Born Out of Penance

Balliol College has a prime location on the busy thoroughfare of Broad Street not far from the Sheldonian Theatre and Weston Library. Balliol is one of the earliest of the 38 constituent colleges of the University of Oxford. It was founded in 1263 as a house for poor scholars financed by John 5th Baron de Balliol, as a penance imposed on him by the Bishop of Durham with whom he had had a dispute. De Balliol was married to Dervorguilla of Galloway who’s family were wealthy and descended from Kings of Scotland. De Balliol had been appointed by Henry III as protector of the 8 year old Alexander III, King of Scotland. Interestingly de Balliol’s son John and grandson Edward went on to become rulers of Scotland. When de Balliol died Dervorguilla continued the payments for the house and granted a charter in 1282, which stipulated that a principal should be chosen by the students from within their group. The students inhabited three tenement buildings located back from Broad Street. During the 15th and 16th centuries the college carried out a building programme, resulting in a quadrangle surrounded by a chapel, library, hall and a fellows hall.

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The Upper Library (Old Hall), Lower Library and Salvin’s Tower – view from the Fellow’s Garden

The early 1790s was a bad time for the college, they were in debt and the buildings were in disrepair. Between 1791-94 James Wyatt who gained the reputation for reviving Gothic architecture, was employed to undertake the supervision of the substantial repairs and alterations that were needed. He replaced the roofs on the Old Hall with a low-pitched design adding a crenellated parapet in a gothic style. Wyatt also carried out internal work in the library, plastering the walls and installing bookcases.

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The Hall and Senior Common Room. 

The college planned to have a garden quadrangle, in order to achieve this some of the already completed buildings needed to be connected and the gaps filled with new buildings. Dr Richard Jenkyns, the Master was contributing a substantial financial amount to the project therefore he asked George Basevi. Basevi did work in the Gothic Revival style which suited the college, but two of the fellows felt his designs tended to be ‘off-the-peg’. Augustus Pugin was approached to give his opinion of the design, which was ‘not bad enough to be ridiculous, nor good enough to be commendable’. The fellows then gave the commission to Pugin. Basevi’s designs was rejected embarrassing both the architect and Jenkyns. Jenkyns was adamant that he would not approve Pugin’s designs, which resulted in arguments and the local press reporting the story. As a result the building committee was dissolved and it was decided to do nothing.

Eventually in the late 1870s Alfred Waterhouse was engaged to start with the building of a new hall and buildings to the east and west of it, on land given to the college by Benjamin Jowett, Regis Professor of Greek and Vice-Chancellor of the University. Waterhouse was the most sort after architect between the 1860s and 1880s. He favoured the Victorian Gothic Revival style, designing ecclesiastical, commercial and public buildings. He designed numerous educational buildings notably for the universities of Manchester, Liverpool, Cambridge and Oxford. The college had retained Pugin’s original designs and Waterhouse consulted the drawings, and elements of these can be seen in the finished building.

Interior Views of the Hall

The Hall is constructed of box ground walling with a Chilmark stone dressing and is grade II listed. Waterhouse’s son Paul was a student of Balliol, obtaining his MA in 1887. He was partner with his father and went on to become President of the Royal Institute of British Architects. It was Paul who undertook alterations to the Hall, panelling and blocking up the lower part of the windows.

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The Chapel in the background

In the 19th century the college consulted William Butterfield, a Gothic Revival architect and follower of the Oxford Movement, with a view to enlarge the 16th century chapel, so it could accommodate the ever increasing student numbers. This chapel had originally replaced an earlier 14th century one. A majority of Butterfield’s work was for religious buildings, though he did design educational ones too. The decision was taken to completely rebuild the church and salvage the windows and other items for reuse. The beginning of 1856 saw the demolition of the chapel, and by August, Butterfield’s polychrome external colour scheme was there for all to see. Though many had reservations about the red and white bands of brickwork, Butterfield had “… little doubt about it when finished.” He continued to use the polychromatic brickwork design long after his fellow architects had abandoned the idea.

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Laurence Stubbs’ Window

Butterfield reused the Laurence Stubbs’ window from the second chapel, but he felt it looked out of place for his new design. He decided that “We must have the best window which has yet been done.” He set to work designing his own window with coloured banding to match the red and white banding of the interior walls, the window was made by Wailes of Newcastle.

The stained glass and the crowned brazen eagle lectern were salvaged from the previous chapel. The silver gilt altar dates from 1927

Butterfield died in 1900 and by 1912 a scheme championed by Strachan-Davidson, the Master, was put forward to completely demolish the chapel. Walter Morrison was happy to donate £20,000 for the demolition and rebuilding of a replacement. But several of the fellows felt that this would be a misuse of money, and would go against their belief in using funds to insure the admission of poor students, especially when the chapel was serviceable. Unfortunately the college and the poor students lost out on Morrison’s money and instead retiring professors were the beneficiaries. The college’s solution was to plaster over the interior to hide the bands, and to reinstate the Laurence Stubbs’ window. Later they replaced the stalls with a walnut design by Walter Tapper. Butterfield’s final humiliation, in 1940 his iron screen was scrapped for the war effort.

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Balliol’s Black Mulberry Tree

There are several stories as to the origin of this ancient tree. Some say it was planted by Queen Elizabeth I or possibly King Charles II. But as King James I decreed that Mulberry Trees should be planted to help establish an English silk industry, it is more than likely the tree dates from this period. Unfortunately the trees planted were black mulberries, and it was the white mulberry leaves that the silk worm eats. This mulberry tree, even though it is bent with age, still manages to produce a crop of mulberry fruit.

 

The photos are from the author’s own collection.