History of the Old Fire Station

The Old Fire Station has been part of Oxford, in one guise or another, since 1895.

Above one of the doors on George Street, the words SEMPER PARATUS / SEMPER VOLENS are carved: Always ready / Always willing. We may not house a fire service any more, but the sentiment still stands. As one of the participants in our 2019 ICON exhibition said: “The Old Fire Station is a place where, not only are you treated like a human being but you’re welcomed, and told that you’re a valuable member of the place.”

Purcell Architects, based on the top floor of the Old Fire Station site, prepared a report in March 2020 on the history of the site. See below to download and read it in full – and see under that for an abridged timeline of what used to be the Fire Station and Corn Exchange.

Report on the former Fire Station and Corn Exchange George Street, Oxford

A report on the history of the site, from its construction to the present day - plus descriptions of features of the building, and how it was transformed in 2009 to become the Old Fire Station.

(pdf @ 2.70 MB)

Timeline

1133 – The siting of the King’s horses in the area behind George Street and Magdalen Street, now called Gloucester Green, suggests both streets were established at this date.

1251 – George Street changes to Irishman’s Street

1515 – Road name switches to Broken Hayes

Mid-17th century – George Street becomes Thames Street

1644 – During the Civil War, King Charles I made Oxford his headquarters, and the city came under siege from the Roundheads. The greatest destruction of houses in Oxford during the war was from a fire which began in George Street and swept southwards, causing damage estimated at £300,000.

1772 – Road name changes to George Lane

1783 – From 1783 to 1915 a fair was held on Gloucester Green. The space was once a green space outside Gloucester College, after which it was named (now Worcester College).

1835 – The cattle market was established in Gloucester Green.

By 1850 – The road became known as George Street.

1857 – In the summer of 1857, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) took up residence in George Street when commissioned to paint a mural for the new Oxford Union building in nearby St Michael’s Street. He shared the premises with William Morris (1834–1896) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), whom he had enlisted to assist.

1872 – New Inn Hall Street was extended down towards George Street. Until now the latter had been virtually ignored but this made it more part of the commercial centre. Many houses on George Street (some as old as 17th century) were demolished in 19th century redevelopments, which made room for the Boys’ High School, a theatre, Lucas’s Clothing Factory and the gothic Corn Exchange.

1894-6 – The Corn Exchange and Fire Station were designed by H.W.Moore and built on George Street. They replaced a range of old houses, which dated back to 17th century.

Saturday 27th October 1894: Official laying of the foundation stone for the George Street Fire Station and Corn Exchange:

‘In a cavity underneath the foundation stone was placed a bottle containing the City of Oxford Yearbook for 1894, a copy of the Oxford Times, Oxford Chronicle, Oxford Journal dated 20th October 1894, a photo and autograph of the Mayor, autograph of Alderman [Thomas] Green, sample of each of the silver coins of the year – 3d, 6d, 1s, 2s, 5s, 2s:6d – photos of the old buildings that were taken down to clear the site, grain from the year’s harvest, an invitation to the Mayor’s banquet that evening and the architect’s, contractor’s and clerk of work’s names.’Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 27t Oct, 1894

Fire Station Fact: The estimated cost to build the Fire Station and Corn Exchange is £12,500 (£4,375 for the Fire Station and £8,125 for the Corn Exchange). The value of £12,500 in 1895 in terms of today’s money is thought to be approximately £1,181,000

1918 – The Corn Exchange building was given the number 44. The four buildings to the west of it were known as 1 to 4 Corn Exchange Buildings, with number 1 on the left and number 4 on the right.

1932 – The Oxford cattle market moved from Gloucester Green to Oxpens and the corn merchants acquired standing rooms there, leaving the George Street building inactive.

1940 – The Oxford Brigade became an official force under the Fire Brigades Act of 1938. This put control of fire stations into the hands of the local authority, and away from insurance companies. In 1941 all fire services in Britain were amalgamated and passed into the hands of the National Fire Service, but this only lasted until the Fire Brigades Act in 1948 which reversed the nationalisation of the service and gave control back to local councils.

Fire Station Fact: During World War Two ambulances were also parked in Gloucester Green. Blankets were scrubbed there and dried in the Fire Station boiler room.

1971 – The Oxfordshire fire station moved premises from George Street to Rewley Road.

1971 – The former Oxford Playhouse company, The Meadow Players, leased the Old Fire Station as offices, for wardrobe and property storage and scenery painting.

1973 – The Meadow Players closed and the Oxford Area Arts Council was formed to take over the building. It operated as a centre for performance and participation arts, including dance, drama and musical performances, lectures and recitals.

Fire Station Fact: The Arts Council ran classes in dance and drama for the public and put on visual arts exhibitions alongside some theatre and music gigs.

1987 – The Gloucester Green development was undertaken by Kendrick Associates. As part of this wider project, structural work was done to the Old Fire Station. The Connexions office and public toilets were added to the rear of the building. It could now also be accessed by the public from Gloucester Green as well as George Street.

1989 – The Oxford Area Arts Council closed as the Gloucester Green development progressed.

2005 – The Ovada Gallery undertook the renovation and expansion of the dedicated arts space and it was re-launched as a professional gallery. After five years of successful exhibitions it closed to make room for the Old Fire Station redevelopment project.

2010 – Plans to develop the Old Fire Station into an arts centre and education and employment opportunity for homeless people in Oxford were unveiled. The project was awarded £2.8 million capital funding by the Homes and Communities Agency through its Places of Change programme, which aims to improve the facilities available for the homeless.

2011 – The Old Fire Station reopened as an arts centre run by Arts at the Old Fire Station including shop, gallery, theatre, studios and café as well as a centre for training homeless people run by Crisis Skylight Oxford.