The Clarendon Building

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1954.

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'The Clarendon Building', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, (London, 1954), pp. 54-55. British History Online [accessed 13 June 2024].

. "The Clarendon Building", in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, (London, 1954) 54-55. British History Online, accessed June 13, 2024,

. "The Clarendon Building", A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, (London, 1954). 54-55. British History Online. Web. 13 June 2024,


When Archbishop Sheldon gave money to erect a building for the ceremonial acts of the University, he stipulated that provision should also be made for the accommodation of its printers. The compositors and presses were accordingly installed in the Sheldonian Theatre in 1669, but for various reasons this arrangement proved unsatisfactory, and before the end of the 17th-century accommodation for the presses had been found elsewhere, partly in the Schools Quadrangle, and partly in a special building erected to the east of the theatre. The financial difficulties of the Delegates made it impossible to house the press in a more satisfactory manner until the publication in 1702–4 of Clarendon's History of the Great Rebellion brought them a substantial increase in income. It was the profits derived from the sale of this famous work which, together with the sum of £2,000 paid by John Baskett, the King's Printer, for the lease of the University Press, made possible the erection of a new printing house designed for the purpose. (fn. 1)

In 1710–11 the Vice-Chancellor's accounts record the purchase of several 'old houses next the Theatre' for the site of the new building, 'the whole area of Ground' thus cleared making 'a spacious Compass'. (fn. 2) According to a note made by Hearne in 1712, 'The University gave to Townesend & one Haukes an Architect in London an hundred Guineas only for viewing the Ground on wch they are building the new Printing House, besides divers Treats.' (fn. 3) 'The line propos'd for ye South side of ye Print-house' is marked on one of a series of plans of the Schools area prepared under Hawksmoor's direction at this period. (fn. 4) But there is no reference to his remuneration until 1715, and Hearne's statement must have been inspired by the payment to William Townesend on 17 Feb. 1711–12, of £100 'for ye new Printing House'. (fn. 5) According to Dr. John Ayliffe, 'The Plan or Model of this Structure was contrived by that ingenious Artist of a Mason, Mr. Townsend of Oxford'. (fn. 6) Ayliffe was a fellow of New College, and he was writing while the new printing house was actually in course of erection. But Hawksmoor's letters to Henry Joynes, the comptroller and clerk of the works at Blenheim, who was also acting as his assistant, show that he was in charge throughout, (fn. 7) and at a meeting of the Delegates held in Oct. 1715, on the completion of the building, it was agreed 'to gratifie Mr. Hawksmore for his care in drawing & supervising ye whole worke of ye New Printing house' by a gift of £100. (fn. 8) In the Clarke collection at Worcester College there are several alternative designs for the building, some of which bear explanatory notes in Hawksmoor's characteristic calligraphy. The Doric elevation actually adopted (with some slight modifications) is, moreover, endorsed in Dr. Clarke's hand as a 'Designe for the Printing house at Oxford by Mr. Hawksmoor'. (fn. 9) As Clarke's advice had been asked by the Vice-Chancellor, he is not likely to have been mistaken, especially as he had in his possession a rejected design which there is good reason to attribute to Townesend himself, and which in no way resembles the building as erected. (fn. 10)

A case for Townesend's authorship of the executed design has, however, been put forward by Mr. W. G. Hiscock in A Christ Church Miscellany (1946). (fn. 11) He believes that a second payment to Townesend on 3 Mar. 1711–12, amounting to £200, must have been 'payment for [his] design', and argues that the 'belated payment' of £100 to Hawksmoor in 1715, 'two years after the masonry was finished', cannot have included 'the fee for the design'. But the accounts show that the carvers and joiners were still at work in 1715, and Townesend himself did not receive his last payment for workmanship until 1716–17. There was therefore nothing belated about Hawksmoor's remuneration, and the fact that, crippled with gout, and with duties to perform elsewhere, he 'was not in touch with the details', and relied on Joynes for reports of progress, does not prove that the design was not his. In any case 18th-century architects habitually supervised works in their charge from a distance. As for the £200 which Townesend received on 3 March, it was usual to make advances to the contracting mason at the commencement of the work, and, in the absence of the original contract, it is reasonable to suppose that it was an initial payment for masonry. The suggestion that it was 'payment for Townesend's design' is unsupported by any other evidence, and such generous remuneration merely for an architectural design would not have been in accordance with 18th-century architectural practice. Unless any further evidence should come to light, it would therefore seem that Dr. Ayliffe's statement must be rejected. (fn. 12)

Hearne records the laying of the foundation stone on 22 Feb. 1711–12: 'Yesterday Morning about 9 Clock the Foundation Stone for the New Printing House was laid on the South Corner of the West side Foundation at Wch time Basket gave the workmen four Guineas. They dug 15 feet before they arriv'd at Gravel for a Foundation. (fn. 13) In March, Hawksmoor was writing to Joynes for information about the price of mason's, carpenter's, and plumber's work in Oxford, 'that I may proceed to make an Estimate &c., and Draw ye heads of a Contract'. (fn. 14) The contract has been lost, but the master-mason was William Townesend, and the names of the other craftsmen employed are known from the Vice-Chancellor's accounts. (fn. 15) The building was provided with two pairs of stairs on either side of a central passageway, because, as Hawksmoor noted on one of his drawings, there were '2 distinct Companys' of printers—the 'learned press' under the direct control of the Delegates, and the 'Bible press' conducted by John Baskett. By Oct. 1713 the building was ready for occupation, (fn. 16) and in Oct. 1715 the ViceChancellor rendered an account of 'all Moneys paid and disbursed on Account of the New Printing House', amounting to £6,185 13s. 9d. (fn. 17) This, however, did not include the carving in the Delegates' Room, upon which £78 4s. 4d. was spent in 1717–18, nor the statue of Lord Clarendon, for which 'Mr. (i.e. Francis) Bird' received £55 in 1721. (fn. 18) The lead statues on the roof, formerly nine in number, represent the Muses, and were designed by Sir James Thornhill, whose drawings for them are preserved in the Clarke collection at Worcester College. (fn. 19) According to an entry in Hearne's 'diary, dated 12 Nov. 1717, 'Last week began to be put up upon the new Printing House in Oxford, a Parcell of Heavy Leaden Statues call'd the nine Muses. These leaden Statues had lain at ye Wharf above Two Years, having been first of all refused. But Basket at last prevail'd with the Delegates to take them, and by that means he hath got more Money from them, these statues coming to about six hundred Pounds.' (fn. 20) In fact the Vice-Chancellor's accounts show that they cost the University only £300. (fn. 21) Their place of origin is not mentioned, but it is likely that it was John van Nost's leaden figure manufactory in Piccadilly, for in March 1719–20 Dr. Clarke and Townesend went up to London in order to bespeak some 'Vases for the printing house', and 'agreed with Mr. Noist for 80li for the three, to be delivered to the Oxford barge'. (fn. 22) These vases were intended to occupy vacant pedestals on the roof, where they can be seen in Williams's view of 1732–3, but they have since disappeared. It is uncertain who was responsible for the fine wrought-iron gates. In one of his letters to Joynes, Hawksmoor speaks of Mr. Ireland the smith, who 'came downe to Oxford last Sunday, to view ye printing house, in order to take measurs for ye iron fence', but there is no reference to Ireland in the accounts, and the only payments for work of this kind are £250 'to Booth for Ironwork' and £150 9s. 9d. 'to Medley the Smith'.

In 1831, on the completion of the new Clarendon Press in Walton St., the old Printing House was 'appropriated to the general business of the University', and Sir Robert Smirke was employed to adapt the interior for use as a registry and for the accommodation of the University police, with lecture-rooms on the first floor. (fn. 23) The Delegates, however, retained the finely panelled room in which their meetings are still held.

The Headington freestone of which the building is constructed has not proved a durable material, and extensive repairs were required in 1812 and again in 1920, when much of the exterior was patched with Clipsham stone.


  • 1. The First Minute Book of the Delegates of the Oxford University Press 1668–1756 (1943), edited by Strickland Gibson and John Johnson for the Oxford Bibliographical Society, pp. xii-xxvii.
  • 2. J. Ayliffe, The Antient & Present State of the University of Oxford, i (1714), p. 477. The buildings removed included the St. Mary's Parish House and Ball's Coffee House. See the plan of the site printed in Skelton's Oxonia Antiqua Restaurata, ii (1823), pl. 100, and surveys, or copies of surveys, dated 1713, in the University Archives (S.E.P. 19 (23) and (26a)) and in Bodl. Lib. MS. Top. Oxon. a. 24, f. 40.
  • 3. Hearne, iii, 347. 'Burghers the Ingraver told this to Dr. Hudson.
  • 4. Bodl. Lib. MS. Top. Oxon. a. 24, ff. 43–6. Hawksmoor's responsibility for these plans is proved by the fact that they incorporate a version of his design for rebuilding Brasenose College, and by various annotations in his hand, including the name of 'Harry Joynes', his assistant, in the middle of f. 46.
  • 5. Vice-Chancellor's accounts 1697–1735.
  • 6. Op. cit., p. 476.
  • 7. British Museum Add. MS. 19607, ff. 14, 83, 90, 91, 93, 97, 99, 100. The letters cover the period from Mar. 1712, when the foundations were being dug, to July 1713, when plastering was in progress.
  • 8. The First Minute Book, &c., p. 45. This appears in the Vice-Chancellor's accounts as two separate payments of £53 15s.
  • 9. This drawing is in a folio volume of architectural drawings in Case Y.D. 7. The others are pasted into Clarke's copy of Oxonia Illustrata. The 'adopted' design and some of the others were reproduced by H. A. Tipping in his article on 'The Old Clarendon Building' in Country Life, lxiii (1928), 800, and again in his English Homes, Period iv, vol. ii, figs. xxvii-xxx.
  • 10. This 'designe for the Printeing-house sent me by The Vice-Chanceler' is by the same hand as a (rejected) elevation for All Souls in the folio volume, endorsed 'Young Mr. Townsend's draft. June 30. 1709'. As William Townesend's father John, the Mayor of Oxford, described on his monument in St. Giles's churchyard as in architectonica magister peritissimus, did not die until 1728, it is reasonable to suppose that the endorsement refers to William. It seems unlikely that it was his son John (d. 1746) who is meant, as he was barely 20 in 1709.
  • 11. Pp. 44–7.
  • 12. Since the above was in proof, Townesend's receipted bills have been discovered among the muniments of All Souls College. None of them makes any reference to designing or surveying, and the payments of 17 Feb. and 3 Mar. 1711–12 were both
  • 13. Hearne, iii, 301.
  • 14. B.M., Add. MS. 19607, f. 83.
  • 15. The principal names mentioned are Smith, carpenter; Coles and Taylor, plumbers; Medley, smith; Minn, joiner; Wildgoose, painter; Fifield and Lea, plasterers; Meelks, locksmith; and Booth 'for Ironwork'. Thomas Minn, the joiner, who received £294 10s. in 1715, and £220 more in 1716–17, was evidently responsible for the fine panelling in the Delegates' Room. He died in 1724 (Hearne, viii, 165).
  • 16. Hearne, iv, 254. The Delegates had 'come to the New Printing House and assigned the Roomes' in June (The First Minute Book, &c., p. 39).
  • 17. Vice-Chancellor's Accounts. This was not, however, the total expenditure, as further payments are recorded in subsequent years.
  • 18. This statue formerly occupied the niche on the south front, but has recently been moved to the west front. Francis Bird (1667–1731) who worked for Wren at St. Paul's and who carved the statue of Dr. Radcliffe at University College in 1719, should not be confused with William Bird of Oxford, a sculptor who could have been, and possibly was, his father.
  • 19. In a volume of engravings in Case T.D. 5.
  • 20. Hearne, vi, 106.
  • 21. Vice-Chancellor's Accounts, 1720–1.
  • 22. Bodleian, MS. Ballard XX, f. 142.
  • 23. Convocation Register 1829–37, p. 197. Smirke's plans are in the University Archives (Hyp. E. 26). See also S.E.P. 19(25).