On Friday 27 September, Hertford College celebrated the forthcoming centenary of its bridge alongside a Mini — marking 100 years of car manufacturing in Oxford, too. In this article, Dr Christopher Tyerman, Senior Research Fellow and Tutor in History at Hertford College, explains the complex past of the bridge.

The bridge linking the old and new quadrangles of Hertford College was opened on 14 January 1914. Designed, as had been all the new buildings erected since the college’s foundation in 1874, by the fashionable architect T.G. Jackson, it presented a far from neutral aesthetic statement, inscribing not only Jackson’s own architectural principles of what he called ‘judicious eclecticism’ but also now long-forgotten debates over the nature of the new college, its educational purpose and academic credentials.

The new Hertford College was born of a series of paradoxes. Magdalen Hall, its institutional progenitor, had flourished in the nineteenth century, its lack of restrictive statutes allowing it to admit a wide range of fee-paying undergraduates at modest charge, a contemporary version of open access. However, the reforms of the 1850s and 1870s had freed other colleges from their statutory straightjackets allowing them to undercut halls such as Magdalen Hall in numbers, facilities and social standing. The foundation of Keble in 1868 further threatened Magdalen Hall’s market. Principal Richard Michell (1805-77) saw incorporation as a college as the only way to avoid the fate of most other Oxford halls that had either gone bust or been ingested by colleges.

Michell was a reformer, believing in extending the curriculum and in fostering a genuinely educational tutorial system. However, his plan required endowment. Fortuitously, the banker T.C.Baring offered to endow a new college lavishly – in the end his donations amounting to over £210,000, the equivalent today of around £25 million. Contrary to legend, Hertford was not originally an especially poor college. Baring, though, was a difficult customer – ‘a reactionary curmudgeon’ – and deeply opposed to reform. He wished to tie his endowment to the proviso that new fellows of the college should be unmarried Anglican clerics nominated by him, in direct challenge to the reforming Act of 1871.

Apart from being of dubious legality, Baring’s conditions contradicted Michell’s whole reformist policy. Enter at this point F. H. Jeune (1843-1905), a young barrister specialising in ecclesiastical law. He helped finesse the details of Baring’s endowment to make it legal and acceptable to MPs, allowing them to pass the private Act of Parliament that incorporated the new college. Baring’s role was hidden in an anonymous trust. Jeune became one of the very first new fellows of Hertford in 1874. Later a judge and elevated to the peerage as Baron St Helier (where he had been born), Jeune was, like Baring, a Low Church evangelical, involved in cases over High Church tendencies in the Anglican church, but, unlike Baring, a reformer. Henry Boyd, another of the first new fellows of Hertford who became Principal in 1877, was also a reformer but, like Jeune and Baring, suspicious of the Romish aura that surrounded the rival foundation of Keble. These disparate tendencies combined in Jackson’s architecture and nowhere more obviously than in the bridge.

Pre-reform Oxford had been wedded to vernacular classical architecture, as in Old Buildings (OB) 1 and the Old Lodgings of the 1820s. Reformers from the mid-nineteenth century turned to the Gothic as a visible symbol of a new academic rigour. However, by the late nineteenth century Gothic had become associated in turn with a growing intellectual rigidity and was tinged with the alleged Romism of the Oxford Movement, embodied in Keble. Nobody was more sensitive to the statements conveyed through architecture than Jackson, who sided definitively with progress, the modernisers and reformers, choosing a loosely Renaissance range of designs to express this distance from both reaction and Rome. Jackson himself wrote of his bridge two days after it was opened:

“There are many examples in Italy, which contain useful suggestions, though I have tried to give the design a character in conformity with the traditions of the English Renaissance.”

He sought a delicate balance of reform and reaction, humanism and evangelicalism. Just as the Hertford bridge has never been the Bridge of Sighs, neither was it without its own message.

The idea for a bridge was Boyd’s, who wrote in 1899 of his scheme “to have an underground passage for the servants and bridge for the fellows and undergraduates.” This would unite the two parts of his college, allowing its members untrammelled access even after curfew at 10 pm. In the event the tunnel was never completed and most inhabitants of New Buildings (NB) quad have always preferred a stroll along Catte Street to mountaineering in NB 2 and OB1.)

Overcoming sustained hostility from City and University, Boyd finally secured permission early in 1913. The bridge was largely paid for Lady St Helier, Jeune’s widow, who, when opening the newly built construction in 1914, publicly dedicated it to her husband. On the St Helier bridge, the heraldry and inscriptions testify to the layers of compromise on which the college had been founded. On the west side, confidently facing the public and academic heart of the university, with the arms of Hertford College and Magdalen Hall are those of Lord St Helier and the name of Principal Boyd, the evangelical reformers. On the east, hidden as if embarrassed, away from the crowds, are carved the arms of T.C. Baring – the real, if reactionary, founder of Hertford College.

Further Reading: W. Whyte, ‘Unbuilt Hertford: T. G. Jackson’s Contextual Dilemmas’, Architectural History 45 (2002), pp. 347-62; idem, Oxford Jackson (Oxford 2006), esp. pp. 112-14; N. Saul, ‘A bridge between town and gown’, Seven Hundred Years of an Oxford College, ed. A,. Goudie (revised edn 1999), pp. 72-5.

Image by John Cairns