Sir Thomas Jackson’s chapel, 1895 to present

A guide to Radley College Chapel

Radley’s founders had no figure in mind for an optimal size of the school but the central position of the chapel in the school’s ethos means that the desire to accommodate the entire school in worship together puts strain on both the chapel and the school. From 1847 until 1880 the school averaged an intake of between fifteen and thirty boys each year, giving an annual average size for the whole school of fewer than one hundred pupils and ten staff. The lowest point was at the end of Charles Martin’s wardenship in 1879 when the school had just seventy-six pupils. Although this number could be comfortably housed in the existing chapel the school could not be maintained financially on such a low income from fees. Growth was essential. Two things aided that growth: the first was the appointment of Robert Wilson as Warden, a dynamic figure who went on to become the Warden of Keble College, Oxford immediately upon leaving Radley in 1888 – his wardenship saw a steady increase in the number of boys in the school, almost doubling in the space of eight years to reach 156; the second, was that finally in 1889 the lease on the site was brought to an end and the school was able to buy the freehold of Radley Hall and its environs, including much of the park. This certainty of tenure not only gave the school new impetus to recruit pupils and staff, it also spelled the end for the temporary structures which had all been built in such a way that they could be moved to another site should it prove impossible to buy Radley Hall.

Jackson’s chapel under construction next to Underwood’s chapel in 1894

The primary needs for new buildings were identified as an expanded chapel, a dining hall and new dormitories. The solution to these needs were an entirely new chapel which was opened in 1895, ‘Evans’ House’ now the heart of H Social in 1897, and the dining hall in 1910. Thus began the continuous building programme at Radley College whose latest manifestations in 2022 are L Social and, once again, the expansion of chapel to accommodate a much larger school. 

The initial suggestion put forward by the new Warden, Henry Thompson, in 1890 was to extend Underwood’s existing chapel by twelve feet to the east. The next year he put forward a bolder proposal: to build a new chancel, which was to be the Sewell Memorial. This idea was further modified with a plan to fully encase the existing chapel within a much larger, wider and longer, shell. In response, the Council asked Sir Thomas Graham Jackson to provide plans for a new chapel ‘in the Perpendicular, or even later style of architecture.’ There was also a move to build a new school room or classrooms and the new dining hall before any changes were made to the chapel. This rumour caused uproar among Common Room who insisted to the Warden that chapel must be the first priority of the school. A similar circular debate arose with plans to expand the school in 2018 when, once again, the centrality of chapel and communal worship with the entire school gathered together, dictated that if planning permission to expand chapel was not granted, then the expansion of the school by building L Social could not take place. 

Sir Thomas Jackson’s design for a new chapel at Radley College. From The Builder

Jackson’s design for a new chapel was not popular with staff and Old Radleians. It was a radical departure from the small, cosy Gothic Revival building they all knew, with its bright Arts and Crafts stencils and relatively low vaulted ceiling. Jackson was trained in the offices of Gilbert Scott, and was heavily influenced by Ruskin and the Arts & Crafts Movement which called for visible honesty in buildings. His works combined Gothic Revival style, with Italianate features and Arts and Crafts philosophy. Externally, Jackson’s chapel bears homage to the chapel of Keble College, Oxford, built by William Butterfield in 1876, with its bands of light stonework. Internally, the perpendicular style is dominated by the stained-glass windows, all designed and executed by Burlison and Grylls within the space of twenty-five years. The walls were left as plain red brick, but this was seen by many Old Radleians as unfinished: more than fifty years after the building was opened one expressed the hope that it would soon be plastered and painted white. Jackson designed the entire building, including the key escutcheons, decorative carvings and the organ case.

The east end exterior of Sir Thomas Jackson’s chapel. Photographed by Henry Taunt in 1895

As much of the furnishings (including the stalls and panelling) and objects from Underwood’s chapel as could be saved were re-used in Jackson’s chapel. The major loss was the stained-glass windows. These were sold in the 1890s but by a series of bizarre coincidences came back into Radley’s possession in the 1940s and are the inspiration for new glass in the apse in 2022. 

Symbols of the Evangelists carved on the Sub-Warden’s stall were designed by Sir Thomas Jackson. Photo Clare Sargent

In 1893 the Council finally agreed an ultimate size for the school of 250 pupils, projecting growth by seventy boys. The new chapel was built to accommodate that number comfortably. By 1924, the school finally exceeded the goal, with 293 boys. After that, growth was relatively uncontrolled, with all facilities in the school struggling, accompanied by a steady building programme of classrooms and Socials. By 1972, the school was more than twice the size, with 517 pupils. The chapel interior was continually adapted in a series of attempts to fit the entire school (and guests) into the building. New stalls were fitted in memory of Warden Thomas Field in the 1930s, in place of wooden chairs which were always temporary. The internal west end wall was moved to make a smaller antechapel in the 1980s. But the major remodelling was in 1994 to coincide with the centenary of the chapel and in preparation for the 150th anniversary of the school. At this time the stalls were extended up to the sanctuary and the west end gallery enlarged to house a school of potentially 600. Twenty-five years later continuing steady growth called again for a decision from Council and the size of the school was once again fixed at an optimal 760 boys. This time the chapel was substantially remodelled externally with the introduction of an apsidal east end and expansion to the north side by architects Purcell & Co. But the central premise of Radley chapel remains: a communal space where the entire school gathers together for the sole purpose of worshipping God. 

Performance of Haydn’s ‘Nelson Mass’ in 2005

A guide to Radley College Chapel

Clare Sargent