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Higher education postcard: Wolfson College, Oxford

Hugh Jones presents the tale of a college built on mail-order catalogues and motor cars
This article is more than 1 year old

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

Ah, Oxford, ancient city of dreaming spires … and more modern edifices!

Here’s the front page news in Birmingham on 13 March 1965 (this from the Birmingham Post, County Edition):

New Colleges: Statutes establishing two new graduate societies - to provide for the increasing number of postgraduates in Oxford - will go before the University Congregation next months. They are Iffley College and St Cross College. The Oxford University Gazette advertises the posts of principal at salaries of £3,500 - unless candidates appointed hold other salaried university posts. Both colleges will eventually become full graduate colleges of the university.

A pair of new colleges was founded, and one of them, the then Iffley College, is our focus today.

The fellows of the new College appointed Sir Isaiah Berlin, Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the university, to be the College’s first President. This seems to have been a good idea.

The infant College had no buildings; the new President set about rectifying this, and with support from two charities – the Wolfson Foundation and the Ford Foundation – a site was bought. This included the house which had belonged to John S Haldane, scientist and brother of Viscount Haldane, of whom we have heard previously. The support from the Wolfson Foundation was sufficient that the College was renamed in honour of the benefactor, Sir Isaac Wolfson.

Isaac Wolfson made his fortune through the mail order business – he turned Great Universal Stores into a behemoth of the UK retail trade, and then gave away much of his great wealth. As well as Wolfson College Oxford, he later supported the foundation of Wolfson College, Cambridge. (Here’s a fun game: how many other people have both Oxford and Cambridge colleges named after them?)

Wolfson remains a postgraduate only college, the majority of its 800 students studying for research degrees. It also has a rare thing amongst Oxford Colleges – a dedicated punting harbour. You can see this in the south-east quadrant of the card: the narrow channel from the River Cherwell, and the pond with the bright concreted strip to the top.

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