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  • Writer's pictureAlex Beeton, PhD

A Brief History of Oxford Town Hall

What is Oxford Town Hall?

Oxford Town Hall is an Elegant Victorian town hall that houses the Museum of Oxford and hosts various celebrations.

Oxford town hall

Oxford Town Hall History

Oxford’s Town Hall, a Grade II-listed building, may look modern but it stands at the heart of Anglo-Saxon Oxford. The administration of the city has been tied to this site, if not this specific building, for over 800 years.

The very first town hall seems to have been on Queen Street rather than here on St Aldate’s. Before 1300, this district was known as ‘Great Jewry’. In medieval times, before the expulsion of the Jewish community from England in 1290, Jewish people living in cities were forced to reside within designated districts. The town hall in Oxford is located right in the heart of this old area. The first civic building on this site was sold to the burgesses (or elected officials) of the town in 1229 to be used as a courtroom. The previous owner had been a wealthy member of Oxford’s Jewish community and the purchase of this building began the long association of this spot with the civic administration of the city.

Initially, however, there was a complex of buildings on the site rather than one town hall. After the acquisition of the courtroom, surrounding buildings were gradually purchased by the burgesses. An adjoining house was bought and became the Lower Guildhall, while the existence of a Council (or Meeting) House was recorded in 1474 before being rebuilt on the same site 150 years later.

A precursor to today’s town hall was built in the 18th century. In 1753, with a great deal of ceremony – including a feast of venison – a new building in the Italian style was opened. This was not only a place where town business could be conducted, but was also for partying. It was here that the annual revels after the Oxford horse races were celebrated with dancing and dining.

Towards the end of the Victorian period, it was decided to replace the existing town hall and attached buildings with a single new construction. The old buildings were demolished and the new hall was opened in 1897 by the Prince of Wales. It was a very tense affair as Oxford students were unhappy about the opening and launched a protest. Hearing about the potential demonstration, there was a large police presence and the affair quickly descended into violence, with the officers rushing the crowd and using batons. One young law don, Frederick Smith, was attending the protest when he saw his college servant being roughed up by the police. Attempting to rescue him, Smith found himself arrested and became the first prisoner to be held in the town hall’s own police station. As he was brought to his cell, Smith – famed for his quick thinking – asked for silence and announced: ‘I have great pleasure in declaring this cell open’.

The drama of its opening has long-since been forgotten. The town hall now serves as the administrative heart of the City Council, home of the Museum of Oxford, and as a popular event space for celebrations and public meetings.

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