To read about the Writing Room and the beginnings of the Union, please visit this blog.

The History of the Oxford Union Smoking Room

The surviving resources for the Smoking Room are disparate and scattered across the Oxford Union Society and Oxford City in general. For example, the Union holds historic floor plans for: the ground floor, second floor and third floor of its buildings but the first floor, where the Smoking Room was located, is missing.1Morrah 1923: 198 Nevertheless, this is what we know about the Oxford Union, and in particular, its Smoking Room.

In 1863,2Wilkinson 1862: 1-3. the first extension was built; this would contain the Writing Room (now the Members’ Bar) and the Reading Room (now the Gladstone).3Oxford Union 1877: 3-4. Sidebotham 1859: 4. This Reading Room would later become the Smoking Room,4Sidebotham 1859: 4. Wilkinson 1862: 1-3. although not until the original Reading room was converted sometime after 1877; today this room is the Gladstone Room.5Oxford Union 1877: 3-4. Figs. 1 and 2 show the Smoking Room as it was in 1888 and the same room as it is in the 2024.

This extension cost the Union £2,200,6Wilkinson 1862: 1-3. equivalent to over £220,000 if converted to today’s standards.7Bank of England 2024. In fact by 1890, just two years later, the Union was in a pretty dire financial situation but was planning to raise £1000 for a new smoking room.8Morrah 1923: 263. The room built on the first floor, the Reading Room, was intended to avoid the double use of the old Debating Chamber; which members were using as a reading room when not in use for debates.9Sidebotham 1859: 4.  Discussion of a smoking room, along with a new ground floor writing room and first floor ‘novel and magazine room’ (possibly the current Poetry Room)10Murphy, Shuman 1953: 51. had been discussed in 1869.11Talbot 1869: 2-3.

Fig. 3. Book Confined to the Smoking Room

The Smoking Room was stocked with:

“leading daily newspapers, and English and Foreign periodicals”12Oxford Union 1938.

Then later, in 1872, it became the home of the Oxford Union’s collection of novels. As with the Writing Room, books were confined for use in the Smoking Room; fig. 3 shows an example of one such book. It seems, however, that all this new space was still not enough as, by 1896, a notice was posted explaining that the expansion of the Library’s collections:

“necessitate[d] in the immediate future one of two remedies – enlargement or weeding”13Hirst 1896.

 The Smoking Room stayed in its current Gladstone Room location until at least 1907,14Oxford Union 1907: 8. almost certainly longer, though by 1915, in lists of rooms that were open or closed due to the First World War, the Smoking Room is not named.15Standing Committee 1915. Ball 1916. Oxford Union 1916.

The eagle-eyed reader may have spotted that there are a few interesting differences between the Smoking Room as it was in the 1880s, and today’s Gladstone Room: the Gladstone room lacks the original beautifully carved wooden frieze and twin fireplaces; some of the forty cartoons of Sydney P. Hall situated around the walls are gone (these are now in the General Office and the Oxford Union’s on-site archives);16Morrah 1923: 205. a door can be seen at the end of the Smoking Room in fig. 4 but has moved in fig. 5. This door would have led into the current Poetry Room (seen in Fig. 6), possibly explaining the space behind the bookshelves in fig. 7 (showing the Poetry Room in about 1880) that is not there today.


Bibliography:

Ball, Sidney. 1916. ‘Oxford Union Sociey’. 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

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

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. 1877. ‘Report of the Building Committee : Presented to the Society on the 15th of November, 1877’. Held by Oxfordshire History Centre: O22/A2/L/4. Held by Union: Bound in: O.U.S Building Programmes. Document 9. Stacks L 378.425 74 OUS BUI. 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. 1916. ‘Oxford Union Society : Arrangements for Cadets in Training at Cadets’. Bound with O.U.S. Miscellaneous Documents 1. Document 14. Stacks 378.425 74 OUS MIS. Found Here

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.

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

Standing Committee. 1915. ‘NOTICE’. Bound with O.U.S. Miscellaneous Documents 1. Document 11. Stacks 378.425 74 OUS MIS. Found Here

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

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

  • 1
    Morrah 1923: 198
  • 2
    Wilkinson 1862: 1-3.
  • 3
    Oxford Union 1877: 3-4. Sidebotham 1859: 4.
  • 4
    Sidebotham 1859: 4. Wilkinson 1862: 1-3.
  • 5
    Oxford Union 1877: 3-4.
  • 6
    Wilkinson 1862: 1-3.
  • 7
    Bank of England 2024.
  • 8
    Morrah 1923: 263.
  • 9
    Sidebotham 1859: 4.
  • 10
    Murphy, Shuman 1953: 51.
  • 11
    Talbot 1869: 2-3.
  • 12
    Oxford Union 1938.
  • 13
    Hirst 1896.
  • 14
    Oxford Union 1907: 8.
  • 15
    Standing Committee 1915. Ball 1916. Oxford Union 1916.
  • 16
    Morrah 1923: 205.

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