History of the Oxford Union’s 1911 Extension

The surviving resources regarding the Union’s 1911 extension, and in particular the building that was there before hand, are few and far between, although they are a little more complete than that of the Smoking and Writing Rooms. Thus, it is not possible to create a full and rounded history of the Oxford Union Society. Despite this, here is what has been uncovered about the Oxford Union and, in particular, its 1911 extension.

Fig 1. Annotated property map of the Oxford Union’s premises.Oxford Union, 1880.

In 1863 the first extension was built,1Wilkinson 1862: 1-3 containing the Reading Room (later the Smoking Room and now the Gladstone Room),2Sidebotham J S 1859: 4 and the Writing Room (now the Member’s Bar).3Talbot 1869: 5. Oxford Union. c1880 It is interesting that, in an 1869 Building Committee report about this first extension, the Old Library is described as:

“the present Library”.4Talbot 1869: 5

It seems that even in the 1860’s there was talk of moving the Library, however, this could also be because land was bought and sold on Frewin Court so frequently in the 19th century that nothing stayed the same for long. In fact, a map was drawn, in 1880, to keep track of the Union’s property deals (as seen in Fig 1).

Fig 2. A] Oxford Union c1910.
Fig 3. Exterior of the main Union building. Oxford Union c1880.

Before the Goodman Library, or as it was first known, the ‘New Library’, was built,5A] Bevir 1911 there stood in its place the building that can be seen in fig 2. This was separated from the main Union building which, by 1910, contained: the Library (now the old Library), the Office (now the General Office), a smoking room (now the Gladstone Room, to read more, CLICK HERE), a writing room (now the Members’ Bar, the exterior of which can be seen in fig 3, to read more, click here), and the Poetry Room (which was a reading room).6Murphy, Shuman 1953: 49

This building, which contained the original Billiard Room (see fig 4) and possibly a writing room (see fig 5),7Murphy, Shuman 1953: 50 and the original Steward’s House,8Morrah 1923: 297 was demolished to make way for the New Library.9A] Oxford Union c1910 The demolition of this building, however, was not a quick decision and one could argue that the discussion began in 1896; the Union released a notice informing members of the rapid growth of the Library:

“The growth of the Library necessitates in the immediate future one of two remedies – enlargement or weeding”.10Hirst 1896

Then, in 1907, at which time the Library only contained 31,000 books rather than the present 60,000,11Armour 1907 the Union formed a:

“Special Committee of ex-Librarians and ex-members of the Library Committee to consider the general management of the Library”.12Armour 1907

This committee decided that:

“the present management of the Library is imperfect”.13Armour 1907

This cannot have been very helpful because the imperfect management of the library was the purpose for which the meeting was called. The Special Committee did, however, decide that the solution to the problem of the growth of the Library was:

“beyond the scope of any but an expert”.14Armour 1907

Fig 4. The old Billiard Room. Oxford Union c1880.
Fig 5. Possible Writing Room. Oxford Union c1880
Fig 6. Plans for the 1910 extension. B]Oxford Union c1910.
Fig 7. Part of the Ground Floor for the 1910 extension. C]Oxford Union c1910.

This set the scene for the building of the New Library; two years later, in 1909, the Oxford Union had consulted and interviewed many architects who might design them a new library, creatively named… ‘The New Library’. Eventually the plans of Mr. W. E. Mills, A.R.I.B.A. (seen in the banner at the top, fig 6 and fig 7) were approved at a cost of over £10,000,15Morrah 1923: 297. Building Committee 1909 equivalent to over £1,000,000 in today’s money.16Bank of England 2024

When the building was completed, the Union held an opening ceremony. It was a ticketed event with limited capacity and began at 1300hrs in the Writing Room,17B] Bevir 1911. A] Bevir 1911 which, presumably at this point, was still in, what is today, the Members’ Bar (see fig 7). At 1315hrs Lord George Curzon would open the New Wing and members would sit down to eat in the New Library,18A] Bevir 1911 note that, to protect the books, eating is not permitted in this room today.

Fig 8. The newly-built extension. Morrah 1923: p.310.
Fig 9. 2024 Macmillan Room. Photo taken by Library.

Apart from the New Library, later to become the Goodman Library,19B] Oxford Union c1910 the 1911 extension contained the new Writing Room (later to become the Macmillan Room),20Oxford Union 1938: 6, C] Oxford Union c1910 and a ‘dwelling-house’ – now called the Steward’s House (see fig 8).21Morrah 1923: 297 All this new space meant, therefore, that the Library Committee could spend the vast sum of £8 a week on new books (this equates to about £800 a week).22Oxford Union 1938 The New Library was intended to house the Union’s collection of committee minute books and Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates.23Murphy, Shuman 1953: 51 The minute books were later removed from the Goodman and kept in the Stacks (in the cellar), partly because the Unions’ collection had reached about 45,000 volumes and partly because of an incident reported in The Isis Magazine:24Oxford Union 1938

“very few members can have realised exactly what was happening when an uncouth horde of self-conscious and self-appointed Fascists, trooped into the House and laid siege to the Secretary”25Murphy, Shuman 1953: 51

Meaning they tore out pages of the minute book during a debate.26Isis 1933: 7

By 1914, as the First World War began, the Union had paid off £7,500 (over £700,000 in today’s money) of debt created by the building of the extension but a further £5,000 (almost £500,000) remained unpaid at an interest rate of £200 (£20,000) per annum.27Oxford Union 1914 Presumably the Union had paid off it’s debt by 1922 because the Standing Committee began campaigning to build a dining room.

This came to no avail as the plan was overbudget, membership was declining, the Union was spending their allowance on fireproofing the new Debating Hall, and the value of property was falling.28Wells J, Carlyle A.J, Carson R.M 1922 The creation of dining facilities, however, being a subject of importance to members of the Oxford Union, was still being discussed at great length in 1934,29Karaka, D. F 1934 in fact the Union retains a letter written by the Union’s President at the time, K. R. F. Steele-Maitland, which reads:

“Dear Sir,

may I remind you that the Society has for some time been negotiating the building of a Dining Room, which, when it is completed, will be an enormous asset to its members and to the Society itself.

All arrangements have been made for carrying out the scheme, but they cannot, for financial reasons, be put into effect unless there is a substantial increase in membership. (…)”30Steele-Maitland 1934

Eventually, however, the members of the Oxford Union got their dining room when the later 1911 extension’s Writing Room was converted. Exactly when this happened is unclear. This room, however, now called the Macmillan Room (which can be seen in fig 9) still serves as the Oxford Union’s dining room for special events.

Today the Goodman Library, Macmillan Room and Steward’s house are integral parts of the Oxford Union Society, and as a result, it is hard to imagine the Union without them: The Goodman (as seen in figs 10 and 11), has a vast collection of journals on politics, psychology, history, etc.; The Macmillan Room serves as extra study space, a dining room, and as a meeting room for various Union activities; whilst the Steward’s House, lesser visited by members, is home to the Bursar’s office, the maintenance department and the Archives.

Fig 10. 2024 Goodman Library Exterior. Photo taken by Library.
Fig 11. 2024 Goodman Library Interior. Photo taken by Library.

Bibliography:

Armour, W. Staveley. 1907. ‘Report of Union Library Special Committee’. Bound with O.U.S. Miscellaneous Documents 1. Document 4. Stacks 378.425 74 OUS MIS. Found Here

Bank of England. 2024. ‘Inflation Calculator’. Bank of England. Found Here

A] Bevir, Raymond. 1911. ‘Opening of the New Buildings on June 1st 1911’. Bound in: O.U.S Building Programmes. Document 6. Stacks L 378.425 74 OUS BUI. Found Here

B] Bevir, Raymond. 1911. ‘Opening of the New Buildings by Lord Curzon of Kedleston’. Bound in: O.U.S Building Programmes. Document 7. Stacks L 378.425 74 OUS BUI. Found Here

Building Committee. 1909. ‘Reconstruction of the East Wing of the Society’s Premises’. Bound in: O.U.S Building Programmes. Document 4. Stacks L 378.425 74 OUS BUI. Found Here

Hirst, F.W. 1896. ‘Oxford Union Society : NOTICE’. Bound with O.U.S. Miscellaneous Documents 1. Document 3. Stacks 378.425 74 OUS MIS. Found Here

ISIS. 1933. Union. ‘That this House proclaims its undying faith in politicians’. No.886. p.7.

Karaka, D. F. 1934. ‘The Dining-Room Extention’. Bound in: O.U.S Building Programmes. Document 9. Stacks L 378.425 74 OUS BUI. Found Here

Morrah, Herbert A 1923. The Oxford Union : 1823-1923. Stacks 378.425 74 OUS [MOR]. Found Here

Murphy, Richard. Shuman, Howard. 1953. ‘The Oxford Union : American View’. Quarterly Journal of Speech. Vol. 39. No.1. Pp.49-56. Found Here

Oxford Union. c1880. Photograph Album of Oxford Union Rooms. Held by Oxfordshire History Centre: O22/10/P/1. Found Here

Oxford Union. 1880. Property Map.

Oxford Union. 1907. ‘The Oxford Union Society’. Bound with O.U.S. Miscellaneous Documents 1. Document 4. Stacks 378.425 74 OUS MIS. Found Here

A] Oxford Union.  c1910. ‘Document 5, ‘Building Now Demolished’. Bound in: O.U.S Building Programmes. Stacks L 378.425 74 OUS BUI.

B] Oxford Union.  c1910. ‘Document 5, ‘New Building (West Elevation.)’. Bound in: O.U.S Building Programmes. Stacks L 378.425 74 OUS BUI.

C] Oxford Union.  c1910. ‘Document 5, ‘Ground Plan’. Bound in: O.U.S Building Programmes. Stacks L 378.425 74 OUS BUI.

Oxford Union. 1914. ‘The Union Society and the War’. Bound with O.U.S. Miscellaneous Documents 1. Document 9. Stacks 378.425 74 OUS MIS. Found Here

Oxford Union. 1938. ‘The Oxford Union Society Cornmarket and St. Michael’s Streets’. Bound with O.U.S. Miscellaneous Documents 1. Document 17. Stacks 378.425 74 OUS MIS. Found Here

Sidebotham J S. 1859. ‘A Description of the Paintings in the Debating Room of the Oxford Union Society’. Bound in O.U.S. Pre-Raphaelite Murals. Document 1. Stacks 378.425 74 OUS MUR. Found Here

Steele-Maitland, K. R. F. 1934. ‘Dear sir, may I remind you […]’. Bound in: O.U.S Building Programmes. Document 10. Stacks L 378.425 74 OUS BUI. Found Here

Talbot, E. S. 1869. ‘Report of Building Committee’. Oxford Union Society. Held by Oxfordshire History Centre: O22/10/A2/1. Found Here

Wells J, Carlyle A. J, Carson R. M. 1922. ‘Informal Poll on Proposed Dining Additions’. Bound in: O.U.S Building Programmes. Document 8. Stacks L 378.425 74 OUS BUI. Found Here

Wilkinson, William. 1862. ‘Building Contract’. Oxford Union Society.Held by Oxfordshire History Centre: O22/11/L/1. Found Here  

  • 1
    Wilkinson 1862: 1-3
  • 2
    Sidebotham J S 1859: 4
  • 3
    Talbot 1869: 5. Oxford Union. c1880
  • 4
    Talbot 1869: 5
  • 5
    A] Bevir 1911
  • 6
    Murphy, Shuman 1953: 49
  • 7
    Murphy, Shuman 1953: 50
  • 8
    Morrah 1923: 297
  • 9
    A] Oxford Union c1910
  • 10
    Hirst 1896
  • 11
    Armour 1907
  • 12
    Armour 1907
  • 13
    Armour 1907
  • 14
    Armour 1907
  • 15
    Morrah 1923: 297. Building Committee 1909
  • 16
    Bank of England 2024
  • 17
    B] Bevir 1911. A] Bevir 1911
  • 18
    A] Bevir 1911
  • 19
    B] Oxford Union c1910
  • 20
    Oxford Union 1938: 6, C] Oxford Union c1910
  • 21
    Morrah 1923: 297
  • 22
    Oxford Union 1938
  • 23
    Murphy, Shuman 1953: 51
  • 24
    Oxford Union 1938
  • 25
    Murphy, Shuman 1953: 51
  • 26
    Isis 1933: 7
  • 27
    Oxford Union 1914
  • 28
    Wells J, Carlyle A.J, Carson R.M 1922
  • 29
    Karaka, D. F 1934
  • 30
    Steele-Maitland 1934

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