Frewin Hall, Brasenose College, Oxford

Elizabeth Boardman

There is a place in Oxford which can link the names of Erasmus and Sir Walter Scott, where impoverished children and a future king lived, which has echoed to the sound of monks and of political protesters, and which was both condemned and preserved by the same public body in the space of twenty years. -1   Yet many inhabitants of Oxford pass along Cornmarket and New Inn Hall Street entirely unaware even of the existence of Frewin Hall. The history of the house is long and complex and only a summary is attempted here.  A lengthy article on the New Inn Hall site was published by R.W. Jeffery in The Brazen Nose vol. IV no. 6 (May 1927), to which the reader is recommended for a detailed account of the history before the eighteenth century.

Our earliest knowledge of the site is from about 1435, when it was purchased by Thomas Holden and his wife Elizabeth.  Subsequently they assigned it to the Augustinians, enabling the Order to begin their long desired College in Oxford.  The abbeys and priories of the Order underwrote the costs of building a college dedicated to St. Mary, to be used for the education of Augustinians who could then pass their learning on to others in the Order.  Statutes were produced in the late 1440s, much the same as those of other halls and colleges.  A Prior was the head of the college, whose members were to be trained 'in logical exercises', attend Chapel regularly, use Latin in conversation and dine with their fellows in Hall.  When Erasmus was studying at Oxford during his first visit to Oxford he stayed at St. Mary's.

The College was dissolved in 1541 and the last Abbot of Osney, Robert King, surrendered the property to the Crown.  In 1547 and 1556 the appointment of masters suggests that the buildings were used for education again as a University Hall, but the ownership of the site becomes difficult to follow, and indeed was to be disputed fiercely in the coming decades.  In 1556 John Waite, a member of the City Council, bargained for timber and slates from the site, but the City disassociated itself from this transaction.  At the same time the College was conveyed to the University by John Fettiplace, but this did not hold, in spite of the efforts of one William Tresham who was employed by the University 'for the saving of St. Mary College against John Waite, who then began to spoil it'.  By 1562 the Countess of Huntingdon and her son the Earl were in possession of the site and they conveyed it to the City (John Waite now being the mayor).  Trustees took it over to maintain ten poor children and 'for the setting to work of tenne or more poore people having not otherwaies wherwth howe to gett their livynge'. -2   The College was referred to as a hospital or the Bridewell and continued in this use for over 20 years.

On 11 February 1579/80 the Earl of Huntingdon conveyed the site of St. Mary's College to Brasenose.  As this is the earliest deed of the site to survive it is now impossible to judge whether or not this transaction was unjust to the City or not.  We have a declaration made by the Earl ten days earlier to the effect that when he and his mother previously conveyed the property to the City it had been upon conditions which had not been fulfilled and so he was now reclaiming the site. 

Brasenose College's first tenant was Dr. Griffith Lloyd, the second Principal of Jesus, who erected the present northern wing over the existing crypt on two floors, the upper of which was gabled. -3   Dr. Lloyd died in 1586 but his widow Ann remained in possession and within a year of her husband's death she was embroiled in a dispute about a right of way through the property which was claimed by the Principal of the nearby New Inn Hall.  The outcome of the dispute is not known, but it has a familiar feel to anyone who has investigated the history of the site.  Claims of rights of way from New Inn Hall Street and Cornmarket and disputes over party walls turn up with monotonous regularity.

In the 1620s the old dispute with the City as to the ownership of the property was revived, with both College and City granting leases and employing legal representatives.  It seems that the City gave up the fight eventually, for St. Mary's College became the undisputed property of Brasenose, to be occupied for the next century mostly by a series of sub tenants of absentee holders.  At the beginning of this period the whole site was let out, valued in 1628 at 1480, -4 but after 1669 it was divided in two, the main house with its orchard and garden on one lease and thirteen cottages on another; the latter were eventually to be further divided and let separately.

In 1649 a lease included the right of the Principal and Fellows or their representatives 'to pull downe the olde Chappell ... of Stone, Tymber, Lead, Iron and Slatt ... from thence to remove and carrie away for the new building of a Chappell'. -5   Principal Samuel Radcliffe had died the year before and had left money to build a chapel and a library; clearly the buildings of St. Mary's College were seen as a useful source for materials.  The building work was delayed by a legal dispute about Radcliffe's will, but in March 1656 the Bursar records payment to 'ye slatters for takeing downe ye slatts of ye old chapple' -6 at St. Mary's.  A few days later he notes that he paid Walter Redhead and his son and a man named Quaterman for 'bringing ye roof of ye old chapple to ye Coll'.   This was the hammerbeam roof of the Augustinians' chapel, which was moved to Brasenose and stored in sheds before being used as the roof of the new Chapel.  It dictated the dimensions of the new building and is still there, concealed behind the seventeenth century plaster fan vault.

The inhabitant who gave Frewin Hall its name was tenant between 1721 and 1761.  Richard Frewin, born in London -7 and educated at Westminster and Christ Church, was the leading Oxford physician of his time and was also Camden Professor of History.  Frewin was indirectly responsible for the development of Brighton as a resort: he pointed out the value of sea water in the treatment of glandular disorders to Richard Russell, a doctor of Lewes, and Russell moved to Brighton, with considerable success. -8   When Frewin died he had outlived three wives and left his money to charity, including a bequest of 2,000, the interest of which was for the benefit of the physician to the as yet unbuilt Radcliffe Infirmary; this bequest continues to provide 100 a year as an essay prize today.

Frewin built a large wing at right angles to the original house and added a doorway to the Tudor building.  According to Jacksons Oxford Journal he left 'his House in Oxford to the Professor of Physic in this University for the Time being, after the Demise of James Gilpin Esq., one of his Executors'.  Certainly Gilpin, Recorder of Oxford and chapter clerk at Christ Church, followed Frewin into the house; he is recorded as tenant between 1762 and 1768.  After this the University was the tenant for over seventy five years, holding the house for the use of the Regius Professor of Medicine, also referred to as the King's Professor of Physic, although it is not possible to tell how many of them actually lived there.

The last Regius Professor during the tenancy of the University was Dr. (later Sir) Henry Acland.  He was a pioneer in the use of such instruments as the stethoscope and was a gifted administrator who was eventually to hold all seven medical academic appointments in the University simultaneously.  He also had a large consulting practice; in later life it was said that no-one of any consequence in Oxford would think of dying without consulting Sir Henry first. -9   It may be that Acland's official tenancy of Frewin was one of the deciding factors in choosing it as a residence for the Prince of Wales when he came up to the University in 1859.  Acland was to be the Prince's doctor during his time at Oxford, was to accompany him on a tour of North America during the Long Vacation of 1860 and was to remain in affectionate correspondence with him for some fifty years. 10  

The Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, lived at Frewin Hall for most of the academic year 1859-1860 and for the second half of Michaelmas Term 1860.  His father would have preferred that he was not attached to any single College at Oxford, as 'he belongs to the whole University ... as the Prince of Wales will always belong to the whole nation'.  However, the Vice Chancellor assured the Prince Consort that the Prince had to be part of a College and so it was decided that he would matriculate as a member of Christ Church but that he would live in a separate establishment, so that he could, as Albert directed 'remain entirely master (or for his governor to remain so for him) of the choice of society which he might encounter'. 11   His home at Frewin was shared by his governor General the Hon. Robert Bruce, who had been with the Prince for nearly a year, and Mrs. Bruce.  A body of professors directed the studies of the Prince and his six carefully chosen companions, including informal lectures on English History in the dining room of New Inn Hall, which adjoined Frewin.  All his teachers seem to have been impressed by his character and bearing, although they differed on his intellectual abilities.

It is quite difficult to get a clear picture of Edward's life at Oxford.  It has usually been portrayed as miserable and isolated, particularly by the critics of Victoria and Albert's attitude to their eldest son.  Certainly Albert wrote to Bruce 'we cannot afford to lose whole days out of the week for amusements, or to trench upon the hours of study by social calls ... the only use of Oxford is that it is a place for study, a refuge from the world and its claims', but it seems that the Prince was allowed some freedom.  He made lifelong friends at Oxford and it appears that it was among undergraduates that he acquired his addiction to tobacco.  Some of his friendships began on the hunting field, to which he 'escaped' from Bruce, according to some commentators.  12   However, if hunting was an illicit activity he would hardly have written to his mother on 29th November 1860: 'tomorrow, if the weather is fine, I hope to go out hunting'. 13  

Little is recorded of the Prince's life within the walls of Frewin Hall.  He had his own chef to deal with the dinner parties which his father expected him to give to heads of houses, professors and other 'distinguished men of the place'.  Undergraduates were to be included in these dinners to 'give variety and interest to the conversation' and would benefit from meeting 'familiarly those from whom they expect to derive the benefit of education, and between whom and themselves the habit and circumstances have placed unnecessary and hurtful barriers'. 14  

The Prince of Wales left the University for Cambridge at the end of Michaelmas term 1860, writing to Henry Acland 'I have enjoyed my stay very much and I hope I have derived some benefit from it'. 15   It appears that the College hoped to derive some benefit as well, as a valuation of November 1860 states that 'the House has doubtless gained some reputation by its present occupation' and that it 'would command a still higher Rental if the Entrance were better'. 16   The inconvenience of the narrow carriage drive from New Inn Hall Street and the tortuous passage from Cornmarket is a recurring feature in valuations for rental purposes.  In 1927 a report states 'for a private residence the situation of this House, although Central, is far from ideal as it is surrounded and dominated by the Union buildings, the backs of Houses and Shops and the Clarendon Hotel and Garage'. 17  

In the 1860s several names appear in the rent rolls.  A Dr. Wyatt was the tenant 1860-1861 and he was followed in 1862 by James Skene [1775-1864], who lived at Frewin with his daughter Felicia, and died there on 27th November 1864 after a lifetime spent in literary, artistic and scientific pursuits.  The Dictionary of National Biography records that Skene 'enjoyed the best literary society' at Frewin Hall; certainly he is recorded as entertaining a distinguished literary ghost there.  In his youth at the Scottish Bar he had met Sir Walter Scott and they had remained close friends until Scott's death in 1832.  Felicia Skene, who was much inclined to believe in supernatural appearances, recounted that shortly before her father died she found him one November afternoon 'with a look of radiant happiness upon his fine old face.  "Scott has been here! dear Scott! He told me he had come from a great distance to pay me a visit, and he has been sitting here with me talking of all our old happy days together.  He said it was long since we had met, but he is not in the least changed" ... He went on for some time describing the charming visit his dear old friend had paid him, with a minuteness which was rather startling ... How could I tell what it had been? or how could any one express an opinion on such an event?' 18  

After James Skene's death his son William F. Skene, a noted antiquary and historian, wrote to ask if he and his sister could continue the lease, 'as we have all become much attached to the place'. 19   However, Miss Skene ceased to be a tenant in September 1865 and with her departure presumably the needy had to go elsewhere for the portions which she used to distribute from one of the windows. 20   It is at this point that the house first appears in the rent rolls under the name of Frewin Hall; hitherto it had always been referred to as St. Mary's College.  In 1866 Edward Chapman became the College's tenant at Frewin and remained there for twenty one years.  He was evidently fond of the house, for in 1877 he offered to buy the freehold, but the College did not accept.

A valuation of 1887, at the end of Chapman's residence, describes Frewin in detail.  'The House and Premises comprise, on the Ground Floor, Entrance Hall, Dining Room, Drawing Room, Breakfast Room, Study, with small room adjoining used as a Workshop and Tool House, large Kitchen, back Kitchen, Housekeeper's Room, Butlers Pantry, and Man's Bedroom ... on the First Floor, three best Bedrooms, two Dressing Rooms and Water Closet.' There were nine attic bedrooms, wine and coal cellars in the basement, 'a Pleasure Garden in front of the Dining Room, Morning Room and Study, and a Kitchen Garden at the back of the House, - also a two-stall Stable, Coach House and small Yard, at the back ... The Holding forms altogether a comfortable and desirable Gentleman's Residence'. 21   This pleasant picture is somewhat marred when compared with another report of only a month later which recorded that there was no connection to the main sewers, all the WCs and sinks discharging into five cesspools.  The fact that the WCs were of obsolete design and most of them unventilated added up to a considerable health risk. 22  

The next tenant of Frewin had a tenuous connection with Brasenose; C.L. Shadwell, Provost of Oriel 1905-1914, was a friend of Walter Pater.  He was at Frewin for twenty years and carried out considerable alterations there, starting discussions about extending the building as soon as he came into possession.  On 6th Nov 1887 he wrote to the Bursar to say that he had 'now settled with Jackson (later Sir Thomas Jackson, who designed the Brasenose New Quad) on the plans for the new storey at Frewen [sic] Hall'. 23   The new storey substituted a straight roof line for the gables which had existed previously and Shadwell also added a doorway to the eighteenth century wing.  He was responsible for the chronogram, one of several examples in Oxford of his inscriptions which incorporate dates.  The one on Frewin Hall reads


The letters picked out in large capitals are all roman numerals and if they are totalled individually (for example IV reads as 1+5) the total is 1888, the year in which he took up residence.  It was later said that he had erred in the inscription and that instead of saying that Frewin Hall delighted Shadwell it was saying that he delighted Frewin Hall.  24  

Shadwell gave up the lease in 1907, by which time the property had been empty for seven years. 25   It passed to C.B. Heberden, Principal of Brasenose 1889-1920, but he did not live there.  He stayed in the Principal's Lodgings and sub let Frewin to Professor (later Sir) Charles Oman, the historian, who lived there until his death in 1946, agreeing to take over the lease from Heberden in 1920 on the condition that Heberden installed central heating first.

We have a great deal of information about this period in Frewin's history, partly because the estates correspondence survives in more detail, and partly from An Oxford Childhood (1976) by Sir Charles daughter.  Carola Oman lived at Frewin with her family from 1908, when she was ten, until the first world war, and her book gives the only first hand account of life inside Frewin Hall.  She describes dinner parties given by her parents with elaborate menus and waiters supplied by the colleges; she and her brother and sister would watch the arrivals from the top of the staircase outside the night nurseries.  A brougham was kept for her mother to pay calls, a horse and driver being hired from Mr. Stroud, who kept a livery stable in New Inn Hall Street just below their gatehouse.  Carola's account of the house describes three halls, a dining room and two drawing rooms, but only one bathroom: 'hip baths were still carried to the spare rooms and set down in front of good fires'.

Carola Oman also gives us a picture of Shadwell's eccentricities.  She recounts his pride in his lawn: 'if he detected a weed he would drop a massive bunch of keys as an order that it be instantly removed'.  Shadwell's keys to Frewin also figure in her account of an event which occurred after the Omans had been there for about a year.  Her father returned from All Souls one Sunday morning to hear voices and on investigation he found Shadwell saying 'and these are the best bedrooms' as he took a party of guests upstairs.  He had retained his front door key.

Out of doors the children's activities included the Frewin Hall Alpine Club, which involved climbing up the Union fire escape and round the premises at top of the wall level.  The tennis court had a distinct bias in favour of the home team, for those who knew it could place a ball so that it was impossible to return it without colliding with one of the shrubs.  An Oxford Childhood gives us snapshots of moments in Frewin's history: the Coming Out Dance held for Carola Oman's sister Dulce, the visit of King Manuel II of Portugal in 1911, the year after he fled his country, and the beating of the bounds in the garden on Ascension Day 1912, when the vicar and choirboys were provided with 'a liberal feast of buns and some non-alcoholic beverage at 11 am'. 

In a letter to the Bursar in 1929 Sir Charles Oman admitted his affection for Frewin Hall: 'I am deeply attached to the place after nearly twenty years of occupancy - not less so than my predecessor Shadwell'. 26   His letters about repairs and payment of rent occasionally show us events in the life of Frewin, from the appearance in 1926 of 'a perfect spring' on the back drive (a builder employed by Shadwell to remove a WC fifty years earlier had only cut off the service end of the pipe, leaving the rest under the ground still connected to the main supply) 27   to sharing his home with a family of evacuees, who left in 1945, 'leaving some rooms in rather a mess'.  28   In 1936 he refers to a 'riot' at the adjacent Union.  A Presidential debate on 4th June featured Harry Pollitt, secretary of the British Communist Party, and Conservative MP Harold Balfour.  They were taking part in a debate on the motion 'that peace and freedom are not safe in the hands of the Conservative Party', which was ultimately carried by 234 votes to 122.  There was a plan to disrupt the meeting by throwing flour and stink bombs, but the Union officials heard about it in advance and only two of the protesters gained admittance.  A bag of flour was thrown inside the building and outside a hunting horn was sounded, fireworks set off and an attempt made to throw stink bombs through the windows. 29   The events had unfortunate consequences for the Union's neighbour at Frewin Hall: 'several of the rioters escaped into my kitchen garden, by scrambling over walls [and] broke down a lot of my chicken wires and posts'. 30  

When Sir Charles died in 1946 the building was used for undergraduate accommodation for the first time and over the next thirty years opinions about its value seem to change several times.  In 1948 a planning scheme for Oxford suggested that Frewin Hall be demolished, and a College Meeting on 18th February 1948 decided 'to protest to the Town Clerk against the proposal of destroying Frewin Hall'. 31   By 1964 the College itself was considering proposals for the development of the whole New Inn Hall Street site, possibly in conjunction with Woolworth's on an adjacent plot; at one stage there was a plan for Woolworth's to extend with College accommodation on top.  The plans included a proposal to demolish Frewin Hall, either partly or completely, but when the City Planning Committee was approached informally it was opposed to this idea.  By now Frewin was a scheduled building and would have had to be 'descheduled' before demolition would have been possible, although a rough note on the correspondence file states 'Frewin Hall not a unique specimen, either architecturally or from historical point of view'. 32  

Discussions continued for a decade, complicated by uncertainties about the City's own future plans for the centre, this being the period of the infamous scheme to put a road across Christ Church Meadow.  Work finally commenced on the site on 21st July 1975.  Frewin Hall was to remain, now described by the editor of The Brazen Nose as 'the jewel of the site', 33   and would be the centrepiece of a new complex of gardens and undergraduate rooms.  The project continued in four phases until 1981, at a cost of one and a quarter million pounds.  Frewin Hall was the last stage of the work and was in very poor condition by that time.  The Bursar of the time, Norman Leyland, claimed that 'some parts are only staying up because the woodworms are holding hands'. 34   The 1981 Brazen Nose reported that the work was complete and that after many years as a coal cellar and lumber room the crypt had been 'restored to a glory it may never have known even in its youth'. 35   The earliest remains at Frewin, a circular Norman pier and a portion of the arches which it supported, are in that crypt; after more than eight hundred years alterations on the site around them are still continuing.


Mrs. Elizabeth Boardman
College Archivist
Brasenose College

This article is reproduced in its entirety with the kind permission of The Principal and Fellows of the King's Hall and College of Brasenose and the Author.

This article originally appeared in The Brazen Nose volume 32 (1998)

More information about Brasenose College can be found at Brasenose College Website


1) A forgotten College of Oxford R.W. Jeffrey in The Brazen Nose Vol IV no. 6 (May 1927).

2) Frewin Hall, Oxford Harry Paintin in The Antiquary New Series vol IX no. 6

3) ibid.

4) College Archives Hurst Oxford u 26

5) ibid. Hurst Oxford u 27

6) ibid. Clennell A3.20

7) Note by webmaster:

a) Alumni Oxonienses (1500 - 1714) names Richard Frewin's father as 'Ralph of London, gent'

b) The International Geneaology Index (IGI) (1992) held at The Public Record Office in Kew, London shows a Richard Frewin being baptised on the 15th May 1678 at Allhallows Church, Honey Lane, London EC2 (near St Pauls Cathedral). His father is shown as Ralph Frewin - one of only two Ralph Frewins shown for London in this period.

A Ralph Frewin is listed as having been baptised at Holy Trinity The Less, London on 24 November 1651, his father's name is given as Ralph too. These records could relate to the father and grandfather of Richard Frewin.

8) A Short History of the Radcliffe Infirmary A.H.T Robb-Smith (1970)

9) ibid.

10) King Edward VII Sir Stanley Lee (1925)

11) King Edward the Seventh Philip Magnus (1964)

12) Edward and Alexandra Richard Hough (1992)

13) King Edward VII Sir Stanley Lee (1925)

14) ibid.

15) ibid.

16) College Archives D398

17) ibid. B757

18) Felicia Skene of Oxford E.C. Rickards 1902

19) ibid.

20) An Oxford Childhood Carola Oman (1976)

21) College Archives B757

22) ibid.

23) ibid.

24) An Oxford Childhood Carola Oman (1976)

25) ibid.

26) College Archives B757

27) ibid.

28) ibid. B1491

29) Oxford Mail 1936.

30) College Archives B1162

31) ibid. A1.17

32) ibid. [uncatalogued]

33) The Brazen Nose vol XVI 1977

34) ibid. vol XVII no 2 1980

35) ibid. vol XVII no 3 1981

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