Oxford was named after its ford, but where was the original crossing place of the town? Many Oxonians have their theories. Some say it was probably to the south of the current city, where the citizens once approached the town on a long causeway that led to a large bridge known as Grandpont. Others have speculated that it might have been to the east or west of the city, near either the current Magdalen College or Osney Bridge. Or could it have been to the north of the city by the flood plain of Port Meadow or even somewhere else?
Unfortunately, we cannot deduce the answer just by looking at the appearance of the modern river, as the waterways of Oxford have undergone considerable change over time. Nevertheless, fortunately there have been a number of studies examining the question, and this article summarises what scholars have said about this enduring puzzle.
What’s in the name?
The name of the city was first recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (912AD) as Oxna forda. This is so familiar to us now, that we sometimes forget that an oxen was used to haul heavy loads, so the crossing place is likely to have been on a main road where the river was both shallow and with a hard gravelly bottom.
North-south or east-west crossing?
The location of any ford has to take into account the physical landscape. Many of the east-west trading routes ran either south or north of the river, in order to avoid crossing it. Furthermore, it is unlikely to have been by Port Meadow, as exiting the town that way would have required climbing up Wytham Wood afterwards, only to have to cross the river again at Eynsham. Nevertheless, if the town was already in existence before the ford, then it is possible that some routes to it may not have been particularly straightforward. Despite this, many scholars assume the ford is likely to have been on a north to south road across the Thames, as opposed to crossing the smaller Cherwell river.
A historical ‘red herring’?
In 1928, H. E. Salter argued that documents from the fourteenth century suggested that the original ford may have been to the west of the city by the crossing of the Bullstake stream (just beyond Osney Island on the current Botley Road). He cited a charter of 1352 by Roger Brekebek mentioning ‘the ford called Oxenforde near the bridge leading to North Hinksey on the south side’. The claim was repeated in a plea of 1376, in which the burgesses asserted that the Abbot of Oseney should not have had jurisdiction over the Isle of Oseney, given that the latter was part of the city, as it was inside the original ford. The case was lost, presumably partly because the location of the original crossing place was not clear. Furthermore, it was certainly suspicious that it was only mentioned at this time and by those who had a vested interest in it being where they claimed it to be. In addition to this, some documentary evidence suggested that traffic heading both south or west from Oxford tended to exit the city walls by the south, as the road then split into routes heading in those directions.
Oxen fords to the south?
The causeway to the south of the city would have involved crossing numerous waterways and not just one. What is now South Oxford is on a number of islands surrounded by the Thames and a number of different streams. On the one hand, this might suggest that it would not have been an ideal, as it was a cumbersome section of road, whereas, on the other hand, it would have been a convenient route in, as the crossings are likely to have been shallow and with a firmer footing. Furthermore, we know of two tenth-century fords to the south of the city, even though the landscape would have changed once the causeway was built, as well as bridges and mills. R. H. C. Davis argued that this all suggested that this was likely to be the place of the crossing, although he believed it would have been a number of fords and not just one.
There are a couple of things one might say in response to Davis’ idea. Firstly, it is unsurprising that the town became associated with a ford (or fords), as the rivers would have been major obstacles on the route between Southampton and Northampton, which is precisely why the causeway was built. Secondly, even if there were a number of fords, this wouldn’t rule out the possibility of there being a larger more prominent one from which the town gained its name, given that you would have had to cross the bigger Thames, as well as smaller waterways. Indeed, the long and watery approach to Oxford may well have felt like one big ford at times, especially in times of flood.
The main source for this article was R. H. C. Davis’ ‘The Ford, the River and the City’, Oxoniensia XXXVII (1973), pp. 258-67.