Hertford history

Here you can discover the history of teaching and learning on Catte Street since the thirteenth century. Follow the links below to find out more about our historic alumni, the history of our Chapel, and our rare books and archival collections.

Hertford timeline


Hart Hall is established

Sometime in the 1280s, Elias de Hertford established Hart Hall. His buildings stood on the site where the oldest parts of the current college are situated - the Old Hall and the north east corner of the Old Buildings Quadrangle. Oxford halls were essentially boarding houses for matriculated undergraduates. The ceremony of Matriculation - officially making students members of the University - continues to this day. Although presided over by a Principal, who owned or leased the property, such halls were not incorporated as official colleges. Despite this, they often developed collegiate characteristics - dining halls, kitchens, libraries and, in time, tutors who were specifically attached to them. In this earliest period of the University, most undergraduates belonged to halls, rather than to the few, more restrictive and elite colleges.

Click to enlarge


Hall becomes rented accomodation

By 1314, Hart Hall was owned by Richard of Wydesdale, the rector of Crediton. He sold it to Walter of Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter and founder of Exeter College, who installed the first scholars of his new college there. Almost immediately, Exeter College (then known as Stapledon Hall) moved to its present site on Turl Street, but retained the freehold of Hart Hall, the rents from which subsidised the fellows of Exeter until the 18th century. For the rest of the 14th century, Hart Hall possessed no independent corporate existence, being merely a convenient site to rent rooms to undergraduates. From around 1370, William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, leased Hart Hall. Initially he accommodated the fellows of New College there, before their grand buildings down New College Lane had been completed, and later used Hart Hall as an annexe to his new foundation.

Click to enlarge


Hart Hall grows and develops

From the 15th century, Hart Hall began to develop as a distinct institution. It gradually absorbed the neighbouring tenements and halls on Catte Street - Arthur Hall, Black Hall and Cat Hall, which occupied most of the present site of Old Buildings Quad. Parts of our existing buildings date from the 16th century onwards, including the Old Hall which was built under Principal Randell (1549-98), the Old Library and Senior Common Room (OB4). In 1583, the 11-year-old John Donne - the metaphysical poet and later Dean of St Paul's Cathedral - started his studies at Hart Hall. The college's main doors, elaborately decorated with highly carved and coloured flowers, were installed in the 17th century and still open onto Catte Street today.

Click to enlarge


Hertford gains full college status

In 1740, Principal Newton, against two decades of furious opposition, managed to secure a charter and statutes incorporating Hart Hall as a full college of the university, Hertford College. The Fellows of Exeter College, who still claimed ownership of part of the site, were particularly angry. The Cottage (OB5) and the Library (originally the college chapel) date from this new collegiate period. Overly ambitious in conception and grossly under-funded in practice, Hertford College soon foundered. In 1805, nobody could be found to succeed Principal Hodgson and the college was dissolved. Part of the remaining assets were transferred to the university to create the Hertford Scholarship. The last fellow of Hertford, Vice-Principal Hewitt, retained his fellowship until it expired in 1818. In a striking symbol of the college's demise, the decrepit medieval front of the now defunct Hertford College collapsed into Catte Street in 1820.

Click to enlarge


The arrival of Magdalen Hall

The demise of the first Hertford College created a new opportunity for another institution to expand as part of what looks like a coordinated scheme. Magdalen Hall had begun as a hall of residence associated with the grammar school attached to Magdalen College (founded 1480). William Tyndale, the reformist Biblical translator, apparently resided there briefly in the early years of the sixteenth century. Gradually the hall assumed increasingly recognised academic independence and by the seventeenth century had developed its own vibrant intellectual identity - the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and a founder of the Royal Society, John Wilkins, were undergraduates there in the early 17th century. Despite this, and being a separate hall independent of Magdalen College since 1602, Magdalen Hall occupied a cramped site adjacent to the main college buildings which Waynflete had originally intended to house his grammar school. An Act of Parliament in 1816 allowed Magdalen College to acquire the former site of Hertford College for the use of Magdalen Hall. Led by Principal Macbride, Magdalen Hall took possession of the Hertford College site in 1822 upon the completion of two new wings fronting Catte Street (the front of OB1 and the Old Lodgings). With Magdalen Hall came its remarkable library of rare books, previously housed in the Old Library and now in the Old Lodgings' Henry Wilkinson Room.

Click to enlarge


Hertford College resurrected

As the plight of halls became more precarious in the 19th century, Principal Michell sought to elevate Magdalen Hall to collegiate status. He succeeded thanks to a benefaction from the leading financier Sir Thomas Baring MP. An Act of Parliament refounded Hertford College in 1874, comprising the Principal and Fellows of Magdalen Hall and a number of other fellows chosen by Baring. Under Principal Boyd (1877-1922), the new college became fully established and expanded with new buildings by the popular revivalist architect T.G. Jackson, starting with the new Lodge and Hall in 1887 and Staircase 2 of Old Buildings Quad in 1889. These works included the iconic spiral staircase up to Hall, the design of which was inspired by the staircase at the 16th century French Château de Blois in the Loire Valley.

Click to enlarge


Bridging the centuries

In the 20th century the college expanded even further, with T.G. Jackson still at the architectural helm. In 1901, Jackson designed the south and east blocks of New Buildings Quad, expanding the college site onto the opposite side of New College Lane. This division of the college site was remedied in 1913 with the unveiling of Jackson's 'Bridge of Sighs' across the lane. Despite its name, the Venetian bridge that it most resembles is the Rialto across the Grand Canal, rather than the Bridge of Sighs at the Doge's Palace. Jackson also designed a new Chapel for the college, which opened in Old Buildings Quad in 1908. After his death, Staircases 5 and 6 in New Buildings Quad and the Octagon were completed. The Octagon, which is now the MCR common room for graduates, is actually one of the college's oldest buildings, being a re-fashioning of the Chapel of Our Lady at Smith Gate built around 1520.

Click to enlarge


Opening up access

When Physics tutor Neil Tanner became Tutor for Admissions at Hertford in 1965, the Oxford admissions process overwhelmingly favoured applicants from independent schools. Neil spoke to headteachers who told him that their students simply couldn’t spend an extra term at school to sit the Oxford application exam, nor could they afford extra tutoring to prepare. Neil, supported by Hertford’s Governing Body, was determined to level the playing field, giving state-schooled students a realistic chance of an Oxford education at a time when their presence at the university was virtually non-existent. He also appreciated the academic benefit this would bring to the college, by attracting bright students who hitherto hadn’t considered Oxford. While Hertford had suffered from poor academic performance in the early 1960s, in just a few years the college rocketed from the bottom to the top of the collegiate rankings, with the highest number of firsts and seconds combined of any college throughout much of the late 1960s. Hertford’s reputation as ‘state-school-friendly’ enabled it to attract a large comprehensive school intake, which in turn attracted the attention of the press and gave Hertford its ‘progressive’ reputation.

Click to enlarge


Hertford welcomes women

The most significant change in the last 150 years came with the admission of women as undergraduates in 1974, a century after the college was refounded. Hertford was one of the first five single-sex Oxford colleges to admit women and the first female fellow, Julia Briggs, was elected in 1978. We continue to believe in this spirit of fair, open and diverse access today. To accommodate growing student numbers, Holywell Quad was built behind New Buildings Quad from 1976 to 1981. Other residential blocks were completed off-site in south Oxford in the subsequent years - Abingdon House in 1990, Warnock House at Folly Bridge in 1995, and the Graduate Centre at Folly Bridge in 2000. This last project reflected the major increase in postgraduate study at Oxford since the 1960s.

Click to enlarge