The History of the Oxford Union Writing Room

Fig. 1. The Oxford Union Bar in c1880. Oxford Union c1880.
Fig. 2. The Oxford Union bar in 2024. Photo taken by Library.

The surviving resources for this research are patchy at best: deeds, campaign pamphlets, partial floor-plans, etc, so it is not always possible to fill in the blanks in the Oxford Union Society’s history. In spite of this, this is what has been uncovered about the Oxford Union and, in particular, its writing rooms.

The Oxford Union Society was founded in 1823 under the name of The United Debating Society; this was changed, in 1825, to The Oxford Union Society.1Oxford Union 1907: 1. At first the Union did not have premises, instead holding meetings in various college rooms.2Sidebotham 1859: 3. Frewin Court was then purchased by the Society in 1852; already on the premises was the building which today contains the Library Reception and General Office.3Oxford Union. 1880. Oxford Union 1907: 6 The first building to be added to the existing premises at Frewin Court was the Debating Hall built in 1856,4Sidebotham 1859: 4. which later became the Old Library. Surprisingly, the Oxford Union Society, which is unfairly regarded in some quarters as a drinking club masquerading as a debating society, has not always had its own bar. In fact, the Bar, as it is now, was once the Union’s original Writing Room.

In 1863 a two-storey extension was built at a cost of £2,200,5Wilkinson 1862: 1-3. equivalent to over £220,000 by today’s standards,6Bank of England 2024.  providing two extra rooms. The first floor (now the Gladstone Room) was originally intended to combat the double use of the Debating Chamber and was run by the library as the new Reading Room,7Sidebotham J S 1859: 4 whilst the ground floor became the Writing Room. Figs. 1 and 2 show the Writing Room as it was in about 1880 and the same room as it is in the 2020s. In fig. 1 a small bookshelf can be seen on the back wall; This is interesting as it would seem that some books were confined for use in the Writing Room – one of these books can be seen in fig. 3.

Fig. 3. Book Confined to the Writing Room
Fig. 4. Section of: Oxford Union. c1910. ‘Document 5, ‘Ground Plan’’. Bound in: O.U.S Building Programmes. Stacks L 378.425 74 OUS BUI.
Fig. 5. Writing Room in Macmillan Room in 1911. Morrah, Herbert A 1923: 79.

Despite this expense, just six years later, in November of 1869, the Union’s Building Committee was actively considering a brand-new writing room as they had deemed the original to be

“in the highest degree inconvenient and uncomfortable8Talbot 1869: 1-5.

as always, the Union is not shy of drama. They also wanted a smoking room, a weekly paper room, larger lavatories and increased library accommodation. This proposal was rejected, possibly because of cost carrying out the work, an estimated £6000, or over £500,000 in today’s money.9Bank of England 2024.

The idea of a new writing room was not forgotten, however, and by 1877 the Building Committee was discussing demolishing the existing buildings excluding “the existing Library block (and of course the Debating Room)”.10Talbot 1869: 1-5: 3. Whilst this was agreed in principle the project seems to have been shelved in favour of a new debating hall,11Oxford Union 1877: 1. so the Writing Room remained in what is now the bar until 1911 when a further extension was built, as seen in fig.4.12Oxford Union c1910. This extension is now the Goodman Library and Macmillan Room. The Writing Room moved into what is now the Macmillan Room, as seen in figs. 5 and 6, whilst the original Writing Room became the Reading Room.13Oxford Union 1938: 6. In the 1920s, the Reading Room became the Member’s Bar,14Murphy, Shuman 1953. and in 1922 the Standing Committee of the Oxford Union was campaigning to build a dining room. This did not happen because the plan was overbudget, membership was declining, the Union was already spending their budget on fireproofing the Debating Hall and the value of property was falling.15Wells, Carlyle, Carson 1922.

Fig. 6. Macmillan Room in 2024. Photo taken by Library.

By 1934 Union members were lamenting the lack of dining facilities and the fact that members could not “lunch or dine at their club”.16Karaka 1934. Despite having, in 1932-34, purchased  “a property adjacent to the premises of the Society” and deeming it suitable for the construction of a dining hall,17Karaka 1934. it was never built due to lack of funds and membership.18Steele-Maitland. 1934 Today, the Macmillan Room serves as the Oxford Union’s dining room for special events and you can now ‘lunch’ in the Member’s Bar.


Bibliography:

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

Cecil, Robert. c1878. ‘Sir, at the time the new debating hall was built a debt of £9,400 was incurred : of which £600 was afterwards paid off’. Bound in: O.U.S Building Programmes. Document 3. Stacks L 378.425 74 OUS BUI. Found Here

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

Knatchbull-Hugessen, E. H. 1879. Time. ‘The Oxford Union’. Vol.2. pp.146-156. 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. 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.  c1910. ‘Document 5, ‘Ground Plan’’. Bound in: O.U.S Building Programmes. Stacks L 378.425 74 OUS BUI.

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
    Oxford Union 1907: 1.
  • 2
    Sidebotham 1859: 3.
  • 3
    Oxford Union. 1880. Oxford Union 1907: 6
  • 4
    Sidebotham 1859: 4.
  • 5
    Wilkinson 1862: 1-3.
  • 6
    Bank of England 2024.
  • 7
    Sidebotham J S 1859: 4
  • 8
    Talbot 1869: 1-5.
  • 9
    Bank of England 2024.
  • 10
    Talbot 1869: 1-5: 3.
  • 11
    Oxford Union 1877: 1.
  • 12
    Oxford Union c1910.
  • 13
    Oxford Union 1938: 6.
  • 14
    Murphy, Shuman 1953.
  • 15
    Wells, Carlyle, Carson 1922.
  • 16
    Karaka 1934.
  • 17
    Karaka 1934.
  • 18
    Steele-Maitland. 1934