12 June 2024

All Saints’ Church,
a former church in
Oxford converted
into a college library

All Saints’ Church, a former church on the north side of the High Street in Oxford, is now the library of Lincoln College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

I have been visiting many of the churches and college chapels in Oxford over the past two or three years. But one of the striking church buildings in the centre of Oxford is a former church that was converted into a college library half a centre ago.

All Saints’ Church is a former parish church on the north side of the High Street in central Oxford, on the corner of the High Street and Turl Street, with the Mitre on the facing side of the corner. The former church is now the library of Lincoln College and is a Grade I listed building.

The original All Saints’ Church was founded on the site in 1122. However, the spire of the church collapsed on 8 March 1700, destroying most of the building. After an appeal for funds, the present building, with a seating capacity of 350, was completed in 1720.

Four of the original church bells survived the collapse. The repairs to the church were expensive and donations were received from most of the Oxford colleges and from Queen Anne and the Duchess of Marlborough.

All Saints’ Church, Oxford, was designed by the Dean of Christ Church, Henry Aldrich (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The church was designed by Henry Aldrich (1648-1710), the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. Aldrich was a theologian, philosopher, architect and composer, and was the Dean of Christ Church from 1689. Evidence of his skill as an architect is seen in the church and campanile of All Saints’ Church and in three sides of the so-called Peckwater Quadrangle of Christ Church, which were built to his designs.

Nicholas Hawksmoor is thought to be responsible for the tower and spire of All Saints’ Church.

The altar piece, which was of stone, coloured in imitation of marble, was donated by Nathaniel Crew (1633-1721), 3rd Lord Crew, who was the Rector of Lincoln College from 1668 and Bishop of Oxford (1671-1674) and Bishop of Durham (1674-1721). Bishop Crew’s arms as Bishop of Durham are still visible on the south wall of the church, close to the south porch.

Nicholas Hawksmoor is said to have designed the tower and spire of All Saints’ Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Bishop Samuel Wilberforce wrote in his Diocese Book in 1857 and 1860, describing the Vicar of All Saints’ Church, the Revd WW West, as ‘a clever man. Strong head & not apparently religious or a pleasant man.’

When Saint Martin’s Church at Carfax was demolished, except for its tower, in 1896, All Saints’ Church became the official City Church in Oxford, where the Mayor and Corporation were expected to attend church services.

A Union flag that had been draped over the coffins of prisoners of war at Batu Lintang camp in Sarawak, was placed in the church in 1946 along with two wooden memorial plaques. They were later moved to Dorchester Abbey.

Bishop Nathaniel Crew’s arms as Bishop of Durham, beside the south porch of All Saints’ Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

All Saints’ Church was declared redundant on 1971 and the City Church moved to Saint Michael at the North Gate. All Saints was then deconsecrated and offered to Lincoln College, immediately to the north of the church. The church was converted by Robert Potter, the architect also responsible for refurbishing the Radcliffe Camera in 1969. Since 1975 the building has been Lincoln College’s library.

The only major change to the interior of the church during its conversion into a library involved raising the original floor by over 4 ft to provide space for the lower reading rooms.

The upper reading room is known as the Cohen Room and has an elegant plastered ceiling. The decorations include the shields of the major donors who contributed to the cost of the 18th century rebuilding.

The lower reading room is the science library and the senior library, holding older books.

The science section is named after a former Lincoln College Fellow, Howard Florey (1898-1968), who was instrumental in the development of penicillin and for which he received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

The Library still has a full peal of eight bells that are regularly rung by the Oxford Society of Change Ringers, founded in 1734. They are also rung for special occasions, such as the election of a new Rector of Lincoln College.

There is another All Saints’ Church in the suburb of Headington to the east of central Oxford, on Lime Walk. It was consecrated in 1910, and there is also All Saints’ Church in Cuddesdon, which has close links with Ripon College Cuddesdon, the Anglican theological college five miles south-east of Oxford.

All Saints’ Church was converted into Lincoln College Library by the architect Robert Potter in the 1970s (Photograph © Lincoln College Oxford)

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