Ox Cart to Oxford

Ox Cart to Oxford

The curator of the Abingdon Abbey Buildings is Tim Miller, an American originally from the US State of Georgia. His grandfather’s grandfather Elias was an illiterate mixed-race farmer born in 1834 who migrated from Georgia to Ohio in 1860 looking for better land, although he returned to Georgia in 1867 because ‘It was too cold up there’. He, his wife Elizabeth, and two small children made both trips in an ox cart. Imagine travelling more than a thousand miles over rugged terrain!

Education was important to Elias, evidenced by the fact that all eleven of his children attended school and were able to read and write as adults. One hundred and fifty years later, Tim’s father climbed the corporate ladder of public transportation in Atlanta with only a secondary education and became the manager of revenue collection for the metropolitan transportation sector. He also valued education and impressed upon Tim that each generation should achieve a little more than the one before. He was satisfied, therefore, in 1985 when Tim was the first in the family to graduate with a university degree.

Tim kept going and graduated from a seminary in 1991 with a master’s degree in theology. This led to twelve years of Christian ministry in Alaska and Georgia where Tim was the full-time senior pastor of three Baptist churches. As a pastor, Tim visited twenty countries as part of various mission trips, including a term in Liverpool to assist in the Dingle Mount Baptist Church. In Alaska, as pastor of the University Baptist Church, Tim raised three children, started twelve community ministries, and began teaching university classes as an adjunct for Wayland Baptist University. This eventually led to a career shift for Tim in 2003 when he accepted a full-time, but short-term, missionary teaching appointment in the Dominican Republic. Back in Georgia and in need of additional qualifications, Tim taught in two public secondary schools while completing certifications and preparing for a return to graduate school.

By 2010, Tim was single and unemployed but ready to begin full-time studies at Georgia State University where he earned a master’s degree in history, and met Brandi Simpson who had returned to university after a career as a secondary school teacher. Tim and Brandi soon realized that they both wanted to continue beyond the MA for a PhD and after one professor assigned them to the same collaborative project they were soon married. Tim’s MA supervisor was Dr Nick Wilding, an Englishman from Cambridge, who encouraged him to choose the Hartlib Circle (a correspondence network set up by Samuel Hartlib in the seventeenth century) as a research topic. Once an outline was established, Dr Wilding advised Tim to concentrate on ‘Hartlib and Empire’ and make it the topic of the PhD. He also wisely advised, ‘If you’re going to study Hartlib, there’s only one man with whom you should study and that is Rob Iliffe’.

Dr Iliffe was a professor of the early modern history of science at the University of Sussex near Brighton so Brandi and Tim both began to apply to UK universities and were soon packing for an international house move. Dr Iliffe was very receptive to Tim’s project, saying ‘That fits perfectly with what we’re doing’. Brandi, who studies the food culture of West Africa, was accepted at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) in London, but she and Tim decided to live on campus at Sussex to minimize expenses. Brandi travelled many times from Brighton to London for seminars, conferences, and meetings. She also worked a part-time at a railway station coffee shop, and Tim worked at Tool Station.

Before Brandi and Tim flew to Brighton, Dr Iliffe had sent a very short email which said ‘We’re going to Oxford’. That was all! Brandi began doing a happy dance, but Tim was cautious. He questioned Dr Iliffe, sceptical about such a pronouncement. The Sussex professor had accepted an offer to teach at Oxford and had negotiated permission to bring four students as well. Tim had to go through the normal Oxford application process, but after a year at Sussex moved to Oxford along with the other members of the group. Elias’s oxcart came to mind, even though he and Brandi actually arrived in a rented motorized panel van.

At first they lived on Banbury Road, and Tim worked part-time at Tool Station on Botley Road. Once term started they moved to Iffley Road, where they lived until they moved to Abingdon. Brandi worked part-time in a shop on Broad Street while both she and Tim continued to research and write their theses. Tim’s topic developed into four chapters on Early English colonies during the seventeenth century: Ireland, New England, Virginia, and the West Indies. He was writing the Irish chapter in early 2017 when an email arrived from the history faculty asking for applications to be the curator of the Abingdon Abbey Buildings. Sceptical, he almost deleted the email, but Brandi encouraged him to apply: ‘All they can do is say no’, she said. The response came so late that both Brandi and Tim had given up on the application by the time Vice-Chair Kevin Senior wrote from the Friends of Abingdon and invited them for an interview. After a rigorous evaluation period, Tim was chosen as the new curator for the Abbey Buildings. With the help of Maggie Henderson Tew, who also furnished the cottage, a new chapter began on Checker Walk.

As curator, Tim has expanded the Trust’s outreach into local schools, increased the number of weddings, studied the history of Abingdon Abbey, enhanced the buildings’ presence on social media, in the neighbourhood, and with local community groups, and successfully weathered the Covid lockdowns. As an Oxford student, he completed his thesis “Gold for Secrets” and was given a certificate of completion in January 2021. Hold the phone, the curator is now a doctor!