An introduction to the history linked with the Ss Mary & John churchyard

Map references, e.g. F57, refer to the area and grave number given on the maps of the churchyard produced by the Oxfordshire Family History Society in 2003 and reproduced from their CD-ROM with permission.

East Oxford started to become a suburb of Oxford City in the mid-nineteenth century when the area was being developed by a number of new landowners.  Previously the area had been orchards and fields. People were moving to live in cities as generally more opportunities for work existed in urban, rather than rural, areas.  Father Benson had been appointed as the vicar of St James in Cowley in 1850 and his parish included the developing east Oxford area (some early residents from east Oxford were buried in Cowley St James churchyard).  Father Benson saw the need to develop services for this increasing local population and eventually moved to live on the Iffley Road.  One of his first projects was to establish the "Iron Church" in Stockmore Street in October 1859.  Ten years later in 1869 he became the first vicar of the newly established Cowley St John parish.

Ss Mary & John Churchyard was consecrated on the 1st October 1878 by the Lord Bishop of the Diocese.  His address is described in the parish magazine published later in the month. The following extract refers to the problems of burial space, and to the hopes vested in the churchyard that it would become a special place for local people - a place of thankfulness and remembrance.

Aerial view of east Oxford

[The Bishop referred to the]". many differences and controversies about burial grounds, ... which divided men, and caused a good deal of bitterness and discontent all over the country. ... But everything had been done to obviate all the difficulties of that question here, for there was an ample piece of ground for those who desired to make use of it, and yet were outside the church, and no person could complain that he had been neglected. Then as there had been difficulties hitherto about church grounds, it had been provided that the care and control of this churchyard should be in the hands of persons who could deal with every case according to its needs, and who would not be fettered by conditions and circumstances which applied to the older burying places. In fact, provision had been made, thoughtfully and carefully made, to meet all the difficulties on one side and on the other, which had grown up about this burials question.

He was also very glad that the ground ... was laid out with so much care and taste, ... [so that] those who lived about it [could] make it a place of resort. By and bye they would wish to visit the graves of those who were buried there, not in a spirit of gloominess, but in a spirit of thankfulness, not of cheerfulness, perhaps, but with thankful, happy, and quiet remembrance of the departed, and hope for the future.  He hoped to see the ground laid out, with flowers and shrubs all in their order, so that they may go in the summer time and walk up and down there, and enjoy themselves with many happy thoughts, amid all the memories of the past.  It seemed to him that a well-kept churchyard was one of the best outward proofs of the cultivation and good feeling of the people of the place."

Ss Mary & John Church in 1883, 1903 and 2007

The churchyard was a crucial facility for the people of east Oxford. We can gain an insight into the way people lived in the nineteenth and early twentiethcenturies by investigating the inscriptions on the memorials and grave markers. Those buried in the graves are representative of the local population and the inscriptions give a clue as to personal contributions to the life of the community, personal circumstances, organizations and occupations.  There is a separate section (H) in the churchyard for non-conformists.

Four TABLES of memorials are available.  Details of each inscription are on the CD-ROM obtainable from the Oxfordshire Family History Society.

1. A selection of the people buried in the churchyard

The Cowley Fathers Memorial

Amongst significant individuals are Father Benson, the founder of the Society of St John the Evangelist; John Irving, the first headmaster of Ss Mary & John School; Thomas Gray, a local builder; Alfred Mardon Mowbray, the architect who designed the church; George Wildon Pieritz, a former rabbi who became a priest and missionary; and Henry Woodward, tailor and outfitter, co-founder of Shepherd and Woodward Ltd on the High Street.

Examples of organizations represented are: The Sisters of the Holy Childhood; All Saints Sisters of the Poor; the Society of St John the Evangelist; local schools; the workhouse -  Edwin Cole and Lucinda Stedham were the workhouse master and matron, and the workhouse chaplain is also buried in the churchyard; and Bartlemas house and chapel, formerly a medieval leper hospital, which is linked by the inscription on Annie Miller’s gravestone (died 1883, aged 34) which indicates that she had leprosy – also a link to the public health issues in the area.

The occupations and trades in the area ranged from professional to manual workers and reflect the circumstances of the time. Many local people worked in the university as college servants, others worked in the building trade, and there are librarians, bakers, grocers and nurses. Other interesting occupations include: paviour (a person who laid paving), printer's compositor, tailor journeyman, sub-conductor of Bengal Ordinance Department. Occupations such as coachmaker, whitesmith and blacksmith have disappeared from the area.  Yet some have probably been re-named, such as Inspector of Nuisances, now under the auspices of environmental health.  Similarly, lunatic asylum attendants would now be considered mental health nurses.

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2. Priests and members of religious orders

There are a large number of priests and members of religious orders buried in the churchyard.  Some were not directly associated with the area.

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War Graves

3. War-associated and military graves

Most of those listed in this table were killed on active service, or died later from their wounds during the First and Second World Wars. However, other military personnel are also included.

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4. Children’s graves

There are areas in the churchyard where there is a concentration of children’s graves from different historical periods, for example: west of the church towards Leopold Street (F57-192), alongside the woodchip path parallel to the central path (D2A-D23A) and next to the church on its south side (A240-244).   Some children are buried with their families in other parts of the churchyard.

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FACT SHEETS have been compiled on the following topics to give background information and direction to other sources:

1. History of Ss Mary & John Churchyard

This Fact Sheet describes the history of Ss Mary & John Churchyard from its inception in 1869 when Father Richard Benson became vicar of the newly established parish of Cowley St John.  The churchyard was consecrated in 1878 and its geometrical arrangement is unchanged since it was originally constructed. The Fact Sheet also describes some of the memorial inscriptions which have been recorded by the Oxfordshire Family History Society, and which reveal a wide variety of people buried in the churchyard.  The range of professions represented can be seen in a selection of memorials.  Other lists of memorials contain: memorials to priests and members of religious orders; memorials to children; memorials to members of the armed services.

2. Father Richard Meux Benson, 1824–1915

This Fact Sheet describes the life and works of Richard Benson, the first vicar of the Parish of Cowley St John.  It outlines his early life, his education at Christ Church, Oxford, and ordination into the Church of England.  It then describes his work as a Parish Priest and founder of the Society St John the Evangelist and lists the social projects that he started in east Oxford.  Father Benson is buried in the churchyard of Ss Mary and John where the memorial to the Society of St John the Evangelist now stands.  He is also commemorated on the octagonal plinth of the tall memorial cross that stands in the churchyard.

3. Schools in the parish of Cowley St John, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

This Fact Sheet describes the schools in the parish, concentrating on those founded by the church and their subsequent development.  Ss Mary & John School still stands on its original site, and John Irving, its founding headmaster, is buried in the churchyard.

4. The Workhouse

In 1865 a workhouse for 330 inmates was completed on the Cowley Road.  This Fact Sheet traces its development and its links with people buried in the churchyard.  

5. Public Health

This Fact Sheet describes the development of Public Health in east Oxford during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.   It explains how changes in legislation and medical understanding of infection and disease coincided with the development of east Oxford as a residential area.  It also describes what medical services were available to the less well off in east Oxford before the introduction of the National Health Service.

6. Religious Orders

This Fact Sheet describes the origins of the various religious orders residing in the parish during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  They were: the Society of St John the Evangelist; the Community of St John the Baptist; the Sisterhood of the Holy Childhood; All Saints Sisters of the Poor; the Community of St Peter; and the Sisterhood of the Compassion.  Of these, only All Saints Sisters of the Poor continues to live and work in the parish (see Fact Sheet 7).

7.  St John’s Home

Opened as St John’s Hospital for Incurables in 1874 on part of the land purchased by Father Benson for his church and churchyard, the administration of this Hospital was taken over by All Saints Sisters of the Poor in 1881.  This Fact Sheet describes its history, and the more recent projects started in other parts of the site by the Sisters.  

8.  St Alban’s Church

This Fact Sheet outlines the history of St Alban’s Church, founded in 1889 within the parish of Cowley St John.  The current church, on the corner of Charles Street and Catherine Street, was built in 1932 and remains an active church within the parish.

9.  Bartlemas Hospital and Chapel

This Fact Sheet describes the history of one of the oldest institutions in the parish, a leper hospital and chapel dating from 1126.  The chapel was rebuilt in 1329 by Oriel College and is still used for services and exhibitions. 

10. Other churches in the area from 1850

This Fact Sheet identifies the history of some of the other churches in the area.  The Fact Sheet also describes some of the activities provided by these churches and other religious orders in east Oxford.

11. The Grimsley family of Memorial Sculptors

Three uncommon terracotta grave markers are found in the Churchyard.  They were made by the Grimsley family in their yard in St Giles’, Oxford, in the nineteenth century.  This Fact Sheet traces the history of Grimsley’s Memorials, and gives details of the individual grave markers in the Churchyard.

12.  The Labyrinth

This Fact Sheet describes the Trinity Labyrinth installed in 2003, the result of community participation with artists Emily Fuller and Helen MacKeith.  In 2005, the same artists installed three “sitting walls” around the labyrinth, again with participation from the local community.  The symbolism of the labyrinth is explored, and the role of the labyrinth in providing a public “rest space” within the Churchyard.

13. Timber, and iron, crosses in the churchyard

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14. Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in the First World War

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15. Guide to Ss Mary & John Church (Centenary leaflet)

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16. Guide to the East window of Ss Mary & John Church (Centenary leaflet)

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SOURCES:

Oxfordshire Family History Society, Monumental Inscription Transcript, The Parish Church of Ss Mary & John CD

Cowley St John Parish Magazines

Victoria History of the County of Oxfordshire Volume IV.

Census of Great Britain 1891

Kelly's Street Directories

WEBSITES:

www.familysearch.org

www.british-history.ac.uk

www.workhouses.org.uk

www.historicaldirectories.org

www.visionofbritain.org.uk

headington.org.uk/oxon/mayors/1836_1962/vincent_cyril_1915.htm

FURTHER READING

A Bourdillon, A Survey of the Social Services in the Oxford District II Local Administration in a Changing Area , (Oxford: OUP, 1940).

VA Butler, Social Conditions in Oxford, (London: Sidgewick &Jackson, 1912).

MA Crowther, The Workhouse System - the history of an English social institution, (London: Batsford Academic and Educational Ltd, London, 1981).

Christopher Hibbert (ed), The Encyclopaedia of Oxford, (London: Macmillan, 1988).

Malcolm Graham & Laurence Waters, Cowley & East Oxford, Past & Present, (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2002).

Malcolm Graham, Images of Victorian Oxford, (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1992).

Malcolm Graham, On Foot in Oxford, no 12 East Oxford, (Oxfordshire County Council Libraries Service, 1987) 

Peter Mayhew, All Saints: Birth and Growth of a Community, Society of All Saints, (Oxford, 1987).

Kathryn Morrison, The Workhouse, A study of poor-law buildings in England, (Swindon: English Heritage, 1999). 

Jessie Parfitt, The Health of a City, (Oxford: The Amate Press, Oxford, 1987).

Susanne Shatford and Trevor Williams, The Changing Faces of St Clements and East Oxford, Book One, (Witney: Robert Boyd Publications, 1997).

Annie Skinner, Cowley Road, A History, (Oxford: Signal, Oxford, 2005).

M V Woodgate, Father Benson, Founder of the Cowley Fathers, (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1953).


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