The Oxford Arms Inn

Ghosts can become not only the unsuspecting passers-by, who are forever captured on the glass plate of the camera in front of the old buildings. But also the buildings themselves, whole streets and neighborhoods, which no longer exist, but their former complex ground-plan is still haunting under the modern apartment blocks weighing down on them.

The Oxford Arms Inn (marked by the red dot) and its former neighborhood. Detail of the map in John Noorthouck’s History of London (1773) (the complete map here)

The same today (on full screen)

Such ghost is today every building, street and yard which we saw in the pictures of the previous post, but especially the Oxford Arms Inn, one of the most famous coaching inns of old London.

Oxford Arms Inn, entrance from Warwick Street. Photo by Alfred and John Bool, 1875

“There are in London several old inns, once the headquarters of celebrated coaches in the days when coaches performed their journeys in a graver and more solemn manner than they do in these times; but which have now degenerated into little more than the abiding and booking-places of country wagons. The reader would look in vain for any of these ancient hostelries, among the Golden Crosses and Bull and Mouths, which rear their stately fronts in the improved streets of London. If he would light upon any of these old places, he must direct his steps to the obscurer quarters of the town, and there in some secluded nooks he will find several, still standing with a kind of gloomy sturdiness, amidst the modern innovations which surround them.”
Charles Dickens: The Pickwick papers (1836/37), chapter 10

The coaching inns flourished throughout Europe between 1600 and 1850, and were the most important nodes of the inland transport infrastructure, until the railway supplanted the whole coaching network. By the 18th century they followed one another quite densely – at a distance of about seven miles –, and they waited for the travelers by the dozens even in smaller cities. John Charles Maggs, the lover of stagecoaches painted eighty of them only in London, including the Tabard Inn in Southwark – broken down in 1873 –, where Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were recounted, and of course the Oxford Arms Inn as well.

John Charles Maggs: The Oxford Arms, Warwick Lane. Cromolithograph, 32.5 × 27.4 cm. Published in: Famous Old Coaching Inns of England, 1910.

Oxford Arms Inn, the entrance seen from the courtyard. Photo by Alfred and John Bool, 1875

A detailed description and an engraving – from the above view – is found in Rober Chamber’s Book of Days, published in 1869:


“In the [Warwick] lane are two old galleried inns, which carry us back to the broad-wheeled travelling wagons of our forefathers. About midway, on the east side, is the Bell Inn […] The other galleried inn of Warwick-lane is the Oxford Arms, within a recess on the west side, and nearly adjoining to the residentiary houses of St Paul’s in Amen-corner. It is one of the best specimens of the old London inns remaining in the metropolis. As you advance you observe a red brick pedimented facade of the time of Charles II, beneath which you enter the inn-yard, which has, on three of its sides, two stories of balustraded wooden galleries, with exterior staircases leading to the chambers on each floor: the fourth side being occupied by stabling, built against part of old London wall. The house was an inn with the sign of the Oxford Arms before the Great Fire, as appears by the following advertisement in the London Gazette for March, 1672-3, No. 762:

ʻThese are to give notice, that Edward Bartlett, Oxford carrier, hath removed his inn, in London, from the Swan, at Holborn-bridge, to the Oxford Arms, in Warwick-lane, where he did inn before the Fire: his coaches and wagons going forth on their usual days,—Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. He hath also a hearse, with all things convenient, to carry a corpse to any part of England.’

The Oxford Arms was not part of the Earl of Warwick’s property, but belonged to the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s, who hold it to this day. From the inn premises is a door opening into one of the back yards of the residentiary houses, and it is stated that, during the riots of 1780, this passage facilitated the escape of certain Roman Catholics, who then frequented the Oxford Arms, on their being attacked by the mob: for which reason, as is said, by a clause inserted in the Oxford Arms lease, that door is forbidden to be closed up. This inn appears to have been longer frequented by carriers, wagoners, and stage-coaches, than the Bell Inn, on the east side of the Lane; for in the list in Delaune’s Present State of London, 1690, the Oxford Arms occurs frequently, but mention is not made of the Bell Inn.

ʻAt the Oxford Arms, in Warwick-lane,’ lived John Roberts, the bookseller, from whose shop issued the majority of the squibs and libels on Pope.”


Oxford Arms Inn, the Eastern (entrance) facade of the courtyard, with the silhouette of the St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background. Photo by Alfred and John Bool, 1875

Alfred Marks in his description accompanying the Bool brothers’ photos from 1875 writes among other on the inn:

“In Strype’s Stowe we read that the “Oxford Arms” was much frequented by persons attending the Market, i.e., Newgate Market, close by. Up to the time of its close, it still did a considerable carriers’ business, carts daily leaving the Inn for Oxford and other places. An old servant of the Inn told the writer that, in the days before the railroads, he had frequently seen wagons drawn by nine horses leave the Inn, a portion of the goods being packed after the Inn yard had been cleared. It must have needed careful handling to get such a team and such a load safely round the corner of the narrow street. Mr Samuel Hill, who has kindly communicated much of the above, says the sumptuous furniture of the Inn was sold in 1868, since which time its many rooms were let out in tenements.”

And in the 20 May 1876 edition of the journal Athaeneum the following brief description was published of it:

“Despite the confusion, the dirt, and the decay, he who stands in the yard of this ancient Inn may get an excellent idea of what it was like in the days of its prosperity, when not only travellers in coach or saddle rode in and out of the yard, but poor players and mountebanks set up their stage for the entertainment of spectators, who hung over the galleries or looked on from their rooms – a name by which the boxes of a theatre were first known.”

Oxford Arms Inn, the entrance and the Northern facade of the courtyard. Photo by Alfred and John Bool, 1875

The inn, however, became famous not only in its life, but even in its death. By the mid-1870s the urban planning also reached the district to the north of St. Paul’s, the former Newgate Market and its neighborhood. The Oxford Arms Inn was also doomed to demolition. The lovers of old London flared up, and established the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London, whose purpose was on the one hand the documentation of the neighborhoods sentenced to demolition, and on the other hand to stir up the general public and to set them against the unlimited city destruction.

Oxford Arms Inn, the first floor gallery. Photo by Alfred and John Bool, 1875

The first series of six photos were taken precisely in the Oxford Arms Inn, and the illustrations drawn on the basis of them appeared in the same year in a number of magazines. The following pictures in The Graphic clearly attest of having been made after the above photos, but a new kind of ghosts appear in them, such figures which were not present in the original photos, and only the illustrator’s fantasy populated the building with them, for the delight of the readers – shadows of shadows, as Plato would say.


But all this could not save the building any more. Despite the just beginning outcry, in 1876 it was demolished together with the surrounding houses. Nevertheless, the movement launched by the photographic society was not in vain, as it led to the foundation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings by William Morris and some other influential representatives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1877. The Society is still today active, publishing books, running courses and a telephone advice line, and through its membership covering all Britain it immediately enters in action when they experience unnecessary demolitions. One of its founding members, George Price Boyce (1826-1897) also painted a number of endangered buildings in London, including the Oxford Arms Inn, the cause of the establishment of the Society.

George Price Boyce: The Oxford Arms, Warvick Lane (Victoria and Alberts Museum)
I also remember of having been sitting in the courtyard of a very similar
caravanserai in Bucharest, which has been also reached by the
barbaric destruction since then; and in Isfahan, where,
fortunately, many of them have been left.

And the photographic society continued its activity for ten more years, further documenting the decaying buildings of old London. The one hundred and twenty large glass negatives lef by them are preserved today in the Bishopsgate Istitute in Spitalfields. In some of the following posts we will return to them.

Oxford Arms Inn, the north-western corner of the courtyard, with the stables to the left. Photo by Alfred and John Bool, 1875

2 comentarios:

Uncle Deetou dijo...

Thank you for this wonderful post....

Language dijo...

Thanks from me as well; I like nothing better than this kind of immersion in bygone urban scenes. (And I am reminded of the Koza Han in Bursa, which was still full of silk merchants when I was there several decades ago.)