19 January 2023

Searching for the Oxford
college and church links in
street names in Wolverton

Christchurch Grove and Oriel Close … linked to the names of Oxford colleges (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

In recent weeks I have enjoyed walking around Wolverton, photographing the churches and other architectural features, searching for snippets and nuggets of local history and enjoying the contrast between Wolverton and Stony Stratford as neighbouring towns.

I was writing yesterday (18 January 2023) how the name of Anson Road sent me on a false trail in search of a possible link in the past between Lichfield and Wolverton. In a similar vein, the name of Christchurch Grove sent me in search of a church I may have missed as I continued to photograph the churches of Wolverton.

I ought to have known better. Of course, the Radcliffe Trustees of Oxford University owned large parts of Wolverton until the 1970s, and many of the street names in Wolverton are derived from the names of past trustees or from Oxford colleges linked to the Radcliffe Trust.

The Radcliffe Trust is one of Britain’s oldest charities and was founded in 1714 by the will of Dr John Radcliffe. Dr John Radcliffe (1650-1714) bought the Wolverton Estate from Sir Edward Longueville in the early 18th century, and so acquired large tracts of land in Wolverton, Old Wolverton and neighbouring Stony Stratford.

Radcliffe was elected MP for Buckingham in 1713, but died a year later he died and left his estate in trust for the endowment of educational and medical foundations. In his will, he directed his Trustees to spend £40,000 on building a library, and today the Radcliffe Camera is one of Oxford’s architectural glories.

The Trustees also built two other important Oxford landmarks, the Radcliffe Observatory and the Radcliffe Infirmary, the predecessor of the modern John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. The Radcliffe endowments also gave the name to Radcliffe School in Wolverton.

By the mid-20th century, the Radcliffe Trust had become limited in its ability to support other charitable projects. However, in the 1960s, with the selection of the location for a new town, the Trust’s Wolverton estate became the subject of negotiations for purchase by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, and the sale was concluded on 29 September 1970.

The proceeds gave the Trust a substantial endowment and increased income. It was felt that this income was insufficient to support significant science projects, and instead new fellowships and grant schemes were developed to support projects in the arts, particularly music and crafts.

By the time of the sale, the Radcliffe Trust and the trustees had left their mark on the names of the streets of Wolverton.

Christchurch Grove at the western end of Wolverton leads into the Radcliffe School (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Christchurch Grove is a recent housing development at the western end of Wolverton, leading into the Radcliffe School. The Radcliffe School only took its name in 1956, and Christchurch Grove takes its name not from church I have yet to find in Wolverton but from Christ Church College, Oxford.

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, is both the college chapel of Christ Church College and the cathedral church of the Diocese of Oxford, which extends across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and beyond, including Wolverton, Stony Stratford and Milton Keynes.

Christ Church is one of the smallest cathedrals in the Church of England, and its dual role as cathedral and college chapel is unique. Saint Frideswide’s Priory in Oxford was surrendered in 1522 to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who planned Cardinal College. Instead, however, Christ Church became the see of the Diocese of Oxford in 1546, when Christ Church College was founded as a constituent college of the University of Oxford.

WB Yeats refers to Christ Church in his poem ‘All Souls’ Night, Oxford’:

Midnight has come and the great Christ Church bell
And many a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls’ Night …

Oriel Close, Wolverton, takes its name from Oriel College, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Christchurch Grove in Wolverton is spelled as one word. It leads into Oriel Close, which also takes its name from an Oxford college. Oriel College was founded in 1324 by Adam de Brome under the patronage of Edward II.

John Henry Newman is among the most renowned figures associated with Oriel. He was a fellow of Oriel from 1822 to 1845. During these years he was also the college chaplain (1826-1831, 1833-1835) and Vicar of the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin (1828-1843).

Newman was the driving force behind the Oxford Movement, alongside John Keble (1792-1866) and Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882), and Oriel is pre-eminently the college of the Oxford Movement, the first phase of which lasted from 1833-1845. Its proponents produced the Tracts for the Times, a series of 90 tracts that gave them the name ‘Tractarians’.

Besides Newman, Keble and Pusey, other figures of the movement associated with Oriel included Robert Wilberforce (1802-1857), Richard Hurrell Froude (1803-36), GA Denison (1805-1896), Thomas Mozley (1806-1893), Charles Marriott (1811-1858) and RW Church (1815-1890). Richard Whately (1787-1863) was a fellow of Oriel (1811-1821) and Drummond Professor of Political Economy in Oxford (1830-1831) before becoming Archbishop of Dublin (1831-1863).

Oriel College, Oxford, gives its name to Oriel Close in Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In a similar vein, St John’s Crescent in Wolverton may have been named after St John’s College, Oxford, although local historians also suggest its name honour the Wolverton Corps of the St John Ambulance Brigade.

Saint John’s College on Saint Giles’, Oxford, was founded as a men’s college in 1555 by Sir Thomas White to provide a source of educated Roman Catholic clergy to support the Counter-Reformation under Queen Mary. Saint John’s is the wealthiest college in Oxford, with a financial endowment of £600 million, largely due to 19th century suburban development of land in the city of Oxford.

These street names show how the Radcliffe Trustees were intent on making links between their Oxford colleges and the streets of Wolverton as the town grew and expanded from the mid-19th century on, and how this practice continued into the late 20th century, even as their Wolverton estates were being incorporated into the development of Milton Keynes.

However, local historians suggest Cambridge Street in Wolverton is not called after Cambridge University. Instead, they suggest it was so named, like Bedford Street, because of the Bedford and Cambridge Railway, which opened in 1862.

Christ Church, Oxford, gives its name to Christchurch Grove, Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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