Mapping Oxford Through Time

NICK MILLEA, Map Curator at the Bodleian Libraries and trustee of the Historic Towns Trust reveals some of the remnants of Oxford’s forgotten past to bring the city’s past to life.

No ordinary wall

If you have ever been waiting for your bus at Oxford’s Gloucester Green Bus Station, and with time to kill, wandered off to the north towards the My Sichuan Restaurant, and should you have continued past the building you will have noticed a vegetation-topped stone wall in front of you, about 1.5 metres high, beyond which are a few ivy-clad trees laid out in a small lozenge-shaped plot. This plot extends to the traffic lights by Worcester College and houses an electricity sub-station. Follow the wall at the back of the My Sichuan, and you will see it continues east for about 50 metres before it abuts a much more modern building and reaches a sudden end. Why might this be significant?

The southern side of the wall at Gloucester Green. Photo: Nick Millea

The answer is revealed in Oxbow’s Historic Towns Atlas of Oxford in which editor Alan Crossley shows that this is one of the few surviving remnants of Beaumont Palace, birthplace of kings Richard I and John. He provides evidence of its origins, based on maps of the city published by Ralph Agas (1578), David Loggan (1675), Isaac Taylor (1751), Richard Davis (1797) and others.

Thus the research for this new atlas shows how Oxford’s urban topography can be followed chronologically from Agas’s map, right through to the Ordnance Survey 1876 base map that has been used for the atlas, and the current cartographic interpretation by Giles Darkes and the cartographers at Oxfordshire mapmakers, Lovell Johns. Using this historic material it is possible to follow our seemingly anonymous section of wall and witness how it became embedded in the city and survives to this day.

Aims of the project

The British Historic Towns Atlas project was established in 1963 as part of a pan-European project to produce atlases of consistent scale and content for the easy comparison of the growth and development of European cities. The aim is to enhance appreciation and understanding of the history and character of European towns by providing information and facilitating comparative study. The principles behind the atlases are to provide maps and text in a way which fills a gap both in knowledge and in tools for urban studies. 


The purpose of the cartography is to provide maps which allow for a visual understanding of each town at critical stages in its development, and to provide a summary map which shows the town at the period just before industrialisation began to alter the urban form for ever.

The maps in each British volume include:

  • A ‘Main Map’, based on a re-digitising of a mid 19th-century large-scale map (such as an Ordnance Survey 1:2,500) summarising the growth of the town, and showing the site of its principal medieval and post-medieval buildings and structures in the context of the Victorian period;
  • A series of maps showing the extent of the town at critical periods in its development;
  • Maps of parishes and civil wards;
  • Maps showing the town in its regional and local context;
  • A reproduction of an Ordnance Survey 1” (1:63,360) map showing the town’s location at the start of the railway age.


The purpose of the text is to provide a well-researched but readable summary of the history of the town, incorporating the latest scholarship. The text is designed to be read by the non-specialist but is supported with full references.

Text in each volume includes:

  • An introduction and summary of the history of the town from its inception to the mid 19th century;
  • A gazetteer listing all buildings, streets and other features shown on the Main Map.


Illustrations in each volume include:

  • Aerial photographs of the town;
  • Reproductions of old maps of the town;
  • Topographical views of the town.

The new Oxford atlas

The Historic Towns Atlas of Oxford is volume VII in a series which is rapidly gathering momentum. The Historic Towns Trust has worked in partnership with Oxbow since 2015, and this fruitful combination has delivered:

            Vol. IV            Windsor and Eton

            Vol. V              York

            Vol. VI            Winchester 

The Oxford atlas includes a portfolio of new maps, chronologically showing the urban development of the city with nine separate sheets at a scale of 1:4,000 looking at the built extent at or around: c. 1050; c. 1150; c. 1279; c. 1400; c. 1500; c. 1578; the Civil War; c. 1675; and c. 1800. Specially created smaller scale maps have been incorporated to show the Prehistoric and Roman era; the Anglo-Saxon burh; St Aldate’s and river channels; Medieval parishes; Medieval halls; Medieval inns; Property boundaries; Street markets; Street names; Radcliffe Square (pre-Radcliffe Camera); Oriel tenements; College property; and Suburban growth.

And what about that wall?

So just like our Gloucester Green wall, the research conducted by Alan Crossley (formerly Victoria County History), with contributions from Julian Munby and Malcolm Graham helps us explore every aspect of Oxford’s urban development. Recent archaeological findings from the Westgate redevelopment project have helped clarify the Castle’s footprint, and placed other walls and earthworks into historical context. Opportunities for exploration and discovery are never far away with this atlas.

The Historic Towns Trust promotes research on the history and topography of British towns and cities and publishes Town & City Historical maps and volumes in the British Historic Towns Atlas series.

British Historic Towns Atlas Volume VII: Oxford

Edited by Alan Crossley

9781789253269 | Hardback | £70.00