Set in stone

12th February 2015

News, Student news, Alumni news

Visitors to St Edmund Hall, looking up to the restored tower of St Peter in the East, now the college library, might spot a familiar face among the grotesques. Wadham Emeritus Fellow Jeffrey Hackney can be seen in his legal wig looking out from the tower over the nave of the church. So how did Jeffrey’s grotesque come to be there?

  • Jeffrey Hackney and his grotesque at St Edmund Hall.

  • Jeffrey's grotesque is located close to that of the former Dean and Chaplain of St Edmund Hall, the Rev Graham Midgley, who is depicted with his labrador, both wearing dog collars.

In the late 1960s when Jeffrey was a Law Fellow at St Edmund Hall, the college was on a very cramped site. The neighbouring Norman church of St Peter-in-the-East, which had once been a fashionable university church, had lost virtually all its parishioners as nearby wealthy colleges bought up the domestic houses in the parish.

As a result it had no funds to halt, let alone reverse, the inevitable dilapidations which were very extensive.  The Church decided to dispose of it and a number of plans were made.  Jeffrey explains: "St Edmund Hall did not really have the funds to restore the building but the opportunity to acquire it was too good a chance to miss (in particular it gave the only opportunity to acquire a garden space) and so money boxes were searched and emptied and the college decided to see if the Church authorities could be persuaded to allow the building to be adapted to be a library and to turn the churchyard into a garden.  It was the first time a church had been decommissioned in Oxford and, as a lawyer, I was roped in to liaise with the diocese and was then, because the Principal and the senior Fellows were preoccupied with the building of two major accommodation blocks and a new hall, I was put in charge of the restoration and conversion of the building – a fascinating project.”

It also turned out to be a major project. Burials had taken place under some of the internal pillars that held up the church, seriously compromising the structure and these had to be made safe.  The college was keen to preserve the character of the building, restoring monuments to their original state where possible, retracing the windows and repainting the ceiling using only paint pigments which were available in medieval times.  The medieval belfry was cleaned out and was replaced with a magnificent room with tall windows on its four walls with some of the best views in Oxford.  This became Jeffrey's office until his move to Wadham in 1976.

The church was closed as a place of worship in 1965 and reopened as the College library in 1970. Many of the building’s distinctive architectural features were preserved in the renovation process and the new internal fixtures were arranged to mimic the layout of a traditional church. The restoration was carried out by builders Benfield and Loxley. Towards the end of the project the architects asked the stonemasons to capture the heads of some of the key figures in college at the time, as grotesques around the top of the tower.

The then Principal, the Revd. Dr J N D Kelly is shown with his squash racket; the Bursar, R E Alton is pictured with money bags; former Dean and Chaplain the Rev Graham Midgley is shown alongside his Labrador dog, both wearing dog collars. And then on the Eastern side of the tower is Jeffrey in his wig. Said Jeffrey; “When they were finishing, in addition to being fellow and tutor in law I was College Librarian but I was also on leave doing a pupillage at the Chancery Bar – hence the wig and bands.  A year or two later, it became the source of some embarrassment at Windmill Road Primary School in Headington when my son Daniel’s class were asked to say what their parents did for a living (those were the days).  Daniel replied simply that his dad 'used to work in a church'.  It was the best part of two years before the Head Teacher felt able to pluck up the courage to ask me if there was a story behind that...”

  • St Edmund Hall library

    St Edmund Hall library

  • A photograph showing the church before conversion.