26 March 1964: First Dinner in Hall

When does a College begin? Perhaps when the project is announced to the world. Perhaps when the first students arrive. Yet both those happened before there were any buildings. A College is its people but it is also its built form. The central buildings, dominated by the great Dining Hall, were officially opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1964, and the first dinner in Hall took place that year on 26 March.

The Hall is the beating heart of the College. It is the symbolic centre, especially in a secular institution that, unlike ancient colleges, has no chapel at its core. What’s more, the Hall is probably the largest in Oxbridge, at 22 metres square and 11.6 metres to its highest point. The three great concrete barrel vaults are among the largest in Britain, and the sixty soaring window mullions, each weighing two tons, draw our eyes upward towards the lunettes. The wood panelling is British Columbian, the copper for the light casements came from the Central African Federation. The north and south aisles have fluted brick acoustic walls.

True to the austere aesthetic of the bare materials – concrete, brick, wood – the College avoids the old tradition of covering the walls with portraits. There’s just one single exception: the portrait of the Founder. The grandness of the Hall is owed to one more reason: the assumption, still true in 1964 but soon abandoned throughout Oxbridge, that every night the entire College would sit down together for formal dinner, begowned. Cultures change: but the legacy is a magnificent and adaptable space, which does indeed allow the whole community every so often to come together.

Text by Dr Mark Goldie. Photo from the Churchill Archives.