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13 November 2014

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You are in: Oxford > History > Local History > The Cutteslowe Walls

The final demolition of the Cutteslowe Wall

Final destruction of the Cutteslowe Wall

The Cutteslowe Walls

It is 50 years this month that the infamous wall finally came down for good.

The Cutteslowe Walls in Oxford, built in 1934, were over two metres high and topped with lethal spikes.  They divided the City Council's Cutteslowe estate from private housing to the west which was developed by Clive Saxton of the Urban Housing Company.

Saxton, described as every inch a businessman, was afraid that his housing would not sell if so-called 'slum' dwellers were going to be neighbours, and the walls were built to separate them. In fact, the council tenants settled in well and soon raised a petition asking for the walls to be demolished.

Abe Lazarus, a Communist politician, took up their cause.  He called himself Bill Firestone because he had once led a successful strike at the Firestone Rubber Company.  He put on a pantomime in which he even played the part of the good fairy.  The residents doubted whether the interference of a left-wing politician would help their cause.  In 1936 Lazarus and his supporters marched on the wall with pickaxes.  The police barred their way and the attempt failed.

Campaigners rejoice

Campaigners rejoice

In June 1938 the City Council, against legal advice, took the law into their own hands and demolished the walls with a steam roller.  Sued by the company and severely criticised by the Judge, the city was forced to re-erect the walls.

There were various attempts during World War II to have the walls demolished for safety reasons but these also failed.  A tank on a practice exercise did drive through one of the walls but the War Office had to pay for the rebuilding.

In 1953, councils were given powers of compulsory purchase and the council adopted these in 1955.   Finally, on 9th March 1959, after the city had purchased the strips of land on which the walls stood, the walls came down.  Councillor Edmund Gibbs, son of an earlier campaigner for demolition, and Chairman of the City Estates Committee, took a ceremonial swipe with a pickaxe at the top of the first wall to come down. Later, when the official party had left I waited for the first of the walls to come down and then was able to walk through and thus be the first person to do so.

The Blue Plaque is unveiled in 2006

The Blue Plaque is unveiled in 2006

On 9th March 2006, having applied to the Blue Plaques Board, Mrs Doris Hayle, one-time resident of Cutteslowe, and I unveiled the plaque on a former Council House in Aldrich Road next to where a wall once stood.  This was to commemorate and celebrate the final demolition of these notorious and divisive walls, a monument to 20th century snobbery.

For more about the walls see The Changing Faces of Summertown and Cutteslowe  Book Two by Ann Spokes Symonds with Chris Nichols, published by Robert Boyd Publications in 2009, and click on the weblink on the top right of this page.

Listen to Ann Spokes-Symonds interview with BBC Oxford’s Jo Thoenes by clicking on the link below.

last updated: 26/03/2009 at 11:48
created: 26/03/2009

Have Your Say

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A lot of people who did not live on either side of the walls make various, often unsubstantiated, claims about social division and these walls. I was born on the 'urban' side soon after the war and lived there for around 17 years. During the time the walls stood they were regarded as a practical nuisance by many residents on both sides. It was most certainly not the case that the 'urbanites' could not get on with the Cutteslowe folk. The reality was that many of our friends lived on the other side of the walls, that our school was the other side as were the shops,the wreck and the river where we all played.When the walls came down we got a bus service and ready direct access to the much used facilities provided on the Cutteslowe side.I resent the oft suggestion that 'urbanites' considered themselves better that those on the other side. My father was a blue collar worker at Rads but that didn't stop him making sacrifices to own his own home. There were university dons living on the urban, but amongst tradesmen and local shopkeepers etc.I don't remember Ann Spokes (as she was then) being first through but I do recall all the kids from both sides piling through the gaps.

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