Holywell Manor approaches its 70th anniversary

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Holywell ManorAfter 32 years at Balliol, I did not think that the College could offer me any surprises. But taking on the gloriously named post of Praefectus of Holywell Manor this year has been a revelation, and the start of a new life.

The Manor is Balliol’s special secret. It is artistically the most beautiful part of the College, a group of buildings that expresses the best of traditional architecture reinterpreted for the twentieth century, incorporating an early 16th century farmhouse, set in a mature garden planted 70 years ago, with a collection of modern art to rival that of any Oxford college. Intellectually it is universally regarded as Oxford’s premier graduate institution, admired all over the world. I suppose I had thought that Balliol undergraduates were pretty intelligent, but the Balliol graduate students in Holywell Manor surpass them. No wonder a former Praefectus recently compared the Manor to the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton - except of course that the Manor retains the freshness and excitement of youth confronting new frontiers of knowledge.

There is a blaze of intellectual activity - two or three informal seminars a week, and innumerable discussions between geneticists and historians, medievalists, poets and computer scientists, with 30 different nationalities from the so-called first world, the second world and the third world, from capitalist, Islamic and communist economies. I remember once meeting the great historian of dreams, Frances Yates, in Duke Humfrey’s Library, when she was very old: she smiled at me, looked around at the leather-bound books and the ancient desks, and simply said, “Heaven will be like this.” The Manor may not be heaven, but it is certainly my idea of paradise.

What makes the Manor so special? It is like a miniature college, housing all graduates for at least two years - about 120, who added to the 40 attached members living out make up nearly one third of the College: we are in fact one of the three largest graduate communities in Oxford, leaving aside the all-graduate colleges. We are also the oldest residential graduate community, and the first mixed one.

Unlike most traditional colleges we run our own separate facilities - a dining hall, a splendid ‘Renaissance’ MCR (with a panelled wood ceiling) and a lively (sometimes too lively!) bar: the social side of activities is famous, from the weekly updated website with its unique virtual reality tour, to the film nights, entertainments, bops, the wild Burns Night and the more decorous summer Garden Party. Recent seminars have included as visitors an expert on ancient Greek and Chinese science, the sixties poet and with Christopher Logue; and from our own number there have been talks on genetics, history and philosophy, as well as a poets’ night led by a Romanian US graduate who is herself a poet. You are as likely to hear French or Spanish or German spoken at lunch as American, Australian or English. We currently have the largest number of Rhodes Scholars in Oxford. This year we have opened the dining room to the surrounding institutions, so that we are a centre for the staff and students of the Law Library, Economics, Social Studies and English.

Kenneth Bell’s vision

The Manor is, however, no accident, but a tribute to the energy and foresight of successive Balliol dons. The first was Kenneth Bell, a bluff pipe-smoking Major in the First World War, tutor of Christopher Hill and Graham Greene (whom he “taught to drink like a gentleman”). It was his “quenchless energy” that persuaded the College in 1929 to buy an abandoned convent and home for unmarried mothers beside St Cross Church, and build a hostel for undergraduates on the site. In order to pay for it he founded the Balliol Society, so that this is the first Oxford building to be erected as the result of an appeal to Old Members.

But Kenneth Bell was not just a gunner and a war hero; he was also the son of a well-known artist, and knew personally all the main people on the British art scene. As his architect he chose his contemporary George Kennedy (1901), who ruthlessly restored the old Manor House to make a Jacobean residence, duplicated its façade on the roadside, invented a medieval courtyard, and to complete the design placed a grand Queen Anne garden façade on the back: the result is one of the great triumphs of the late Arts and Crafts Movement.

The garden was planned against a background of walls and courtyards by the architect and C S Orwin (Estates Bursar and Fellow 1922- 36), with an avenue of six gingko trees: Old Members gave the plants: as Russell Meiggs wrote in 1954, “Art and nature were combined with rare imagination and have made this garden a continuous delight to ‘RM’ in particular and to all Manor residents.” The chapel of the Holy Well was pulled down to make a garden for the Praefectus. Finally Kenneth Bell persuaded his friend Gilbert Spencer (brother of Stanley Spencer) to paint the legend of the foundation of Balliol in a magnificent frescoed room. The plumbing was the marvel of Oxford - lavatories on every floor, basins in every room, central heating, inside bathing facilities: what more could you ask for? Well, 70 years later, quite a lot, actually.

Russell Meiggs’ ‘reign’

The Manor was opened in 1932; its first Praefectus was John Fulton (later Lord Fulton, whose son Duncan I taught in 1970). It remained an undergraduate hostel till the war, was lent to St Hugh’s for the duration, and returned as an undergraduate residence under its most famous Praefectus, Russell Meiggs - who reigned from 1945 till 1969 as one of the great Oxford characters of his generation. By then graduate studies had been invented, and the possibility of mixed communities was in the air. Robert Ogilvie (whose mother was Principal of St Anne’s) and other wild young dons of the sixties evolved a scheme to invite St Anne’s to join in a mixed graduate community. The change was presided over by Denis Noble (later founder of Save British Science and now Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology): it is to him and to his Canadian successor Bill Newton-Smith (logician of love, and the first Manor inmate to become Praefectus) that we owe the vibrant nature of our social life. Others, the engineer Alistair Howatson and the medic Henry McQuay, have also contributed, as has the first Administrator, Maureen Woodford, who moved on at the start of this year.

More recent developments

When the College went mixed, it was inevitable that the alliance with St Anne’s should cease, and since 1984 the Manor has been reserved for Balliol graduates. Three new buildings have been added: Martin (1966) - a stunning example of Sir Leslie Martin’s neo-brutalism, complete with chests of drawers designed to break your leg, and locks to keep you out or in indiscriminately; Dellal (1986); and James Fairfax Yard (1993), which won a prize for its architectural discretion. Artistically, to the original collection and the delicate garden fountain by Peter Lyon (1947), we have recently added a marvellous mobile sculpture by the great Anglo-American artist, George Rickey (1926), which the artist, then in his 92nd year, generously presented to us in 1998 and himself positioned under the chestnut tree (the tree is of course considerably older, and itself a fine study in the sculptural qualities of tree surgery). We have plans to continue our artistic collection, and if anyone wants a home for twentieth century art, we should be delighted to provide it.

Help us celebrate in 2002


What lies in the future? The year 2002 is the seventieth anniversary of the opening of the Manor. We propose a commemorative history, to which former Praefectuses and more especially former inmates are invited to contribute. Please send your memories and anecdotes to me at the Manor; we want contributions from every period of the Manor’s history. We intend a great garden party in the summer of that year, so please write to book a place, giving the dates when you were here. And of course the College wants to update the facilities (that thirties plumbing!) and enhance the opportunities here, with the help and support of those who remember the Manor with affection, so that it can continue to be the best graduate centre in the world for another 70 years.

[Updated October 2016: Holywell Manor: An Anecdotal History was published in 2007: more details here.]