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Oxford Corn Market, design and finished drawings for a building, c1772, unexecuted (4)

The first recorded covered market for the sale of corn in Oxford was constructed in 1536 under the direction of John Claymond, President of Corpus Christi College. The structure was given a lead roof articulated by stone pillars, but this was dismantled during the siege of Oxford in 1644 for the production of lead bullets. Following this the corn market was relocated to ‘the knowle on Market Hill’.

In the first half of the eighteenth century the need for a new town hall was identified as the older medieval halls were proving inadequate. Funds of £1,300 were raised for the project with the support of local dignitaries and in 1746 plans for the new town hall were drawn up. However construction did not begin until 1751, when an additional £1,000 was contributed to the project by Thomas Rowney the younger. The old medieval halls were demolished and a new Italianate hall was built to architect Isaac Ware’s designs. Constructed by builder John Townesend III, the hall was completed in 1753, when it was opened with much ceremony and a ‘Venison Feast’.

The new hall’s principal front stretched along St Aldates with a continuous ground-storey arcade which housed the city’s corn market. At the first-storey there was an oblong hall 130ft by 30ft which was divided into two rooms with pilaster screens.

In 1847 the corn market was relocated from the ground floor of the town hall to its rear yard, operating as a ‘pitched market for corn’. In 1861 this was replaced by a new corn exchange constructed behind the town hall to the designs of S.L. Seckham. The exchange was built in the gothic revival style and was used for numerous functions, such and concerts and balls.

By the 1890s Ware’s eighteenth-century town hall was proving insufficient for Oxford Council’s requirements. As a result it was demolished along with the corn exchange building and a new hall was constructed, which opened in May 1897. Between 1894 and 1896 a replacement corn exchange designed by H.W. Moore was built on the north side of George Street. However by this time the corn merchants had shifted their business to rooms surrounding the city’s cattle market and this is where they remained. As a result the corn market was officially relocated to Oxpens Road in 1932.

Adam’s unexecuted scheme for a new corn market in Oxford is a magnificent example of his public architecture designs. King describes the scheme as ‘spectacular’, a temple style building designed to stand independently within a square. The two-storey building has pedimented ends, with ground and first-storey arcades formed with Spalatro pilasters. Within, small rooms which Bolton identifies as shops, flank a circular staircase with a wide promenade set around. The use of the arcaded promenade for the exchange is significant, suggesting Adam was aware of Isaac Ware’s 1751 design for Oxford Town Hall and Corn Market.

The scheme is undated, but Bolton suggests it is one of Adam’s earlier designs. It seems unlikely that the scheme was produced in competition with Ware’s hall and corn market, as this was first under consideration as early as 1746. King’s proposed date of c1772 seems the most probable. Significantly this coincides with a substantial overhaul of Oxford’s town markets.

Since the medieval period, Oxford’s produce markets were held in Fish Street and Butcher’s Row, but these were condemned in 1771 following on from the Oxford Mileways Act. The principal purpose of the Act was to ensure the city’s roads were ‘more safe and commodious for traffic’, and as a result numerous streets were widened and the remaining city gates were demolished.

As a part of this initiative, a committee of university and city representatives was formed to oversee the construction of a new market for the sale of produce. The first meeting was held in June 1771, when architect and city surveyor John Gwynn presented the committee with his plans for the new market. Gwynn had been associated with the project from the outset, which met with some disapproval. One broadsheet in particular took against the choice of architect, publishing on 4 May 1771:

‘Why are we to be confined to the right lines drawn by Mr Gwyn? Why may not Mr. Townsend, Mr. Randel, Mr. Keen or other ingenious and experienced men of the same profession be consulted and attended to?’

It therefore seems likely that Adam’s corn market scheme was produced on speculation, coinciding with the Oxford Mileways Act of 1771 and the subsequent project to overhaul the city’s markets.

Work on Gwynn’s market began 13 May 1772, with individual sections put out to tender and built to the agreed plan. Once constructed, the market was used for the sale of a wide variety of produce, but the corn exchange remained associated with the city’s town hall until the end of the nineteenth century.

A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index p. 25; E. Chance, C. Colvin et al. ‘Markets and Fairs’, A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford, 1979, pp. 305-312; E. Chance, C. Colvin et al. ‘Municipal Buildings’, A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4, the City of Oxford, 1979, pp. 331-336; M. Graham, ‘The Building of Oxford Covered Market’, Oxoniensia, XLIV, 1979, pp. 81-91; W. Thwaites, ‘The Corn Market and Economic Change: Oxford in the eighteenth century’, Midland History, Volume 16, Issue 1, 1991, pp. 103-123; D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam & unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume II, pp. 28, 57; Keevill Heritage Consultancy, A Conservation Plan for Oxford Town Hall, pp. 1-54, www.oxfordtownhall.co.uk (accessed February 2021)

Anna McAlaney, 2021
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