Durham University: Last of the Ancient Universities and First of the New (1831-1871)

This post was contributed by Dr Matthew Andrews who researched part-time for his doctorate at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Professor William Whyte, St John’s College.  He investigated the foundation and early decades of Durham University, revising the accepted view of the University’s difficulties and re-examining the growth of higher education in the nineteenth century. Email: m.p.andrews@dunelm.org.uk. Twitter: @HE_MPA

Durham University did not at first live up to the expectations of its founders.  Historians, following the verdict of the Royal Commission which investigated Durham’s chronic state in the early 1860s, have tended to blame this failure on an anachronistic view of university education and gross internal mismanagement.  By looking again at what was attempted and the wider context, however, it can be seen that many of the difficulties Durham encountered were beyond the control of its leaders.  The initial problems, therefore, tell us more about the development of universities in the nineteenth century in general than has hitherto been appreciated.

Typically, nineteenth century higher education has been defined by reform at Oxford and Cambridge, hastened and extended by Royal Commissions; the development of new forms of higher education in London that were influenced by European, Scottish and North American models; and the growth of technically and industrially orientated civic colleges (later to become universities) partly through the expedient of the London University External Degree and the federal university model.[1]

As an Anglican institution with many traditional aspects Durham has not fitted this narrative and so historians have generally felt comfortable explaining it away as nothing more than a staunchly High Church reaction to the febrile atmosphere of reform in the early 1830s.[2]  Eric Ashby, for example, praised London University for its ‘broad spread of academic and professional studies’, while he condemned Durham for being ‘obsessively anglican’.[3]  Michael Sanderson, at least, recognised Durham’s attempt to pioneer engineering as a subject of university study, especially to appeal to its ‘Northern milieu’.  Still, however, he concluded that the University’s ‘origins were not especially noble’ as the Chapter were simply attempting to forestall an attempt ‘to dispossess it of funds’.[4]

Knocking In - small

The Norman Gateway to University College, Durham

Nevertheless, there is much to project Durham as an attempt at educational reform in its own right.   The Durham Chapter, led by Archdeacon Charles Thorp, in fact intended to establish a modern university that would benefit northern interests.

Durham did not, for example, follow the professorial model of the older English universities, which was itself the subject of calls for reform.[5]  The professorial model at Durham followed the Scottish pattern.  Thorp always intended that the Professors would work: they would ‘have the charge of the studies in their respective departments and work as at Glasgow and the foreign Universities, and as they did at Oxford in old times’.[6]

The subjects of study would be different too.  Unsurprisingly for a church foundation, Theology was important but the Durham Licence in Theology would offer focused ministerial preparation.  The absence of such provision at the older universities provoked continued agitation for improvement.[7]

It was originally intended that the University would offer a medical course, and one of the first members of staff was a Reader in Medicine: William Cooke who was given ‘a complete osteological collection … wax models and graphic representations’.[8]   The intention was to offer a course leading to the Licence of the Society of Apothecaries, as was similarly practised in King’s College and London University.[9]  However, the demand was negligible and after 1836 there is no record of Cooke providing any academic lectures.  Durham proved too small a town for professional medical studies, especially with a quickly growing School of Medicine in nearby Newcastle.

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The Freshman’s Dream

More radical still than medicine was the course in civil engineering.  The nearby and extensive collieries, many being Chapter property, seemed to make Durham an ideal centre for professional mining studies.  Yet the course was a clear departure from the long-established model of English higher education and the first of its kind in the country.  A degree in all but name, the intention was to enable ‘the profession of Civil Engineer [to] take the rank in society which its importance demands’.[10]  For a while the course was popular, even exceeding those admitted to study Theology or Arts in 1839/40.  The course was no cheaper than undertaking a pupillage or apprenticeship, however, and, even though the course contained a significant practical component and was supported by leading industrialists, after studying for three years graduates found themselves with no advantage when considered for employment and so the course dwindled to nothing in the 1840s.

Alongside these new disciplines, the Bachelor of Arts remained the core ‘academical course’ and here Durham craved equality with Oxford and Cambridge.  Admission was by passing a matriculation examination.  This was an innovation in England, as the practice had yet to be universally adopted by the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, which perceived such tests as an attempt by the University to restrict who they could admit.[11]  Entrance exams had, however, been instituted in Scotland at Marischal College and St Andrews in the early 1820s.[12]

The Durham examination system introduced a new concept to British higher education: the external examiner.  These external examiners were recruited from Oxford and were an essential part of the strategy to demonstrate the equivalence of Durham awards.  In addition, the introduction of external examiners followed the accepted principle that teaching and examining duties should be separated.

Despite such innovations, as access to the older universities opened Durham struggled to recruit.  The University was cheaper than Oxford or Cambridge but not sufficiently less expensive to make a real difference.[13]  In April 1843, the University attempted to gain recognition for Durham graduates to be awarded ad eundem degrees of Oxford but the attempt failed.  A similar and also unsuccessful attempt was made a decade later to gain such a privilege at Cambridge.

Durham’s failure can be attributed to both lack of supply, and lack of demand.  At the start of the century secondary education was largely undeveloped in England save for the limited and often exclusive provision of the grammar and public schools.  There were no independent examinations in secondary schools until Oxford and Cambridge established the Local Examinations in 1857-8, with Durham itself swiftly following in 1858.[14]  Many of the new universities and colleges actually survived in part due to the success of their secondary schools while their higher courses suffered.[15]

As for demand for graduates: most of the professions were still far from convinced of the value of the courses that the new institutions offered and until the middle of the nineteenth century the links between industry and the universities were negligible.[16]

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Getting up for Lectures

It was also crucial to any new institutions’ disadvantage that English society still operated by patronage until well into the nineteenth century.[17]  The implication of this was that for as long as the support of a prominent patron remained more important than qualifications (and even ability) in order to gain entry to the more desirable careers and professions, the practical value of the system of certificates, degrees, and other awards being developed in the new universities and colleges would be minimal.

The result was that higher education in England (and in fact across Europe) did not expand consistently throughout the nineteenth century.[18]  According to one analysis of enrolments, there was even a decline in the rate of admission to English universities between 1821 and 1861.  The number of students enrolling in 1831 was lower than in 1821.[19]

Students in English Universities 1801-1901 (Male Students Only)[20]


It was in this period of stagnation, while facing the resurgence of Oxford and Cambridge, that the attempt was made to found Durham.  It is little wonder that the University struggled, as did all new establishments.

Resurrecting Durham’s early reputation by showing that its founders were more ambitious than is generally known, and that its failure was actually typical of the period, is more important than a parochial corrective, for reinterpreting Durham’s problems demonstrates that the general understanding of higher education during the nineteenth century fails to grasp the complexities of a system in development as well as competing perspectives on reform.


[1] H. Perkin, The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880 (London, 1969), p. 298; M. Sanderson, The Universities in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1975), pp. xi-xii, 22-3, 26-32, 80; W. Whyte, Redbrick: A Social and Architectural History of Britain’s Civic Universities (Oxford, 2015), p. 21.

[2] A. Bartlett and D. Goodhew, ‘Victorian to Modern, 1832-2000’, in D. Brown (ed.), Durham Cathedral: History, Fabric, and Culture (London, 2015), pp. 111-27; B. Pask with D. Brown, ‘Post-Reformation Clerical Scholarship’, in Brown (ed.), Durham Cathedral, pp. 469-81.

[3] E. Ashby, Universities: British, Indian, African (Cambridge Massachusetts, 1966), pp. 19-28.  See also: A. Briggs, ‘Development in Higher Education in the United Kingdom’, in W.R. Niblett (ed.), Higher Education: Demand and Response (London, 1969), pp. 95-116; K. Vernon, Universities and the State in England 1850-1939 (London, 2004), pp. 63, 102.

[4] Sanderson, Universities in the Nineteenth Century, p. 32.  See also: J. Innes and A. Burns, ‘Introduction’, in A. Burns and J. Innes (eds.), Age of Reform: Britain 1780-1850 (Cambridge, 20030, pp. 1-70; Perkin, Origins of Modern English Society, p. 298; Vernon, Universities and the State in England, p. 101; Whyte, Redbrick, p. 33.

[5] A.J. Engel, From Clergyman to Don: The Rise of the Academic Profession in Nineteenth-Century Oxford (Oxford, 1983), pp. 35-6.

[6] [Balliol College] Jenkyns Papers, IVA.6: Thorp to Van Mildert, 10 December 1831.

[7] D. Inman, The Making of Modern English Theology: God and the Academy at Oxford 1833-1945 (Minneapolis, 2014), pp. 43-103.

[8] Durham University Calendar 1842, p. 12.

[9] H.H. Bellot, University College, London 1826-1926 (London, 1929), p. 145; F.J.C. Hearnshaw, The Centenary History of King’s College London 1828-1928 (London, 1929), pp. 113-4.

[10] [Durham University Llibrary] Durham Dicesan Recrods: Chevallier to Maltby, 25 November 1837.

[11] Ashby, Universities, p. 25; S. Rothblatt, ‘Failure in Early Nineteenth-Century Oxford and Cambridge’, History of Education, 11/1 (1982), pp. 1-21, p. 11; D.A. Winstanley, Early Victorian Cambridge, (Cambridge, 1940), pp. 154, 167-8.

[12] D.J. Withrington, ‘Ideas and Ideals in University Reform in Early Nineteenth‐Century Britain: A Scottish Perspective’, The European Legacy, 4/6 (1999), pp. 7-19, p. 13.

[13] H. Longueville Jones, ‘Statistical Illustrations of the Principal Universities of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland ‘, Journal of the Statistical Society of London, I (November 1838), pp. 385-97, p. 390.

[14] J. Roach, Public Examinations in England, 1850–1900 (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 64-76, 89.

[15] Whyte, Redbrick, p. 47.

[16] M. Sanderson, The Universities and British Industry 1850-1970 (London, 1972), p. 3.

[17] W.J. Reader, Professional Men: The Rise of the Professional Classes in Nineteenth-Century England (London, 1966), pp. 4-6; W.G. Runciman, Very Different, But Much the Same: The Evolution of English Society Since 1714 (Oxford, 2015), pp. 35-40.

[18] R.D. Anderson, European Universities from the Enlightenment to 1914 (Oxford, 2004), pp. 119-37; Reader, Professional Men, pp. 142-5.

[19] M. Greenwood, ‘University Education: Its Recent History and Function‘, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 98/2 (1935), pp. 1-33.  Greenwood’s figures excluded female students for ease of comparison across the century, he therefore calculated the rate of entry as a proportion of the male population aged 15 to 25.

[20] Source: Greenwood, ‘University Education’, p. 7.