BLACKBIRD LEYS - GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY
In 1751 Blackbird Leys was described as “one house, two gardens, 50 acres of arable land, 20 acres of meadow and 30 acres of pasture”. Two hundred and fifty years later – in 2001 – Blackbird Leys, including the “new” development known as The Leys, consisted of 5000 households and a population in excess of 13,000 – about 8,500 in the older part of the estate and 4,500 in the new.
THE FARM and THE NAME
Blackbird Leys Estate was developed on the site of Sawpit Farm, in the parish of Littlemore, but takes its name from Blackbird Leys Farm, in the neighbouring parish of Sandford.
Blackbird Leys Farm has changed hands many times during the past 500 years: from the Powell family in the 1500s, to Richard Costar, coachmaster of Cowley, who used the farm to grow oats and hay for his horses: to the wealthy James Morrell of Headington Hill Hall, who brought the farm in 1857. Blackbird Leys Farm, was part of the “home farm” for the Morrell family’s Headington Hill Hall. In 1877 the Oxford Local Board took over the western part of the Morrell estate for use as a Sewage Farm, and in 1895 the Farm was sold to the City of Oxford.
A Roman road, sixteen miles long, has always formed the eastern boundary of Sandford parish, and was recognised as the estate boundary in Anglo-Saxon times and was referred to as “the Street”. In 1820 the Road was named as “Blackbridge Lane” and was included within Blackbridge Leaze Farm – as Blackbird Leys Farm was then called. Later in the 19th century it was referred to as “Blackber’s Lane” and also as “Blackford Farm”. The stream that still runs just north of the Farm – possibly man-made for farming in the 9th or 10th centuries – was known as Black Brook – now known as Northbrook Stream.
THE ORIGINAL DEVELOPMENT
The council housing estate was built in the 1960s. With the growth of the nearby car industry, homes were required for additional factory workers, and to provide housing from other parts of Oxford – including St Ebbes, which was being redeveloped, and The Slade, an area of temporary housing. The City Council planned to build an estate of 2800 dwellings on land used by the sewage works and Sawpit Farm, and outline planning permission was granted in 1953. The farmland belonging to Blackbird Leys Farm had been owned by the City of Oxford since 1895, and was brought within the City boundary in April 1991.
An area of 260 acres was set aside for the new estate. The main road into this new estate was along Long Lane in Littlemore, crossing the railway line over a small hump-backed bridge – known as Morrells Bridge. During 1961 building commenced on the new Blackbird Leys flyover, to eventually join the Airfield Estate along Barns Road, and on Sunday 5th November 1961 the old railway bridge was demolished. There was a massive explosion that “shook all the windows, and a large dust cloud rose into the sky”.
THE FIRST RESIDENTS
The first houses occupied on Blackbird Leys were apparently, numbers 23-33 Sandy Lane, in August 1958. The first residents were Edward Wall at number 23, Andrew Murphy at number 25, Albert Green at number 27, Albert Collier at number 29, John Green at number 31, and Ron Chandler at number 33. Railway sleepers had to be laid across a small stream that ran directly in front of these houses, to allow the new residents to move in. This stream is still there – running underground now from the scout hut in Sandy Lane through to the allotments off Kestrel Crescent.
The first houses were built in Sandy Lane and then Kent Close, by Laings the builders. The ones on the opposite side of the road were a different design. Development spread out to Tucker Road, Sawpit Road, Blay Close and Wesley Close. Balfour Road was developed, which allowed for gradual infilling of Ladenham, Wingate and Moorbank. At this time all the houses had open fires – central heating was unheard of. Development continued in an anti-clockwise direction, finishing with Druce Way area.
I moved to the Estate in November 1960, at the age of 8, to a brand new house in Moorbank – just a few doors away from the school – Blackbird Leys Junior – which had opened just a year earlier. Although the houses were completed, the gardens were rubble sites. However, once this was cleared away the soil was excellent – thanks to its previous use as a sewage farm! Residents were often reminded of this, particularly on hot summer days when the wind was in the right (or was it the wrong!) direction! The Estate remained a major building site – and was marvellous fun for kids of all ages. How we survived I just don’t know! We ran wild across fields and played hide-and-seek amongst the huge piles of building bricks and played “house” under massive tarpaulin sheets. Most of the estate was still fields and long grass, with Blackbird Leys Farm at the end of a small track lined with massive chestnut trees It seemed miles from anywhere.
THE FIRST SHOPS
The first shops, those in Balfour Road, were built in 1958, when the first residents moved in. These included a greengrocers, owned for many years by Harry Moakes, a general VG store occupied by the Hills, and a paper shop run by the Thorpe family. There were no post-office facilities on the estate, the nearest being the post-office at Littlemore, or in Hollow Way, Cowley. A small general store, with a house attached, was also built on the corner of Sandy Lane and Furlong Close, run for many years by “Big Alf” Plaisted. A mobile shop was often seen during those early years, set up by Mick Haynes and later operated by Les Allen, providing essential groceries for the entire estate. This mobile shop had been converted from an old single-decker bus. The Blackbird Leys parade of shops opened in 1962. Delteys is still there: other shops were Johnsons ironmongers, Motomart a motor parts shop, and Betty’s a haberdashery and wool shop.
THE FIRST SCHOOL
By September 1958 ten families with children were living on the embryo Estate – but children had to walk to the nearest school at Rose Hill. The first school - Blackbird Leys school – between Moorbank and Wesley Close - opened in September 1959, with a staff of six and with 94 children of mixed infants and junior ages. By the autumn of 1960 there were 283 children and eight teachers. Its headmaster, Cecil Jacobs, was to stay at the school until his retirement in July 1980. One of the original teachers – Gordon Peel – later wrote:
“Less than a decade ago, Blackbird Leys was wild open countrywide with not a house to be seen except Blackbird Leys Farm nestling at the bottom on the tall elems in the middle odf the fields. During the late fifties development began and with it the first foundations of our school were laid in 1958. By September 1959 the school was ready to receive its first pupils and on 14 September 1959, 94 children walked rather timidly through the main gates. It was a glorious late summer day (it has been the loveliest summer for many years) and the staff and children alike had the feeling of embarking on a new adventure. The school buildings were far from ready, and only five classrooms were in use, three infant and two junior. There was no staff room, hall, canteen (a classroom was used) or headmaster’s room, and for the first term we had to make do as well as we could.”
Gordon Peel, with his wife Margaret, was responsible for organising a marvellous after-school club, which ran twice a week from 4.00 to 6.00. This offered fantastic opportunities for 7-11 year olds – painting, pottery, craftwork, sports, PE, indoor sports and games and dance classes. Gordon remained at Blackbird Leys School – later renamed Wesley Green Middle School – for fifty-five years, until his retirement in 1990.
THE FIRST CHURCH
The site of the Blackbird Leys public house and the Community Centre was occupied for a long time by small wooden workmen’s huts, about 6 in all, and children took great delight in jumping from roof to roof along this line of huts. Luckily the roofs held out and there were no reported accidents.
Behind these huts was long rough grass, pitted with deep furrows, and across this field stood the original wooden church hut, which, at this time faced a small farm track running parallel to the new Blackbird Leys Road – on the site where the Community Centre is now. The Reverend Peter Malton and family moved to the estate in 1960, living at number 17 Blackbird Leys Road, where original church services were conducted. The Diocese provided the original wooden hut which was used from Christmas 1960. A new church was designed in 1961 and work started on this in early 1964, together with a new Church House in Cuddesdon Way. The old wooden hut remained in use until 1983.
THE TOWER BLOCKS
During 1960 work started on Windrush Tower, a 15-storey block of flats. This site was surrounded by enormous piles of breeze blocks: a magnet for children who used to play “houses” amongst these, literally taking our lives in our hands. We also climbed the concrete stairs of the new skeleton tower block, until the builders secured this with a high padlocked fence all round.
THE SECOND DEVELOPMENT
The second state of the Estate development included Pegasus Road and Field Avenue, started in 1964. The name Pegasus commemorates the famous Pegasus Football team of Oxford. An area of 14 acres was left as recreation ground between Pegasus Road and Cuddesdon Way, which included a bowling green, football pitches, car parking and play areas.
THE FIRST PUBLIC HOUSE
The first public house, aptly named The Blackbird, opened on 13 December 1962, with Ernest and Eileen Hanks the first landlords. A second public house, The Bullnose Morris, opened in December 1966 – its name commemorating the 155,000 famous Bullnose Morris motor cars produced by the Cowley car factory between 1913 and1926.
Development of Brake Hill - commenced 1985, but the perimeter Grenoble Road was not started until 1987. By 1990 Oxford’s housing needs had become so acute that the city council developed the greenfield land on the outskirts of the city. The chosen site was the site of the former Blackbird Leys Farm – providing 1700 new homes.
Carole Newbigging (nee Young) Extracts from “The Changing Faces of Blackbird Leys” by Carole Newbigging, and from personal memory.