The beams in the roof of New College, Oxford

Three people in my life have to date quoted a nice story at me, with various endings – the ecomentalist:

After the giant oak beams in the New College’s great hall rotted out, the Dons of the college were at a loss to source replacement oak timbers of sufficient size. The college forrester came to the rescue — it turned out that when the New College was built, 500 years previous, the Dons of the college had planted oaks in Oxford’s forest. Now, 500 years later, they were ready to be harvested and put into service in the great hall. The modern-day Dons thanked the forrester, chopped down the trees and sold the forest.

…the inspirational:

So they called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him about oaks. And he pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for five hundred years. “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

A nice story. That’s the way to run a culture.

…and so forth; I like the tale too, and lean towards preferring the inspirational managing for the future theme, but apparently in truth it’s all embroidery:


This story regards the replacement of the oak beams in the college dining hall, and is occasionally given as an example of admirable forward planning. In its mythical form the story is often attributed to the anthropologist Gregory Bateson and may be found in a number of places:

* Brand, Stewart How Buildings Learn Viking, 1994
* McDonough, William A Centennial Sermon: Design Ecology Ethics and The Making of Things
When the college archivist was asked about this story she came back with the following information.

In 1859, the JCR [Junior Common Room–basically, the students] told the SCR [Senior Common Room–sort of like faculty] that the roof in Hall needed repairing, which was true. (As an aside, at this time, there were few enough people that Hall contained a grand piano; this can be seen in the Joseph Nash watercolour of the hall illustrating the Introduction to the Treasures pages.)

In 1862, the senior fellow was visiting College estates on `progress’, i.e., an annual review of College property, which goes on to this day (performed by the Warden [the head of the College]). Visiting forests in Akeley and Great Horwood, Buckinghamshire (forests which the College had owned since 1441), he had the largest oaks cut down and used to make new beams for the ceiling.

It is not the case that these oaks were kept for the express purpose of replacing the Hall ceiling. It is standard woodland management to grow stands of mixed broadleaf trees e.g., oaks, interplanted with hazel and ash. The hazel and ash are coppiced approximately every 20-25 years to yield poles. The oaks, however, are left to grow on and eventally, after 150 years or more, they yield large pieces for major construction work such as beams, knees etc.

…originally cited at but which appears to be gone.

I wonder if they can do me a new knee?

See also the book in Google Books

14 Replies to “The beams in the roof of New College, Oxford”

  1. You know, they should turn this on its head. They should plant some oaks *now* for when the beams need replacing again in 500 years time.

    Then the story can be true, at least eventually.

  2. I also like the fact that the oaks in the New Forest are a battleship factory (raw materials were processed into “ships of the line” at Butler’s Hard) and the yew forest South of the Hampshire downs is a longbow factory. While wooden battleships and longbows passed out of typical use some centuries ago, the forests are still there :-).

    I’ve also heard that a particular hammer-beam roof designed by Sir Christopher Wren – a little Googling suggests it is probably the one in Westminster Hall – is longer than any other architect of the day would have designed it, because Wren was only really beginning in his career and hadn’t heard the popular wisdom that a wooden roof of that length couldn’t be done…

    Anyway, why would you want a wooden knee?

  3. re: “Anyway, why would you want a wooden knee?”

    I don’t know, but Edward Woodward would

  4. It doesn’t seem like the real story is *that* much of a stretch. They might not have specific trees and specific wooden items in mind, but they do have the old forest which they use for such replacements as necessary, and they didn’t sell it off or cut down the trees to build a housing development.

  5. The story seemed untrue to me the first time I heard it. Oaks rarely get to 500 years old. 300 years is a really really old oak and would have a diameter exceeding 6 feet (2 meters), They needed an 18″ beam 20 feet long which could be had from a 100 year old oak.

  6. I heard in the Brand version that it was 24 inches by 45 feet. How old is that?

  7. There are oak stands in Germany that are 200 years old that could do the trick. The point of the story is the foresight, and the technique. The coppiced hazel and ash are essential to produce tall oaks. Without them, the oaks branch and grow laterally, not vertically. You end up with a relative short tree with massive branches. This type of tree is good for knees and elbows, which are essential for the production of keels in large wooden vessels, but are useless for beams. Beams come from straight boles that are between 60 and 100 feet to the first branch. This can only happen if the understorey beneath the oaks contains shade-tolerant hardwoods that kill off the lower branches of the oak, forcing their canopies higher to reach for sunlight. There are some fascinating stands of oak in central Germany that were originally planted as pure oak stands in 1830, but were then underplanted by shade-tolerant hardwoods after 1945. You can still see their old canopies that are now dead, tangled in the tops of hazel and ash, and the new canopies now stretch 50 to 70 feet higher. Fascinating.

    By the way, private land German foresters only sell their large diameter oak beams to a very select few clients (other German barons repairing their family chateaus are high on the list) or if necessity, like a massive wind storm (1996) necessitates the sale. And then, the prices they get are astronomical.

    In BC, the only equivalent sale that I know of was a 2 m western red cedar log that was sold to a Japanese shinto shrine for their main roof beam. The sale was well north of a million $, the priets came over and blessed the tree before harvest, and participated, with local first nations in the ceremonial felling of the ancient giant.

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