'That new place near the Parks what’s going to stop us all from saying “Damn”’. Such were the sentiments of an Oxford labourer confronted with the newly founded College in the 1870s. This reputation reflected Keble’s origins in a movement of ecclesiastical reform. The College was founded in memory of John Keble (1792-1866), a founding member of the so-called ‘Tractarian’ movement which sought to recover the Catholic heritage of the Church of England. Funding for the new College was sought from Tractarian sympathisers, including the benefactor of the Chapel, William Gibbs, whose family’s fortune was based on Peruvian bird droppings, a valuable fertiliser! Keble College opened its doors to just thirty students in 1870, and the Chapel was opened on St Mark’s Day 1876.
The architect was William Butterfield, whose striking polychromatic brickwork, ‘the most approved “holy zebra” style’ in the eyes of its critics, served as a defiant assertion of a distinctively high church position. If it was the intention of the College’s founders to create a high church seminary, its first Warden, Edward Talbot, had other ideas, encouraging the teaching of science, and showing sympathy to the theory of evolution. Nor could the early students live up to the demands of ‘poverty and obedience’ envisaged by the founders: student life was punctuated by regular unlicensed boxing matches at which, we are told, ‘the liquid refreshment was not tea’.
Keble has moved a long way since those early days. Although the College has produced many notable Anglican leaders, it is no longer formally tied to the Church of England. No longer are the Fellows beholden to an external Council of ecclesiastical worthies; no longer is the Warden required to be in holy orders. Butterfield’s architecture has been supplemented by the equally bold buildings (Hayward and de Breyne) by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek, opened in 1979, and by Rick Mather’s miracle of environmental soundness, the ARCO building, opened in July 1995.
A new Mather building was completed in the summer of 2002. Originally intended for ‘gentlemen wishing to live economically’, the College began to admit women undergraduates from 1979 and elected its first female Warden (the head of our community) in 1994. Originally dominated by those intending a career in the Church, it now admits students for the full range of subjects and sends them forth to just about every conceivable career.
To find out more....
A History of the College has been written by the former Warden, Averil Cameron, and the History tutor, Ian Archer. Copies can be ordered from the Alumni & Development Office .
To view lives of key people in Keble's history...
See lives of John Keble, Dr Pusey, Edward Talbot, William Butterfield, Holman Hunt, Henry Liddon, Walter Lock, and Eric Abbott in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (available to subscribing institutions and individuals).