Oxford History: Mayors & Lord Mayors


The new Town Hall, Oxford


  • “[The new Town Hall] is so funereal in aspect as to remind one of a dungeon” (Oxford Times, 8 May 1897)
  • “A new and splendid civic palace” (Oxford Magazine, 1897)
  • “A noble pile of buildings” (Alderman Robert Buckell, 1898)
  • “[It is] in Sir Thomas Jackson’s manner, and even more in the manner than Sir Thomas himself”
    (John Betjeman, 1938)

See the winning architect’s design, and one of the designs that lost

The building is Grade II* listed (List entry 1047153)

Present Town Hall

The present Town Hall (shown above in about 1905) was opened on 12 May 1897. The section on the right (now the Museum of Oxford) was Oxford’s central library until the 1970s and has the following inscription over the doorway: “STUDIES SERVE FOR / DELIGHT, FOR ORNAMENT / AND FOR ABILITIES”.

The main hall is on the first floor and is richly decorated, as the two pictures below show:

Interior of Town Hall

Interior of Town Hall in 2004

In June 1891 the council agreed to spend a sum of not more than £600 on a design competition for a new Town Hall for Oxford. Advertisements were placed in July, with designs to be submitted by 31 October. Out of over 300 entries, that by Henry Thomas Hare, a Paris-trained architect, was selected in June 1892: it was supported vehemently by Alderman Buckell, despite its expense,

The foundation stone (below) weighed half a ton and was laid on 6 July 1893 by the Mayor, Thomas Lucas. It stands at the junction of St Aldate’s and Blue Boar Street and bears the name of the Mayor and Sheriff of Oxford, and the builder and architect. Originally it had John S. Chappel of Pimlico as the builder, but he went bankrupt just three months later and his name was replaced and the stone relaid. The new builders were a local firm, John Parnell & Son, who had already built Keble, Mansfield, and Manchester Colleges in Oxford.

Foundaton stone

Details of the foundation stone ceremony and a description of the building can be found in Jackson's Oxford Journal of 14 October 1893. A fuller report on the building work is in the edition of 12 October 1895.

The lending library opened in December 1895 and the reference library in February 1896. On 12 May 1897 the Town Hall itself was opened by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). The total cost of the project came to £94,116, far more than the original estimate of £50,000. Alderman Underhill for the Conservatives predicted that it would be 55 years before the building “ceased to be an incubus on the ratepayers”.

Carved stone heads of councillors on the Municipal Buildings Committee in 1897

Inscription above Law Court



Left: Entrance to the former Law Court in Blue Boar Street. The Latin motto reads: “Discite iustitiam moniti” (Learn the justice of watchfulness, from Virgil, Aeneid, VI: 60)

Inscription above library



Right: Entrance to the former public library, on the corner of St Aldate’s and Blue Boar Street (now the Museum of Oxford). The motto reads: “Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for abilities” (from Francis Bacon’s essay Of Studies)

Declaration of Lord Valentia



Left: There is a balcony over the main entrance from which the results of parliamentary elections are traditionally announced.

This postcard shows the result of the General Election of 1906 when Lord Valentia (Conservative MP for Oxford 1895–1917) won by just a hundred votes

See also:

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 6 July, 2021

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