150 years of the Meyricke Library

1865 is the telephone dialling code for Oxford. Coincidentally, it is also the year in which Jesus College opened its first reading room for undergraduates. The College had established a library in the 1620s, the room now called the Fellows’ Library, but as its current name suggests, this was not open to undergraduates.

The reading room was established by J.R. Thursfield, Fellow in Classics. Its first home was beneath the Fellows’ Library, apparently on the location of the present Memorial Room. In 1882 it was named the Meyricke Library and moved to the northwest corner of Second Quad, near the site of the current Middle Common Room.

Edmund Meyricke (pronounced ‘Merrick’ and often spelled Meyrick) was one of the College’s major benefactors. His portrait hangs in the Hall, next to Queen Elizabeth’s. From 1882, when a new statute was approved, the Meyricke Trust paid an initial £50 each year “for the maintenance and improvement of the Meyricke Library”, as well as for the continuing scholarships in his name.

(C) Jesus College, Oxford. Photography by the Public Catalogue Foundation.

Presumed to be Edmund Meyricke (matriculated 1656), painted 1694, artist unknown. Formerly in the Fellows’ Library, now in the Hall. Photographed in 2012 by the Public Catalogue Foundation (© Jesus College, Oxford, reference PI/BE.5)

At that time, Third Quad was a collection of outbuildings, including the College stables. A fire in the Ship Street premises of the Oxford Electric Light Company in 1904 instigated the development of a new range of buildings. The Meyricke Library moved into a single room inside the gate tower in 1907, alongside the College’s purpose-built chemical laboratories on three storeys of what is now numbered Staircase XVII.

The Sir Leoline Jenkins’ Laboratories were named after a seventeenth-century Principal. Professor Derek Long (Chemistry, 1943) describes them as “a basement containing a workshop and stores, and a further three floors with a library, two lecture rooms and a number of laboratories”. During World War II, confidential work took place here on ‘Tube Alloys’ – code for the British nuclear weapons project, and specifically for the separation of uranium isotopes. The laboratories were closed in the autumn of 1947, having been the last college laboratories in operation after the University centralised provision in the Science Area next to the University Parks.

Meyricke Lower Library memorial plaque

Memorial plaque in the Lower Library. Sir Walter St David Jenkins (matriculated 1893) gave £300 towards the new Library. (© Jesus College, Oxford)

The ground floor room which had been used for teaching physics became the fourth and current incarnation of the Meyricke Library. The new Library opened in Michaelmas 1949 as a memorial to those who died in the Second World War. (The Celtic Collection, established around the turn of the century under Principal Rhŷs, was moved to an adjoining room at the same time, the weight of books in the central aisle of the Fellows’ Library having been considered a risk.)

The Lower Meyricke Library from the 1966 College Record (© Jesus College, Oxford)

It is in the nature of libraries to expand, and the Meyricke Library was extended upstairs in 1964–1965. The buildings of Third Quad received Grade II listing in 1972, but this did not prevent further expansion of the upper section in 1984–1985. In the words of that year’s Record, “it now rises skywards on three floor levels”. (The Celtic Collection moved upstairs at the same time, linked to the Meyricke by a catwalk behind the office of the Jesus Professor of Celtic.) The ground-floor lecture theatre was annexed in 1990 and refurbished as the Periodicals Room.

In 1992, Jesus became an early member of OLIS, the computerised catalogue of the University’s libraries. Computerisation later made possible self-service borrowing. The Librarian’s office moved out of the little ground-floor room known as the Cave up to the first-floor room relinquished by the Celtic Professor after 1996, a year after the College Archives had moved to the second floor. The Meyricke Library continues to develop: a temporary Graduate Study Room has been established in Staircase XIII, and this summer has seen the installation of electronic tags on all 36,000 books to improve security and self-service.

A thorough history must await investigation of the College records. Until then, reminiscences and corrections from Old Members are most welcome, to librarian@jesus.ox.ac.uk.

Owen McKnight (Librarian)

Sources and further reading:

  • J.N.L. Baker, ‘The College in the Long Vacation’, Jesus College Magazine 1949, pages 14–15
  • J.N.L. Baker, ‘Jesus College’, pages 264–279 in H.E. Salter & M.D. Lobel (editors), A History of the County of Oxford, Volume 3: The University of Oxford (London: Oxford University Press for the Institute of Historical Research, 1954)
  • J.N.L. Baker, ‘Edmund Meyricke and his benefaction’, Jesus College Record 1966, pages 19–28
  • J.N.L. Baker, Jesus College, Oxford 1571–1971 (Oxford: Jesus College, 1971), page 58
  • Derek Long, ‘Sir Leoline Jenkins Laboratories 1907–47’, Jesus College Record 1995/96 pages 46–57
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