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Town Hall, Municipal Buildings and Library, Oxford

Description: Town Hall, Municipal Buildings and Library

Grade: II*
Date Listed: 12 January 1954
English Heritage Building ID: 245764

OS Grid Reference: SP5137906136
OS Grid Coordinates: 451379, 206136
Latitude/Longitude: 51.7516, -1.2571

Location: St Aldate's, Oxford OX1 1BT

Locality: Oxford
Local Authority: Oxford City Council
County: Oxfordshire
Country: England
Postcode: OX1 1BT

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Listing Text

12-JAN-54 (East side)

Town Hall. Design of 1891, opened 1897 (incorporating C15 undercroft); extension of 1932. 1891 architect Henry T. Hare. Externally of Clipsham stone for dressings and carved work, Bladon Stone for rubble work on Blue Boar Street. Rear elevations in red brick. Cumbrian slate has replaced the failed, original, Northamptonshire Collyweston roofing slates. Internally Bath stone walls with polished Hopton Wood stone and Black Birdseye marble dado rails and balustrades. Oak and pine floors, panelling and roofs, Ashbee and Co of Gloucestershire provided the flooring and G Hawkings the woodcarving. Internal walls and staircases to the main circulation spaces are ornamented with stone carved beasts and cartouches by Butcher and Axtell. Ceilings are covered with plasterwork. Corridors are often wood panelled with vaulted stone and plaster ceilings. Fibrous plasterwork is by George Jackson and Sons.
PLAN: Roughly square, occupying the south-west corner of the Carfax crossroads. Major rooms at first-floor level marked by tall, high windows on the St Aldate's frontage. The Town Hall (the Main Hall) and Assembly Room were placed centrally, with City Council Offices and Council Chamber to the left (north). The Court and Police functions were to the right of the entrance hall, with Public Library occupying the corner. The ground-floor Police Headquarters and Library were accessed from Blue Boar Street. The Reference Library is now in use as a public meeting/exhibition room renamed the Old Reference Library; the Museum of Oxford inhabits from basement to elevated ground floor levels on the south-west corner of the site (once the public library) while the Print Room and other offices are housed on the east of the Police Drill corridor behind the St Aldate's frontage.
EXTERIOR: Main fa├žade of stone. Influenced by Oxford University's rejection of Gothic in favour of Renaissance design, Hare's scheme for the city took its inspiration from an Elizabethan-Jacobean style and confidently and flamboyantly displayed embellished Elizabethan-Renaissance gables, and exuberant fenestration to St Aldate's. The north-west corner of the Town Hall, extending up to the Carfax corner, is an extension of 1932. Stone-faced, consciously austere.
INTERIOR: Plan and original fixtures and fittings survive little altered despite some changes of use. Entrance hall, with central grand staircase leading to first-floor landing hall with stone and plaster detailing in a broadly Jacobean style. Landing hall gives access to the principal, first-floor, public rooms. To east the Main Hall (the Town Hall of the original brief), much the biggest room in the building, apsed at the staged, east end at the back of which stands the Henry (Father) Willis organ built in 1896-7 in a plain Rococo style case. Balconies, with heavily enriched, stucco fronts on the north, west and south of this room. Carvings abound and the ceiling is richly plastered and decorated. Allegoric sculpted figures in the spandrels depicting subjects such as Sloth and Industry by F.E.E. Schenck. West off the landing hall is The Assembly Room, lit from the west by three tall, wide, multi-leaded windows. Walls covered in carved wood panelling to about half their height with plain ashlar walling rising to ceiling level above. Decorative fireplace of 1895. Pillars of Fosterley marble from County Durham support a musician's gallery. Beneath this gallery the hearth to the fireplace contains red lustre William de Morgan tiles and a cast iron fire back dated 1896. The most ornate plasterwork is in the coved part of the ceiling and at the north and south ends of the room. North of the landing hall is The Council Chamber. Three seats on the left mounted on a dais for the Lord Mayor (centre), the Deputy Lord Mayor to the right and the Chief Executive to the left. A carved, wooden canopy rises above the central seat, which has a high back inset with the painted arms of the city. Directly opposite the Lord Mayor's seat at the far end of the chamber is the Sheriff's seat with a plain, high curved back. Public gallery to rear of Sheriff's seat. Walls with a mix of panelling and ashlar stone; ceiling separated into panels by a grid of timber beams supported on carved, stone corbels, with pendants on the intersections. Within the coved panels are plasterwork shields, each with a different sign of the zodiac, surrounded by mantling. In the north-west corner of the 1890s building, in the angle between the Council Camber and Assembly Room, are the Lord Mayor's Parlour, a paneled room incorporating a Jacobean overmantle from the old parlour of the Guildhall, and the Committee Room. Both overlook St Aldgate's. The Old Reference Library is south off the Assembly Room. On its eastern side it retains the galleried spaces and principal bookcases from the original lending library. It has a lofty ceiling with heavily moulded cark, timber beams and carved bosses having painted shields. The timber ceiling ribs are thin by comparison. The walls are painted and there is no decorative plaster.
The south-east quarter of the first floor is occupied by the Courtroom (whose judicial functions have eased; now used for meetings etc.). Built as the Magistrates Court, it has also served as the Court of Quarter Sessions and as a Crown Court. Austere room befitting its original function, with dark wall panelling, fixed benches and furniture. The dock connects by stairs to cells beneath. In the stained glass on the south wall are the Royal Arms with, to the left, the Arms of Henry I and, on the right-hand side the Arms of Richard I.
The Judge' s Room lies off the south-west corner of the Courtroom and overlooks Blue Boar Street. Wood panelled walls. Carved stone chimneypiece of classical design. Ceiling comprises decorative plaster panels set between moulded timber beams.

Beneath, and accessed from the Town Hall, some 37 metres south of High Street is a probable C15 century, 3-bayed, quadripartite, vaulted space in rubble and ashlar comprising the undercroft to the former Knapp Hall. Hollow-chamfered ribs spring from shafts with moulded capitals and chamfered bases. In the west wall is an original doorway, now blocked, with chamfered jambs and two-centred head.

HISTORY: The site was previously occupied by C18 Town Hall, and other buildings including the Corn Exchange, Nixon's School, and houses. The architect Henry T. Hare won an open architectural competition of 1891, which drew over 130 entries. His brief was to provide accommodation for municipal offices, Town Hall, Council Chamber, Committee Room, Mayor's Parlour, Banqueting Hall (Assembly Room), Public Library, Sessions Court (linked to prisoners' cells beneath) and Headquarters for the Police.

The Town Hall was constructed on up-to-date structural and ventilating principles. John Chappell of Pimlico undertook the main building work with Richard Evans of Uppingham as clerk of works. Steel, used in the roofs, was supplied by William Lindsay and Co. (London) and constructional steel used in floors supplied by Dorman, Long and Co (Middlesborough). The largest basement room has 3 steel stanchions. Electricity, a great innovation at the time, came from the Oxford Electric Supply Company and lit 1,100 electric lights. It also drove large fans which ventilated the building.

The surviving part of the unlisted Ebor House in Blue Boar Street that was incorporated into and extended for modern Blue Boar Street offices is not covered by the listing.

EVALUATION OF IMPORTANCE: Oxford's Town Hall of 1897, designed by the notable architect H.T. Hare in an Elizabethan-Jacobean Revival style, incorporated a wide range of municipal and judicial functions, all accommodated within a single building set prominently in the centre of the city. Both outwardly in its architectural form, and especially internally with its high-quality materials, fixtures, and fittings, civic pride and aspirations were expressed in an architecturally impressive manner that survives very well.

R.C.H.M England, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Oxford (1939).
Nikolaus Pevsner and Jennifer Sherwood, The Buildings of England, Oxfordshire (1974), 302
V.C.H. Oxfordshire 4 (1979)
C. Cunningham, Victorian and Edwardian Town Halls (1981)
The Town Hall, Oxford, City Secretary and Solicitor's Department, Oxford City Council, 1992.
Wendy Norbury , `The Oxford Municipal Buildings: A Study in Politics and Architecture', 29.9. (1997 thesis, copy in Rewley House/Kellogg College, Oxford, reference library).
Oxoniensia, 65 (2001), pp. 133-159.

This text is a legacy record and has not been updated since the building was originally listed. Details of the building may have changed in the intervening time. You should not rely on this listing as an accurate description of the building.

Source: English Heritage

Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.