We’re the detectorists.
What do you do when you’re killing time at a pub waiting for one more person to arrive? That’s right, you study the photograph on the wall in unimaginable detail in order to figure out when it was taken! Oh that’s not what you were going to say? Well, it’s what some friends and I did a few weeks ago!
I love the history of places, which makes living in Oxford a dream. I enjoy the moments when I get to play tourist and get excited over the stories about how life used to be and see the changes that have taken place.
This is the photograph that sent us down the rabbit hole. No date, no author, no placard explaining where or who took the photo, nothing! Short of taking the photo out of the frame and hoping someone wrote something on the back, we had no leads but what we could see. So we spent the first hour trying to figure out where it was, I was right and everyone else was wrong by the way.
Can you see the flag pole right at the back? That tower still exists at the end of Cornmarket street attached to a church. It was a really lucky find, thank you based Google.
Now we knew where it was taken, we still had to figure out when it was taken. The style of dress, abundance of men and lack of motorised vehicles made us think that it was pre the Great War (before 1918), that’s a depressing thought by the way that we could date something based on how many young men were in the photograph.
Some Google searches later and we found http://www.oxfordhistory.org.uk/. The photograph on their Old Views of Cornmarket page confirmed we had roughly the correct time period.
source: Google Maps Street View
The tower is just called, “Saxon Tower” and although the church is still there, it’s kind of hidden and the tower is really imposing. It’s the oldest part of the church built sometime in 1050, while the rest of the church is much newer, so that’s the real tourist pull.
So yes, dates! This is a true story we started studying the windows on the left trying to see what angle of the street we were looking at. The curved bay windows bear a strong resemblance to the site where Moss Bros currently is. But they’ve been there since 2009 so although we had the location down, that didn’t help much date wise.
I remembered from a conversation at work, that the original St Martin’s church used to be on that corner but was demolished. After some more searching, we discovered by 1820, the early eleventh century church become unsafe, and all except for its tower was demolished in 1896. The tower is now known as Carfax Tower and you can climb its rickety steps to see some lovely views of the city. Looking at our photograph and knowing how the curve of the street was, we were pretty confident that the photograph was taken after the demolition of the church, which gave our timeline a start, from 1896! 1896 – 1918 is a pretty big time frame, we knew we could do better.
Our real breakthrough was finding tram tracks in the photograph. The first photograph doesn’t really show it well, but you can clearly see them in the one above. Oxford’s trams were in place from 1881 – 1914. By this time our friend arrived and our final timeline was 1896 – 1911.
Still, we can do better right?
I kept trying to look at the left side of the photograph hoping for answers there. I quickly realised with the help of the chimneys that the left side was the Roebuck Inn. Which still remains now as the site of Boots the Chemist! More searching of Roebuck Inn lead me to Historic England’s image archives and a treasure trove of images by Henry Taunt. His 1907 image of Roebuck Inn then lead me to this.
A photograph that looks a lot like our earlier image, look at all the flags! Which makes sense why it would be saved, it’s a photograph that was taken around the coronation of a new king! As this photograph doesn’t specify the month, and is missing the bunting of flags across the roof of the buildings, but I think it’s safe to say that we can date the first image to 1902! While I can’t find the photograph in any of the collections I’ve looked at, I think it’s safe to assume the photographer was Henry Taunt.
I have walked through Cornmarket Street countless times and never given it much thought. It isn’t as pretty as some of the other areas of the city center. It doesn’t seem like there would be much history there because it looks relatively modern, but every brick tells an interesting story. Researching this with friends and alone was such a fun journey. I’m surprised by how much information is out there about just this one street and by all the changes that have taken place for it to look the way it does now. It’s gone from having an active tram line, to motorised vehicles to being totally pedestrianised.
When we first moved to England, my Middle School (which no longer exists) used to have these guided tours through parts of Oxford where you’d learn about random things about the city that were more trivia than touristy. So nothing really to do with anyone great, but more, “this building used to be X” information. I loved them, and so did my mother. This was even more fun for me because even though she wasn’t doing this with me, it was like we were learning all the things together all over again.