A momentous step in Oxford Brookes’s journey took place just over 50 years ago. What was then the Oxford College of Technology saw the doors of its new buildings at Headington officially opened by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh.
Finally, after years of being spread around the city; in damp basements, borrowed laboratories, cramped classrooms and generously lent spaces, the college was under one roof.
Guiding spirit John Henry Brookes, who had seen in many changes since being appointed principal of the School of Art in 1928, later leading the combined Schools of Art, Commerce and Technology, called the Headington site ‘the Promised Land’.
But it was no easy journey to reach it. The opening was the result of a hard-fought battle that saw what The Oxford Times dubbed, ‘Town, Gown and Overall,’ united in fighting for the new buildings.
Although the land was bought and development schemes approved back in 1949, when the plans came before Oxford County Council’s planning committee the following year, they were turned down.
The decision scandalised many. But post-war Britain was still reeling from the effects on the economy and divided on whether money should be ploughed into defence, housing or education.
The Oxford Times roundly condemned the decision, reflecting the thoughts of plenty.
“Protests come from Town, Gown and Overall,” the leader writer penned furiously.
“The city deplores the dropping of a scheme which promised to its sons and daughters advanced technical education under the most advantageous conditions.
“The university condemns it as a blow to the sphere of education which has attained paramount importance under modern economic conditions. And industry is shocked that the training, which seemed within the reach of its young recruits, should be snatched away.”
The council’s own finance committee had already noted the plans as a long-term investment, balancing the substantial cost against the desperate need to improve Oxford’s technical education services.
But one of the college’s strongest supporters was Professor Kenneth Wheare – Gladstone Professor of Government at Oxford University – who announced a protest meeting at Oxford’s Town Hall. Writing later, he remembered supporters spilling out of the door as they eagerly crammed in to voice their anger.
“I had been assured of so much support for the proposal in circles outside the city council that I felt the city council must be wrong; that it had misjudged public opinion,” he wrote in John Henry Brookes: Craftsman, Educator, Administrator.
“So, to my own surprise, I found myself proclaiming that a protest of the citizens would be organised against the city council’s decision.
“We called a meeting in the Town Hall and we had so many supporters that the council chamber was filled, the main committee room was also filled and there was an overflow meeting on the staircase.”
The plans were brought once more in 1952 and voted through without discussion.
Viscount Nuffield – one of the College’s first students – laid the foundation stone, over copies of the Times, the Oxford Times and Oxford Mail, the Education Committee’s minutes and the order of proceedings, in 1954 and the buildings finally opened officially in 1963.
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Leaves taken as souvenirs
As he planted a commemorative tree, the Duke of Edinburgh joked that he lacked green fingers.
Sure enough, the tree was soon bare – but not through any fault of the Duke.
Eager visitors stripped the tree of its leaves, stealing the tokens as souvenirs.
There was one man who missed the royal opening altogether – city architect Edwin Chandler, who planned the buildings.
But he had to miss the main event when he slipped over and broke his wrist, missing the Duke’s speech as he was carted off to hospital in an ambulance.
The new premises meant that the Oxford College of Technology impressed enough to make the list of 29 proposed new polytechnics in 1967, becoming Oxford Polytechnic in 1970. It became Oxford Brookes University in 1992.