No. 29: Former Octagonal Chapel

Octagonal Chapel today


No. 29 Broad Street was originally the chapel of Our Lady at Smith Gate, later known as the Octagonal or Round House. It is a Grade II listed building (List Entry No. 1369642).

It was a private house from 1582, and by 1708 in became a shop. For a large part of the nineteenth century it was the entrance to billiard rooms behind; then it was a club; and in 1887 it became a shop again.

In 1902 this building was incorporated into Hertford’s new north quadrangle, but was kept as a shop. The postcard shown below dates from around 1905 when it was occupied by the Holywell Press. It was often incorrectly described as Oxford’s oldest house.

Photograph by Henry Taunt of the chapel being renovated in 1902

In 1931 it was altered to create Hertford’s junior common room (left),

Oldest house

The first chapel of St Mary at Smith Gate was already in existence by the later fourteenth century. Although technically just to the north of the city wall, it seems to have been part of the defences of the Smith Gate, which stood at the point where Catte Street meets New College Lane. Students used to pray at this chapel before crossing Catte Street for their disputations in the Schools.

The chapel was rebuilt in 1520, but soon fell into disuse, and was deconsecrated. In 1583 the city leased it to Henry Toldervey as a dwelling house, together with the land behind, “used for a dunghill”. As tenant, he promised that with two years he would make the decayed house a tenement “with three flowers of good and substanciall tymber and cover the same with good slate or tyle with chymneys fitt for a dwelling house”. He was not allowed to build a house on the ground behind, but could only use it for malthouses. (Henry Toldervey and his mother Alice had in fact already held the tennis court behind the Octagon Chapel since 1562.)

The old building was known as St Catherine's Chapel because of the figure over the door, although in March 1844 Mr Rooke of Oriel College told the Oxford Architectural Society that the figure was actually that of the Virgin Mary. And Jackson's Oxford Journal of 11 July 1868 recorded the following note about the chapel under the heading “Local Antiquarian Gatherings”:

It stood within the Wall adjoining on the North of Smith Gate, opposite to Cat Street, a Stone Rotond Edifice. Humphrey Marberry, B.LL., was dispensed some Matter conditionally that he paid xxd. towards the building of it. It is said to have been an Ancient Synagogue of the Jews. This was the most common Opinion of Old. But it has been said to be a Private Oratory, built by a certain Lady, and dedicated by the Name of St. Margaret's Chapel, commonly called the Virgin's Chapel. A faire Wrought neech, on the East Side of this Round Chapel, where stood the Picture of Our Lady, with other Figures, very neatly carved in Stone, and there continued till the Rump Parliament destroyed them.

The city leases on the property were as follows:

  • 1583, 1611: Henry Toldervey, yeoman
  • 1640: Anne French, widow
  • 1651: Thomas French, M.A.
  • 1665: Edward Trinder, joiner
  • 1689: Paul Trinder of Sarswell Barton and Elizabeth Trinder of Spelsbury (in occupation of John Betts, cook)
  • 1695: Samuel Cornwell, freemason
  • 1708, 1722: William Jordan, bookbinder
  • 1738: Samuel Hicks, tailor
  • 1751: Elizabeth Shilfox, widow (occupied by William Tonge, cordwainer).
    On 9 December 1782, Parson Woodforde wrote, “Had my shoes fore-pierced and Heel-pierced by Tongue the Shoemaker and for which I owe him 0. 1. 8.”
  • 1765: Elizabeth Longford, widow of Robert Longford, grocer (occupied by Kat. Tonge, widow)
  • 1780: John Langford, surgeon, and Elizabeth Langford, widow (occupied by John Bennett, cordwainer)
  • 1794, 1808: John Bennett, cordwainer
  • 1822: The University (lease assigned to Thomas Betteris in 1828)
  • 1837: T. Betteris, billiard-table keeper

In 1696 Widow Cornwell paid tax on three windows in this house.

In 1772 a survey of every house in the city was taken in consequence of the Mileways Act of 1771. No. 29 was then in the occupation of Mrs Tonge, and its frontage measured 7 yards 0 feet 3 inches.

From 1846 to 1872 the chapel is listed in directories as “billiard rooms”, and Gardner’s Directory for 1852 states: “The entrance to the billiard rooms of Mr T. Betteris, 29, Broad street, is by an ancient doorway, belonging to a chapel, which was formed hexagonally out of one of the bastions of the city wall.” The 1851 census records: “Billiard Room House. No one sleeps here”, and similarly in 1861 it was listed as unoccupied. Maps show that the actual billiard room building lay behind the old chapel, to the north-east. This may well be the “Billiard Table in New-Coll: Lane” that was frequented by Parson Woodforde in the 1770s, as he deemed this area to be a continuation of New College Lane.

In 1867 the University passed a statute by which the category of “unattached student” was created and a Delegacy set up to oversee them. Shortly afterwards, the old St Catherine's Chapel was used as their clubhouse. In 1888 St Catherine’s Club, as it was known, moved to new premises in the High Street (in the present Ruskin School of Art Building), then it moved to what is now the Faculty of Music in St Aldate's Street, and eventually became the present St Catherine’s College.

From 1894 to 1923, the building was used as a shop. Its neighbour to the south, Clarendon House at 28 Broad Street, was demolished in 1901, but the old chapel lingered on as business premises in Hertford College's north quadrangle, facing Broad Street, until 1923, along with its neighbour to the north.

Two views of the Octagon House were painted by J. A. Shuffrey in c.1907 (OXCMS: 2002.74,5 and 2002.74.6, pictured on pp. 48 NS 49 of Lauren Gilmour and Margaret Shuffrey, J. A. Shuffrey 1859–1939: An Oxford Artist’s Life Remembered).

Occupants of 29 Broad Street listed in directories


Billiard Rooms: Thomas Betteris (1852); J. W. Dickeson (1861–1872)


The unattached students’ clubhouse
1880: St Catherine’s Club


St Catherine’s House:
Frank Hull Plummer, Secondhand and new bookseller, stationer
(and post office from 1893)


Joseph Bates, Junior florist


T. R. Haycroft, Grocer, Italian warehouseman, fruiterer &c


William Henry Gray, Athletic outfitter


Holywell Press, Publishers & Printers


Octagon House, Cash bookshop

Since 1923

Part of Hertford College

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