Oxford. The City of Dreaming Spires. What can I tell you about Oxford that you don’t already know? Of course, this city is home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
Blood, books and power
Maybe you also know that Oxford’s Bodleian Library, a walk up from the station, keeps on acquiring so many new books that its shelves grow by an incredible 5km every year.
Perhaps you’ve even heard about the massacres and violent clashes that existed in Oxford between ‘town and gown’ – the townsfolk and scholars. One outbreak in the 13th Century caused scholars to flee the city and found a second university elsewhere, in Cambridge.
But you might be surprised to hear that the railways have had as much influence over the city as undergraduates and book-smarts.
Because Oxford has always been a strategic centrepoint in Great Britain; control of Oxford meant influence over the whole country.
And it was same when it came to the railways.
Brunel reaches Oxford… and change comes too
It took Brunel, the architect of the Great Western Railway, years to get permission to run his line to Oxford. But just 7 years after he did, another railway company arrived in town! This was the London and North Western Railway, which already had a large presence north of the city.
Pretty soon there were major two railway stations side by side. The Great Western’s station, standing where you disembark today, and the LNWR’s own terminus, just outside the exit. It was situated where the Said Business School now stands.
With the arrival of two large railway companies a revolution followed.
Oxford’s social and industrial revolution
There was a boom in industry, notably in brewing, malting, furniture-making, and also marmalade production. The area around the station was packed with warehouses. You can still get a glimpse of an old marmalade factory, now called The Jam Factory, across the road from the Saïd Business School, behind the brick buildings on the corner. Other buildings from this time remain dotted around the city.
The population exploded too, doubling in size in 60 years. Suburbs developed – you’ll probably walk through some of them on the way into town.
And as for the conflict between town and gown, it continued, now with hard-drinking, well paid out-of-town workmen added into the mix. As you can imagine, it was a very lively time.
GWR takes the reins
And the battle of the railway companies? Brunel’s brilliance paid out. The Great Western Railway company pushed northwards and deep into LNWRs territory. And then it headed west, finally linking London to Wales.