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Ruskin College (1913 Building), Oxford

Description: Ruskin College (1913 Building)

Grade: II
Date Listed: 22 April 2013
Building ID: 1412747

OS Grid Reference: SP5093106651
OS Grid Coordinates: 450931, 206651
Latitude/Longitude: 51.7562, -1.2635

Locality: Oxford
Local Authority: Oxford City Council
County: Oxfordshire
Postcode: OX1 2HE

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Listing Text


Working men's college, designed 1907 by Joseph and Smithem, built (though never completed) 1912-13. [The extensions of 1936 by Brook Kitchin, of 1964-7 by Peter Bosanquet and Partners, and of 1982 by Peter Bosanquet and John Perryman are not of special interest.]

Reason for Listing

Ruskin College, built 1912-13 to the designs of Jospeh and Smithem, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Historic interest: a pivotal institution in the history of working-class adult education in the UK, and one that shaped the consciousness of generations of trades union and Labour leaders;
* Architectural interest: a capable and restrained - albeit incompletely realised - design in the late-C17 'Wrenaissance' manner;
* Group value: with nearby listed buildings including the Worcester College boundary wall and Nos. 1-2 and 4-15 Walton Street.


Ruskin College (initially known as Ruskin Hall) was established in 1899 as 'a school of citizenship and public administration for working men'. Its founders were two young Americans, Charles A Beard (later famous as a political historian) and Walter Vrooman, both from affluent Nonconformist families and both at that time registered as non-collegiate students at Oxford University. Supported by a number of left-wing Oxford dons, including Beard's tutor York Powell, the two worked to raise money from wealthy sponsors in the UK and US, as well as from the fledgling trades union and co-operative movements. The great Victorian art writer and social critic John Ruskin, then in the last year of his life, was persuaded to give his blessing and his name to the project, and the first batch of students were sworn in at an inaugural meeting at Oxford Town Hall in February 1899.

In contrast to the evening lectures and summer schools run by the 'university extension' movement of the 1870s and 80s, the new college aimed to offer full-time residential courses, providing something much closer to a traditional university education for the working man - the obstacles to which had been vividly dramatised in Thomas Hardy's 1895 novel Jude the Obscure. Students, often sponsored by their trades unions or by sympathetic individuals, would attend the college for periods of between a month and a year, to pursue a programme that focused on economics, political history and the social sciences - to the complete exclusion of the University's traditional Classical syllabus. Vrooman insisted that 'knowledge must be used to emancipate humanity, not to satisfy curiosity', and a series of cartoons in the college magazine Young Oxford showed a virile figure of Ruskin turning the tables on the decadent representatives of traditional bourgeois scholarship. The aim was to produce not gentlemen-scholars but proletarian organisers and activists: as Vrooman put it, 'we wish to instruct the young men who one day may control the English-speaking peoples here and in America - to teach them how to control things.' In order to keep fees as low as possible, resident students were at first required to do their own cooking and cleaning. Although this excursion into traditionally feminine tasks was welcomed by one student as providing 'an insight into the work that is done by the average English woman to-day', the college remained a male-dominated institution throughout its first two decades, despite the presence of part-time women tutors, and the large contribution to initial running costs made by Vrooman's wife, the heiress Amne Grafflin.

The new college was immediately recognised as a radical departure in adult education, with one newspaper hailing it in quasi-religious terms as a 'harbinger of the Millenium'. Affiliated Halls were quickly established in several provincial cities; although these were short-lived, the college's network of correspondence courses, and its support for the fledgling Workers' Educational Association, ensured a continuing national influence. It was not without its internal tensions, however, especially between those who sought greater academic recognition and closer integration with the University, and those who saw this as a betrayal of the college's proletarian identity. Matters came to a head in the celebrated strike of 1909, when the student body walked out in support of the dismissed Principal Dennis Hird. The resulting breakaway group, the Plebs' League, went on to found the Central Labour College, the first of a nationwide system of Labour Colleges which pursued a more openly Marxist and class-conscious agenda. Ruskin too was reformed, with the Trades Union Congress taking control of its governing council from the Town and Gown worthies that had previously dominated it. Although the college continued to assert its independence, relations with the University remained close, with students from the two institutions attending each other's lectures, and a growing proportion of Ruskin students going on to take the University Diploma in Economic and Political Science.

In 1903 the college had moved from its temporary home in St Giles to a larger site in Walton Street, on the edge of the industrial suburb of Jericho, and in 1907 a competition had been held for the design of a new college building. The winners were Joseph and Smithem, a London practice best known for its designs for working-class housing projects in the capital. Construction was delayed by shortage of funds, and the foundation-stones were eventually laid in February 1912. The first phase of work, completed in 1913, comprised the present east (front) range and part of the north range, containing the entrance gateway, administrative offices and a lecture-cum-dining hall. The building remained incomplete at the start of the Great War, which saw the closure of the college for four years, and the remainder of the 1907 scheme - including the proposed dining hall and kitchen block to the west and the grand symmetrical facade to Worcester Place - went unrealised.

The college remained active and influential during the inter-war years, admitting its first women students (lodged in a hostel on Linton Road) in 1919, participating in the General Strike of 1926 and receiving a visit from Mahatma Gandhi in 1931, but the facilities at Walton Street developed little, with only a minor addition in 1936 to provide a small library and common-room. Student numbers increased after WWII, and a second residential campus was established at Headington in the early 1950s. Walton Street remained the main teaching site, and Department of Education funds made available in the wake of the Robbins Report of 1963 allowed for the construction in 1964-7 of a large new building by Peter Bosanquet and Partners, which gave the college its first proper dining hall. Another extension, which included a new library, was added in 1982 by Bosanquet and John Perryman. Throughout this period Ruskin retained its close association with the TUC and the Labour movement; its alumni have included leading parliamentarians and trades unionists such as Arthur Allen, Frank Hodges, Dennis Skinner and John Prescott. The college finally vacated central Oxford in 2012, transferring all teaching activities to Headington and handing over the Walton Street campus to Exeter College.


MATERIALS: a steel-framed building clad in pinkish-red brick and Bath stone ashlar with a Welsh slate mansard roof.

PLAN: Joseph and Smithem's competition design of 1907 envisaged a traditional Oxford quadrange, enclosed by buildings on three sides with a through passage in the centre of the east (Walton Street) range and the dining hall directly opposite in the west range. The 1912-13 building represents about 40 per cent of this scheme, including the east range with its entrance passage, porter's lodge and administrative offices, and part of the north range containing a large lecture hall and the principal stair. Both ranges have corridors with tutors' offices and student bedrooms on the upper floors; the senior common room was in the east range overlooking the quad. (The 1936 extension to the north range contained a library and common room with more student rooms above; the 1964-7 extension comprised a dining hall, further lecture rooms infilling part of the quadrangle, and more student rooms; the 1982 extension formed the west side of the quad and contained a new and larger library. None of these elements is of special interest.)

EXTERIORS: the 1912-13 building is of three storeys plus dormered attic, in a late-C17 style described by Pevsner as 'neo-William-and-Mary' and more commonly dubbed 'Wrenaissance'. This is characterised by bold massing, strongly-modelled Classical forms and a vivid colour contrast between the soft red brick of the main walls and the yellow ashlar used for the lower storey, entrance bay, window surrounds and dentil cornice. The main east elevation to Walton Street is symmetrical, of eight bays arranged 1-2-2-2-1. The two-bay projecting stone centrepiece features a big semicircular archway with the college's name in a scrolled cartouche above; giant pilasters to the upper storeys support a steep triangular pediment with an oeil-de-boeuf window. The outer bays also step forward, their corners marked by rusticated brick quoins. The fenestration is a complex array of square-, segmental- and round-headed windows - multi-paned metal casements on the ground floor, timber sashes above - all with moulded stone surrounds and projecting aprons. Beneath the ground-floor windows are inscriptions commemorating the foundation ceremony of 8th February 1912. The north range to Worcester Place was to be a grand symmetrical composition with a pedimented stone centrepiece like that to Walton Street; only the eastern part, with its projecting segmental-pedimented end bay, was ever built, although the 1936 addition continues this range in a matching style.

The inner, quadrangle-facing elevations are simplified versions of the street facades, with most of the stonework detail omitted, and with the lower storey absorbed into the flat-roofed additions of 1964-7. The senior common room on the first floor of the east range sports a curved timber oriel and a small balcony.

INTERIORS: these are largely utilitarian and have been much altered. The main surviving feature is the main stair in the north range, which has a decorative metal balustrade. Adjoining this is a bronze relief panel commemorating Charles Sydney Buxton (1884-1911), vice-principal of the college from 1907 to 1909 and a major contributor towards the cost of the new building. The hall to the east has a plain coffered ceiling and a dais at one end; the panelling here is a later addition, perhaps of the 1930s. The upper floors have central corridors with small bedrooms on either side; most of the doors and other fittings have been replaced, although some of the rooms retain their original cupboards and shelves.

Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.