An extremely influential figure in Trinity’s history was Ralph Kettell. A protégé of Lady Elizabeth Pope, he was nominated to a scholarship in 1579, at the age of 16. Kettell was elected a fellow of Trinity in 1583, and he proved himself a shrewd and energetic administrator.
In 1599, Kettell became President, and he embarked on a comprehensive programme of refurbishment and improvement to the college buildings and facilities. In 1615 he undertook, as a private investment, the construction of a large accommodation block, built on land leased near Trinity’s entrance on Broad Street. Comfortable rooms were let to wealthier undergraduates, and numbers in residence expanded rapidly. This building, known as Kettell Hall, was only purchased by Trinity in the late nineteenth century; today it is home to the Middle Common Room and members of the college’s graduate community.
One story about Ralph Kettell was promulgated by the antiquarian John Aubrey, who was admitted as an undergraduate in 1642. According to Aubrey, Kettell ‘observed that the houses that had the smallest [weakest] beer had the most drunkards, for it forced them to go into the town to comfort their stomachs; therefore Dr Kettell always had in his College excellent beer, not better to be had in Oxon; so that we could not go to any other place but for the worse, and we had the fewest drunkards of any house in Oxford’. In 1618 Kettell hired workmen to dig a cellar beneath the medieval hall that had been built for the monks of Durham College. When this resulted in its collapse, he embarked on the building of the present Hall.
The early seventeenth century was a time of much political and religious unrest in Oxford, but Kettell was remarkably successful in preserving a spirit of unity within the College. The Hall was used for lectures and classes for the undergraduates, and for the daily ritual of Dinner. The President, fellows and more aristocratic students dined at ‘High Table’, while the scholars enjoyed the table nearest to the fireplace.