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Jericho Sketchbook

Worcester College

Worcester College, Oxford
Carmelite Gateway, now part of Worcester College.

Although Worcester College was not founded until 1714, its site and many of its buildings date from the early Middle Ages when the landscape of this part of Oxford was very different from that of the present day. The site lay on the outskirts of the city on the west side of Stockwell Street, now Walton Street, overlooking the marshes of the Thames valley. At the foot of the slope lay the eastern channel of the Castle Mill Stream. The present lake within the college grounds is all that remains of this channel, beyond which was the narrow strip of island known as Wareham Bank, where the fishermen and basket weavers lived. Beyond that was Rewley Island, but there was no road west. The Botley causeway was not completed until 1541. Some idea of the original lie of the land can be had by looking down from the entrance to the College to the quadrangle below and to the lake. Opposite lay Beaumont Palace, where Beaumont Street now lies. It was a favourite residence of both Henry's, I and II, very well placed for their hunting lodge at Woodstock up Stockwell and Walton Streets to Port Meadow and Wolvercote, over the Thames to Yarnton, Frogwell Down and Bladon to old Woodstock. Richard I was born here.

In 1265 Sir Nicholas de Meules granted a house on the west side of Stockwell to the Carmelite Friars, or Whitefriars as they were called from their habit. In the following year and in 1260-1 and 1282 they were given grants of land by Osney Abbey to enlarge their grounds which extended down to the river where they had their landing stage near Hythe Bridge. The gateway to this enclosure still stands on Walton Street just north of the college entrance. When in 1315 Edward II decided to rid himself of his old palace of Beaumont he offered it to the Carmelites. They moved in and extended into part of Gloucester Green with their main approach through Friars Entry, selling their old monastery to the Benedictine Order.

Worcester College, monastic buildings
Worcester College, south side monastic buildings

The Benedictines had been trying to find new premises in Oxford since 1277 for St. Benedict's College where promising novices could live while attending University lectures to fit them for service as administrators and diplomats in the king's service. Oxford's connections with the "Establishment" have a long history. In 1283 Sir Nicholas Gifford bought a house on the east side of Stockwell Street for St. Peter's Abbey, Gloucester, which set up its own Gloucester College. The whole Order was involved in the purchase of the Carmelite buildings although the College was allowed to retain its name as Gloucester College. Thirty eight regional houses were involved covering most of south and west England and, as each house was responsible for its own novices. Sixteen of the wealthiest built their own accommodation, identified by the shields over the doorways.

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries the property was expropriated to the Crown before being granted to the Bishop of Oxford in 1542. After the new See was established in 1545 it was considered as a possible palace for the bishop. But as many buildings had been destroyed or damaged and it was in any case too large, the bishop sold it to Sir Thomas Whyte, founder of St. John's College, who bought it as an annexe to his college. Some of the buildings were restored and employed as undergraduate lodgings but the rest were used for storage; the library was used as a granary. During the Civil War the buildings were occupied as barracks. Squatters then moved in and did much damage. When Benjamin Woodroffe, a Canon of Christchurch, became principal of Gloucester Hall in 1662 he spent much money on restoration, including part of the old Beaumont Palace on the other side of Walton Street. The name Stockwell Street had fallen into disuse by this time. Woodroffe had hoped to make the hall into a college for students of the Greek church. In 1696 he secured the interest of Sir Thomas Cookes, a Worcestershire baronet who wanted to endow a college in Oxford to be connected with Bromsgrove School which he also supported. Although Cookes died in 1701 and Woodroffe in 1711 their successor Richard Blechynden bought Gloucester Hall from St. John's College and Worcester College was founded in 1714.

Worcester College, Pump Quad
Pump Quad, Worcester College

Blechynden had good friends. So did the college, and in 1717 Hawksmoor was commissioned to design the grand entrance and frontage. Over the next 80 years the great north range, the library, hall and chapel were completed and the monastic buildings restored and adapted.

In 1788 the college granted a strip of land along the river to the Oxford Canal Navigation Company on which to build its canal between the college grounds and the Castle Mill stream. The old eastern branch was diverted and its abandoned channel infilled, leaving only the lake to record its position. Then in 1802 work began on clearing the last remnants of the old Beaumont Palace and the slums which surrounded it and Beaumont Street opened in 1820. For the first time Hawksmoor's frontage could be clearly seen and the college was no longer isolated. By the 1850s the railways were running and the land to the west of the college was being built up and the ground level raised above the floods. The next change came in 1937 when Lord Nuffield bought the canal terminal basin and docks for his new college. The war delayed building but even before Nuffield College opened in 1958 the landscape and road pattern had altered out of all recognition. Gloucester Green cattle market was closed and the area was upgraded. The 1980s have seen much new building within the college grounds around the lake and along the Hythe Bridge Street boundary to accommodate increased numbers of students.