The Stones that built Oxford
Written by Phil Kerry, Goldholme Stone – a quarry stone supplier based in Rutland and Lincolnshire.
Updated: May 2020
Oxford in brief
Oxford lies on the Great (Jurassic) Limestone belt in central southern England. It has a population of 155,000. Oxford is of Saxon origin meaning ‘Ford of the Oxon.’
In a poem written in 1861 by Matthew Arnold, he describes the city as seen from his bedroom window as ‘The City of Dreaming Spires.’
A Norman castle was built from local quarry stone in the 11th Century. Oxford became a city in 1546 raising its status from that of medieval town. The first University was built in the 12th Century.
During the year 1209, a student murdered his mistress, only when the local mob started hanging students in retaliation did many flee the town and didn’t stop running until they reached Cambridge, a town which quickly established a University in order to accommodate them.
The relationship between scholar and the local people remained tense. A further incident known as the St Scholastic Day riot killed 93 people in 1355.
The stone that built Oxford was as simple over the last 140 years as it was for the first six hundred years. The intervening years were ones of trial and error as the Oxford Architects and specifier had lost direction over previously used building stone types. One thing was certain in that any building stone used across Oxford would have to be oolitic limestone from the Jurassic period in order to match those that had been used before. The Oxford stones detailed below are in more or less date order and consist of those for building Architectural work and a brief chapter on roofing stones.
What is not widely known about Oxford Architecture is that virtually all the stones ever used were in a state of physical and chemical decays. The principle reasons given are atmospheric pollution including soot. The use of inappropriate stone building materials, deficient craftsmanship and in more recent years Acid Rain. Acid Rain was first identified in the 17th century by John Evelyn and so named in 1852 by Robert Angus Smith when it was identified that sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides present in the atmosphere by coal burning and in more recent years exhaust fumes were carried by rain, fog, sleet, snow and dew. This reacted with calcium compounds within the stones creating gypsum which simply flaked off over time.
Such has been the deterioration to the Oxford stones that much of the original stone masonry has been completely re-cladded in replacement stone, some of the buildings twice.
The earliest masonry used to build Oxford was described as local Oxford stone. This was extracted wherever it could be found from the immediate locality. Also Cotswold stone which was brought into the area from around the year 1100, up until the early 1400s, some continue to be used to the present day.
Wheatley Quarry was situated approximately 9km to the west of Oxford and supplied Merton College as early as 1307. This supply however soon gave way to the much closer Headington Stone. In the late 14th Century Headington Stone was first discovered situated approximately 4 kilometres to the west of the town centre. Headington was made up of several individual quarries. The principle owners being the Townsend Family and would supply the stones which built Oxford for several hundred years.
The Headington Quarries supplied new college in 1396 for its new Bell Tower. The extensive city walls also came from Headington. During the years 1438 to 1443, All Souls College bought 6,140 cart loads of building stone at between 4d and 6d (pence) per cart load. In 1468 it was used for the divinity school at Magdalen College. Also for Brasenose college (1509), Christ Church Cardinal College so named after Cardinal Wolsey was commenced in 1525 with the help of 32 stone masons, 16 rough layers and 64 labourers. The architect was Henry Readman, William Saunton being the overseer. Saunton was also responsible for the lime kilns and the subsequent manufacture of the Lime Morter with the help of the highly acclaimed Morter Men (The Morter Men enjoyed the same high status as the Freemasons.)
In addition to large quantities of Headington Stone, a quantity from Taynton, Barrington and Sherbourne was used. The Cardinal bought a lease over half an acre from The Townsend family. It was possible to extract large blocks of Freestone which was useful for quoins and dressings. There was a harder weather bed at Headington. It was more durable then the Freestone, but harder to trim into neat stone blocks.
By the 17th Century Headington was used for every building project in Oxford (too many to list here). In fact the following colleges purchased their own land for quarrying at Headington.
All Souls, Balliol, Brasenose, Christ Church, Corpus Christi, Lincoln, Oriel, Magdalen and Queens.
Interestingly In the year 1840 a worker was killed at a Headington Quarry by the name of George Snow, he was 8 years old!
During the mid-1700s it was evident that the Headington Stone was corroding fast. It is said that a slight tap with a walking stick could reduce the stone of any building to dust! Whilst the Headington stone started as a Fine Freestone that could be worked in any direction, over successive years of extraction the quality deteriorated. A replacement would have to be found and quickly.
Bath Stone was able to expand into Oxford following the opening of the Canals system in the early 1800s.
The Bath area consisted of scores of Quarries/Mines and in its Hey Day reportedly employed 1,025 quarry men and 350 stone masons.
Bath Stone came in a variety of qualities as would be adopted over successive years. The finest was said to be Box Ground.
It was used for the extensive meadow buildings at Christ Church College.
At its peak in the 19th Century, Bath Stone was used in so many projects within Oxford including re cladding of existing buildings that it is said to be easier to name the streets in which it was used rather than individual buildings. The principle use was in Beaumont, Broad and Turi Streets. Box ground was used for Killcanon at Christ Church in the 1950’s.
The expanse of Bath Ashlar stone is only broken on Beaumont St by the Clipsham built Play House. Bath was once considered the Savoir of Oxfords Architecture, but to the horror of all would soon start to crumble. Buildings re cladded in Bath would in many cases require recladding once more.
Situated 2 miles from Burford Bridge, Milton’s local quarry rode on the back of neighbouring Taynton Stone although geologically identical the latter was far superior. Milton building and walling stone would be frequently passed off as Taynton, an act that would eventually be the demise of both quarries. Although both were in operation from the early 14th Century there is no evidence of use in Oxford until 1875 when Sir George Gilbert Scott used it for The New Building at New College. This was followed by Sir Thomas Jackson for the examination school and many more subsequent projects, but unfortunately the stones would later start to fail!
Portland Stone was considered too white for Oxford, it had only been used for small projects between 1820 and the late 1940’s. Since then it has gained popularity, for example, the Beehive Building situated in the North Quad at St Johns College was built in 1958 of Portland Roach Bed. The Ashmolean Museum was massively enlarged in 2009 by architect Rick Mather using Portland Stone.
Blue Boar Quad at Christ Church College was built during 1964 as a modernistic building faced in Portland Roach bed over cast concrete. It was thought to be a modern masterpiece by some but time would show it was badly flawed. The flat roof leaked, internal drains leaked, no breathing membranes were adopted causing damp and condensation throughout the building.
Also built by Powell and Moya Architects at more or less the same time was the equally modernistic picture gallery, part subterranean, built within the Deans garden, again built from a marriage of concrete and Portland Stone.
The warren building in 1906 was built of Guiting stone.
Used from 1877 to build the University College and the new Quandrangle at Trinity in 1883-7. It was also adopted for the registry of Non-Collegiate students on High St 1887 and also the Corpus new building during 1885.
Doulting was used for repairs on Tom Tower at Christchurch in 1901.
Of Clipsham stone and after the failure of so many of the stones used in Oxford, TG Jackson wrote in 1893 “Clipsham may be trusted, there is no stone but Portland in which I have more faith.”
Clipsham has been used on the following:-
The Bodleian Library.
The Robinsons Building Oriel.
The Examination schools 1882.
Robinsons Tower and Pandys of New College 1898.
The Chapel of Somerville. 1934.
The South Corner of Building Carfax 1931.
The Playhouse, Beaumont St. 1938.
The Baptist building in Pusey St 1939, Oxford High School.
Brazenose and Lincoln, new wing, the Radcliffe Science Library 1934.
St Catherines building in St Aldates.
New College library 1939.
Merton Garden Buildings, Rose lane 1940.
The Botany and Forestry School 1945.
Magdalen Longwood quad 1928.
The New examinations schools 1876.
Queens Bell Turret 1911.
St Albans quadrangle 1904.
Meron Wardens House 1908.
Rhodes Building of Oriel 1911.
Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre 2017.
Peckwater Quad was replaced with Clipsham stone by Symm & Co Architects in 1926. The source of the original stone has been lost over time. The building started as Peckwater Inn which was acquired and annexed to the college in 1546. The Quad now known as peck was massively extended in 1582 using salvaged stone from the abandoned Osney abbey.
Christ Church library was re-cladded in the 1960s with great effect using a combination of Clipsham limestone cladding for its yellow/honey colour and Portland Shelly Whitbed limestone for the white. Replaced fascades included the Northern, Eastern and western walls.
Canterbury Quad was repaired with Clipsham stone during the 1970s however Mr Biscoe Taylor, Quantity Surveyor working on Wolsey Tower at Christ Church reported that Clipsham stone was becoming difficult to acquire and he would be looking to French stone for a suitable match on future Headington repair projects.
Clipsham stone for use in Oxford was discovered by Architect Thomas Graham Jackson, Clipsham secured his name in Architectural History of oxford. After 70 years of intensive use for repair and refacing. Clipsham stone was said to be more seen than any other stone in the city.
The year of this observation was 1947.
Mined from the Savonnieres area of the department of Meuse in Grand-Est region in France. The oolite Limestone seemed to have everything, good colour tones and a good match for Headington stone. The expected durability even to surpass Clipsham and available in quantity.
This was the new darling of Oxford and the stone of choice for the Wolsey Tower which was restored in the 1980s. The Savonnieres Stone however could be a ticking time bomb as it was well documented to develop black crust, particularly in urban environments. Black crust is caused by the accumulation of atmospheric particles, the development of salts, crystals and micro-organisms including mushroom spores, wood or coal smoke, fuel and exhaust fumes. Even unpolluted rain contains carbon dioxide creating a weak carbonic acid which is able to dissolve calcite within Limestone. Savonnieres stone is described as 30% to 40% porosity making it fertile ground and may explain the reason for this phenomenon.
The Ancaster quarries are situated in Lincolnshire between the towns of Grantham and Sleaford.
Used on the north range of the Rawlinson buildings at St Johns (1909) and some of the carved work on St Swithuns buildings at Magdalen.
Ancaster stone can also be seen in the columns on the corner of Broad Street and Cornmarket (1915).
Ketton stone was used at Trinity College, Christs College, Magdalen College (1969). In more recent years Emmanuel College (1995) and the Oxford centre for Islamic studies along with Clipsham (2016)
Weldon Stone was quarried at the village of the same name near Corby, in Northamptonshire.
The stone was used by Basil Champneys for the ashlar walls of his St Albans Quadrangle (1904-7) and The Wardens House (1908) at Merton College. Also at his Rhodes building at Oriel fronting High Street (1911).
Weldon was also used for Somerville Library (1903) and more recently on the Balliol extension at Holywell manor (1931).
Weldon walling stone is by nature softer than some of the Lincolnshire limestones and so occasionally Clipsham quoins would be adopted.
That Built Oxford
Stone Slates for the roofs came from: The following Locations
Stow on the Wolds supplied much of Christchurch College.
Stonefield (Underground Mines) supplied to Christ Church
Huntsmans Quarries Naunton
Westwell, Broadwell Grove and Filkins
Slat Pit Pusey Slates
The Thames Vale
The Collyweston tend to be bigger than the Costwold Slates and were considered excellent for New Building. They have been used in Oxford from the early 1900s.
Forest Marble may have been used in the Middle Ages, Its slates reportedly could be as thin as a piece of paper!
This document was produced by Goldholme Stone Ltd.
What happened to the Quarries that built Oxford
Bladon Quarry has been built upon presumably after its exhaustion.
Headington Quarries, Two are now SSI nature reserves, the rest have been built upon during a natural expansion of Oxford City.
Portland Stone is still operational, but considered too white for much of Oxford.
Ancaster stone is still being extracted from two local quarries.
Bath stone is still operational from two mines.
Weldon stone is long worked out and has become an Industrial Estate.
Barnack stone is long worked out and is no longer available.
Clipsham stone is available from two Quarries, both situated in Rutland. Big Pits and Hooby Lane (Goldholme).
The last local roof slate mine had been kept alive by the Blenheim Estate for repairs for many decades. However this was closed in 1909 by crudely covering over the shaft.
Collyweston slates are available once more after many decades of closure.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 saw a massive decline in natural slate production. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 stopped it entirely.
Ketton stone is believed to be available in small quantities and is run by Castle Cement Works.
Collyweston stone is still available from the village of the same name in Northamptonshire.