in James Wolfe Road remembering Cowley Barracks:

Unveiling the plinth

Full details of the above inscriptions and the ceremony

Footnote on the nearby Oxford Military College, also in Hollow Way

In 1841 the old manor house on the main road of Temple Cowley (Hollow Way) had become Cowley College, later known as Hurst’s Grammar School. In 1852 it was extended with an L-shaped school-room at the junction with the Oxford Road, and in 1870 a chapel was added. The building was purchased in July 1876 for a military college, which opened on 7 September that year. T. G. Jackson designed the east wing and the foundation stone was laid by the Earl of Morley on 21 July 1877.

Kelly’s Directory for 1891 describes the college thus:

The Oxford Military College was founded under the patronage of H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge K.G. Commander-in-chief, and opened 7th Sept. 1876; its objects are to provide education for sons of officers, who have the preference for admission and may prepare for any profession or business; to prepare any candidates, whether sons of officers or not, for commissions in the military service, and to enable the senior pupils to enter the University as unattached students, and to proceed to degrees; instruction in military riding, infantry drill, lance, sword, carbine drill, swimming and gymnastics is given. There are three terms and vacations are together about 13 weeks; candidates for military commissions should enter not later than the age of  13. The institution is proprietary and owners of 20 shares have the right of nominating a student at a lower rate than others; six scholarships are offered annually of the value of £75, £50 and £25 respectively.

It concludes with a long and impressive list of the teachers and their subjects. Kelly’s Directory for 1915 adds:

… the buildings comprise an old mansion, said to have been a manor house and dating from the early part of the 17th century. The chapel formerly connected with the Military College has now been taken over by the Church of England, as is served by the parish church; it is in the Decorated style, erected in 1870 from designs by Mr. E. G. Bruton, architect, of Oxford. Other parts of the college are now used as motor works and blind factory.

The military college was declared bankrupt in 1896, and T. G. Jackson later said, “The military college at Cowley … never prospered, being neither civil nor military, under a governor who did not teach and a headmaster who had no authority, it languished and expired.” In 1899 the college became the Manor Works, where Alfred Breese Ltd made “Bee” braces and “North Road Cycles, while Breese himself took over the old manor house as a residence. In 1912 William Morris purchased the site, and Morris Cars began to be produced in Cowley. The original buildings later became the Nuffield Press.

The Manor House became structurally unsound and was demolished in 1957.

  • For more on the Military College, see The Changing Faces of Cowley, Book 1, pp. 113–16 and Book 2, pp. 78–81

Slade Park Barracks

© Stephanie Jenkins

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