Thursday, March 13, 2014
Although I must have walked past this building hundreds of times when I lived in Oxford, I never paid it much attention. In those days my mind was on other things and the building didn’t have the blue plaque that it has today, pointing out to passers by that the ‘Oxford Playhouse began here 1923–1938 in the former Big Game Museum built in 1906’.
Big Game Museum?
The Big Game Museum was the brainchild of one Charles Victor Alexander Peel, an old Etonian for whom reducing the wildlife population of Africa seems to have been something of an obsession. Peel was convinced that big game hunting was an excellent activity for a young man, combining adventure with science (the opportunity to discover, record, and collect species) and ‘sport’. He promoted his enthusiasm in several books that chronicled his expeditions in Africa and beyond. Titles such as Somaliland and The Length of Africa: Being an Account of a Journey from Cape Town to Alexandria and Sport in Kenya Colony and On a Collection of Insects and Arachnids Made in 1895 and 1897 in Somaliland and The Polar Bear Hunt give a flavour of what drove him. By the early 1900s he had amassed so many pelts and mounted skeletons that he conceived the idea of housing them in a museum. This building on Oxford’s Woodstock Road was the result.
The big upper windows must have provided a light space in which to display the specimens. Their white frames and scrolling brackets at either end of each large window, together with the scroll patterns in the walls below them, give the building a restrained Arts and Crafts flavour, as do the brick buttresses and the porch. The strip windows lower down are also very much of their time, although presumably the window frames are replacements. From roof finials to brickwork, the building gives the impression of fitness for purpose.
But the purpose was to change. In the early 1920s, Peel moved to Devon. He offered his collection to Oxford City, but they declined. The animals ended up in Exeter, where they still form the core of the natural history collection of Exeter Museum. In 1923 the Oxford building became a theatre, where J B Fagan directed the Oxford Players. Fagan’s productions were admired, and he brought notable actors, including the young John Gielgud, to his theatre, but found it difficult to make the venture pay. In the end he left Oxford for Hollywood. Fagan’s successors were no more successful financially, but the building on Woodstock Road remained a theatre until 1938, when the Playhouse moved to its current site in Beaumont Street.
In addition to being a museum and a theatre, the building has had several other uses, probably the oddest being a miniature golf course. Today it houses the Oxford University Language Centre, which offers courses and resources to those learning languages in Oxford. The Centre has been here since 1992, so its occupation represents one of the longest chapters in the history of this building. How adaptable this robust structure has proved.