With almost 400 undergraduate students and an equal number of graduates, Balliol is one of the largest colleges of the University of Oxford. It also has a claim to being the oldest, having been established in 1263 and continuously operated as a residential community in this location since. Balliol is renowned for producing Prime Ministers (Herbert Asquith, Harold Macmillan, and Edward Heath), as well as literary figures (Robert Southey, Matthew Arnold, Algernon Swinburne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hilaire Belloc, Aldous Huxley, Nevil Shute, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Robertson Davies, and Robert Browning). Four Nobel-prize winning scientists studied there: Oliver Smithies, C.N. Hinshelwood, Baruch Blumberg, and Anthony Leggett.
John Wycliffe, who inspired the first translations of the Latin Bible into English, was one of the College’s Masters in the 14th century. Adam Smith, of The Wealth of Nations fame, was at Balliol from 1740-1746. In the 20th century, Balliol graduate William Beveridge led the development of modern social welfare.
More recent well-known alumni have included Paul Almond, Richard Dawkins, Peter Snow, Bill Drayton, Christopher Hitchens, Cressida Dick, Nicola Horlick, Robert Peston, Boris Johnson, Yvette Cooper, Stephanie Flanders, Amit Chaudhuri, Rana Dasgupta, and Dan Snow.
The early history of the ancient University of Oxford is shrouded in uncertainty. It came into existence about eight hundred years ago, but in its early days it lacked organization and facilities. Students had to fend for themselves in small groups based on inns and lodging houses. It was from these small groups that the modern University, consisting of an association of autonomous colleges, evolved.
John Balliol, one of King Henry III of England’s most loyal Lords during the Barons’ War of 1258-1265, was married to a Scottish princess, Dervorguilla of Galloway. Their son, also named John Balliol, was King of Scots 1292-1296. He was a wealthy man with extensive estates in England and France; his family had its roots in and took its name from Bailleul-en-Vimeu in Picardy. About 1260, with guidance from the Bishop of Durham, he decided to carry out a substantial act of charity by renting a house in the suburbs of Oxford for financially needy students. When John Balliol died in 1269, his widow Dervorguilla continued his generosity, and she is honored with him as co-founder of the college. She provided a capital endowment, formulated Statutes (1282), and gave the college its first seal, which it still has.
There were at first 16 students, each receiving an allowance of eight pence a week. The College remained small for the first 250 years of its history, but in that time had several notable alumni, including John Wycliffe the translator of the Bible.
William Gray, the bibliophile Bishop of Ely, was also a member: during his mid-15th century European travels, he accumulated a substantial collection of manuscript books which he gave or bequeathed to the college, and which the college still treasures as the largest single medieval manuscript collection to survive in England.
During the turmoil of the 16th century, the College was staunch in its allegiance to Rome. It tried to resist when Henry VIII made his demand for acknowledgement of his supremacy over the Pope in 1534, the master and five fellows signing and sealing their submission only after adding that they intended “nothing to prejudice the divine law, the rule of the orthodox faith, or the doctrine of the Holy Mother Catholic Church.” Balliol grew prosperous in the period 1585-1635, during which Laurence Kemis (one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s captains), John Evelyn the diarist, and Nathanael Konopios, who is supposed to have introduced coffee-drinking to England, were members. The Civil War, however, caused an abrupt drop in student numbers, and a consequent reduction in revenue.
The torpor for which 18th-century Oxford is notorious began to set in soon after Theophilus Leigh was elected Master in 1726. His principal qualification for the position, which he held for nearly 60 years, was that he was the Visitor’s nephew. His election was a bizarre and scandalously conducted affair, including an attempt to have the holder of a critical vote declared insane. It is a curious paradox that Balliol nurtured one of its greatest sons in Leigh’s reign. Adam Smith resided as an exhibitioner supported by the benefaction of John Snell 1740-1746.
Early 19th Century: Reform
Under Leigh, the College slid seriously into debt, to the tune of more than £2,000 by 1780. But financial salvation came in the form of increased income from ancient estates in Northumberland, which turned out to be nicely sited on top of coal-seams; and the college’s scholarly soul was saved by the election of John Parsons as master in 1798. Parsons was an academic disciplinarian who turned the fortunes of the college around by insisting that fellowships should be awarded after open competition, and in 1827 his equally zealous successor Richard Jenkyns extended the same principle to scholarships.
This led quickly to a regular succession of the cleverest young men in the country coming to Balliol as scholars. Among the earliest elections were A.C. Tait (another Snell exhibitioner) and Benjamin Jowett, both of whom went on to win Balliol fellowships and become leading tutors. Jowett was later to be master, Tait Archbishop of Canterbury. Success bred success; success attracted benefactions and fostered growth, so that within a very few years Balliol came to dominate the University of Oxford.
Late 19th Century: Benjamin Jowett
Under Jowett, master 1870-1893, academic brilliance was encouraged, but so was originality, and there was a heavy emphasis on character, leadership, duty and public service. The strict approach of the previous generation was relaxed, and more informal intimate relations between teachers and students – at vacation reading parties, for example – became a vital component of the Balliol ethos. Several Fellows, like Jowett, were prominent in the debates of 1850-1870 on university reform, which the college itself anticipated in several respects. Some (notably T. H. Green) were also to the front in the campaign somewhat later to make higher education and degrees available to women. Ladies were allowed to attend College classes from 1884, provided that they were “attended by some elder person.”
The late Victorian period also saw the creation of a cosmopolitan tradition. Of particular interest is the attendance of several high-born Japanese students, at a time when contacts between Japan and the UK were few, beginning in 1873 with Tomotsune Iwakura, son of Tomome Iwakura, Chief Counsellor of State. The college is still international (around forty nationalities are represented in its present membership), and has a high profile in the University of Oxford. At the height of the British Empire, Balliol men were its leaders: three successive Viceroys of India 1888-1905, for example. And it is perhaps appropriate that the winding-up of the British Empire was supervised by a Balliol graduate, Christopher Patten, last governor of Hong Kong.
Early 20th Century
A.L. Smith and A.D. Lindsay were successive masters (1916-1924 and 1924-1949). Both were supporters of working-class adult education, and Balliol became a regular venue for summer schools in vacations. There was a great need to provide more accommodation, but the college site was already fully built up, and was completely hemmed in by other colleges and roads. The only additional rooms which could be built in the 1920s had to be perched on top of existing staircases. This was done successfully.
The most far-reaching development between the two World Wars was the acquisition and extension of Holywell Manor for use as a residential annex. “The Manor” has evolved into a Graduate Institution with a vibrant character of its own, whilst remaining an integral part of the college. The increase in the number and proportion of graduate admissions (now running at around a third of all admissions) in recent times is a fundamental change equaled only by the admission of women. Balliol was in 1973 the first of the traditional all-male colleges to elect a woman as a fellow and tutor.
The current Master of the College, Dame Helen Ghosh, read Modern History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, from 1973 to 1976 and was a Senior Scholar at Hertford College, where she completed her MLitt on the cultural history of sixth-century Italy. She left Oxford to join the Civil Service, where she worked for 33 years in a variety of government departments, including the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Cabinet Office, HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions.
From 2005 to 2010, Helen was Permanent Secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and from 2010, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office. She was appointed a Dame Commander of the Bath in the 2008 Birthday Honours. She left the Civil Service in 2012 to become Director General of the National Trust, and took up her role as Master of Balliol in April 2018.
While a civil servant, she was particularly interested in social exclusion and urban regeneration policies, and in a variety of local and global environmental issues. She is a Visitor of the Ashmolean Museum and a Trustee of the Rhodes Trust.
- The above information is provided by Balliol College, University of Oxford.