BROAD STREET, OXFORD

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What to put in the centre of Broad Street

Old lamppost in the Broad

 

There has always been a feeling that a street as wide as Broad Street should have a “feature” in the middle.

 

In the nineteenth century the space was filled by telegraph poles with electric lamps that ran along the centre of the road, and a cab-stand and shelter outside Trinity (left); and today there is car-parking in the middle of the street. But people have always hankered after something grander.

Broad Street is broad for three reasons:

  • Like St Giles, it was outside the city walls and therefore not constrained by a medieval street plan;
  • There used to be an extra row of houses in the middle, which were removed in 1667 to improve the view of the Sheldonian Theatre, thus making the east end very wide
  • The Mileways Act of 1771 included a decision to widen Broad Street, removing the wall on the south side of Balliol College, and “taking in such part of the Garden as shall be necessary”. As a result, in 1772 the entire forecourt with trees outside Balliol was removed, making the west end equally wide.

In the early 1840s, the idea was hatched to put the Martyrs’ Memorial here, but it was decided that there was insufficient space.


In 1858 there was another idea (proposed by John Gibbs of St Giles, the Oxford architect who designed the Banbury Cross) for a monstrous monument and fountain dedicated to King Alfred that nearly came to fruition. Jackson’s Oxford Journal for 18 September 1858 reported:

Proposed Memorial Fountain in Oxford to Alfred the Great

A project for erecting a memorial in this city for Alfred the Great has just been started, and we hope to see it carried out. The project is brought to our notice by Mr Gibbs, architect of this city, who has prepared a magnificent design, in which he has shown great originality of composition, beautifully expressed. The project is a noble one, and will doubtless be responded to by persons far and near. Mr Gibbs suggests that it should stand in the centre of Broad-street, a site truly worthy of so beautiful a work….

The architect John Gibbs then wrote the following long letter to the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of the University, the Bishop of Oxford, and “Noblemen and Gentlemen of the University and City of Oxford”, published in Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 25 September 1858:

Identified as Oxford is with much that is great and good, it is singularly destitute of public monuments of a national character. I will not attempt to account for this, but may observe that but few places have a greater claim upon the country than Oxford for memorials which should perpetuate the memory of persons who have distinguished themselves within her walls, and for the good of all. Of all the names of kings and princes, and nobles, and other great and learned men that are dear to Oxford, none are dearer than that of King Alfred the Great. [Long encomium, with poems, on the said king is set out at this point of the letter.]

   To perpetuate the memory of Alfred by the erection of an appropriate and lasting memorial, is the object of this letter; and I venture to state a belief I entertain of its practicability and ultimate success. In accordance with these views, I have made a design for a memorial, which is considered suitable to the grand purpose, and most respectfully beg to call your attention to it, with a hope that it may be accepted. That so desirable and necessary a work should be effected satisfactorily, alike to members of this University, the citizens of Oxford, and the country generally, I have published my design, so that its proportions and details may be fully seen and understood. In it may be seen a representation of the king, and four other figures, with ornaments of a proper character and style. The whole is designed to exhibit a grand memorial, provision in which would be made for a tasteful display of water, which would fall into several basins without touching the figures. The advantages that would arise from a constant supply of water from the fountain would be to immense advantage to Oxford, even apart from the refreshing and beautiful appearance it would have.

  The site I would select for such a memorial is the centre of Broad-street, where it could be seen from many points of view.

  I trust, my Lords and Gentlemen, that no apology is needed from me in bringing this subject before you, but otherwise, and that you will accept of that support in the undertaking which would doubtlessly be given to it. Many distinguished persons in different parts of Europe and America would, I believe, subscribe largely to a fund for its erection, nor can I doubt the loyalty of the many students of the University, who would come forward nobly and do honour to the memory of their patron, King Alfred the Great

The design then started to get complicated: guns from the Crimea were to be incorporated into the ninth-century watery tableau:

We understand that it has been suggested to Mr Gibbs, the architect for the proposed Memorial Fountain, that he might unite with it, in some way or other, the Russian guns presented to this City, in which case they would be mounted upon memorial pedestals to the officers and men who, from this University, City, and County, fell in the Crimean War. (Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 2 October 1858)

Then numerous coats of arms were to be added to the guns, and Alfred, and his four companions, and the fountain, as reported in Jackson’s Oxford Journal for 9 October 1858:

We understand that the Queen and the Prince Consort have been pleased to accept copies of Mr Gibbs’s design for the proposed memorial for this city. The total height of the memorial will be, we hear, about 43 feet, and the cost 1500l. Beyond the great amount of ornament already shown in the design, Mr Gibbs proposed to introduce the royal arms, with those of the City, University, County, Colleges, and Halls. We are glad to observe that our contemporaries, both in London and the provinces, have shown much feeling in their notice of this subject.

In the event, the memorial fountain plus accoutrements was never erected.


Carfax Conduit

 

In the 1970s, a model of the Carfax Conduit was set up outside Exeter College (original shown in an old print, left) to see what it would look like.

In 2000, when the Martyrs’ Memorial was in need of restoration, the idea of moving it to Broad Street came up, resurrecting the idea that had proved impractical in the 1840s

Other ideas are still being discussed.

 

 

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