The Warden and fellows of New College, apparently so liked the new roof that he had provided for their hall, that in October 1870, they appointed him the architect for a new set of rooms to be built to the north of the college. This was to be his largest new building in Oxford, after Exeter. This was their first major extension for 150 years and, as the old buildings abutted the city wall to the north, it was only possible to build outside the city wall on a strip of land between the wall and Holywell Street. This necessitated purchasing and demolishing some ‘charming’ seventeenth and eighteenth century houses in that street. It could have the purchase of these houses which delayed the start of the Holywell Building but Scott became seriously ill in October 1870. This may have contributed to the fact that it was not until January 1871 that he submitted his first proposals to the college. Most of the college buildings were built soon after its foundation in 1379, by William of Wykeham, with some additions in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Sir George Gilbert Scott claimed that the character of his design was ‘generally in accordance with the date of the college’. In fact it is another High Victorian essay with Middle Pointed details, particularly the stair-turrets and square-headed windows to the rooms. He proposed a three-storey building, containing twenty sets of rooms, but two of the college fellows insisted on a fourth floor, adding eighteen sets, which Scott accommodated in half-attics with dormer windows. This change meant that his building was much bulkier than any other structure in the college and produced a great stone cliff overshadowing narrow Holywell Street with its little old houses.
Work did not start on site for this first phase until October 1872, with H. Roome as Scott’s Clerk of Works. The builders were once again the reliable Jackson and Shaw of Earl Street, Westminster, who were working on both St. Pancras and the Home and Colonial Offices for Scott at the time. The estimated cost of the work was £20,000 and it is built from Milton stone. In an effort to economise, the college cut out much of the external ornament and aggravated the grimness of the Holywell Street facade by insisting that the pipes and drains should be placed on that side of the building. Strikes added four months to the building period and it was completed late in 1874, by which time the college had acquired another six old houses in Holywell Street and was able to build the western extension. It was carried out between 1875 and 1877, and included a five-storey tower containing a married tutor’s house. This new provision aroused some comment as New College, in 1867, was one of the first colleges to allow its tutors to be married.
One fellow, Charles Mayo (1837-1877), had an extraordinary career. As well as being an Oxford don, he was an army surgeon, attached to the German army in 1870, the Dutch in Sumatra in 1873-4 and he was also something of an antiquarian. In May 1876 he wrote to the Warden of the college from Fiji, stating that:
the designer of the new buildings in Holywell, whoever he may be, has recorded there his utter incompetence to follow in the steps of the architect of New College. On one side you see genius, on the other the most trumpery office work.
Scott’s concessions to the old buildings are certainly rather thin. He reproduced the ubiquitous battlements of the college and his tower has some resemblance to its other towers, but many of his details are derived from a period a hundred years earlier than that of William of Wykeham, whom Mayo assumed to be the architect of the college. It may have been the scale of the building in relation to the old college, more than anything else, which upset Mayo. But Scott was not responsible for the height of the building, its awkward site and the gauntness of its elevations, particularly towards Holywell Street. The building was extended eastwards in 1896 by Basil Champneys.
Buxton, J., and Williams, H., New College Oxford, 1379-1979 (Warden and Fellows of New College Oxford, Oxford, 1979), pp. 245, 247-9, 255.
Royal Commission for Historic Monuments, p. 84.
Pevsner, N. and Sherwood, J., Oxfordshire, Buildings of England (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1974), p. 174.
The Architect, IX, 19 October 1872, p. 217.
The Architect, X, 18 October 1873, p. 201.