Main entrance of Balliol College

Balliol College

This Gothic range of Balliol College is known as the Brackenbury Buildings. It was built by Alfred Waterhouse in 1867–8, and (along with the adjoining Master’s Lodgings), it was his first Oxford commission. It is Grade II listed (List Entry No. 1198304). The main entrance to the college is through the central gate tower,

Rice-Oxley wrote of the Brackenbury Buildings, “The least successful buildings [of Balliol] are the Broad Street front, the appearance of which has gained for them the not inapt designation of ’Broad Street Hotel’.” Oscar Wilde is reputed to have said of them, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la gare” (although this remark is also attributed to other people and to other buildings that resemble stations).

Balliol College in 1905

Yet when the buildings were first erected, they were highly acclaimed. On 20 October 1868, Benjamin Jowett (who in 1870 became Master of Balliol) wrote to his mother:

“One thing gives me great pleasure; that our new building is really beautiful — the best thing that has been done in Oxford in this way. An old lady has given us about £15,000 towards the completion of it….”

That old lady was Miss Hannah Brackenbury, whose arms are displayed over the main entrance. She believed that she was “the last lineal descendant of Perse Brackenbury of Sellabye, near Barnard Castle, who married c.1086 a daughter of Hugh Ballyew, progenitor of John Balliol”. She originally planned only to give enough money to fund the Brackenbury Scholarships in History and Natural Sciences, but was persuaded to give more to house her scholars properly. The building comprised a porter’s lodge (with a flat for the head porter), lecture rooms (now the Bursary), and residential accommodation (Staircases I–VII).

Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 17 October 1868 reported:

Balliol College
We recorded last year the demolition of a portion of the old buildings, and the commencement of the new ones in Broad Street, but the latter were not sufficiently advanced to enable us to speak of them in detail. Since then they have become one of the most attractive architectural features of Oxford, and they add greatly to the appearance of the thoroughfare, especially when seen on emerging from the vicinity of the Ashmolean Museum [sc. the Museum of the History of Science]. A much finer front, a higher and more elaborate tower, and such fine Oriel windows justify the anticipation raised by an inspection of the plans, while the increased accommodation given by the narrowing of the Master’s house has afforded about a dozen additional suites of rooms. In taking down the old buildings, the windows from which the burning of the Martyrs was viewed had to be demolished. The very curious bosses in the roof of the old tower gate-way, and the sculptured arms of the Balliol family, on the original Broad-street front, had to be removed, but these interesting memorials have been preserved. The cost of the improvements is estimated at 20,000l; but, in carrying out the works, the Society has been materially aided by the munificent bequest of a lady benefactor — Miss Brackenbridge [sic].

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