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Sunday, 27 May 2012

St Peter's College, Oxford 1965 - 1968

In a previous Blog ( 9th April 2011, "Sponsored Mobility" ) I wrote about how the 11+ put me into a Grammar School and how that school put me into Oxford, first selecting me for its Oxbridge preparation group and then selecting my subject of study (PPE) and my college (St Peter's). Thus social mobility, 1960s style.

St Peter's was an interesting choice, targetted by my school on the grounds that it was easier to get into than one of the colleges basically reserved for boys from top public schools. It also had an abysmal ranking in Oxford's internal college league table, another reason why it might be easy.

My school may not have known that it also had some commitment to "widening access", though perhaps not in the sense we now understand it. St Peter's Hall was founded as a Private Hall in 1929 "to commemorate the life and teaching of the Right Reverend Frances James Chavasse ...formerly Lord Bishop of Liverpool"with the object " (a) To maintain and promote education, religion and learning for and among students generally of whatever religious persuasion and especially to give aid to students in straitened or reduced circumstances ..."

This from the college statutes(* See footnote). In practice, Pot Hall (as it was known even after it became a full college of the University in 1961) provided university places for the sons [it was single sex] of Church of England clergymen, especially those of an evangelical persuasion and lacking the private means to send their boys to top public schools and thence to top Oxbridge colleges.

When I arrived in 1965 the sons of the clergy were still there and it rather depressed me to discover how modest were their academic achievements - Ds and Es at "A" level whereas I had three shiny grade As. True, St Peter's had recognised my academic abilities by the award of an Open Scholarship worth £60 a year on top of my full maintenance grant of £370. And my circumstances were straitened - £60 + £370 raised my income significantly above that of my mother who had about £250 a year.

As a Scholar I was expected to read lessons at services in the College chapel and lead grace at the beginning of meals [ Benedictus, Benedicat ...], and one of the first things I had to do on arrival was excuse myself by writing to the Master of the College, Canon Julian Percy Thornton-Duesbery, an Evangelical and prominent Moral Re-Armer. He was also a supervisor of the right-wing, evangelical Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU) which opposed itself to the "Marxist" Student Christian Movement.

The year before I had arrived, Thornton-Duesbery had published a defence of Moral re-Armament (MRA) against the criticisms of Tom Driberg, a Left Wing Labour MP, and this may be his Principal Publication. MRA had a dodgy history, like every American evangelical movement, and its founder, Frank Buchman, was perceived to have been soft in the 1930s on Fascism and Nazism.

Now we begin to get to the point.

In the first place, as an unbeliever, I had had to identify myself as an outsider the moment I arrived at St Peter's. I could never be a "College Man" and I have only ever attended one College reunion - I tried hard but the weekend get-together incorporated no less than five periods of religious observance.

More importantly, the College statutes make no reference to "research" but rather to "education, religion and learning". Thornton-Duesbery was not an academic either in the sense it was then understood and even more so as it is understood now. He was a clergyman (one might say, a hereditary clergyman - his father, another Evangelical, was Bishop of Sodor and Man). And the fellows of St Peter's - the academic staff - included other men who were not obviously academics. There was a full time Chaplain, funded on the books, and there was Claude Wingfield Hope Sutton.

Claude Sutton interviewed me, rather sleepily, for my place at St Peter's. I remember he asked me a question about Nazism and Fascism. Only later did I discover that his interests in those subjects had been - as it were - practical rather than academic. I can't get much off Google, but I can tell you that in 1936 he had published "Farewell to Rousseau: a critique of liberal democracy". It was rumoured that he had been interned in the War as a Nazi [ I can find no Google evidence]. He did publish articles in journals like Philosophy which are now academic but which in the 1950s were more like journals of elevated opinion.

So one reason for St Peter's abysmal league table position was the fact that as a Private Hall up to 1961 it had pre-occupied itself with religion and politics and had a staff (now paid from public funds) which still partly reflected that fact.

Jump forward nearly 50 years.

Oxford is a University with a world-class reputation for teaching and research. But on its fringes there still cluster private Halls and Foundations with other goals. Of Oxford's current 44 college tally, six have recognisable religious agendas. I take from the University website:

Blackfriars - Permanent Private Hall, Dominican Friars
Campion Hall - Jesuit academic community
St Benet's Hall - Permanent Private Hall originally founded by the monks of Ampleforth Abbey
Regent's Park College - trains men and women for the ordained Baptist ministry
St Stephen's House - Anglican theological foundation
Wycliffe Hall - Evangelical with the majority of students preparing for ordination in the Church of England

St Peter's Hall belonged to this group of basically parasitic colleges, but converted itself into a "regular" college in 1961. The legacy of the past was still there during my time as a student from 1965 to 1968. The remaining private halls and foundations listed above sometimes appear in the newspapers when some internal sectarian squabble spills over.

So whatever universities are for, it would be a mistake to think that they are just about teaching and research, even nowadays and even in our top universities.

* The Statutes do get worse, "(b) To train, cherish and encourage candidates for Holy Orders in the Church of England or...intending to labour for Foreign Missions with which the Ministry of the late Bishop James Hannington was particularly identified; (c)To diffuse sound information and teaching of and in Christian principles and doctrine in conformity with... the 39 Articles of Religion ..." and so on.

In other words, my Grammar School had packed me off to a religious foundation. And - like many other colleges - one where the aim of broadening access had to be reconciled with the aim of giving a leg up to those with a link to some place or person, in this case the late Bishop Hannington. In other Oxford colleges, such aims were furthered through a system of Closed Scholarships which could only be awarded to descendants of so and so or inhabitants of such and such. In the sixties, there were hundreds of Closed Scholarships. I don't know if the system has been reformed.

Postscript 8 May 2013: And just in case you think things have changed, this recently arrived in the post:

Postscript 11 October 2016: A revised version of this blog piece, combined with sketches of my home and grammar school, appears as the chapter "Social Mobility" in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), available from the usual online suppliers.


  1. This highlights the fixation of schools with getting their students into Oxbridge. It exists today, with schools organising day trips to Cambridge for coach loads of primary school children from deprived inner city areas in the hope that it will inspire them to get out of the ghetto.

  2. Hey - be nice to Pot Hall!

    I was there in the early 80s and it was the most brilliant place I could imagine studying at, with room for all types and beliefs. My tastes were mainly bar-based, which was probably the college's main claim to fame at the time - but people who were academically inclined could and did get good (if not mega) degrees.

    Today SPC is indistinguishable from 90% of Oxford colleges in terms of its culture and student mix. An obsession with "Access", increased pooling and more transparent admissions processes mean the various sub-groups of applicants are far more evenly spread than they were in the 80s, let alone the 60s.

    Oh, and in Mark Damazer, SPC has probably the most active and exciting head of any Oxford college - a far cry from T-D.

    And finally, the gaudies/alumni weekends are great fun, so why not give one a go?

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  4. I will add to Anonymous of 21.03.13. I was at the college from 1958 to 1961. I got a good (undivided) Second Class degree as did my two fellow lawyers. As a convinced non-believer I never once attended a chapel service and was not criticised for this omission. In fact, Billy Watson the Chaplain (still alive at over 90) invited me to be his guest at his last Guest Night in 1993.

    The college was changing even when I was up. It would not have made the transition from Hall to College in 1961 had the University not been satisfied that it was main stream as opposed to a pseudo-theological college. The theological students were a diminishing bunch even whilst I was up.

    Some time ago the chapel (a large Victorian stone building) had all the pews removed and comfortable chairs substituted (you can't now kneel for prayer!). It has been handsomely restored and, apart from chapel services, is extensively used for concerts, plays, receptions, exhibitions, drinks parties, and packed-house talks by outside celebrities.

    As the earlier correspondent says, the college is no different these days from any other college. Indeed, it is to Oxford's credit that all 30 undergraduate colleges (by and large smaller than Cambridge colleges) pull their weight and it now really makes no difference to which college you go.

    Yes, my three years there were the happiest in my life!