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A Brief History


The name of the College sometimes strikes visitors as odd in an institution more than 620 years old; its origin is that the College's "official" name - the College of St Mary - is the same as that of Oriel College. Hence "the new college of St Mary".

When founded, the College was new in several other ways. It was the first college for undergraduates, the first in which the senior members of the college had tutorial responsibility for undergraduates, and the first to be designed around the familiar quadrangle plan. The college's origins lay in the Black Death, the plague that ravaged 14th Century England. The plague was particularly hard on the clergy. It also left large parts of cities empty of their previous population. New College was intended to help to replace the missing clergy, and there was space in Oxford for a new college.

William of Wykeham (ca 1320-1404) was Bishop of Winchester; he also served as Chancellor of England, in effect the ancestor of the prime minister. Among his achievements were the building of St George's Chapel and much of Windsor Castle, and the financing of continuous war with France. New College was his solution to the problem of finding talented young men of humble origins and good education to serve both church and state as he had. The area by the north-east corner of the Oxford city walls had an evil reputation as a resort of prostitutes and a dumping ground for anything unpleasant. So, Wykeham had a project and a site, and in Richard II he had a royal patron who guaranteed that the college would be built without obstruction.

For the first century, it lived up to its founder's hopes, producing excellent scholars, and several bishops and archbishops. It prompted Henry VI to create King's College, Cambridge in imitation - along with Eton College to serve as a feeder school in the way Winchester College served New College. The college survived the Reformation, but with the intellectual heart taken out of it, and until the middle of the 19th century produced not much more than a long succession of comfortable country parsons. In 1850, there were barely twenty undergraduates in residence. The system of recruitment from the college at Winchester did not encourage either ambition or hard work: a boy of thirteen could be sure of a safe berth in the college and a country parsonage afterwards. Graduation was no problem, either; until the 1840s, members of New College were given their degrees on the College's assurance of their merits without external examination.

Astonishingly, the college reacted to the reforms of the 1850s by expanding in size, raising intellectual standards, and matching reform-minded Balliol for willingness to imagine a different world. By 1873, there were 275 undergraduates on the books, and the college broke out from behind the city walls, and built impressive, if not very beautiful, New Buildings on Holywell Street. By the First World War, New College was more often than not Head of the River, and one of the top three or four colleges academically. In the First World War, this eminence took its toll as New College lost more members killed in action than any college but Christ Church.

Between the first and second world wars New College welcomed as students several who became distinguished Labour politicians, including Evan Durbin, Douglas Jay and Hugh Gaitskell. Fellows included G.H. Hardy, Richard Crossman, Isaiah Berlin and Lord David Cecil. W.A. Spooner - who almost certainly never uttered a 'spoonerism,' but equally certainly had a number of curious verbal traits - was succeeded by H.A.L. Fisher, probably the most intellectually eminent of all the college's leaders, and the only one to receive the Order of Merit.

Since 1945, the college has widened its social reach: today, several Sixth Form Colleges send more students to New College than Winchester, one in six students pay no tuition fees, and a quarter receive some fee remission and a college bursary; the college is ethnically, religiously, and nationally diverse - and students go on to work in almost every occupation under the sun, from the movies (Hugh Grant and Kate Beckinsale) through politics (Tony Benn and Michael Meacher) to the law, teaching, banking and much else. The college has not sung masses for the soul of the Founder since the Reformation, but the choir recently sang at the memorial concert for Princess Diana. One way and another, the college remains faithful to the spirit, if not to the letter, of its founder's intentions.
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