Alison Boulton digs beneath the city's dreaming spires
Just occasionally, good intentions can become separated from their original purpose.
When John Stansfeld, a doctor and clergyman became Vicar of St Ebbes in Oxford from 1912 to 1926, it changed his life.
He witnessed poverty and deprivation first hand in the city’s slums. Not content with trying to make a difference locally, he established the Oxford Medical Mission in Bermondsey, one of the poorest parts of East London.
Stansfeld did not just identify with the suffering of others. He was touched by it first hand.
After the devastating losses of the First World War, when so many of his patients had lost loved ones, Spanish flu struck in 1918, rapidly becoming a global pandemic. In a single year, it killed three times the number of people who had died in the First World War.
In Britain, hospitals were overwhelmed, staff exhausted, medical schools sent their third and fourth year students out to aid their qualified colleagues: 228,000 Britons died. One of the victims was Stansfeld’s wife.
Grief-stricken, Stansfeld sought spiritual comfort in a planned trip to the Holy Land.
But then came the decision which was to bring joy to so many lives: Stansfeld resolved to spend his small savings for the benefit of others, rather than himself.
He bought 17 acres of land at Headington Quarry, intended as a place for children and later, families, to escape the slums of St Ebbe’s for short breaks in the countryside.
Stansfeld’s vision was made possible by the help of many students from Oxford University, who helped him establish the site. Together they built holiday accommodation, and a small chapel, utilising limestone from Headington Quarry.
Outdoor activities and summer camps were established and The Stansfeld Outdoor Education Centre was born.
According to Oxford City councillor Jim Campbell: “If it hadn’t been for the subsequent building of the Southern Bypass, the site would probably have been included in the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) of nearby Shotover Hill.” Campbell’s father and grandparents knew Stansfeld well and admired his work. Knowing this, he was dismayed to learn that 80 years after John Stansfeld donated the site to Birmingham City Council, the current council intends to sell it.
“It would be desperately sad if after so many years use by both children from Birmingham and Oxfordshire, the amenity was lost and its benefactor’s original intention ignored,” Campbell said.
There have been numerous expressions of interest in the site, whose meeting rooms and accommodation can serve more than 20 people.
Regular management of the site has been carried out by Oxford Conservation Volunteers. Recognising its important contribution, Oxford City Council have registered the Stansfeld Centre as a Community Asset.
This is important as if the site is put up for sale, it allows a six month moratorium when local community groups can prepare a bid for the Centre – which may – or may not be acceptable to the owner.
For John Stansfeld’s sake, I hope his vision is honoured, and continued.
Transforming personal tragedy into future promise is rare – brutal commercialism and insensitivity is, sadly, not.