Balliol College, Oxford

Balliol College ( /ˈbeɪliəl/), founded in 1263, is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England but founded by Scottish academics.

Traditionally, the undergraduates are amongst the most politically active in the university, and the college's alumni include three former prime ministers. H. H. Asquith (a Balliol undergraduate and British Prime Minister) once wryly described Balliol men as possessing "the tranquil consciousness of an effortless superiority." Adam Smith, a graduate student of the college, is perhaps its best known alumnus. During Benjamin Jowett's Mastership in the 19th century, the College rose from its relative obscurity to occupy the first rank of colleges, and indeed continues to play a prominent role. As of 2009, Balliol had an endowment of £64 m.


The College was founded in about 1263 (leading some to argue that it is the University's oldest college, a claim contested by University College and Merton College) by John I de Balliol under the guidance of the Bishop of Durham. After his death in 1268, his widow, Dervorguilla of Galloway, made arrangements to ensure the permanence of the college. She provided capital and, in 1282, formulated the college statutes, documents that survive to this day.

Student life

The college provides its students with a broad range of facilities, including accommodation, the great hall (refectory), a library, two bars, and separate common rooms for the fellows, the graduates and undergraduates. There are also garden quadrangles and a nearby sportsground and boat-house. The sportsground is mainly used for cricket, tennis, hockey and football. The majority of undergraduates are housed within the main college or in the modern annexes around the sportsground. Croquet may be played in the Master's Field, or garden quadrangles in the summer. The graduates are housed mainly within Holywell Manor which has its own bar, gardens, common room, gym and computing facilities. Balliol is proud to have a long standing Music Society which organises four free Sunday evening concerts in the College Hall each term. Balliol is the only Oxford college to have its own bridge club.

Balliol also takes pride in its college tortoises. The original tortoise, who resided at the College for at least 43 years, was known as Rosa, named after the notable German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg. Each June, pet tortoises from various Oxford colleges are brought to Corpus Christi College where they participate in a very slow race; Balliol's own Rosa competed and won many times. Rosa disappeared in the Spring of 2004, and while numerous conspiracy theories have abounded, none is officially recognised by the College. It should be noted that Rosa had a long and happy life through the care of David Russell (the Comrade Tortoise) and he was distraught to have had her lost. However, on 29 April 2007, Chris Skidmore, a Graduate of Christ Church working at the House of Commons, donated a pair of tortoises - one to his own college, and one to Balliol, where he had attended an open day in 1999. The new tortoise, Matilda died in April 2009. Taking care of the resident tortoise is one of the many tasks assigned to Balliol students each year. This position, known as "Comrade Tortoise", has been filled by a student every year. The Assistant Gardener, Steve Taylor who joined Balliol from Cotswold Wildlife Park assists Comrade Tortoise in the practical matters of testudinal care.

Balliol students are noted for their left-wing tendencies; the college ethos has been described as "conservatively left-wing". The JCR has had requests for the Sun and News of the World newspapers several times, but each time a majority of students voted against the idea. In 2008 it was voted by a GM that the JCR would receive a daily copy of the Sun. The Sun celebrated the decision by sending a bus full of Page 3 girls to the college, describing the order as a lifted "ban". Following this decision, at the next fortnightly GM the decision was reversed.

Balliol's JCR is noted for being particularly active, providing many services for its members. These range from laundry facilities, one of the few entirely student-run bars left in Oxford (the Manager, Lord/Lady Lindsay, is elected each year by students in the JCR) to a cafeteria (known as Pantry), the only student-run establishment of its type, which serves itemised cooked breakfast until 11.30am and Lunch every day, and dinner 6 nights a week. Members of the JCR are encouraged to get involved with the running of these facilities.

There is a fierce rivalry between Trinity College and Balliol College that is shown by students of both colleges. The last incident suspected to relate to this rivalry was the vandalisation of Trinity's SCR pond, which led to the death of all but one of the fish.

Traditions and customs

Along with many of the ancient colleges, Balliol has evolved its own traditions and customs over the centuries, many of which occupy a regular calendar slot.

  • The patron saint of the College is Saint Catherine of Alexandria. On her feast day (25 November), a formal dinner is held for all final year students within Balliol. This festival was well established by 1550.
  • Another important feast in the College calendar is the Snell Dinner. This dinner is held in memory of John Snell, whose benefaction established exhibitions for students from the University of Glasgow to study at Balliol (the first exhibitioners were matriculated in 1699) one of whom was Adam Smith. The feast is attended by fellows of Balliol College, the current Snell Exhibitioners, and representatives from Glasgow University and St John's College, Cambridge.
  • By far the most eccentric is The Nepotists carol-singing event organised by the College's Arnold and Brackenbury society. This event happens on the last Friday of Michaelmas term each year. On this occasion Balliol students congregate in the college hall to enjoy mulled wine and the singing of hymns. The evening historically ended with a rendition of "The Gordouli" on Broad Street, outside the gates of Trinity College although in recent years the song has been sung from within the college walls. The Gordouli is an eccentric song written by Balliol students in the 1890s, inspired by (and inspiring) the rivalry between the students of Trinity and Balliol.
The Masque of Balliol

In 1880, seven mischievous undergraduates at Balliol College, Oxford, published The Masque of B-ll--l, a broadsheet of forty quatrains making light of their superiors – the Master and selected Fellows, Scholars, and Commoners – and themselves. The outraged authorities immediately suppressed the collection, and only a few copies survived, three of which found their way into the College Library over the years, and one into the Bodleian Library. Verses of this form are now known as Balliol rhymes.

The best known of these rhymes is the one on Benjamin Jowett. This has been widely quoted and reprinted in virtually every book about Jowett and about Balliol ever since.

This and 18 others are attributed to Henry Charles Beeching. The other quatrains are much less well known.

William Tuckwell included 18 of these quatrains in his Reminiscences in 1900, but they all came out only in 1939, thanks to Walter George Hiscock, an Oxford librarian, who issued them personally then and in a second edition in 1955.

The College buildings
Front Quadrangle

The college has been on its present site since its inception by Balliol's Scholars as their residence. A lease dating to 1263 to them is the traditional 'foundation' date. The oldest parts of the College are the north and west ranges of the front quadrangle, dated to 1431, respectively the medieval Hall, west side, now the 'new library' and the 'old library' first floor north side. The ground floor is the 'Old' (i.e. Senior) Common Room. This means that Balliol's second library predates printed books. There is a possibility that the original Master's Chamber, south west side, adorned with a fine oriel window is earlier than these; it is now the Master's Dining Room. The Chapel is the third (perhaps fourth) on the site Butterfield 1857. Alfred Waterhouse designed the main Broad Street frontage of the college, with gateway and tower, known as the Brackenbury Buildings, in 1867-68 Staircases ('Stc') I-VII, the first Stc next to the Chapel is the Organ Scholars lodgings. These replaced earlier structures.

Garden Quadrangle

South-side is the front part of the Master's Lodgings on Broad Street from the Waterhouse improvements of the 1860s of the front quad. The neighbour to this is the Fisher Building of 1759 (Stc X) The undistinguished looking Stc XI, south west side, is in fact the oldest structure in this quadrangle, 1720, originally intended as accommodation for scholars from Bristol, hence its name. Continuing the west-side Stc XII-XIV dates from 1826, by George Basevi, and marks the beginnings of the college's academic renaissance being required for the increasing number of Commoners applying for places. Stc XV by Warren of 1912 filled in the last gap of the quadrangle; the ground floor and basement is the principal Junior Common Room. This unfortunately obscures the lines of the Salvin designed Stc XVI-XIX with Tower of 1853. As does the 1968 building by Beard Stc XX, replacing a Victorian structure. This completely hides a formal gateway similar to that at the Broad Street main entrance, this can be viewed outside from Little Magdalen Street, through the gap marked XIX one finds the small function room 'Massey Room'. At north side, of Stc XX is the 'Back Gate' which is part of the 1906 Warren building, west and north side, Stc XXI. At 1 St Giles Street is its neighbour which is part of the college and houses the Oxford Internet Institute. Beard's Stc XXII, replacing Victorian rooms, these were provided from the Vivian Bulkeley-Johnson benefaction. Beard's Stc XX and XXII are connected by the Snell Bridge accommodation at third floor level, which was provided from Glasgow University's Snell Benefaction.

The 'new' Hall (replacing that in the front quadrangle) is built on land given by Benjamin Jowett, a Victorian Master of the College. Also by Alfred Waterhouse of 1877, it contains a Willis organ for concerts, again instituted by Jowett. The ground floor contains the college bar and shop i.e. 'The Buttery' (west side) and the Senior Common Room lunch room (east side). The 1966 new Senior Common Room range (Stc XXIII)(northern and eastern sides) was a benefaction of the Bernard Sunley Foundation and contains some smaller rooms and the principal SCR lounge, replacing Victorian facilities. Below this is a Lecture Room {'LR XXIII'}. The east side of the quad is a neighbouring wall with Trinity College, at the southern end is the Master's Garden, in front of the Chapel, and the Fellow's Garden in front of the 'Old' (Senior) Common Room. The Tower forming the corner between the 'Old Hall' and 'Old Library' is also by Salvin, of 1853 and balances that at Stc XVI-XIX.

Manor Road and Jowett Walk

The 20th century saw several further additions to the college's accommodation, the Martin of 1966 ('Hollywell Minor') and Dellal (1986) buildings for graduates on Manor Road. Many undergraduates and some graduates live in buildings on Jowett Walk a phased development from the turn of the Millennium, containing a small theatre facility, five minutes' walking distance from the main College site; these two developments are on the curtilages of the Master's Field, the sports ground and pavilion facilities of the College. The majority of research and post-graduate students are housed in the Holywell Manor complex, on Manor Road a little further south of this. In 2008 it was announced that St Cross Church, next to the Manor, was to become the College's Historic Collections Centre, an extension to the Library's services. The church dates to the 15th Century. Jowett Walk has also provided accommodation for some non-Balliol undergraduates, as part of an arrangement with Wadham College.

The quad at Balliol is the scene of the well-known limerick about the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley:

and also of the response by the (Balliol-educated) Catholic theologian and Bible translator Ronald Knox:

Notable people

In common with many Oxford colleges, Balliol has produced a wide range of graduates in the fields of economics, history, law, physiology, medicine, management, humanities, mathematics, science, technology, media, philosophy, poetry, politics, and religion. They have also contributed significantly to public life. Balliol people were, for example, prominent in establishing the International Baccalaureate, the National Trust, the Workers Educational Association, the Welfare State, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Amnesty International.

Balliol has produced numerous Nobel Laureates. The number is either 5 or 12 depending on whether only alumni are counted or whether faculty who later went on to get the Nobel Prize are included. Five Nobel Laureates were students at Balliol (the most of any college at Oxford): Sir Cyril Norman Hinshelwood (Chemistry, 1956), Sir John Hicks (Economics, 1972), Baruch S. Blumberg (Physiology or Medicine, 1976), Anthony J. Leggett (Physics, 2003) and Oliver Smithies (Physiology or Medicine, 2007). Seven more have been Fellows of the College (this too is the largest number of any college at Oxford ): George Beadle (Physiology or Medicine), Norman Ramsey (Physics), Robert Solow (Economics), John Van Vleck (Physics), Gunnar Myrdal (Economics), Linus Pauling (both Peace and Chemistry) and William D. Phillips (Physics).

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins was a student there from 1959 to 1962. Adam Smith attended this college between 1740 and 1746 as a Snell Exhibitioner.

In politics, Balliol has produced three British Prime Ministers: H. H. Asquith, Harold Macmillan , and Edward Heath. At the mid point of the twentieth century members of the College held senior leadership positions in the three major political parties, those previously mentioned were supplemented by Jo Grimond (Liberal Leader), Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins both of whom had been Chancellor and both expected to serve as PM, the last named also led the Social Democratic Party and became President of the European Commission. The Mayor of London and former MP, Boris Johnson, attended Balliol.

Three kings, Olav V and Harald V of Norway, and Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Malaysia have studied at Balliol. Richard von Weizsäcker, President of Germany from 1984 to 1994, also studied at Balliol.

Shoghi Effendi, one of the appointed leaders of the Baha'i Faith from 1921 until his death in 1957, studied Economics and Social Sciences.

Balliol lawyers have also been prominent. Lord Bingham, who read History and has been the College's Visitor for many years, was the Senior Law Lord of the United Kingdom, while Sir Brian Hutton and Lord Rodger have held equivalent positions in Northern Ireland and Scotland, at one point, all three simultaneously.

Literary figures include Robert Southey, Matthew Arnold, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Arthur Hugh Clough, Hilaire Belloc, Ronald Knox, Graham Greene, Joseph Macleod, Anthony Powell, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Hollis, Robertson Davies, Nevil Shute and Rory Stewart. Perhaps its most famous literary character, however, are fictional: author Dorothy Sayers' made her well-known detective Lord Peter Wimsey a graduate of, and noted cricketer for, Balliol. In a speech entitled "Captain Hook at Eton" in 1927, James M. Barrie indicated that Captain Hook attended Balliol. In the play Peter Pan, Hook's final words are "Floreat Etona", the College's motto. Among other fictional detectives from Balliol is Dr Gideon Fell, the creation of John Dickson Carr. Balliol's many crime writers include W. J. Burley, Robert Barnard, Tim Heald and Martin Edwards.

Notable Balliol philosophers and thinkers include T.H. Green, J. L. Austin, Charles Taylor, Bernard Williams, R.M. Hare, Michael Sandel, Joseph Raz among others.

Balliol members have had a predominance as holders of the office of Chancellor of the University from the 20th Century to the present; George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Harold Macmillan, Roy Jenkins and Chris Patten, the last two being opposed in their election by Edward Heath and Lord Bingham of Cornhill respectively.

The College has also produced TV presenters Peter Snow and his son Dan Snow, the journalist Christopher Hitchens.

Adam von Trott zu Solz the German diplomat and anti-Hitler plotter was a Rhodes Scholar at the College.

Howard Marks, a convicted drug dealer and later author, attended Balliol between 1964 and 1967 to study physics and then again between 1968 and 1969 to study History and Philosophy of Science.

Academics and visiting academics

As with all Colleges, Balliol has a more or less permanent set of teaching staff, known as Fellows. These include both Tutorial Fellows and Professorial Fellows. These are supplemented by academics on short term contracts. In addition, there are visiting international academics who come to Oxford for periods of up to a year. This is effected through the George Eastman Visiting Professorial Fellowship. The official list of current senior members of the College can be found here. There is an incomplete list of Balliol College academics past and present.

Institute and centre
  • Balliol, especially the Master, Andrew Graham, played a major role in 2000 and 2001 in setting up the Oxford Internet Institute. This was the world's first multidisciplinary research and policy centre in a university devoted to examining the impact on society of the Internet. It is a department of Oxford University, but is located in Balliol, and its Director is a Professorial Fellow of Balliol.

Building Activity

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