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  • Writer's pictureMimi Goodall, PhD

A Brief History of the Bridge of Sighs (Hertford Bridge) in Oxford

What is the Bridge of Sighs?

The Bridge of Sighs, or Hertford Bridge, is a distinctive, early-20th-century stone bridge that’s part of Hertford College in Oxford.

Hertford bridge in Oxford, also known as the Bridge of Sighs

Bridge of Sighs History

This graceful and elegant skywalk, which perches loftily over the entrance to New College Lane, is an unmissable piece of Oxford’s iconography. Found right in the centre of the historic university, it’s more than a beautiful landmark, however, providing a functional walkway between two parts of Hertford College – the entrance to which is further down Catte Street.

The Bridge of Sighs, or Hertford Bridge to use its formal name, was completed in 1914. The college had expanded northwards across New College Lane and a skywalk was an efficient way to cross from the old buildings to the new. Hertford had a somewhat tumultuous history and the bridge was a sign of the college’s reinvention and renewal.

The college began life as Hart Hall in the 13th century; evidence of this history can be found on Hertford’s distinctive crest depicting the silver head of a male deer, or hart, together with a gold cross. A hall is the term used to describe a part of the university that is not officially incorporated as a college. It took until 1740 for Hart Hall to be granted its charter of incorporation, but unfortunately the college was dissolved in 1816. A few years later, the site was taken over by Magdalen Hall, which originated in the 15th century on a site adjacent to Magdalen College, up the road from Catte Street. Finally, in 1874 Magdalen Hall was officially incorporated into the university, and took the name Hertford College.

When Henry Boyd took over the presidency of the new college in 1877, he had great ambitions for it. He was an energetic and persuasive man, who sought out the best architect both to revive the old buildings and to expand the college. He found an ideal collaborator in notable Oxford architect Sir Thomas Graham Jackson. You can find Jackson’s fingerprints over much of the city. The former Boys’ High School, now the History Faculty on George Street, the Examination Schools on the High Street, and much of Brasenose College across Radcliffe Square from Hertford, are all built to his design.

Over the next 40 years Jackson designed the Gatehouse, Hall and Chapel for Hertford, as well as the new north quad across the road. In 1913, he built the Bridge of Sighs, linking the old and new quads across New College Lane. The bridge became an important symbol of Hertford’s growing presence in the university.

But where does the name come from? It’s somewhat of a misnomer, referencing the famous bridge connecting the New Prison with the Doge’s Palace in Venice. However, in appearance Hertford Bridge bears a much closer resemblance to the Rialto Bridge across the Grand Canal in the same city. Recently, the ‘sighs’ of the bridge were given a much more literal meaning. To celebrate its centenary, a music tutor at Hertford composed a soundscape that played beneath the bridge for several months. Entitled ‘Sospiri’ (Italian for ‘sighs’), it recorded the sighs of students hard at work, huffing and puffing over their weekly essays – a fitting reminder that the primary purpose of the university’s beautiful buildings is to encourage the pursuit of knowledge.

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