Old Indian Institute (formerly Nos. 31–34)

Old Indian Institute, 2002

The Indian Institute iz now the home of the Oxford Martin School (originally called the James Martin 21st Century School). It was designed by Basil Champneys and is Grade II listed (List Entry No. 1369355). It was in St Peter-in-the-East parish.

The photograph used for the postcard below probably dates from soon after the building was completed in 1896: note that the ornamentation above the first-floor windows has now disappeared. The building is now semi-detached to part of Hertford College rather than to the former small shop, which spoils its design.

Postcard of Indian Institute

In June 1881, when plans were submitted to Hebdomadal Council for the building of an Indian Institute, this important central site was occupied by four old buildings in Broad Street (plus two around the corner in Holywell Street). The Broad Street houses were:

  • No. 34 at the north end of the site, with its rooms at the rear running down Holywell Street. It was a large, handsome, early eighteenth-century house (at one time Seal’s Coffee House)
  • Nos. 33, 32, and 31 at the south end of the site. These were three smaller houses/shops, numbered from south to north. The latter two had leases that did not expire until 1892: hence the reason why the Indian Institute was erected in two phases.

On 14 October 1882 Jackson's Oxford Journal reported that Messrs Wyatt & Son had pulled down six old houses (No. 34 Broad Street on the corner, plus 42, 43, & 44 Holywell Street, and presumably two buildings behind), and were laying the foundations, and that the builders Messrs. J. R. Symm & Co. had commenced operations.

The two bays on the left of the above photographs were built by Simm & Co. and opened by the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Benjamin Jowett, in 1884. The building also extended down Holywell, as can be seen from the photograph below, which shows the Institute as it was between 1884 and 1896, before the extension to the south.

Corner of Indian Institute

Twelve years later in 1896, the three bays on the right were added on by Parnell and opened by Lord George Hamilton, Secretary of State for India The total cost of the building was £21,772.

Below: Basil Champneys’ drawing of the Holywell frontage, from the British Architect of 22 May 1885.

Indian Institute: Chamneys' drawing

By May 1883 the northern section of the building had reached first-floor level, and the stone shown below was set into the wall by the spiral staircase at the main entrance. It reads “This memorial stone was laid by HRH Albert Edward Prince of Wales K.G. on the second day of May MDCCCLXXXIII”, followed by the names of the three Trustees (Sir Thomas Brassey, Sir Thomas Edward Colebrooke, and Professor Monier Williams):

Foundation stone

Below: Photograph of the stone-laying ceremony in 1893 (Historic England CC51/00707):

The completed first phase of the building was opened by the Vice-Chancellor of the University on 14 October 1885.

In April 1892 Professor Sir Monier Monier-Williams (as he now was) published an appeal in The Times for help in completing the Indian Institute, and on 9 June 1894 Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported on the opening by the Vice-Chancellor of the recently-completed buildings forming the extension of the Indian Institute.

in 1894 the Thakore Sahib of Gendal offered to complete the buildings at his own cost. The three bays on the right were added on by the builders Parnell & Son of Rugby in 1895. Jackson's Oxford Journal of 12 October 1895 reported that the Indian Institute would be complete in another two months, and describes a new lecture room on the ground floor and an addition over the museum. This part of the building was opened by Lord George Hamilton, Secretary of State for India, the following year. The total cost of the building was £21,772.

The layout of the Indian Institute building is fully described in the following extract from Kelly’s Directory for 1900:

The Indian Institute, situated on the corner of Holywell street and Broad street, on a site purchased from the Warden and Fellows of Merton College and erected in 1882–3, was first projected in 1875 by Sir Monier Monier-Williams k.c.i.e., Boden Professor of Sanscrit, who, in the autumn of that year, and again in 1876 and 1883, undertook a journey to India for the purpose of obtaining the sympathy and aid of the Indian people and government in the establishment, within the university, of an institution especially devoted to Indian studies: this enterprise met with considerable encouragement, and the proposal has since received the approval and support of h.m. the Empress of India, h.r.h. the Prince of Wales and other distinguished persons, and the subscriptions amounted in 1883 to more than £22,000.

Of the [four] houses removed, one standing at the corner, known for many years as “Seal’s Coffee House”, and more recently the residence of the late Professor Donkin, was built by Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect of Blenheim palace; the new structure, completed in 1895, is constructed of Taynton stone in the Elizabethan style, from designs by Mr. Basil Champneys, architect, London: the main entrance is in Broad street, and at the north-west angle, at the junction of the two streets, there is a round tower, decorated in the second stage with scroll works and festoons, above which is an entablature, supporting a lantern storey, relieved by columns, and terminating in a cupola.

The arrangements as to the interior comprise, in the basement, a large lecture room, capable of seating an audience of about 400, besides an annexe to the library, lavatories, kitchen, storeroom &c., and on the ground floor a lecture room, librarian’s private room, reading room, porter’s lodge and vestibule: on the first floor fire-proof library with five oriel windows overlooking Broad street, a typical Indian museum and two lecture rooms: on the second floor a continuation of these departments, with two lecture rooms, and above this, bedrooms.

According to the scheme, the Institute, as opportunity offers, invites distinguished Indian administrators, and able Orientalists and Indologists of all nationalities, as well as eminent natives of India who may visit this country, to deliver addresses in its lecture rooms or library, where conferences and social gatherings are occasionally held with a view to more united action in arousing an interest in Oriental subjects and in making England and India better acquainted with each other; it also aims at drawing together and assisting the selected candidates for the Civil Service of India, who are required to reside at a University, and offers advantages to all native students from India who occasionally matriculate at Oxford, and who are likely hereafter to frequent the University in greater numbers than they have hitherto done.

The library is open in vacation as well as during full term from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the Museum from 10 a.m. to 4 or 6 p.m. The building is closed from 16 Aug. to 14 Sept. and on certain special days. A. A. Macdonell m.a., ph.d acting keeper; W. A. Symonds esq. assistant keeper and librarian.

The aim of the Indian Institute was “the work of fostering and facilitating Indian studies in the University; the work of making Englishmen, and even Indians themselves, appreciate better than they have done before the languages, literature and industries of India”. As well as a library and lecture rooms, it contained a museum, some of whose contents are now in the Ashmolean.

The Indian Institute was built of Milton stone “in the style of the English Renaissance, with some Oriental details” to the designs of Basil Champneys. Nikolas Pevsner remarked in 1974 that “the rounded corner cupola (right) makes an excellent point de vue at the east end of Broad Street”, but earlier writers were less kind. John Betjeman dismissed it in 1938 as an “everlasting yellow building”, and when in 1962 it was threatened with demolition the Oxford Times wrote, “Champneys’ Indian Institute looks like departing unmourned, having just lasted long enough to deliver its site to a generation of architects capable of doing something robust enough to fill it.” John Ruskin had said that there was “an aggressive absence of all architectural beauty” and described the building as “a jumbo joss-house”.

Since the Indian Institute had been paid for by funds collected privately in India and Britain, there was some controversy in 1968 when its library was moved to a specially constructed penthouse on top of the New Bodleian so that the original building could be taken over by the central University Offices. When these in turn moved to Wellington Square in 1975, Oxford’s Modern History Faculty and Library of the University of Oxford moved from their premises in Merton Street (now occupied by the Philosophy Centre).

In July 2007 the History Faculty offices moved out in July 2007 and the History Faculty Library in August 2012. The whole building is now occupied by the Oxford Martin School of the University of Oxford.

Elephant weather vane
Picture by Neville Clarke

There are still many signs of the original use of the building: the weathercock (above) is an elephant with a howdah.

Elephant’s head

Carved door

Outside Hindu demigods and the heads of tigers form a frieze, and there is another elephant (left).

Inside there is a decorative, intricately carved Indian door (detail, right)

Stairs up

The spiral staircase: above:looking up; below, looking down

Stairs down

The buildings that used to stand on the site

The four buildings (31–34 Broad Street) that were demolished to make room for the Indian Institute are the only part of Broad Street that lies in Holywell parish.

History of the Indian Institute by Gillian Evison (PDF)

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Stephanie Jenkins

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