Remote Research on the Historic Environment

The Project

I was recently given the exciting opportunity to work as a historic environment research intern at Purcell, a practice of architects, masterplanners, and heritage consultants with an office based in Oxford. This microinternship lasted one week and incorporated a report on the Old Fire Station (OFS) located on George Street, in Oxford, gathering information about the building’s past uses and occupants. It is now a space for the Crisis Skylight Centre, café, and public arts facilities – but as I have learned, the building’s past is firmly rooted in the expansive civic building projects of the late nineteenth century, and it has continued to stand as an important construction in architectural and local history. In light of this and the building’s most recent renovations in 2009, my report encompassed a detailed examination of the site’s previous forms, its relationship with Gloucester Green to the north, and its initial functions, not just as a fire station but a corn exchange and series of George street shop fronts, too. I also discussed the OFS’s well-known gothic façade, with its bright red appliance bay doors, as well as its architect H.W. Moore, who (with his uncle William Wilkinson) was responsible for much of the development in north Oxford in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Black & White Map of George Street around 1900. Projection: the British National Grid.

Daily Life

This microinternship, however, was made a tad more challenging due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The day in late March I was supposed to begin work, I found myself having to vacate my accommodation and move back home to the United States. Thankfully, my supervisor at Purcell was patient and encouraging; once settled back across the pond, I was able to resume my internship already well-supplied with the architectural planning documents from both 1894 and 2009, as well as plenty of photographs. Moreover, I did have access to a couple books online and Historic England’s digital archive. Oxfordshire History Centre’s wealth of material pertaining to the OFS was sadly unavailable, but otherwise, there was certainly no lack of accessible information. Once I developed an appropriate outline of topics and notes, by the middle of the week, my report began to take shape and receive feedback from my supervisor. The project ultimately became a great exercise for my upcoming dissertation work, which will also depend heavily on my electronic sleuthing skills.


Lasting Impressions

The circumstances of this internship opportunity were indeed unprecedented, but I am very happy to have experienced researching the historic environment. Not only did I gain a better appreciation for those George Street buildings that I’ve passed frequently during my studies, but now I also have the skills to better cope with working remotely during Trinity term. Moreover, once I established a routine at home, just as if I were back in Oxford, my focus improved, and my work felt purposeful. Even from across the Atlantic, it is exciting to continue pursuing heritage projects close to my heart.

Amanda R. Westcott is a current graduate student at the University of Oxford, completing an MSt in eighteenth-century British and European history. She studies British country houses during this period, particularly gender dynamics in estate management. Amanda is also an active participant in TORCH's Heritage Pathway Programme and aims to pursue a career in the heritage sector after her studies. She tweets @ar_westcott. 

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The facade of the Old Fire Station from George Street on a sunny day.

The facade of the Old Fire Station from George Street. © Amanda R. Westcott