The war memorial in St Giles was erected in 1921 by Oxford City Council on a piece of land in front of St Giles's Church (donated by St John's College). It remembers all the people of the city of Oxford who fought and who died in the First World War, but it does not list any individual names.
Further inscriptions were added to the steps later to commemorate those who died in and after the Second World War. A parade takes place in St Giles's Street every Remembrance Sunday, ending here.
The memorial is made of Clipsham stone in its entirety, from base to cross, and is in the fifteenth-century style. The overall height is 37 ft 6 in (11.43 metres) and its total cost was £1,500. It was unveiled on 13 July 1921, to the playing of the Last Post, by General Sir Robert Fanshawe, KCB, DSO, and it was dedicated by the Bishop of Oxford.
It consists of a cross with a plain octagonal tapering shaft set on an octagonal tapering plinth, which in turn stands on a base of five octagonal steps. These steps stand on a deeper step which is often used as a seat, with another smaller step below. This in turn is set on an octagonal slab. It was built by Messrs Wooldridge & Simpson of Oxford.
It was designated a Grade II listed structure on 5 December 2016: List Entry No. 1440081. This followed an application made under the Historic England scheme to add 2,500 free-standing First World War memorials to the National Heritage List for England between 2014 and 2018: see The War Memorials Listing Project.
All eight faces of the plinth are decorated, with the carving done by Ernest Field of Stockmore Street, Oxford.
The most important of the eight faces (shown above) looks towards the city and bears the only text (right) carved on the original memorial. It reads:
This inscription is flanked by two other octagonal faces bearing the coats of arms of both the City and the University:
These symbols show a post horn (representing the Army); a cross with a crown of thorns (tying in the sacrifice of those commemorated with the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross); St George's Cross (for England), wings (the Air Force), and an anchor (the Navy). There is a long history between octagonal structures in the Jewish and Christian Church, and baptismal fonts and tombs are often this shape: they represent the six days of creation, the one day of rest, and the eight day is symbolic of heaven when eternity has arrived and time itself has passed away.
The postcard below shows the War Memorial when it was very new in about 1921:
When this memorial was erected in 1921 Oxford was very much smaller than today, and so the dead of Cowley, Headington, and Iffley are remembered in their own villages, and not here.
The following inscriptions were added to the steps of the base after the Second World War. They read:
AND ALL OTHERS WHO HAVE GIVEN THEIR LIVES
IN THE SERVICE OF THEIR COUNTRY
Background to the erection of this memorial
After the First World War, the City Council’s War Museum Committee originally planned to put a war museum on this site, and H.T. Hare produced a design for a classical-style structure with a dome surmounted by a figure of a winged Victory. St John’s College, who owned the land, would not approve the erection of a building which would block the view of St Giles’ Church, and favoured the alternative of a large granite cross.
Nine designs were submitted, and the War Memorial Committee (as it was now known) selected that of John Egerton Thorpe (1874–1961), but Gilbert Thomas Francis Gardner (1880–1855) and Thomas Rayson (1888–1976) were asked by the council to collaborate in “working out” the design and carrying out the work. It is now understood that the work was largely carried out by Thomas Rayson alone, who who stated in 1968 that, “There were two other architects, but their pencils didn’t touch it.” For more information on the architects, see article by Alex Bruce below
Left: Thomas Rayson's New Year card for 1926, with the Oxford War Memorial in the forefront. In behind are the Austin Reed shop at 38 Cornmarket Street which Rayson restored in the mid 1930s, and also other well-known older Oxford buildings, such as the Radcliffe Camera
Image kindly supplied by Thomas Rayson's daughter Julia von Hauenschild
Thomas Rayson also designed other First World War memorials, including those at:
Stanton St John, Oxfordshire (1921)
Witney, Oxfordshire (1920)
- Imperial War Museum database: entry for Oxford War Memorial, St Giles's
(location shown on map inaccurate: the memorial can be seen on the pointed piece of grass to the north-west of the marker)
- War Memorials online: entry for Oxford War Memorial, St Giles'
- Alex Bruce, “The Oxford War Memorial: Thomas Rayson and the Chester connection”, Oxoniensia LVI (1991), 155–68
- Estimates and tender for the Oxford War Memorial, February 1921: Oxfordshire History Centre B27/1/A4/4/2
- Pamphlet: “Oxford War Memorial: order of service of unveiling and dedication, July 9th 1921 at 3.30 p.m.” (published by A. R. Mowbray & Co. Ltd., Oxford, 1921): Oxfordshire History Centre OXFO/725.94 (strongroom)
- Pamphlet: Edmund B. Lewis, “Report of Oxford War Memorial Committee to be presented to the Council on Wednesday the third day of August 1921” (Oxford City Council, 1921): Oxfordshire History Centre OXFO/725.94 (strongroom)
- Photograph by Henry Taunt of the war memorial in 1921, covered with wreaths of poppies, can be seen at the Oxfordshire History Centre (ref. HT12639)
Reports in newspapers and magazines
- Oxford Journal Illustrated, 5 February 1919: drawing of the original war museum memorial designed by H. T. Hare that never came to fruition
- Oxford Journal Illustrated, 21 January 1920: photographs of: (1) a resident recording his vote in the Central Library for the siting of this War Memorial; (2) Position A for this memorial; and (3) Position B (which was feared might obstruct traffic in St Giles’)
- Oxford Journal Illustrated, 20 October 1920: architect’s drawing for this war memorial
- Oxford Times, 29 October 1920: the proposed memorial
- The Builder, 14 January 1921
- Oxford Journal Illustrated, 13 July 1921: Eight photographs of the unveiling of the war memorial
- Oxford Journal Illustrated, 16 November 1921: Four photographs of the first Remembrance Day service held at the new memorial
- Oxford Journal Illustrated, 23 November 1921: More Remembrance Day scenes
The War Memorial, photographed from the steps of the Martyrs' Memorial.
These two prominent vertical features mark the opposite ends of St Giles' Street.
St John's College behind the trees on the right casts its shadow on the road