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Balliol College, Oxford


Balliol College, founded in 1263, is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Traditionally, the undergraduates are amongst the most politically active in the university, and the college's alumni include several former prime ministers. Balliol attracts more international students than the other undergraduate colleges.

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. Jowett is credited with having developed the tutorial system of education. Herbert Asquith once described Balliol men as possessing "the tranquil consciousness of an effortless superiority".



The College was founded around 1263 by John de Balliol under the guidance of the Bishop of Durham. After his death in 1269, 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, three 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 soccer. The undergraduates are housed within the main college or in the modern annexes around the sportsground. Croquet may be played in the Master's Field in the summer. The graduates are housed mainly within Holywell Manor which has its own bar, gardens, canteen, common room, laundry 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 also takes pride in its college tortoise, Rosa, named after the notable German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg. Each June, pet tortoises from various Oxford colleges are brought to Corpus Christi College, Oxford where they participate in a very slow race; Balliol's own Rosa has competed and won many times. Taking care of the resident tortoise is one of the many tasks assigned to Balliol students each year. Sadly, Rosa has gone missing.

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 (25th November), a formal dinner is held for all final year students within Balliol. This festival was well established by 1550 (in which year college archives tell that a peacock was served up).
  • Another important feast in the College calendar is the Snell Dinner (normally held on the Friday of the 3rd week in March). This dinner is held in memory of John Snell, whose benefaction established exhibitions for students from Glasgow University to study at Balliol (the first exhibitioners were matriculated in 1699). 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 ends with a rendition of "The Gordouli" on Broad Street, outside the gates of Trinity College. The Gordouli is an eccentric song written by Balliol students and inspired by the friendly rivalry between the students of Trinity and Balliol.

Another wonderful tradition comes in the form of 'The Betting Book'. After formal college meals, the fellows of the college retire to the senior common room. From time to time, the fellows discuss and place small amicable bets on a whole range of issues. Once made, bets are placed in the Book. The Book has existed since at least the 1930s and gives wonderful insight into how famous historical events were perceived by learned people at the time.

The College Buildings

The main buildings as seen from Broad Street replaced earlier structures in the nineteenth century. Not known as one of Oxford's more beautiful colleges, its buildings are severe, with a number of twentieth century additions.

Notable Former Students

Balliol has produced an impressive range of graduates in the fields of economics, history, law, humanities, mathematics, science, technology, media, philosophy, poetry, politics and religion. A recent Nobel Prize winner in Physics had studied Ancient History with Latin and Greek. It would be unavoidably subjective and arbitrary to proffer a smattering of publicly recognised names as indicative of a Balliol ethos. Who is to say that an Aldous Huxley is more or less worthy in literary merit than a Richard Dawkins or that a John Wyclif made a more fundamental contribution to social change than an Adam Smith? A list of alumni based upon published sources supplemented by their appearance on the World Wide Web is to be found here.


Balliol has a more or less permanent set of teachers (known as dons). These are supplemented by academics on short term contracts. In addition, there are visiting international academics who come to Oxford for a year or so in order to test their ideas in the intellectual milieu of Balliol. Graduate students also contribute to the life of the community. Some of the Balliol faculty past and present are to be found here. The official list of current senior members of the College can be found here.

Fictional Balliol

Balliol has featured in fiction since the 19th Century. This may be because it has historically been regarded as the college of the intellectual elite. Such a designation may no longer be assumed but novelists seek authentic symbols rather than statistical accuracy. The college has been regarded as typifying a whole range of attributes for good or ill. On the one hand it is positioned as the ultimate target for any educationally ambitious school boy (or girl - but only relatively recently). It is also selected as the typical college of a superior sort of person. Having placed the fictional character at the college the author may then endorse its academic excellence or alternatively take a swipe at its intellectual pretensions. For examples of Balliol in fiction, see here.

Institutes and Centres

External links


  • J. Jones, Balliol College: A History, Oxford University Press, 2nd edition. 1997.

Last updated: 08-16-2005 05:42:36