The history of Osney dates back to the Middle Ages when it was described as an area to the east of the island today, and part of an area called Burgess’s Meadows. It even features in great medieval literature: Chaucer’s ‘The Miller’s Tale’.
It is unclear whether the Osney name originates from the combination of Osa (an early Oxford landowner) and ‘ey’ (the Old English word for an island), or from ‘ouse’, the ancient British word for a river.
In the Middle Ages, the area was dominated by the Augustinian Oseney Abbey, founded in 1129 by Robert d’Oyley, one of William the Conqueror’s henchmen. The nave and transept were located in the open space now occupied by Mill Street cemetery. The abbey accumulated great wealth from river trade when the Osney Cut was dug in 1227. Several ecclesiastical councils were held at the abbey during the thirteenth century and Parliament met there in 1330.
After the Dissolution, the abbey fell into disuse and the area reverted to a rural backwater with river channels and quiet meadows. Osney was frequently waterlogged, earning it the nickname ‘Frog Island’. Increasing traffic to the west of Oxford created pressure for a bridge over the main river channel, which was built by 1456 and replaced in 1888 by the present cast-iron structure. Ferry Hinksey Road was commissioned in 1467, and the forerunner to the Botley Road was built in the 1520s.
Osney Island was developed for housing in 1851 when George P. Hester, the Town Clerk, bought the island and sold freehold plots. By the mid 1850s most of the small terraces of the island had been built, serving the railway station which moved to its present site in 1852. Railway workers made up about a third of the island’s working inhabitants at the time of the 1861 census, when the population was recorded as 780. At this time women predominantly worked as dressmakers, seamstresses and milliners. By 1891 the population had grown to 867 and another 40 dwellings had been added.
St Frideswide’s Church was originally sited at the corner of Bridge St and South St, but the current building opened in 1872. Its construction was frustrated by financial difficulties which prevented the building of a spire. The last hope for this was finally relinquished in 1985. In the northeast end of the nave stands the Alice Door, carved by Alice Liddell, on whom the story of Alice in Wonderland was based.
A school was first established on the Island in 1854, with the current West Oxford Primary School on Ferry Hinksey Road opening in 1914. Four pubs stood on the Island in the early twentieth century along with four general stores, a dairy and a bakery. The Waterman’s Arms opened in 1871 to serve the burgeoning river trade which used Osney Lock en route from the Midlands to London. The owners of the Hollybush Inn used to incur the wrath of the local turnpike trust as horses were left tied there to avoid paying the Osney Bridge tolls.