BLOG: Walls come tumbling down

Demolition of the Cutteslowe Walls in 1959 Published: Thursday, 9th March 2023

Building new homes can be controversial. Just ask our housing company, OX Place. But did you know today (9 March) is the anniversary of the end of an infamous chapter in our city’s housing history?

Between the wars Oxford was one of the fastest growing industrial cities in Britain. In 1921, our population was around 57,000. By 1941 it had almost doubled to 107,000. This was the result of a rapid expansion in the motor industry and associated trades.

Oxford City Council completed our first council homes in November 1920. In the two decades that followed we built over 2,000 more. These were increasingly on new estates round the edges of the city.

One of these estates was Cutteslowe, with 300 homes built in two phases between 1931 and 1934.

The Urban Housing Company began building a private estate on land to the west of Cutteslowe in 1933. Relations between the company and council soon soured.

The developer claimed we had promised not to rehouse former St Ebbes slum dwellers in the area. It also said council tenants were vandalising its new homes.

In December 1934 the company built two walls separating their private development from the Cutteslowe estate.

Two metres tall and topped with rotating iron spikes, the walls forced council tenants into a 600 metre detour to reach Banbury Road. A potent symbol of class division, they also sparked widespread uproar.

One of the Cutteslowe walls before demolitionCommunist Party organiser and trade union activist Abe Lazarus had come to Oxford in 1934 and played a leading role in the Pressed Steel strike and Florence Park rent strike. At a packed meeting in Oxford Town Hall, he declared that they would tear the walls down themselves on 11 May 1935.

On the day 2,000 people attended the demonstration in Cutteslowe. But when Lazarus and a companion approached the walls with pickaxes, the police told them they would be arrested for assault. The crowd dispersed.

In June 1938 we took matters into our own hands and bulldozed the walls. The company sued and the High Court ordered us to rebuild them.

One of the walls was accidentally demolished during a tank training exercise in 1943. This time, the War Office footed the bill for rebuilding it.

The Cutteslowe Walls were to remain until long after the war.

They were not finally demolished until 9 March 1959, after we paid £1,000 to buy the land they stood on. Councillor Edmund Gibbs, son of an earlier campaigner for demolition, ceremonially struck the first blow with a pickaxe.

Today, a blue plaque on Aldrich Road marks where the walls once were. A section of their iron spikes sits in the Museum of Oxford’s collection.

And OX Place are building homes where you can’t tell if they are council homes or privately owned.

Children walking through the demolished wall

Picture credits: Oxfordshire County Council - Oxfordshire History Centre