Forbidding, seven-foot-high walls, topped with iron spikes and barbed wire — not the boundary to a prison yard, as you might expect, but the so-called ‘snob’ walls erected in North Oxford to separate private residences from an adjoining council estate.

The erection of the Cutteslowe walls more than 70 years ago, separated Aldrich Road from Wentworth Road and Wolsey Road from Carlton Road, and signalled the start of one of the most extraordinary chapters in Oxford’s recent history.

These two impenetrable barriers became symbols of social segregation, throwing the spotlight on class issues and achieving local as well as national notoriety.

The start of the conflict can be traced back to 1925, when the corporation of the City of Oxford acquired Summertown, which soon began to evolve from agricultural village to suburban residential area.

Part of the land north of Summertown was developed as a council estate, which was completed by 1934. At the same time, the corporation sold an adjoining chunk of land, facing onto the Banbury Road, to the Urban Housing Company, which oversaw the building of an estate for owner-occupiers.

The real problems began when the corporation began filling the council estate with evictees from the slum clearance at St Ebbes, despite assurances to the Urban Housing Company that this would not happen.

Protests from the UHC to the corporation fell on deaf ears, and months of wrangling ended in stalemate. Eventually, UHC’s managing director, Clive Saxton, ordered the erection of two walls to separate the two estates.

The walls went up in December, 1934, and effectively sealed off direct access to the Banbury Road for the council tenants.

Saxton’s walls inevitably sparked local outrage. His actions were seen as insensitive and provocative, especially at a time of great social change, both locally and nationally. Oxford was evolving from a predominantly University city to an industrial one — at the heart of which, of course, lay Morris Motors, established by William Morris (later Lord Nuffield) in 1912.

By the time of the walls dispute, car production had soared, and the Morris factories at Cowley had overtaken the Oxford University Press as the city’s chief employer. Many of its workers were housed on the Cutteslowe council estate.

Trade unions began to be more active in the city, and there was increased political awareness as local affairs reflected national political problems in the last few years before the outbreak of the Second World War.

In this political climate, it is not surprising that the erection of the Cutteslowe walls provoked anger and indignation. The plight of the council tenants was a gift for left-wing activists, and it didn’t take long for a political firebrand to take on their case.

Bill Firestone (real name Abe Lazarus), a prominent member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, had already made his name known in Oxford by organising a strike at the Pressed Steel factory in 1934.

Before long, he had galvanised a small army of protesters into action, and the stage was set for a ceremonial demolition of the walls on May 11, 1935, to be accompanied by a brass band and various dramatic entertainments, followed by a mass celebration.

The proposed demolition attracted a crowd of some 2,000 spectators, many of them in fancy dress. The event kicked off with a tour of the estate, led by a bagpiper, followed by a pantomime-style recreation of the story of the walls, presented by the Oxford Red Players.

But when Firestone and a companion approached the wall, armed with picks, their way was blocked by the police. After some fruitless arguing, the protesters were forced to retreat.

Confidence in Firestone dwindled rapidly, and local tenants decided to take on the campaign themselves.

An official group was set up to deal with the city council in a more organised, non-political and non-confrontational manner.

Most members of the city council were in favour of demolishing the walls, but were hamstrung by legal niceties. One of its members, councillor E W Gill, visited the site, and was shocked by the “high wall with barbed-wire entanglements”, behind which “cut off like wild animals or savage creatures, there was a collection of citizens of this city. The people are herded behind walls and barbed wire like Germans in a concentration camp.”

A public inquiry in July, 1936, ended in another defeat for the residents when it was confirmed, after months of deliberation, that a compulsory purchase order against the UHC would not be recommended. Further, the ministers concerned felt that Clive Saxton’s offer to provide land for a walkway between Aldrich and Islip roads would overcome the tenants’ chief objection.

The following year, the city council managed to obtain authorisation from the Parliamentary Committee to “remove forthwith” the offending walls, and swung into action with imprudent haste. Leading the demolition was Councillor R W M Gibbs, who received a standing ovation from the interested spectators, and said: “I don’t want any recriminations, but thank God the walls are down.”

The Oxford Times published a leading article in which it optimistically hoped that both sides would “let bygones be bygones”.

These hopes were short lived. Soon, a lorry arrived with fresh bricks and building materials, in an obvious indication that the UHC intended to rebuild the walls. In response, two corporation lorries turned up with sledgehammers and shovels.

The two sides battled furiously, treating locals to the bizarre spectacle of bricks being laid and instantly demolished.

Eventually, Saxton took the matter to the Chancery Division of the High Court, and once again won the day. It was a humiliating defeat for the Corporation, which was soundly castigated for apparently considering itself to be above the law.

Mr Justice Bennett, presiding over the case, declared: “I think it deplorable that, after this wall had been up for three-and-a-half years, the defendant council should have thought it right violently to pull it down, instead of appealing to the King’s Courts to have their wrongs addressed.”

Even as war reared its ugly head, the issue of the walls rumbled on. Campaigners now took the view that the walls constituted a hindrance to civil defence, with the irrepressible Gibbs calling them “a social monstrosity and a definite military handicap”.

The issue was finally resolved after the war with the introduction of new town planning laws, which included provision for compulsory purchase. This, coupled with the fact that the UHC sold its property on the estate in 1949, left the corporation’s path to success clear.

Gibbs, alas, didn’t live to see the hated walls coming down, but his son, Edmund, was invited to strike the first blow when, on March 9, 1959, the walls were demolished after 25 years of relentless and often bitter campaigning.

Exactly 47 years later, a blue plaque was unveiled at 34, Aldrich Road, close to where the southern wall once stood, and is the sole reminder of this bizarre episode.

Further reading: The Cutteslowe Walls: A Study in Social Class by Peter Collison (Faber & Faber, 1963). Out of print, but available through county libraries.