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History of Scholarships, Exhibitions and Prizes at Balliol College

This page outlines the history of two of Balliol’s most longstanding Fellowship, Scholarship and Exhibition schemes, Blundell’s and Snell, as well the College’s involvement with the Rhodes Scholarships at Oxford University. For applicants and current students seeking information about what may be available to you, please see the following pages:


Balliol has supported Scholars since its 13th-century founding from its own endowment, but since the 16th century the generosity of alumni and other benefactors has also funded countless special fellowships, scholarships, exhibitions (prize awarded for merit, usually contributing towards the student’s fees) and prizes. Many early benefactors set up scholarships that were ‘closed’, that is, places were restricted or preference given to the donor’s kin, residents of a certain region or graduates of a particular school. Despite prohibitions in the 1507 Balliol Statutes on closed scholarships and exhibitions, benefactors continued to endow these with a regional preference, such as John Bell’s Exhibitions for students from the Diocese of Worcester and Mary Dunch’s Exhibitions, which favoured candidates from Abingdon School.

Such arrangements could make or break College finances, and didn’t always go well, sometimes resulting in expensive litigation and resentment over perceived regional dominance. The 18th century saw moves towards making Fellowships open and based on academic merit. In the 19th century, under Masters Richard Jenkyns and Benjamin Jowett, the transition to ability over connections culminated in open competition for scholarships and fellowships and awarding prizes for excellence in exams. This ‘Balliol System’ attracted talent in increasing numbers and is largely responsible for the reputation the College has enjoyed for the last 150 years.

This page provides short histories of Balliol’s relationships with The Snell Foundation, The Blundell Foundation, and The Rhodes Scholarship. A detailed list of past scholarship and exhibition holders for these three schemes is available as a PDF. For more information about the records we hold on these and other scholarships, see our Summary Archive Catalogue.

The Snell Foundation

John Snell was born about 1629 on what is now Almont Farm at Pinwherry, a hamlet in the Ayrshire parish of Colmonell. His father was the local blacksmith. Snell was enrolled at the University of Glasgow for the 16423 session, and stayed there for two or three years, but did not take a degree, and travelled south to fight for the King in the English Civil War. By 1654 he was in the service of Sir Orlando Bridgeman, who was Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas 16608, and Lord Keeper of the Great Seal 166772. Snell was seal-bearer to Bridgeman and his successor the Earl of Shaftesbury. He accumulated a substantial fortune, no doubt partly from the perks of office, but he was already a man of means before holding any official position. This fortune of obscure origin he invested in the Manor of Ufton, Warwickshire, which he bought from William Spencer in 1674. He gave books during his lifetime to the University of Glasgow, which conferred an MA degree on him by diploma in 1662.

Snell made his will in 1677. Its main provision was to put the Manor of Ufton into the hands of Trustees, for the maintenance of Scottish students from Glasgow at Oxford, continuing philanthropy along these lines he had already begun informally. The Master of Balliol was to be one of the Trustees ex officio, but Balliol (then a College of relatively little consequence) was not otherwise mentioned in the will. Balliol was, nevertheless, the natural base for Snell’s legacy — partly because of its Scottish associations through Dervorguilla of Galloway and her son King John Balliol, and partly because Balliol already had some Exhibitions for Scots from the will of John Warner, Bishop of Rochester. Snell died at what is now 31 Holywell Street, Oxford on 6 August 1679. He was buried in nearby St Cross Church: there was an inscribed marble gravestone, but it was covered or destroyed in Victorian times.

A scheme was eventually worked out for the Glasgow authorities to nominate young men to Snell Exhibitions tenable at Balliol, but no requirement to take Holy Orders (this being frustrated by the 1690 re-establishment of Presbyterianism in Scotland) or to return to Scotland was enjoined on them. Snell had wanted these conditions (which were derived from the Warner Foundation) enforced by a stiff financial penalty. The first four Snell Exhibitioners were sent from Glasgow and admitted to Balliol in mid-1699. There was bickering, distrust and litigation from the outset. Consistently comfortable relations between Balliol and Glasgow were only achieved this century, but this did not generally bother the Exhibitioners themselves, who included James Stirling the mathematician; Adam Smith the great political economist, author of The Wealth of Nations; Matthew Baillie of Morbid Anatomy fame; AC Tait, Archbishop of Canterbury; Robert Blair VC; Edward Caird, Master of Balliol; and one of the College’s greatest Benefactors, JS MacArthur.


  • Addison, William Innes. The Snell Exhibitions from the University of Glasgow to Balliol College, Oxford, 1901.
  • Stones, [E.] L. [G.] The Life and Career of John Snell (c.16291679), Stair Soc. Miscellany II, 1984, 148220.
  • In 1999, as part of the celebrations of the tercentenary of the Snell Foundation, an exhibition of Snelliana (biased somewhat in the direction of Adam Smith) was staged at Balliol. An illustrated catalogue was produced: John Snell’s Exhibition 16991999 (ISBN 0 9512569 4 7). Copies are available from the author.

The Blundell Foundation

Peter Blundell was a very wealthy merchant of Tiverton and London. He died unmarried in April 1601. His will was long, complicated and predominantly charitable. In it, he set out and funded plans for a free grammar school at Tiverton, providing a further £2000 to be used in the “establishing of six students in Divinity in the university of Oxford or Cambridge or both for ever”. His “righte deare and honorable Friende Sir John Popham, Knighte, Lord Chief Justice of England” was asked to see his wishes carried out.

Popham was given a free hand to negotiate arrangements for the six university places, but Blundell stipulated that once a scheme had been set up, the students were to be selected by his Feoffees [Trustees and Governors of the School] “with the advice of the Schoolmaster there for the time being out of the said Grammar School of Tyverton, and not else where”. The School, Blundell’s, was duly founded, traditionally in 1604. Peter Blundell’s purpose in endowing places at the universities was clearly stated in his will as “the increase of good and godly preachers of the Gospel” — a typically Puritan sentiment. In Cambridge, Popham approached Sidney Sussex College and Emmanuel College, both new and frankly Puritan foundations. In Oxford, he turned to Balliol, which also had Puritan leanings, and was his own college as well. Emmanuel declined involvement, but interim arrangements were soon made for Balliol and Sidney Sussex to have two and four Blundell places respectively. A definitive agreement for the places at Balliol — the “First Blundell Composition” — was made in 1615, Popham having died meanwhile. The College was given £700 to buy lands in Woodstock as the endowment for the scheme, which was to support one Blundell Scholar and one Blundell Fellow simultaneously. They were to receive annual stipends of £8 and £15 respectively, with the same rights and obligations as their colleagues on the ancient Foundation of the College [“Domus”].

When Blundell Fellows had graduated MA, they were to “apply and addict themselves to the study of Divinity” and were to “enter the Ministry, and become preachers of the word of God” as soon as possible, although a Fellow could hold his place until he had been ten years an MA, or accepted “a benefice with cure of souls, or charge of school”. The Scholar, chosen from the School at Tiverton as laid down by Peter Blundell, succeeded the Fellow automatically when a vacancy occurred, whereupon the Feoffees presented a new Scholar. The object of the scheme was to secure the permanent presence in the College of two Tivertonians. This required some finesse. On the one hand, it was clear that when a Scholar was ready to take on the status of Fellow, the Fellow might not be ready or willing to resign. On the other hand, a Fellow might vacate his place by death, marriage, or taking a benefice before the Scholar was of sufficient standing to be promoted. Two special provisions were therefore made. If a Blundell Scholar had been a BA graduate for a full year, but found the Blundell Fellowship occupied, he was allowed to claim the next Domus Fellowship to fall vacant, and to hold it until the Blundell Fellowship vacancy. If a Blundell Fellowship vacancy arose too soon for the incumbent Scholar to take it up immediately, the Feoffees could send a second Scholar.

The College’s finances were greatly weakened in the mid-17th century by the Civil War, the Great Fire of London, mismanagement, and corruption. The Feoffees showed, at an early stage of these financial difficulties, that they were well disposed towards the College, with a gift of £50 in 1668. When the Master of Balliol (Thomas Good) discovered that the Feoffees were minded to expand their provision for Blundell’s boys at the universities, he began to negotiate with much larger sums in view. His efforts were complicated by the attitude of some Fellows, who made a point of being disagreeable to the Balliol Blundellians. In 1676, Good nevertheless struck a bargain, the “Second Blundell Composition”. Under it, an existing Domus Fellowship and Scholarship were converted into additional Blundell places, for a consideration of £600. This was tantamount to the outright sale of Foundation places, and a breach of the College’s Statutes by introduction of a regional restriction for what were, legal niceties apart, still places originally created by ancient endowments. Furthermore, although this doubling of the Tiverton representation in the College was the last formal concession to them, their increased numbers gave them greater confidence and influence, so that in the next century they were able to become dominant. The 1676 agreement was for this reason much condemned by 19th-century reformers and College historians, but Thomas Good would have seen it as a bold step enabling him to put the College back on its feet, sacrificing the independence of two Domus places in order to preserve the viability of the rest.

Having been bailed out of dire straits by the Blundell Feoffees in 1676, Balliol might have shown some gratitude during the ensuing two centuries, but no signs of any such sentiments survive. There is instead a sorry trail of acrimony over Blundell Fellowship elections in the 18th century, although we should remember that in institutions like Balliol there is archival bias because records of disputes survive in disproportionate volume and make more entertaining reading than the duller stuff about uneventful times. By the mid-19th century, Balliol, pride swollen by success and attributing it all to the introduction of open competition for admission and election, had come to regard the Blundell Foundation as an imposition. It was convenient to forget the past generosity of the Feoffees; that the College’s greatest benefactor of the 18th century was a Blundell Fellow (Henry Fisher); and that it was a Blundell Fellow who became Master (John Davey) who laid the financial foundations on which Masters Parsons, Jenkyns and Jowett after him built the Balliol which dominated the Victorian University of Oxford.

The Blundell Fellowships were completely abolished as part of the sweeping general reforms of the University initiated by Parliament in the early 1850s. The Blundell Scholarships were also made subject to increasingly rigorous examination by the College; they survived until the final abolition of all closed entrance awards. The Woodstock estate which had supported the Blundell Foundation at Balliol was sold off with other property in the area in 1922. No doubt because of the Scholarships, it became customary for the Master of Balliol or his delegate to be a Governor of the School. That privilege continued until the 2000s, a vestigial reminder of a relationship which was very important to both the School and the College for well over three hundred years.

The Rhodes Scholarship

The Rhodes Scholarships have been bringing scholars from 14 countries to Oxford since 1902. As of 2010, more than 750, or about 10% of all Rhodes Scholars, have come to Balliol. Several Wardens of Rhodes House also have Balliol connections, including the current Warden, Dr Elizabeth Kiss (Balliol 1983). Sir Anthony Kenny, Master of Balliol 19781989 and Warden of Rhodes House 19891999 edited the book, The History of the Rhodes Trust 19021999 (OUP, 2001). The Rhodes Trust also administers the George Eastman Visiting Fellowship, to which is attached a Professorial Fellowship at Balliol.
Read more about the Rhodes Scholarship on the Rhodes Trust website.