The building we know and love today is in fact the third purpose-built town hall. The first building at St Aldate’s was constructed in the 1290’s by the Burgesses of Oxford, who built a Guildhall on the northern part of the present site. This building had a rich and varied history, with several rebels against King Henry IV being imprisoned in the Guildhall after taking part in a failed rebellion at Cirencester.
By the 1740’s the council agreed to build a new Town Hall, which was designed by Issac Ware. By August 1751 £1300 had been donated to construct this new Town Hall, and Thomas Rowney (MP for Oxford) agreed to pay the remaining funds, and as a result a statue of him was placed in this newly built Town Hall.
By the 1880’s however, the City Building Improvement Committee described the Old Town Hall as “ill shaped and not convenient”, and by 1891, it was agreed to replace it. Demolition began in May 1893, and during construction of the current building, the university allowed the city council to meet in the Examination Schools.
The Current Building
Out of over 300 entries to a design competition, in 1892 a design by architect Henry Thomas Hare was selected and despite its expense, construction of the Town Hall we know and love today began. This new building was opened by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales on 12 May 1897, and at the time of opening, the Oxford Chronicle pronounced the new building as “magnificent” and noted that Oxford Town Hall was one of “the finest rooms of its kind in the Kingdom”. The present Town Hall was called the New Municipal Buildings and the term “Town Hall” applied to the main hall. Over time however, the whole building simply became known as “Oxford Town Hall”.
Within a few years of opening, World War One broke out and the Town Hall quickly became part of the 3rd Southern General Hospital. The Town Hall boasted over 200 beds in numerous rooms, including the Main Hall and Assembly Room, treating soldiers suffering from malaria.
More recently, the Town Hall has seen its fair share of famous faces, hosting the likes of the Rolling Stones and David Bowie on the stage in our Main Hall, and seeing Nelson Mandela accept his Freedom of the City Award. You can also see us on screen; the Town Hall is a popular film location and can be seen in scenes of Inspector Morse, A Fish Called Wanda and The Riot Club.
The Town Hall Today
Oxford Town Hall has maintained its remarkable grandeur for over 120 years, impressing guests and customers alike with its ornate surroundings and intriguing history. While continuing its civic function hosting council meetings and events and providing space for local residents to host community events. Oxford Town Hall is now a leading event and concert venue, hosting thousands of weddings and events each year. It is also a cultural and tourist destination, welcoming thousands of visitors to the Museum of Oxford, Town Hall café and numerous concerts and festivals.