History The Randolph Present The Randolph

The Randolph's new neo-Gothic architecture was considered as too garish for Oxford.

The Randolph

We have landed in Oxford, England. The purchase of The Randolph by A.J.Capital/Graduate Hotels has brought a much needed injection of money into a great local institution.
Read the full story by Adrian Mourby here.
A lot of work needed doing including getting rid of an ill-judged formica canopy over reception which spoiled the dramatic four-storey rise above to the hotel’s main staircase.
The new hotel – it is fair to call it a new hotel because it has been so thoroughly redesigned –has been dramatically rethought. Above reception 30 heraldic tabards hang down Wilkinson’s cantilevered stairwell. They are based on Oxford colleges – but with an element of artistic licence.  

Blue-striped wallpaper is everywhere on the ground-floor. It is a light blue stripe, more reminiscent of Cambridge’s famous blue than Oxford’s but English Heritage has been quite firm with the hotel that a Victorian colour scheme has to be followed. More contemporary touches include a photograph of Oscar Wilde in every bedrooom. The former Oxford student who fell so dramatically from grace in 1895 is now warmly re-embraced for his wit and humanity.  

The Alice Dining Room is decorated with new faux-naif paintings of the Oxford Wonderland heroine by the artist, illustrator and printmaker, Amy Wiggin. Long gone are the heraldic shields of Oxford colleges, introduced at ceiling height by Macdonald hotels. These days guests sit on pink banquettes on a floor of white mosaic tiles. The Alice Bar, which leads off from the dining room has a low-ceilinged, dark snug where one could imagine whiling away an entire winter drinking whisky. And beyond it lies a lofty chef’s table where the breakfast buffet is laid out.

"The Randolph" – appearing in every second of the UKs blockbuster TV series "Inspector Morse" as if there is no second hotel in the city – it is an Oxford landmark. It has reopened in May 2016 after being damaged by fire in 2015.

When it was built, in 1864, The Randolph caused controversy. The city council thought it too tall and considered this new neo-Gothic architecture too garish for a sober University town. Now the Randolph is very much an Oxford landmark, just as famous as the Ashmolean Museum that it faces.

The lobby is an event. With its winding staircase this is one of the quasi-medieval high points of William Wilkinson’s Gothic design. The Morse Bar, just off the lobby, is overpriced but has great cachet. The Lancaster Room is where afternoon tea is taken and is decorated with paintings by Sir Osbert Lancaster, the author of the classic Oxford comic novel, Zuleika Dobson. (Sir Osbert paid his hotel bill with these pictures.) The restaurant is decorated with oil paintings and college coats of arms and deliberately echoes an Oxford senior common room of Victorian times.

The long association with TV’s Inspector Morse consolidated the hotel’s role as Oxford icon. The Randolph appeared in more episodes than any other Oxford building and author Colin Dexter is often to be spotted in the hotel’s Morse Bar. The late Ailish Hurley, who appears as the waitress serving coffee to TV icon Morse and Dr Sandra Harrison at the Randolph Hotel, Oxford, was in real life the manager of the hotel's bar.


For all that the Randolph is an Oxford institution it originally sat very uneasily in this city.

There was always something audacious about its tall, mansard roofline whose very height dominated the surrounding colleges. 

The Randolph has had a dramatic history over the past 136 years, turning from Oxford’s most unpopular building to one of its most beloved. 

Many visitors believe it was named after Randolph Churchill, the father of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Lord Randolph, second son of the Duke of Marlborough, obtained a decent degree at Merton College Oxford. His own second son Winston was born at nearby Blenheim Palace during a ball. But it was not Lord Randolph who lent his name to the neo-Gothic hotel on the corner of Beaumont Street. In fact Randolph Churchill was said to have smashed the windows of the hotel while an uproarious, over-entitled undergraduate.  

Actually the hotel takes its name from Dr Francis Randolph, a University benefactor who had been Principal of St Alban Hall (now part of Lord Randolph’s Merton College), and who died in 1796 leaving a lot of money to the University. The art gallery he funded became part of the Ashmolean Museum’s collection. Why exactly Oxford’s premiere hotel was named after the (currently) obscure Dr Randolph needs further investigation. 

The reason for the initial unpopularity of the hotel that bears Dr Randolph’s name was down to its design at a controversial time in Britain’s architectural history. The Gothic Revival was taking root in academic cities like Oxford where University men were rejecting neo-classicism and wanted something more visceral - and North European. In 1863 everyone agreed that Oxford needed a superior commercial hotel, especially because the newly married Prince and Princess of Wales would surely be visiting soon and the city lacked accommodation for a royal entourage. Absolutely no-one wanted Prince Albert and Princess Alexandra to be boarding at Blenheim Palace. 

So plans were drawn up by local architect William Wilkinson to erect a Gothic structure on a corner of land opposite the neo-Classical Ashmolean. (Lovers of England’s blue plaques will notice that Wilkinson’s own house is situated directly opposite the Ashmolean and right next to the Randolph in Beaumont Street). 

The opening report takes up two columns of the Oxford Journal

While the architect received support from men like the great art critic John Ruskin who was keen promote Protestant Neo-Gothic architecture in Britain, his designs were condemned by many who saw this hotel as despoiling the classical lines of Beaumont Street, the “finest ensemble of gentlemen’s houses” in the city. Wilkinson’s new hotel was considered too big and too tall in the way that it towered over its surroundings. And its style was in complete contrast to the rest of the nearby buildings, a semi crescent of neoclassical townhouses that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the city of Bath.

Moreover for some people the Randolph was an insult to the museum that stood immediately opposite it: the Ashmolean was and is, perhaps the most perfect neo-classical building in Oxford. It had been completed in 1845 but in the intervening 40 years English architecture had gone off in all sorts of directions.  

The Italianate perfection of the "Ashmo" was now confronted by something that resembled a French chateau, redesigned in yellow brick with a proliferation of spires, bay windows and Draculean pinnacles. While the Ashmolean hid its roof behind a parapet, the Randolph was pretty much entirely slate roof. There were many protests about the design but eventually business considerations won out and a toned down neo-Gothic Randolph (minus its central spire) was built and duly opened for business in 1866.


Testimonial "Randolph"


Post royal visit, this hotel very quickly established itself as what it was always intended to be, suitable place for both visiting dignitaries and wealthy parents to stay when in Oxford. 

John Betjeman, an Oxford student and future 20th Century Poet Laureate summed up the contrasting sides of Beaumont Street very well: “This tall, vertical Victorian hotel was a Gothic answer to the Classic composition of the Ashmolean and Taylorian buildings on the other side of the road. Both buildings, despite their difference in style, were satisfactory upright terminations to the long low Georgian curve of Beaumont Street”

In 1894 the hotel proudly added an “American Elevator” and a ballroom in 1899 and, finally an extension down Beaumont Street in 1923 which the city fathers had hoped would be a little more Georgian in style but in the end the Randolph Hotel Company once again got its own way and the neo-Gothic line was extended with lots of medieval windows – and absolutely no apology.

By the beginning of the twentieth century guests could enjoy a Billiard Room, a Ladies’ Coffee Room and "a conservatory for smoking”. The hotel also advertised that it stocked “Fine Wines Imported From Abroad”. And it had good stabling (behind William Wilkinson’s house) which in due course became its garage.

From one of twelve paintings in the Randolph Hotel, Oxford by Osbert Lancaster, illustrating Sir Max Beerbohm’s novel Zuleika Dobson (reproduced with kind permission of the Randolph Hotel). The official name for such heads is “herms”; the original accounts describe these heads as “termains”; and some people call them philosophers. But Max Beerbohm in Zuleika Dobson called them “Emperors”, and that is the name that has stuck. Each head shows a different type of beard. In that novel, Beerbohm wrote: ”Here in Oxford, exposed eternally and inexorably to wind and frost, to the four winds that lash them and the rains that wear them away, they are expiating, in effigy, the abominations of their pride and cruelty and lust. Who were lechers, they are without bodies; who were tyrants, they are crowned never but with crowns of snow; who made themselves even with the gods, they are by American visitors frequently mistaken for the Twelve Apostles.”

(Source: http://www.oxfordhistory.org.uk/broad/history/emperors.html)

Perhaps the guest to leave the greatest mark on the hotel was cartoonist, art critic and stage designer Sir Osbert Lancaster. His twelve illustrations to the novel Zuleika Dobson, An Oxford Romance were – and still are - hung in its drawing room (without a doubt the finest place for afternoon tea in Oxford). They were initially displayed in the new Art Deco ballroom in 1937. According to hotel legend the wealthy Sir Osbert paid for his stay at the Randolph with these witty depictions of Oxford life in the years before World War I. But that’s probably apocryphal. Lancaster was never short of money and he probably knew how much these original oil paintings would fetch if he sold them. Famous artists who have paid for their accommodation with works of art are a common myth in the hotel world, along with the ghost of a grey lady and the belief that the real Ernest Hemingway used to prop up the hotel bar. (Not a claim made in Oxford).

"The Snug"

When World War I broke out in 1914  the hotel was one of many across Britain that gave up its ballroom and drawing room for convalescent soldiers returning from fighting in France and Belgium. In the 1920s  Evelyn Waugh, who mentioned the hotel in his novel Brideshead Revisited,  once shocked diners at the Randolph by intervening in a discussion on bisexuality and declaring loudly “Buggers have babies”.  Kingsley Amis’s future wife Hilly earned the novelist’s admiration by sneaking into the hotel to wash her hair and underwear while staying with him illicitly across the road at St John’s College (undergraduates were not officially allowed women guests in their rooms in the 1940s). Later Amis’ friend the poet Philip Larkin and the novelist Barbara Pym – who carried out a 14-year wholly epistolary relationship – finally met for lunch at the Randolph in 1975. 


But for many people, in the last decades of the twentieth century the Randolph was most closely associated with two fictional characters,  Inspector Morse and Sgt Lewis who featured in novels and dramatisations by local author Colin Dexter. In both books and in the TV series Inspector Morse the taciturn detective and Sgt Lewis regularly discuss their cases in the Randolph bar where Morse claimed, “They serve a decent pint”. In several stories, crime suspects dine or stay at the Randolph. And in the novel The Jewel that was Ours (dramatised as The Wolvercote Tongue) Morse investigates the suspicious death of an American hotel guest in her Randolph room. 

In 2001 the bar where Colin Dexter had often sat as an extra in the TV series Inspector Morse was officially renamed The Morse Bar. This is the part of the hotel that has changed least during the recent refurbishment though it has been repainted a darker hue of green and given more atmospheric lighting. Sardonic photos of John Thaw (Morse) are everywhere on its oak-panelled walls. 


The late Ailish Hurley, who appears as the waitress serving coffee to Morse and Dr Sandra Harrison at the Randolph Hotel, Oxford, was in real life the manager of the hotel's bar. She was also a friend of Colin Dexter who encouraged him to continue with the Morse books. During filming, the production team and stars of Inspector Morse usually stayed at the Randolph Hotel, and Dexter arranged for Ailish (like him) to play a cameo role in The Remorseful Day.

John Thaw said of the end of Morse: "I didn't want the television Morse to end like Frank Sinatra - doing an endless series of farewell concerts."

Michael Grange

There are 151 en suite bedrooms off the grandest staircase in Oxford. All have been recently refurbished but the hotel’s Victorian origins can show when it comes to room size. Expectations were lower in those days. Trade up to a four poster room if you're looking for luxury. Décor is subdued but tasteful: browns and creams enlivened by the odd electric blue or red cushion. The rooms with a view of St Giles or the Ashmolean offer space worth paying the extra for.

A superb position. The Randolph’s immediate neighbours are the “Ashmo”, the colleges of Balliol and St.John, the Oxford Playhouse and the Martyr’s Memorial, which is where tour groups tend to congregate. The good shops are in walking distance too and the majestic sweep of St Giles yours to stroll around night and day.

The new Randolph Restaurant will be reviewd shortly: (as per 2022)

In 2016, we noted: it has two AA rosettes, both the work of head chef, Tom Birks. All the ingredients – beef, oysters, scallops, salmon – are sourced from the best UK suppliers, which accounts for the price. The cheese trolley tries to be entirely English. Not a cheap restaurant but one with a great sense of occasion. Birks has reintroduced the idea of flambéing and carving at the table. This is one of the places that proud parents and grandparents take their student offspring. ?If you’re a resident there is a good half board meal plan which allows you to dine from a more reasonably-priced fixed menu. A brandy or whisky in the panelled Morse Bar is a great way to end off the evening?

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Our Select Member Hotel

The Randolph
Country: England
City: Oxford
Opening date: 1866

Note from the Host

General Manager

Philip Lewis


Beaumont Street
OX1 2LN GB England, Oxford

Tel: +440844 879 9132
Fax: +4401865 791678

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