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Archives and Special Collections: Durham University Records: History

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There were precursors to the establishment of the present University of Durham in 1832. The medieval Durham Cathedral Priory educated its monks itself before establishing a college in Oxford, formalised by Bishop Thomas Hatfield as Durham College in 1384. As a cell of the Benedictine priory, this did not survive the dissolution of the Durham mother house in 1539. A possible university in Durham was mooted at this point, but nothing came of this. The former Durham College was however reestablished shortly thereafter with a new endowment as Trinity College which still exists to this day, with vestiges of its former Durham connections still to be found in the present college.

A more successful scheme to establish a university in Durham was developed in the 1650s after the dissolution of the dean and chapter. A University College, formalised by Cromwell's letters patent of 1657 which appointed a provost and fellows, took over much of the then redundant cathedral buildings and did teach some students. This attempt at a northern alternative to Oxford and Cambridge did not outlast Cromwell's death, and the Restoration of the monarchy and the dean and chapter in 1660. 

It was not until 1832 that the efforts of William van Mildert, last prince bishop of Durham, and the Durham dean and chapter led to the passing through Parliament of "an Act to enable the Dean and Chapter of Durham to appropriate part of the property of their church to the establishment of a University in connection therewith". Temporary accommodation was provided in the house known as Archdeacon's Inn on Palace Green and the first students came into residence in 1833. On 1 June 1837 a royal charter was issued recognising and confirming the constitution of the university. Seven days later the first Durham degrees were conferred under the authority of this charter. An Order of the Queen in Council of 8 August 1837 appropriated Durham Castle, previously the bishop's palace, to the uses of the university. One of the objectives of the founders was to establish in the North of England "an Institution which should secure to its inhabitants the advantage of a sound yet not expensive academical education".

The new university in 1832 was collegiate, although initially there was only one college, now University College and, since 1837, based in Durham Castle. In 1846 this was followed by Hatfield Hall, where expenses were reduced by providing all meals in common at a fixed charge and by letting the rooms furnished. A Cosin's Hall lasted only from 1851 to 1864 when it was effectively absorbed by University College. Unattached, later known as non-collegiate, students were first admitted in 1871. They themselves established a St. Cuthbert's Society in 1888.  Two private halls, St. Chad's and St. John's, founded in 1904 and 1909 respectively, took the style and title of an independent college within the university in 1919. Bede College, established independently as a diocesan teacher training college for men in 1839, took university degree students from 1892. In 1975 it was merged with its women's counterpart, St. Hild's College, which had been founded independently in 1858 and connected with the University in 1896.

Women have been admitted to Durham since the 1890s. In 1895 Senate petitioned the Crown for a supplementary charter enabling degrees to be conferred on women and in the Michaelmas Term, 1896, the first four women students matriculated, all of them members of St. Hild's College. In 1899 a women's hostel was set up at first 33 Claypath, and then in 1901 Abbey House on Palace Green. This became St. Mary's College in 1919 and was provided with a purpose-built site in 1947. It was the last single-sex college in the university, first admitting men in 2005. Women students residing at home had first been admitted in 1895 and in 1947 this body of women students became known as St. Aidan's Society and then St. Aidan's College on its new site in 1961. The remaining Colleges, Grey (1959), Van Mildert (1966), Trevelyan (1967), Collingwood (1972), John Snow and George Stephenson (2001), Josephine Butler (2006), and South (2020) bear witness with the Graduate Society (1965, Ustinov College from 2002), to the post-war expansion of the university. In addition, Neville's Cross College, founded by the county council in 1921 as a teacher training college for women, became a licensed hall of residence of the university in 1924. Some of its students studied university courses until it was merged with the Durham Technical College in 1977 to become the wholly independent New College. Finally, Ushaw College, a Roman Catholic theological college established near Durham in 1808, became a licensed hall of residence of the university in 1968.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the numbers of students in Durham itself remained small. The university's original endowment was insufficient to maintain the country's first university course for engineers instituted in 1837 and, with the exception of mathematics, science in Durham also declined until the development of the Science site, in cooperation with the County Council in 1922.

The original constitution of the University, which placed its government under the control of the dean and chapter of Durham with a warden at its head, was modified in 1908 to create a federal institution under a chancellor and vice-chancellor. This provided an organisation at university level functioning equally in Durham and Newcastle and wholly responsible for examining and granting degrees. The students, however, were members of the university by virtue of their membership of its largely autonomous, constituent parts in Durham and in Newcastle. A royal commission of 1935 led to further constitutional changes which took effect in 1937. Under the new arrangements the Durham Colleges continued as the Durham Division, headed again by a warden, who alternated with the rector of King's College in Newcastle as vice-chancellor. 

After the Second World War, both divisions expanded rapidly and the federal organisation was soon rendered out of date. The various governing bodies within the university concluded that there should be a separate University of Newcastle. The Universities of Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne Act of 1963 provided for the establishment of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne with the former Durham Colleges continuing as the University of Durham, rebranded as Durham University in 2005.

Pure science teaching within Durham had been re-established in 1924 at the same time as the department of Education was opened. Both developments were the result of collaboration between the Durham Colleges and Durham County Council and for many years were in large part funded by a special rate levied by the latter. The original range of pure science departments was extended after 1945 and applied science and engineering were introduced in 1960 and 1965 respectively. Large scale development in the social sciences came after 1960 and the range of arts departments was also expanded in the 1960s. The present academic departments at Durham are organised into the four faculties of Arts and Humanities, Science, Social Sciences and Health, and Business.

A Medical College had been established in Newcastle in 1834. This sought degree status for its awards and so in 1852 became "the Newcastle upon Tyne College of Medicine in connection with the University of Durham". So through this College of Medicine, the University began to award medical qualifications. A College of Physical Science in Newcastle upon Tyne was founded in 1871, under the aegis of the university. This became the College of Science in 1884 and then Armstrong College in 1904. It offered a wide range of pure and applied science as well as a growing number of arts courses. A School of Art had been established in Newcastle in 1837. This became part of Armstrong College in 1888, and so the university began to award degrees in the Fine Arts including painting, sculpture and architecture.

Student numbers began to grow in Newcastle and overtake those in Durham. The Act of 1908 formalised the university into two divisions in 1910 in Durham and Newcastle. Sunderland Technical College was established in 1901 and this became associated with Armstrong College in 1930 to enable some of the Sunderland students to enrol on courses at Armstrong and so gain university degrees. A further university Act of 1935 formally federalised the university in 1937 with the Newcastle colleges being united as King's College, headed by a rector, and the colleges in Durham becoming the Durham Colleges, headed by a warden. The warden and rector took it in turns to be vice-chancellor of the whole university, King's College continued to have its own council. King's now had twice the number of students in Durham, and its Arts departments pretty well mirrored those in Durham. There were various suggestions of independence until the Act of 1963 finally separated off King's as the independent University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Then current King's students could choose to take their degrees from Durham if they wished, and some committees continued to cover both institutions, but Newcastle has been very much a separate and thriving university since 1963. 

Sunderland Technical College had been founded in 1901 teaching courses in Pure Science and Engineering. Possible affiliation to Durham University had been mooted for some time before it occurred in 1931 when Sunderland was affiliated to the university in the Faculty of Applied Science, ie at Armstrong College. So courses in civil, mechanical, marine and electrical engineering were recognised as qualifying for degrees and their students were matriculated in the university. On the independence of Newcastle University in 1963, the affiliation continued with that university until Sunderland became an independent polytechnic in 1969.

In the early 1990s, Durham University developed a further campus 21 miles to its south-east at Stockton. University College, Stockton on Tees, opened to students in October 1992 offering joint qualifications of the universities of Durham and of Teesside. It was established in partnership with the University of Teesside and the Teesside Development Corporation.

In 1994 the Privy Council approved its status as a residential and teaching college of the University of Durham. Since 1996, by agreement between the two universities, the students have been studying for University of Durham degrees. In 2001 John Snow College and George Stephenson College were established at Stockton. In recognition of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee in 2002 and the tenth anniversary of the Stockton campus, Her Majesty gave permission for the university to change its title from University of Durham, Stockton Campus to Queen's Campus.


Durham developed various overseas connections in the later 19th century, at a time when there was quite an emphasis on theology in the teaching at the university.

First, Codrington College in Barbados, a theological college originally established in 1745, became affiliated to the university in 1875. It was joined in the following year by Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone, originally founded in 1820. Codrington College became part of the University of the West Indies in 1965 and the affiliation with Fourah Bay ended in 1967 when it became part of the new federal University of Sierra Leone.

Affiliation meant that the students at those colleges were members of Durham University and studied the relevant Arts or Theology course at their own institution. Examination papers were sent out from Durham and the degree was conferred locally by their principal or the bishop, or just occasionally someone might go out from Durham. Otherwise the university had no control over the teachers or the teaching and it has been viewed as a hazardous experiment but one which did produce considerable success and led, at Fourah Bay, to the first black Africans gaining degrees.

Also in 1876, various theological colleges and departments around Britain and overseas became associated with Durham University. This meant that their students could count six terms' residence and exams passed towards a Durham BA degree if they then kept three terms at Durham and passed their finals there. This saw some students from colleges in Jamaica, Nigeria, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, along with various colleges in Britain, attain degrees at Durham. The system fell away rather after World War One. 


Histories of the University

J.T. Fowler, Durham University (1904) (Fowler's own copy of this, interleaved, with corrections and additions, is DUL ASC Add Ms 199), the earliest full overview of the university with lots of anecdotal detail

C.E. Whiting, The University of Durham 1832-1932 (1932), thorough, covers all bases, lots on the development of subjects and the different parts of the university

C.E. Whiting ed., The University of Durham 1937 (Durham 1937), snapshots of different parts of the university

A.J. Heesom, The Founding of the University of Durham (Durham Cathedral Lecture, 1982: Durham, 1982);

A.J. Heesom, "Who Thought of the Idea of the University of Durham?", Durham County Local History Society Bulletin (December 1982), p.10-20;

I.E. Graham, "The University", in Durham County and City with Teesside, ed. J.C. Dewdney (Durham 1970), p.497-507;

N. Watson, The Durham Difference: the story of Durham University (2007), mainly focuses on post Whiting/1932 with lots of context to the strategic development

M. Roberts, The Buildings and Landscapes of Durham University, (Durham, 2013), a tour round the university’s physical structures and their impact on the city and its environs

M.P. Andrews, 'Durham University: last of the ancient universities and first of the new (1831-1871)' (Oxford Univ. D.Phil. thesis 2016), reexamines the genesis, early crises, and membership of the university

M.P. Andrews, Universities in the Age of Reform 1800-1870: Durham, London and King's College (Cham, Switzerland, 2018), puts Durham’s genesis in a wider context

Durham University in Newcastle

D. Embleton, The history of the Medical School, afterwards the Durham College of Medicine at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for forty years, from 1832 to 1872, (Newcastle 1890)

G. Grey Turner, The Newcastle upon Tyne School of Medicine, 1834-1934, (Newcastle 1934)

E.M. Bettenson, The University of Newcastle upon Tyne A Historical Introduction 1834-1971 (Newcastle upon Tyne 1971), worked at the heart of the university’s administration in Newcastle

N. McCord, Newcastle University: Past, Present and Future (2006), a compendium of contributions, focusing on post-1963 but with useful earlier background

College Histories

Collingwood (founded 1972)

Anthony Tuck, Collingwood College, University of Durham: a jubilee history 1972-1997, (Durham 1997)

Cosin’s (1851-1864, absorbed by University College)

See University

Grey (founded 1959)

Nigel Watson, From the ashes: the story of Grey College, Durham, (Durham 2004)

Hatfield (founded 1846 as Bishop Hatfield's Hall, became Hatfield College in 1919)

T.A. Whitworth, Yellow sandstone and mellow brick: an account of Hatfield College, Durham, 1846-1971, (Durham 1971)

W.A. Moyes, Hatfield 1846-1996: a history of Hatfield College in the University of Durham, (Durham 1996)

W.A. Moyes, Class of '46 : a brief study of the Hatfield community in the academic year 1846-1847, - the first year of its existence, and subsequent events, (Durham, 2004)

W.A. Moyes, Be The Best You Can Be : a history of sport in Hatfield College, Durham University, (Durham 2007)

Hild and Bede (founded 1858 & 1839 respectively as independent colleges, united 1975, a university college (the College of St Hild and St Bede) from 1977)

Angel Lawrence, St Hild’s College, 1858-1958, (Durham 1958)

Donald E. Webster, Bede College a Commentary, (Durham 1973)

Ian Booth, The College of St. Hild and St. Bede, Durham, (Durham 1979)

Josephine Butler (founded 2006)

No history produced yet

Neville’s Cross (founded 1921, a university hall of residence 1924-1977, thence part of the independent New College)

N.M. Lunan, Memoirs of Neville's Cross College 1922-1958, (Durham 1966)

Desmond Dalton, A contribution to teacher education: Neville’s Cross, 1921-1986, (Durham 1986)

South (founded 2020)

No history produced yet

St Aidan’s (founded 1895 as Women Home Students, became St Aidan’s Society in 1947, and St Aidan's College in 1961)

Graham E. Rodmell, St Aidan’s: from Home Students to Society to College, (Durham 1997)

St Chad’s (founded 1904 as St Chad’s Hall, became St Chad's College in 1919)

C.E. Whiting, ‘St Chad’s in the early days’, St Chad’s College Magazine no.7 (1949), p.23-32, no.8 (1950), p.26-39, no.9 (1951), p.18-28

St Cuthbert’s Society (Unattached Students established 1871, became St Cuthbert's Society in 1888)

Henry Tudor, St Cuthbert’s Society, 1888-1988, (Durham 1988)

St John’s (founded 1909 as St John’s Hall, became St John's College in 1919)

T.E. Yates, A College Remembered: St John’s College Durham 1909-2000, (Durham 2001)

Amabel Craig, Fides nostra victoria : a portrait of St John's College, Durham, (2008)

St Mary’s (founded 1899 as the Women’s Hostel, became St Mary’s College in 1919)

Marilyn Hird, Doves and Dons: a History of St Mary’s College Durham: an Account of the Women’s Hostel 1899-1920 and some Impressions of Later College Life, (Durham 1982)

Elizabeth B. Boyd, St. Mary’s College, University of Durham, 1899-1999: a Centenary Review, (Durham 1999)

Stockton (John Snow and Robert Stephenson) (founded 2002, moved to Durham 2018)

John Hayward, Breaking the Mould: The Surprising Story of Stockton: The First Ten Years of the University of Durham’s Stockton Campus ([Stockton] 2002)

Trevelyan (founded 1967)

Susan Martin, Trevs : a celebration of 40 years (Durham 2006)

Van Mildert (founded 1965)

Arnold Bradshaw, Van Mildert College: the First 25 Years: a Sketch, (Durham 1990)

University (founded 1832)

Edgar Jones, University College Durham: a social history, (Aberystwyth 1996)

R. Brickstock, Durham Castle: Fortress, Palace, College, (Huddersfield 2007)

Ushaw (founded 1808 as an independent college, a university hall of residence 1968-2010)

David Milburn, A History of Ushaw College, (Durham 1964)

Ustinov (founded 1965 as the Graduate Society, became Ustinov College in 2002)

No history published yet

Other Aspects

Boat Club

A History of Durham Rowing, ed. A.A. Macfarlane Grieve (Newcastle upon Tyne 1922), features all rowing in Durham, and needs updating

Cricket Club

R. Dellor, Durham Birth of a First Class County (1992), especially p.38-47

Students’ Union

Anna Woodford, “Princesses, Politicians and Prisoners”, Durham First (10, Autumn 1999), p.14-17, including photos of a number of past presidents.

Union Society

P.D.A. Campbell, A short history of the Durham Union Society, (Durham 1952)