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The Old Town Hall, Oxford

1752–1896


The Town Hall shown in the above engraving (drawn by Le Keux in 1835) replaced the old Oxford Guildhall in 1752. This classical building, designed by Isaac Ware, occupied the same site as the present Town Hall.

The city council agreed on 13 January 1746 to build a new town hall, and by August 1751 £1300 had been donated towards the building (including £1000 from the County Justices “so that they can hold their assizes and sessions there”. Thomas Rowney, one of the MPs for the city, “out of great goodwill and affections he has towards the city” agreed to pay the balance of c.£1,000. A statue of Rowney (in Caen stone, by Thomas Grimsley of St Giles) was placed in the central niche in 1841 as part of a general refurbishment paid for by Charles Tawney, who had been Mayor the previous year.

The hall was on on the upper floor. The arched vaults supporting it originally contained an open corn exchange, separated from the street by an arcade. Later this space was rented out to wine merchants, and in 1842 (when Oxford’s main post office at 123 High Street was destroyed by a fire) the arches to the south were filled in to form a room for the post office (which remained there until 1879 when the present St Aldate’s main post office opened). The town clerk’s offices occupied the arches to the north, and another part of the ground floor was enclosed to form a city library in 1854.

In 1861–3 a “spacious” corn exchange was built to the east of the rear courtyard.

Back of old Town Hall

The above engraving, taken from the Illustrated London News of 28 November 1868, is headed “Scenes at the General Election: The Nomination at Oxford, for the City”, and shows what this town hall looked like from the back.

There is a good description of its interior in Robert Crawford Dillon’s book, The Lord Mayor’s Visit to Oxford in the Month of July, 1826 (London : Longman, Rees, Orme, Browne, and Green, 1826):

… and, crossing the street were soon at the Town Hall, a chaste and lofty building…. The broad oaken stairs … lead to the great hall.

At one end of this oblong hall — which was used on this occasion as a withdrawing apartment, and is so spacious (its dimensions are one hundred and thirty-five feet, by thirty-one and a half) as to admit of the session of two judicial courts at once, without either interfering with the other — opened a small ante-chamber, the landing-place of which was occupied by the musicians, who had been summoned to increase the festivity of the evening. Though this room access was given to the Council Chamber, where preparations had been made for dinner on a scale of the most profuse magnificence. This commodious room was beautifully wainscotted with oak, the dark colour of which was relieved, when evening had fallen, by the number of lights in sconces which hung against the walls; and by a large chandelier which over-hung the centre of the dining-table, burning with gas of peculiar brilliancy.

In the centre of the upper part of the room was a full-length portrait of Queen Anne, by Sir Godfrey Kneller; in the centre of the lower part of the room was a full-length portrait of the late Duke of Marlborough, by Gainsborough. The walls were also ornamented by large and gilt-framed portraits of M. Zach. Bogan, Earl of Abingdon — Sir Thomas White — Sir D. Webb — John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough — Sir William Walker — Dr. Wall — Thomas Romney, Esq., M.P. for the city of Oxford, in the reign of William the Third, and Ann — Thomas Romney, junior, Esq., M.P. for the city, in the reign of George the First and George the Second — Philip Herbert Esq, M.P. for the city, in the reign of George the Second — Aldermen Harris, Hawkins, Nixon, and others.

At the upper end of the room was a shelving table, on which were displayed several beautiful and richly wrought pieces of plate — cups, tankards, and flaggons — presented to the Mayor of Oxford at the coronation of Charles the Second, and George the Third, and one that was presented at the coronation of his present most gracious majesty, George the Fourth, whom God preserve! — some one, some two, feet high, interspersed with leaves of laurel, and surmounted by a massive silver-gilt Mace — that usual ensign of magisterial authority.

The windows of the chamber, which extended the whole length on one side of the room, were crowded with pots of the most delicate and fragrant flowers.

Just before the dinner was removed, the Mayor … received at the hands of the butler … a solid gold, called the grace cup, of a singular and antique appearance, presented to the city of Oxford by Queen Elizabeth, always used upon seasons of high festival, filled with wine, and exclusively devoted to the toast of ‘Church and King’.

W. E. Sherwood writes of the post office under the old Town Hall in the 1850s:

The old Town Hall was still standing. It had been originally built on arches, but some of these had been filled in and formed a room which sufficed for all the work of the General Post Office. That was of course before it had taken on any of its present outside work, like the telegraph, parcel post, pensions, and such like. When we wanted to send a telegram in those days we went to the railway station.

The City Building Improvement Committee in 1886 described the public library and reading room as “unhealthy, mean in arrangement and a disgrace to an enlightened and progressive city”; the courtroom and it offices as “very defective”, and the Town Hall itself as “ill-shaped and not convenient”. After representatives of the committee visited other town halls in 1889, the Conservative councillor Walter Gray announced to the council that Oxford ‘s municipal buildings were an “utter disgrace”. On 1 November that year the Liberals led by Robert Buckell trounced the Conservatives in an election, and Buckell and Gray worked together for a new Town Hall. The decision to replace the old Town Hall was taken in June 1891, and demolition of the Town Hall, the corn exchange, and several other adjoining buildings began on 15 May 1893. The University allowed the city council to meet in the Examination Schools while the new Town Hall was being built.

 

 

 

Left: This engraving by J. & H.S. Storer shows the old Town Hall in 1822.

On the right (on the site of the old butter bench) are the premises of the wine merchant William Butler, who was to become Mayor in 1836/7

 

Photograph taken by Henry Taunt in 1893 just prior to the demolition of the Old Town Hall


See also:

  • PCC Will PROB 11/850 (Will of Thomas Rowney of Oxford, proved 12 November 1759)

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 25 September, 2018

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