With the announcement this week that Oxford’s flagship hotel the Randolph is making 75 of its 84 staff redundant, it seems a good moment to reflect on the history of this iconic institution. It’s unlikely to cheer the staff right now, but the good news is that the hotel is not closing for good, just for a refurbishment by its new American owners. And when it reopens, it will still be called the ‘Randolph‘, despite earlier plans to rename it the ‘Graduate Oxford’. Perhaps somebody suggested the name lacked originality, there being 12,000 other graduates in Oxford?
For many decades the Randolph was Oxford’s only five-star hotel, which naturally made it the hotel of choice for anyone remotely rich or famous. Everyone from the future King Edward VII and King Farouk to Gorbachev and Jimmy Carter stayed here.
Indeed, Afternoon Tea at the Randolph, a glorious three-tiered experience requiring a second mortgage, has been a treat enjoyed by generations of students when their proud parents come for a visit.
Named after an 18th-century benefactor Dr Frances Randolph who left £1000 for the University galleries (now part of the Ashmolean Museum), the Randolph’s Gothic Revival style was the work of William Wilkinson, purveyor of parsonages and police stations and architect of a few grand houses and educational establishments including Saint Edwards school in Summertown.
The Randolph is both grand and central and for several years also played a key role in Oxford’s best known detective series, Inspector Morse. The Morse Bar (named specially in his honour) was author Colin Dexter‘s favourite watering hole and his hard-drinking detective made it his too. It was centre-stage in The Wolvercote Tongue, when a wealthy American guest was robbed of a jewel which looked suspiciously like it had been nicked from the Ashmolean Museum in the first place (see The Alfred Jewel and compare). The unfortunate woman’s body was later retrieved from the Cherwell River. (For lots more on Dexter’s Detectives, join an Oxford Walking Tours Morse, Lewis and Endeavour Tours
In 1993 the Randolph also starred as the place Jack (C.S.) Lewis found love. It was here In the film that he met Joy Gresham (his future wife) though the Randolph was masquerading as the East Gate Hotel, the true location of the tryst.
Some true history took place in the bar on the 24th of April 1880. It was here that three Oxford students founded what is today the world’s oldest national governing body for athletics, the Amateur Athletics Association or AAA. Let’s hope the new Randolph owners keep the plaque up in the bar to remind us of this historic moment.
More recently, in 2015, the most potentially disastrous event in the hotel’s history took place, when the chef got a little too enthusiastic whilst flambéeing a Boeuf Bourguignon. Flames and heat shot up the ventilation shaft from the basement to the roof and the ensuing blaze was a huge shock to the city.
Thankfully no one was hurt and after a few months of shutdown the hotel rose Phoenix-like from the ashes in all its splendour. We can only hope it will do the same when the virus passes and that all its staff can work again.