One of my favourite drawings is that made by a German-born, Oxford-based artist called John Malchair, who lived and worked in the city in the late 18th century. The drawing shows a view of the Abingdon Road as it appeared in 1770 with the strange and imposing edifice of Roger Bacon’s study in the foreground – a building that was demolished nine years later – and the familiar, extant structure of Christ Church College’s Tom Tower behind.
There’s something beguiling about the image, depicting as it does the city long before the car, before its expansion into the suburbs when still surrounded by fields and meadows. It’s a quiet almost pastoral scene in which I feel I can hear the birds and feel the sun on my face. I can almost hear the quietude, contrasting it with the sounds I would hear today if I stood in a similar position; indeed, it’s an image in which I am constantly contrasting, moving back, to and fro between the past and the present.
This contrast between the past and present is what I experience as I research my family tree and this image I’ve lately realised embodies some of my recent thinking and research. My great-great-great-great-grandfather, Samuel Stevens, born in 1776, lived and worked as a tailor on St. Aldates in Oxford, a street which is in effect a continuation of Abingdon Road as it moves towards and connects with Carfax in the city centre. I like the fact that he is contemporary with this image and would have been alive (if only a small boy) when Roger Bacon’s study was still standing.
On the other side of my family tree, on my father’s side, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, William Hedges lived and worked in Abingdon, a town in which his line lived until George Hedges moved to Oxford sometime around 1869 when he married Amelia Noon, daughter of Charlotte Noon, murdered by her husband Elijah in 1852 (see ‘A Murder in Jericho‘). It’s very likely of course that both these lines (the Stevens’ and the Hedges’) continued back in those same places (Oxford and Abingdon) for further generations, and I like the fact that in this image by Malchair, and in a sense in the building he drew, is a connection between the two. Not only that, there is a connection between my past and my present, as if that connection might be found in the road between Oxford and Abingdon.
Finally, in a project I started some time ago (6 Yards 0 Feet 6 Inches) I make mention of a survey by John Gwynn, carried out in 1771 in which all the residents of Oxford are listed along with the measurements of their properties. It’s a fascinating document in its own right, but if Samuel Stevens’ parents lived in Oxford just a few years before his birth, they would be listed in that survey. Flicking through there are a number of Stevens’ and I can’t help but think one of them is my ancestor.