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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.

Postscript 24 February 2018: For an interesting update on the College's statutes, see below David Ashton's comment of today's date.Fifty years after I graduated, it looks like the College is about to modify its formal self-characterisation. 


  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?

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  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!

  5. I give you an update. In the St Peter's College record 2017 is a report of the farewell dinner speech of Kevin Hilliard, a Fellow of some 22 years' standing.

    He said, "We have also made important changes to our constitutional structures. We have conducted a much needed revision of our Statutes to bring us closer, in our binding documents, to the open and modern institution we want to be, and in many respects actually are. It might seem that we have been a little slow to see this revision to the finish. We began eight or nine years ago, and still haven't completed the process... The College has in fact done its best to expedite matters, and it is the Charity Commission and the Church or England who have been holding things up. The Church, in particular, could teach anyone a thing or two about inertia. The latest reports, however, are that even they are running out of reasons for delay... I am consoled by the thought that it will not be long before [the new Statutes] come into force. This will bring the constitution of the College into better alignment with its values. In this and in other respects, the College has a bright future."

    I also record that in the said Record there are listed 102 students who joined the college in the academic year 2016/2017. They are studying 25 different subjects in the humanities and scientific fields. One student only is what I would call a genuine theological student in that he is reading Theology and Religion. (Two other students, one male and one female, are reading Philosophy and Religion).

    Therefore the college is no longer acting as a "religious foundation" (as you describe it in your blog) and this comment answers too your postscripts of 8 May 2013 and 11 October 2016.

    1. I infer from your expression "self-characterisation" in your postscript of 24 February 2018 ("it looks like the College is about to modify its formal self-characterisation") that you see the proposed constitutional modification as some sort of fig leaf rather than real progress. If so, you are, displaying a curiously blinkered approach towards the college.

  6. I had only in mind to alert the reader to your Comment about the statutes. As for real progress, I have no personal acquaintance. In my book The Best I Can Do (page 121) I write "St. Peter's has recently (2015) been named and shamed by the Government as one of the Oxford colleges with the worst records for admitting students from state school backgrounds. This surprised me. It was a College which had everything to gain from being more open ....but it is consistent with the claim, now regularly made,that the kind of social mobility which characterised the two or three decades after the Second World War, and from which I benefitted, has now come to an end"

    1. My comments dealt with the main thrust of your blog, namely, the College's "pre-occupation with religion", it being a "religious foundation". You now broach another topic!

      In your book you castigate the college for its bad record in accepting state-educated students. Yes, in 2015 it did accept slightly fewer than 50% of such students. In contrast, I refer you to The Sutton Trust's Education report of 11 February 2016. This stated at p 4, "At Brasenose College, just 11% of state school applicants received a place [the lowest number] compared with 30% at St Peter's [the highest number] (see Figure 6 for UK state school acceptance rate by Oxford Colleges, 2012-2014)."

      The Oxford intake statistics do vary from year to year, and I accept that private schools which comprise 7% of the secondary school population have a disproportionate number of acceptances at Oxford, but that is something which the university as a whole must seriously grapple with. St Peter's, as with all colleges, simply takes the best quality students on offer. As some popular colleges, such as St John's or Worcester, cream off the best state-educated students, this has a knock-on effect on other colleges such as St Peter's when it come to choosing their students.

      I also notice that the Master states in St Peter's College Record 2017, "The College has launched a new outreach initiative aimed squarely at teachers from schools where there is no strong tradition of sending students to Oxbridge". (The Sutton Trust report of 2016 indicated that more than 40% of state secondary schoolteachers rarely or never advised their brightest pupils to apply to Oxbridge; no change from 9 years ago).

      I accept that widening access should be an important commitment of all Oxford colleges.