Wadham College, Oxford

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Wadham College
UK-2014-Oxford-Wadham College 05.jpg
Wadham College Oxford Coat Of Arms.svg
Blazon:Gules, a chevron between 3 roses argent barbed vert (Wadham); impaling Gules, a bend or between 2 escallops argent (Petre) [1]
Location Parks Road
Coordinates 51°45′21″N1°15′17″W / 51.755871°N 1.254593°W / 51.755871; -1.254593 Coordinates: 51°45′21″N1°15′17″W / 51.755871°N 1.254593°W / 51.755871; -1.254593
Full nameWadham College of the Foundation of Nicholas Wadham Esquire and Dorothy his wife in the University of Oxford
Latin nameCollegium Wadhamensi
Established1610 (1610)
Named for Dorothy (née Petre) and Nicholas Wadham
Sister college Christ's College, Cambridge
Warden Lord Macdonald of River Glaven
Undergraduates462 [2] (2015/2016)
Website www.wadham.ox.ac.uk
Boat club Wadham College Boat Club
Oxford map small.svg
Red pog.svg
Location in Oxford city centre

Wadham College ( /ˈwɒdəm/ ) is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. It is located in the centre of Oxford, at the intersection of Broad Street and Parks Road.


Wadham College was founded in 1610 by Dorothy Wadham, according to the will of her late husband Nicholas Wadham (1531–1609), a member of an ancient Devon and Somerset family.

The central buildings, a notable example of Jacobean architecture, were designed by the architect William Arnold and erected between 1610 and 1613. They include a large and ornate Hall. Adjacent to the central buildings are the Wadham Gardens.

Amongst Wadham's most famous alumni is Sir Christopher Wren. Wren was one of a brilliant group of experimental scientists at Oxford in the 1650s, the Oxford Philosophical Club, which included Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. This group held regular meetings at Wadham College under the guidance of the warden, John Wilkins, and the group formed the nucleus which went on to found the Royal Society.

Wadham is a liberal and progressive college which aims to maintain the diversity of its student body and a friendly atmosphere. [3] Founded as a men's college, in 1974 it was among the first become coeducational, [4] and the college has a strong reputation as a promoter of gay rights. In 2011 it became the first Oxford college to fly the rainbow flag as part of queer week, a celebration of sexual diversity and individuality. [5]

Wadham is one of the largest colleges of the University of Oxford, with about 460 undergraduates, 180 graduate students, and 65 fellows. [6]

As of 2018, it had an estimated financial endowment of £107 million, [7] and in 2014/2015 ranked 3rd in the Norrington Table, [8] a measure which ranks Oxford colleges by academic performance.


Statues of the founders above the main entrance to the Hall Nicholasanddoothywadham.jpg
Statues of the founders above the main entrance to the Hall

17th century

The college was founded by Dorothy Wadham (née Petre) in 1610, [9] according to the wishes set out in the will of her husband Nicholas Wadham. Over four years, she gained royal and ecclesiastical support for the new college, negotiated the purchase of a site, appointed the West Country architect William Arnold, drew up the college statutes, and appointed the first warden, fellows, scholars, and cook. Although she never visited Oxford, she kept tight control of her new college and its finances until her death in 1618. [10]

The wardenship of John Wilkins (1648–1659) is a significant period in the history of the college. Wilkins was a member of a group which had met for some years in London to discuss problems in the natural sciences. Many of the group moved to Oxford and held regular meetings in the Warden's lodgings at Wadham. Among them were Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, John Locke, William Petty, John Wallis, and Thomas Willis. Wadham provided the largest contingent, some twelve of the fifty names mentioned. These included Christopher Brookes (mathematician and instrument-maker), John Mayow (a distinguished chemist and physician), Lawrence Rooke (later astronomy professor at Gresham College, London), Thomas Sprat (later the official historian of the Royal Society), Seth Ward (mathematician and Savilian Professor of Astronomy), Sir Christopher Wren (mathematician and Savilian Professor of Astronomy). [11]

Sir Christopher Wren was an undergraduate at Wadham before he became a fellow of All Souls and then succeeded Rooke as astronomy professor at Gresham College, London. He eventually returned to occupy rooms at Wadham while he was the Savilian Professor of Astronomy from 1661. Wren had notable achievements in pure and applied mathematics, astronomy, physics and biology to his credit before, in his thirties, turning to architecture. [11] Alone in mathematical ability Wren was ranked by competent authorities second only to Newton among the men of his time. [12]

The Warden's lodgings were stuffed with ingenious instruments, and powerful telescopes were mounted on the college tower. The Oxford group kept up close relations with their colleagues in London, and in 1660, at Gresham, the decision was taken to create the body which, in 1662, was to be formally incorporated as the Royal Society. Wilkins was the first president of the provisional body, and became the first secretary of the Royal Society itself. These were the beginnings of organised scientific research in Britain. [11]

The Bowra era

Maurice Bowra was warden of the college from 1938 until 1970, and was influential in determining the character of the college as open and meritocratic. He was known for his hospitality but also for his waspish wit, and anecdotes about his time as Warden remain in circulation amongst Wadham alumni. A statue of Bowra is in the college gardens, and the college's 1992 Bowra Building bears his name.

Modern day

The college now consists of some 70 Fellows, about 230 graduate students, and about 450 undergraduates. The current Warden is Lord Macdonald of River Glaven QC, former Director of Public Prosecutions. Lord Macdonald succeeded Sir Neil Chalmers as Warden upon his retirement in 2012.

Promotion of equality, diversity and rights

In 1974, after more than three and a half centuries as a men-only institution, Wadham was among the first group of five all-male colleges at Oxford to admit women as full members, the others being Brasenose, Jesus College, Hertford and St Catherine's. [4]

Wadham College has a reputation as a supporter of gay rights partly because it plays host to "Queerfest", a celebration of the LGBTQ cause. [13] In 2011, Wadham became the first Oxbridge college to fly the Rainbow Flag in support of equality, as part of its annual Queerweek. [14] The Rainbow Flag also flies over Wadham each year during February, to mark LGBT Month.

A Wadham student tradition is that student social events are always concluded with the playing of Free Nelson Mandela . The motion to play the song to conclude every student event until Nelson Mandela was freed from prison was passed by the Wadham Student Union in 1987, when Wadham alumnus Simon Milner (History, 1985), now Policy Director at Facebook, was SU President. [15] Following Mr Mandela's liberation, the Student Union voted to continue the tradition as a mark of affection. President Mandela visited Wadham College and dined there on 11 July 1997. [16] In 2017, this tradition was challenged by a South African student, who is a member of the ANC and active in equality campaigning in South Africa, as no longer appropriate given the complex legacy of Mandela in post-Apartheid South Africa. He also highlighted that there is much more to South Africa than just the history of Apartheid, and that constant reference to it rather than South Africa's current issues is outdated and to the progressive act it was intended to be. A vote to remove the constitutional requirement to play the song was narrowly defeated in a Wadham SU meeting.

In 2013 the current warden, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven QC, created the Wadham Human Rights Forum, a new public forum for the discussion of human rights issues that welcomes top level speakers to Wadham College. Lord Macdonald is also frequently in the media speaking on legal issues and, particularly, on issues relating to rights and security. [17]


College entrance on Parks Road Wadham College.jpg
College entrance on Parks Road

Front quad

Front quad Wadham College Front Quad October 2009.jpg
Front quad

Wadham is sometimes put forward as the last major English public building to be created according to the mediaeval tradition of the master mason. Wadham's front quadrangle (quad), which served as almost the entire college until the mid-20th century, is also an early example of the "Jacobean Gothic" style that was adopted for many of the University's buildings.

The main building was erected in a single building operation in 1610–1613. The architect, William Arnold, was also responsible for Montacute House and Dunster Castle in Somerset, and was involved in the building of Cranborne Manor, Dorset for Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, James I’s Lord Treasurer. The style of the building is a fairly traditional Oxford Gothic, modified by classical decorative detail, most notably the 'frontispiece' framing statues of James I and the Founders immediately facing visitors as they enter the college. Classical, too, is the over-powering emphasis on symmetry. The central quadrangle was originally gravelled throughout; the present lawn was laid down in 1809. The college was refaced in the 1960s, and much of the front quad has undergone further restoration work.


Hall Wadham 4.jpg

In 1898, the hall was the third largest amongst Oxford colleges after Christ Church and New College. [12] It is notable for its great hammer-beam roof and for the Jacobean woodwork of the entrance screen. The portraits include those of the founders and of distinguished members of the college. The large portrait in the gallery is of Lord Lovelace, who held Oxford for William of Orange during the Revolution of 1688; the inscription records his role in freeing England 'from popery and slavery'.


Chapel Wadham College Chapel, Oxford - Diliff.jpg

Although a ceremonial door opens directly into Front Quad, the chapel is usually reached through the door in staircase 3. The screen, similar to that in the hall, was carved by John Bolton. Originally Jacobean woodwork ran right round the chapel. The present stone reredos was inserted in the east end in 1834. The monumental East window depicting Jonah's whale, top right, was made by a Dutchman, Bernard van Linge, in 1622. The elegant young man reclining on his monument is Sir John Portman, baronet, who died in 1624 as a nineteen-year-old undergraduate. Another monument is in the form of a pile of books; it commemorates Thomas Harris, one of the fellows of the college appointed at the foundation. The Chapel organ dates from 1862. It is one of the few instruments by Henry Willis, the doyen of Victorian English organ builders, to survive without substantial modification of its tonal design.

Back Quad

Limited additions were made during the 18th and 19th centuries, including a converted warehouse originally used to store bibles. A series of expansions since 1952 have made use of a range of 17th- and 18th-century houses and several modern buildings to create a Back Quad between the Front Quad and Holywell Street.

Bar Quad

The small quadrangle formed by the Junior Common Room, the 1950s accommodation block, the Holywell Music Room and (latterly) the Bowra Building was sometimes known to students as the "Ho Chi Minh" quad. It is thought to have been thus named (in honour of Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh) during the period of student radicalism in the 1960s. The quad is used for games of croquet.

Holywell Music Room

Holywell Music Room Holywell Music Room.jpg
Holywell Music Room

The college grounds contain the Holywell Music Room. This is said to be the oldest, purpose built music room in Europe, and hence England's first concert hall. [18] It was designed by Thomas Camplin, at that time Vice-Principal of St Edmund Hall, and opened in July 1748. The interior has been restored to a near-replica of the original and contains the only surviving Donaldson organ, built in 1790 by John Donaldson of Newcastle and installed in 1985 after being restored.

Ferdowsi Library

The Ferdowsi Library (formerly the Ashraf Pahlavi Library) specialises in Persian literature, art, history, and culture. It possesses about 3,500 volumes, almost 800 manuscripts, about 200 lithographs in Arabic and Persian, and about 700 rare and early Armenian books, most of which were donated by Dr. Caro Minasian. [19]

At the end of the 1960s, the Warden, Maurice Bowra, President of the British Academy and one of the first co-founders of the British Institute of Persian Studies (BIPS), welcomed a donation to construct the building of the New Library in Wadham, where the emphasis would be given to Persian Studies and the post in Persian. Since then a special connection between Wadham and Iran has been established. [19]

The Wadham library building was initially funded by donations from the then (1976) Iranian ruling family, the Pahlavi dynasty. The funds were secured by Fellow and tutor in economics, Eprime Eshag. [19] [20] The building, with associated accommodation blocks, was designed by Gillespie, Kidd & Coia.

Today the library is open 24/7 and has wireless connectivity throughout. [21]

The Bowra Building by Sir Richard MacCormac Wadh10.jpg
The Bowra Building by Sir Richard MacCormac

Bowra Building

The Bowra Building next to the Ferdowsi Library and Bar Quad was designed by Sir Richard MacCormac and opened in 1992. It includes a cafeteria, bar, seminar rooms, squash court and the Moser Theatre as well as student rooms. [22]

McCall MacBain Graduate Centre

The McCall MacBain Graduate Centre was designed by Lee/Fitzgerald Architects and opened in 2012. It provides a dedicated social and study space for Wadham’s graduate students on the main site of Wadham college. [23]

Dr. Lee Shau Kee Building and William Doo Undergraduate Centre

The Dr. Lee Shau Kee Building and William Doo Undergraduate Centre are designed by Amanda Levete Architects. They will replace the Goddard building of 1951 and provide facilities for the college's access activities and student union. Construction began in 2018 and should be complete in 2020. [24]


The Merifield annexe, named after Merryfield, Ilton once home to the Wadhams, is in Summertown, about 1.2 miles from the centre of town. [25] Most of the graduate student accommodation is at Merifield. [26]

Dorothy Wadham Building

The Dorothy Wadham Building, on Iffley Road, was designed by Allies and Morrison and opened in 2019. It houses undergraduates, predominantly in their second year of studies. [27]


Holywell Quad, composed mainly of old town houses restored in the 1950s Holywell quad.jpg
Holywell Quad, composed mainly of old town houses restored in the 1950s

Wadham Gardens are relatively large when compared with those of other Oxford colleges, even without the land sold to build Rhodes House in the 1920s. Originally a series of orchards and market-gardens carved out from the property of the previously existing Augustinian priory, their appearance and configuration have been significantly modified over the course of the last four hundred years to reflect their constantly changing functional and aesthetic purpose.

The land was shaped, in particular, by two major periods of planning. Gardens were first created under Warden Wilkins (1648–1659) as a series of formal rectangles laid out around a (then fashionable) mound which was, in turn, surmounted by a figure of Atlas. These gardens were notable not least for their collection of mechanical contrivances (including a talking statue and a rainbow-maker), a number of obelisks and a Doric temple. [28] Under Warden Wills (1783–1806), the terrain was then radically remodelled and landscaped (by Shipley) and became notable for a distinguished collection of trees.

Restored and reshaped following the Second World War, the present Gardens are divided into the Warden's Garden, the Fellows’ Private Garden and the Fellows’ Garden, together with the Cloister Garden (originally the cemetery) and the White Scented Garden. They are still notable for their collection of trees (specimens include a holm oak, silver pendent lime, tulip tree, golden yew, purple beech, cedar of Lebanon, ginkgo, giant redwood, tree of heaven, incense cedar, Corsican pine, magnolia and a rare Chinese gutta-percha) and they still contain a number of vestigial curiosities from the past (notably an 18th-century 'cowshed' set into the remnants of the Royalist earthworks of 1642, one of the second generation of 'Emperors Heads' that adorned the Sheldonian Theatre from 1868 to around 1970, and a sculpture of Warden Bowra).

Student life

Back quad Wadh.jpg
Back quad

Undergraduate students at Wadham are offered accommodation for three years of their course, from 2019. [29] Accommodation is provided within college for the first and final years of their course, and during the second (or fourth) year within the newly constructed Dorothy Wadham Building, [27] on Iffley Road, or within the Merifield annexe [25] [26] in Summertown.

Since 1976, Wadham has been distinctive in having a Student Union, [30] which in principle represents both undergraduate and graduate members. In practice the SU is more concerned with undergraduate interests and activities, whilst the separate MCR committee represents graduate students. [31]

All students can use the on-site facilities such as the Moser Theatre, squash court, gym, kitchen, laundry room, music practice rooms and various meeting rooms. The JCR Lounge is the main common room space used by undergraduate students, along with the bar. Since 2012 the MCR has had its own social area in the McCall MacBain Graduate Centre, with its kitchen, small bar, and Media room.

The college sports ground is located in Summertown, adjoining the Merifield residential complex.

Wadham has a student exchange program with the Sarah Lawrence College in New York. About 30 students come each year and live at Merifield, and about six Wadham students go to SLC in the spring each year for 3 weeks. [32] [33]

There are elected welfare officers on both the SU and MCR committees. There is a general welfare room, as well as a men's room and women's room. The college also has a nurse who runs an open surgery. [34]

Wadham has a relatively high number of state school students, compared to other Oxford colleges. Wadham hosts Queer Festival (formally Queer Bop), and Wadstock (a twelve-hour live music festival). It also hosts bops five times a term in Michaelmas term and Hilary term. [34] A Wadham student tradition is that events are always concluded with the playing of Free Nelson Mandela. [15]

There are three football teams, men and women's boat crews, a hockey team with Corpus (Warpus), trampolining Cuppers side (mixed); Gaelic Football Cuppers side, men's darts, men's rugby, women's rugby Fives, as well as Ultimate Frisbee. [34]

Wadham College Boat Club is the rowing club for students at Wadham, and due to an affiliation it also allows Harris Manchester College students to join. The college boat house is located on Boathouse Island.

Anecdotes and curiosities

There once was a Warden of Wadham
Who approved of the folkways of Sodom,
For a man might, he said,
Have a very poor head'
But be a fine Fellow at bottom. [37]
The college was renowned for its relaxed attitude to homosexuality, and revelled in its nickname of 'Sodom'. [38]

People associated with Wadham

Notable people

Sir Roger Penrose, Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics (1973-1999) Roger Penrose-6Nov2005.jpg
Sir Roger Penrose, Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics (1973–1999)

In common with many Oxford colleges, Wadham has produced a wide range of graduates in the fields of economics, history, law, physiology, medicine, management, humanities, mathematics, science, technology, media, philosophy, poetry, politics and religion who have contributed significantly to public life.

Notable members of the college in its early years include Robert Blake, Cromwell's admiral and founder of British sea-power in the Mediterranean, the libertine poet and courtier John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester and Sir Christopher Wren. Wren attended the meetings of scientifically inclined scholars which were held by Warden John Wilkins (Cromwell's brother-in-law) in the college in the 1650s. Those attending formed the nucleus of the Royal Society at its foundation in 1662.

John Wilkins invited Robert Boyle to Oxford in 1653, writing that "[I] shall be most ready to provide the best accommodations for you, that this place will afford". [47] Boyle moved to Oxford in 1655, but preferred not to accept Wilkins's offer of accommodation, choosing instead to arrange his own rooms where he could carry out his scientific experiments. [48] Boyle became a member of the Oxford Philosophical Club that met weekly in Wilkins's chambers at Wadham, as did Robert Hooke who became Boyle's assistant after having been a chorister at Christ Church.

Arthur Onslow (1708), a great Speaker of the House of Commons, and Richard Bethell, who became Lord Chancellor as Lord Westbury in 1861, were members of the college.

Two 20th century Lord Chancellors, F. E. Smith (Lord Birkenhead) and John Simon, were undergraduates together in the 1890s, along with the sportsman C. B. Fry; Sir Thomas Beecham was an undergraduate in 1897, though soon abandoning Oxford for his musical career.

Frederick Lindemann, 1st Viscount Cherwell, who was Churchill's scientific adviser during the Second World War, was a fellow of the college. Cecil Day-Lewis, later Poet-Laureate, came up in 1923, and Michael Foot, later leader of the Labour Party, in 1931. Sir Maurice Bowra, scholar and wit, was Warden between 1938 and 1970. Robert Moses, the city planner, rose to the college in 1911.

Among recent members have been Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Dyson, former Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and Master of the Rolls, author and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, writer and journalist Jonathan Freedland, novelists Hari Kunzru and Monica Ali, and Wasim Sajjad, former Chairman of the Senate of Pakistan and twice President of Pakistan. The mathematical physicist and philosopher Sir Roger Penrose was Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics 1973–1999, and is now an emeritus fellow.

Andrew Hodges, the theoretical physicist and author of The Imitation Game , the biography of Alan Turing, is a Tutorial Fellow in mathematics at Wadham. Having taught at Wadham since 1986, Hodges was elected a Fellow in 2007, and was appointed Dean from start of the 2011/12 academic year.

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