The above picture shows University College in about 1900: it was probably taken during the Long Vacation, as even though the shops in the distance appear to be open, the road is empty. W. E. Sherwood records that from the end of June to the beginning of October, “the grass used to grow up between the pebbles in the High Street”.
University College was the first college to be founded in Oxford. In 1249 William of Durham bequeathed the University money to support ten or twelve Masters of Arts studying Divinity, and a property which became known as Aula Universitatis (University Hall) was bought in 1253. More buildings were acquired, including from 1332 property on the south side of the High Street. The present college was built there in the first half of the seventeenth century.
The Universal British Directory of 1791 has this to say about the college
The magnificent front of this college is extended upwards of two hundred and sixty feet along the south side of the High-street. In it, at due distances, are two stately portals, with a tower over each. That on the west leads into the old court, which is a handsome Gothic quadrangle of one hundred feet square. Over the gate at the entrance, on the outside, is a statue of Queen Anne, and within another of James II. Over the eastern entrance, on the outside, is also one of Queen Mary, wife of William III. On the south of the western quadrangle are the chapel and hall. The statue of St. Cuthbert is over the gate of the chapel, and that of Alfred at the entrance of the hall. The altar-window was given by Dr. Radcliffe, as appears by its inscription, A.D. 1687. The roof of the chapel is a well-wrought frame of Norway oak. The hall has been lately fitted up in a very beautiful Gothic style, at the expense of many generous contributions, and is a most complete room of the kind. It is of the age of the chapel.
From this court, through a narrow passage on the east, we are led into another area of three sides. It is opened to a garden on the south. The east and part of the north side are taken up by the lodgings of the master, which are commodious and extensive. In a niche over the gate on the north is a statue of Dr. Radcliffe. The sides of this court are about eighty feet.
King Alfred is said to have founded this college, A.D. 872. It is evident that he erected certain halls in Oxford, near, or on the spot, where this college now stands; and that he endowed the students of them with certain pensions issuing from the exchequer. But it is no less certain that these halls were alienated to the citizens, and that their pensions were suppressed about the reign of the Conqueror. In fact, the founder of this college appears to be William archdeacon of Durham, who, purchasing (A.D. 1209) one of the halls which had been originally erected by Alfred, and very probably styled University Hall, of the citizens, endowed with lands. A society being thus established, many other benefactors afterwards appeared, who improved the revenues and buildings. Of these the most considerable are, Walter Skirla bishop of Durham, who founded three fellowships. Henry Percy earl of Northumberland, A.D. 1443, added the same number. Sir Simon Bennet, in the reign of Charles I, established four fellowships and four scholarships. Many otherwise have likewise founded fellowships and exhibitions….
As to the buildings, the present spacious, splendid, and uniform structure began to be erected A.D. 1634, by the benefaction of Charles Greenwood, formerly fellow, and was soon carried on by Sir Simon Bennet above-mentioned. Nor were succeeding patrons wanting to continue so noble a work, till it was finally completed by Dr. John Radcliffe, who erected the whole eastern quadrangle entirely at his own expense.