Adding iconic Headington shark to heritage list is 'ignorant' claims owner

The controversial landmark has been debated about for decades. Credit: ITV News Meridian

The owner of the infamous Headington shark sculpture in Oxford says the city council's decision to place it on the Heritage Asset Register is "ignorant" and it has done "harm to a really beautiful and important part of the city".

The iconic Headington Shark was commissioned by the homeowner Bill Heine, in the early hours of Saturday 9 August 1986, and has been the talk of the town for more than 30 years.

The structure, which is made of fibreglass, was built on top of the terraced house on New Street.

According to Mr Heine, who passed away in 2019, the shark was to "express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation" and is "saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki".

Magnus Hanson-Heine, who is the current owner and son of Bill Heine, said: "A large part of art and the sculpture here in the shark house, is to do with the message and what people take away from it and what it represents.

  • Magnus Hanson-Heine says the city council is 'ignorant'

"Ultimately you can't claim to be preserving something while damaging that aspect of it and really the spirit of the art and I think they have, I think they've acted from a place of ignorance and done some harm to a really beautiful and important part of the city.

"The council clearly doesn't understand art, doesn't understand the symbolism of this piece in particular, and I suppose in a sense this is the point in action showing exactly that small councillors should not get to decide that and yet here they have and they've done that claiming to preserve or protect what is really a focal point and symbolic instance of planning law defiance, using the planning laws which is absurd on the face of it."

Magnus added that Bill "definitely would not have thought very much of the meeting and how it actually played out, which is a shame".

Councillors voted to add the controversial landmark to the city's Heritage Asset Register at a city council planning committee meeting on Wednesday, March 23.

It was one of 17 locations unanimously added to the register at the meeting.

The shark sculpture was put in place in 1986. Credit: ITV News Meridian

The headless sculpture, with the label “Untitled 1986” fixed to the house, was erected on the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

But according to the nomination form, what the shark now represents is different. It was originally a symbol of oppression, but has evolved into a symbol of defiance.

Oxford City Council says it wants to protect the shark for future generations.

At the meeting, the Chair, Councillor Cook, said: "I think the person who asked for it not be included has a willful misunderstanding of the purpose of the heritage register. It is to inform future decisions.

"I've always found that when you make decisions it is better to be informed than not informed, so I certainly won't be supporting any movement to remove this from the list, I'm all in favour of information and intelligence rather than ignorance."

The city council unanimously agreed to add the shark to the Heritage Asset Register. Credit: ITV News Meridian

At the meeting, it was noted that some councillors had received a letter from the owner of the house, objecting to it being added to the Heritage Asset Register.

The planning committee said they considered the owner's comments and looked at whether the landmark met the four criteria that apply to anything which is nominated to be added to the heritage list.

It was decided that the Headington shark does meet the criteria therefore it was recommended for approval.

A nominated asset must meet all four of the below criteria to be considered for inclusion on the Oxford Heritage Asset Register:

  • They must be capable of meeting the government’s definition of a heritage asset.

  • They must possess heritage interest that can be conserved and enjoyed.

  • They must have a value as heritage for the character and identity of the city, neighbourhood or community because of their heritage interest beyond personal or family connections, or the interest of individual property owners.

  • They must have a level of significance that is greater than the general positive identified character of the local area.

The register contains more than 70 assets of buildings, structures, features or places that make a special contribution to the character of Oxford and its neighbourhoods through their locally significant historic, architectural, archaeological or artistic interest.

Other landmarks on the list include a rare surviving example of a late-19th century Temperance Hotel and Bailey Bridge on Port Meadow.

These include the Shark sculpture at 2 New High Street Headington, a 'medieval' wall at The Grates, Cowley and Bailey bridge on Port Meadow.

The register marks landmarks on a number of categories, including historic interest, archaeological interest, architectural interest, and artistic interest.

The shark has divided opinion over the last three decades.

Some people say the structure isn't in keeping with the area whilst supporters say it adds character. 

You can find out more information on the Headington Shark here.