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Jericho: The community at the heart of Oxford University Press

We’re delighted to announce that the Oxford University Press Museum, based at OUP’s Oxford publishing office, reopens today following extensive refurbishment. Archivist Martin Maw celebrates the occasion by taking a look at the historic links between OUP and Jericho, the local area.

Almost 200 years ago, Oxford University Press relocated its printing house to the area known as Jericho in Oxford. The neighbourhood’s history has been closely connected to the Press ever since. In the 19th century its streets were home to hundreds who worked at Oxford’s printing house and bindery, and the close family ties in the area formed what was almost a village inside the growing city.

The Press is much older than Jericho itself; Oxford University has been involved with the book trade since the 15th century. Earlier print shops were set up in Broad Street in the centre of Oxford, at the Sheldonian Theatre and the Clarendon Building. When these became too small for its business, building work began in Jericho in the 1820s at what is today Walton Street. Construction was overseen by two architects: Daniel Robertson (who allegedly worked best after two bottles of sherry, and had to be transported around the Press site in a wheelbarrow) and Edward Blore. The new printing house was finished in 1830, and looked out to the north over the orchards and meadows that flanked the canal.

This landscape soon changed, as the neighbourhood began to mushroom around the Press. Never a planned community, Jericho quickly became a nest of houses and pubs with a bad reputation. The area already had a deprived air about it; Walton Street was home to the Victorian workhouse, on a plot of land known as Rats and Mice Hill.  The Printer to the University, Thomas Combe (1796-1872), felt the area needed a moral makeover.

Thankfully, Combe was in a financial position to accomplish it. Appointed in 1838, he subsequently earned a fortune through the University’s paper mill at nearby Wolvercote. Without any immediate family but instilled with a devout sense of charity, he and his wife Martha spent much of their money on good works. Inside OUP, Combe funded night schools and social groups, such as a brass band, and became a patron of the arts. He and Martha were fond of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and bought many early works by Rossetti, Millais, and Holman Hunt, including The Light of the World, which they displayed at their home in the main Press quadrangle.

Outside OUP, Combe was a churchwarden and he felt a similar Christian beacon should be shone across the road in Jericho. As a result, Combe paid for the endowment of St. Barnabas. It was completed in 1869, and must surely have exceeded all his expectations. Despite controversy over its ‘high’ Anglican air, ‘Barny’s’ (as it became known) emerged as a homely focus for the community, attracting a regular congregation from the surrounding streets and from members of the University. Combe’s own funeral took place there, and visitors can still see the carving of his favourite dog, Jesse, on the base of one church pillar.

This carving reflects the common practice of men at the Press to bring a dog or a fishing rod into the print shop, ready for the end of the working day. In Combes’ time, Jericho was semi-rural, and after work the men would head for the fields or the canal around Port Meadow, as families still relied on whatever could be locally caught or grown. This feature of life was drawn into the Press as well. Much of Port Meadow was given over to agriculture during the First World War, and by the 1920s an annual Gardening Association was active at the Press, with employees from Jericho exhibiting their prize produce at a summer fête that included music, skittles, and demonstrations by the Press’s own fire brigade.

The First World War, however, left terrible scars on the Jericho community. More than 300 men entered the forces from the Press. As the memorial in the main quadrangle of OUP records, 45 of these died. Many more returned wounded or traumatised, and few talked of their experiences. The impact on families and friends in Jericho must have been devastating. At the Armistice, gas lamps across the main gate of OUP spelt out “God Save the King” but it was a bittersweet moment of glory. The Press and Jericho had seemed dependably changeless. Now both were exposed as fragile, and damaged by events.

Perhaps as a result, Press employees began to take a keen interest in preserving their history. A staff magazine, The Clarendonian, first appeared in 1919, and featured many articles on the Combes, Jericho, social activities, and local families who had been involved with the Press for generations. Their close association proved even more valuable during the Second World War. The Press became essential to the war effort, producing naval code books in conditions of utmost secrecy. Its walled-off quadrangle proved ideal for the work. Likewise, the tight Jericho family structure that filled the printing house added to the security involved: everybody knew everybody else, and could keep an eye on them.

Despite local ups and downs, that community survived and flourished late into the 20th century. It was only interrupted by the end of book printing at the Press in 1989. Computerization and harsh markets conditions finished Oxford’s grand, in-house printing tradition. Gradually, the neighbourhood around the Press changed, and ceased to house its employees. Nevertheless, the ties between OUP and Jericho stand as an extraordinary example of a unique institution depending on a neighbourhood with an equally unique character.

OUP welcomes visitors to its museum, which traces the history of Oxford University’s involvement in printing and publishing from the 15th century to the present day. The OUP museum has recently undergone a complete refurbishment, incorporating new cases, panels, and activity stations. Anyone wishing to visit the museum must book a timeslot in advance. For more information visit the OUP Archives website.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has granted free access for a limited time to Thomas Combe’s biography.

All images courtesy of OUP Archives. Do not reproduce without permission.

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  1. […] Archive Department also manages the Press Museum at OUP in Oxford. Read his previous blog posts: “Jericho: The community at the heart of Oxford University Press” and “Sir Robert Dudley, midwife of Oxford University […]

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