Lately I’ve become slightly obsessed with manhole covers. In a good way.

Let me explain…during lockdown, I walked around Oxford more than usual, enjoying the deserted streets in the sunshine. The city looked beautiful. As a tour guide, I normally encourage people to look up at buildings, but I found myself looking down…and noticing manhole covers. Once you’ve noticed one, you’ll notice another, and then dozens more. Not just manhole covers (I don’t want you to think that I’m narrow in my interests) – water stopcock covers, drain grilles, basement lightwell covers, and coalhole covers too. The pavements and roads are packed with them. They’re a beautiful marrying of form and function, their non-slip surfaces provided by ornamental patterns and raised lettering. And if you look on-line you’ll find that many people agree; there’s even an International Manhole Cover Museum in Italy.

They made me think about the fact that under our feet is an enormous complex of pipes, channels and wires, without which the city couldn’t function. Of course for people who lay and repair that network, this is no surprise, but I suspect that the rest of us walk over it every day, without giving it a second thought.

Much of that underground network was established in the 19th century, when local councils began to lay on public services. Gas lighting was introduced to Oxford in 1819, with the gas works on the river at St Ebbe’s. Clean piped water and a proper sewerage system came later, in response to concerns about public health – Oxford suffered badly in the cholera outbreaks which swept across the country in the 1840s and ’50s. In 1877 the Post Office engineer Mr Woods installed telephones at the Post Office (then in the old Town Hall on St Aldates) and at his house in Osney, connected via the existing telegraph wires. And when the Oxford Electric Company opened its generating station on 18 June 1892, and the current was switched on to light five street lamps and eleven business premises, it caused a sensation.

As I wandered the streets examining manhole covers, I started to wonder how much of Oxford’s history could be revealed by these largely unnoticed but often beautifully- and ingeniously-designed structures. At first I was mainly interested in those with writing on them, in particular the names of local companies. The foundries Lucy & Co of Jericho and Dean & Son of East Oxford feature prominently, not just on elegantly-lettered manhole covers but on all sorts of ironwork, including lamp posts and railings. Having recently done a lot of research into long-established Oxford building firms, I was thrilled to find one inspection cover bearing the name ‘TH Kingerlee’, and another with ‘Benfield & Loxley’. I won’t reveal their locations, for fear of prompting a rush of manhole-spotters which would disturb local residents, but I can tell you that one of the best streets for manhole covers is Holywell. Merton Street also provides many delights, including ornate circular coalhole covers by a London firm, Hayward Brothers. A fascinating on-line blog, Faded London, reports that in 1871 Haywards patented a special semi-prismatic pavement light, which you can admire in these coalhole covers and in basement lightwell covers all over central Oxford.

On St Aldates there are rectangular iron covers bearing the intriguing letters ‘TF’. Not for ‘telefone’ surely? No – it turns out that this stands for the Treforest Foundry, in South Wales. Why Oxford bought covers from there is another story, which needs investigating. Nearby there are covers marked ‘Post Office Telephones’, and others proclaiming ‘Post Office Telegraphs’. It would be reasonable, surely, to assume that anything marked ‘Telegraphs’ was installed before the introduction of the telephone in 1877. So imagine my surprise when I found ‘Telegraphs’ covers on Hill Top Road in East Oxford, a street which wasn’t laid out until 1904. Were the unfortunate residents of Hill Top Road still relying on the telegraph thirty years after other Oxonians had adopted the telephone? It seems more likely that the Post Office was just using up old covers, but again, more research is required. And unfortunately, apparent age can be deceptive – a friend recently spotted an impressively ancient-looking drain cover in Headington which, on closer inspection, proved to have the company’s website address on it.

So as you can see, I’ve not wasted my time during lockdown, and I plan to do more research into the links between the manhole covers we see today and Oxford’s development as a city. If readers know of particularly interesting examples, or have information about their history, I’d be delighted to hear from them ( Then maybe we can put together a touring exhibition. Or how about a museum of Oxford manhole covers? Now there’s an idea.