The last half of the 19th century was as important as any period in the long history of the University of Oxford. Immense changes took place. Existing colleges gained new energy and new ones were founded.

Oxford grew in size as architects such as the ubiquitous Sir Thomas Jackson designed buildings for both the University and the colleges. And, after 1871, with the abolition of tests of belief for both teachers and students, a new moral and academic climate emerged.

In this world, giants bestrode the academic scene, both for and against progress. One of the greatest of these giants was Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol for more than 20 years.

Benjamin Jowett was born in London in 1817, coming from a family with strong roots in the Evangelical movement of the Church of England. After schooling at that famous centre of learning, St Paul's School - then located in the shadow of the Cathedral - he won an open classics scholarship at the age of 18 to Balliol and stayed there for the rest of his life.

He became a Fellow in 1838, and gained a First the following year. In 1855 Lord Palmerston appointed him Regius Professor of Greek, after Jowett had been narrowly out-voted for the Mastership the previous year. Sixteen years later, he was elected Master of Balliol and held it for the rest of his life.

A four year stint as vice-chancellor in the 1880s preceded his death in 1893. At his funeral, the pall-bearers were seven heads of colleges and the Provost of Eton. All were former pupils. He is buried in St Sepulchre's cemetery in Jericho.

As an academic, Jowett quickly established a reputation in classical studies, winning the Chancellor's prize for a Latin essay. He was actively interested in theology, the New Testament and ancient and modern philosophy. But he never saw the need to study Greek literature extensively, concentrating instead on translating historians and philosophers.

Sometimes Jowett was criticised. Thus his translation of Thucydides showed how little Greek a professor of Greek was expected to know.' Nor did he really approve of research, unlike another great academic contemporary and rival, Mark Pattison of Lincoln College. Jowett preferred to translate the Platonic Dialogues in order to persuade the young of their continuing relevance.

When Jowett became Master of Balliol in 1870, the college had become the intellectual leader of the university, not least because of Jowett's unrivalled influence from the time of his Fellowship some 30 years before.

The new Master was an educational enthusiast who believed implicitly in the endless possibility of improvement in all human creatures in the early years of life'.

He also believed in progress and was advocating university reform, long before the far-reaching Commission of Enquiry in 1850. Indeed, in 1853 he took the highly unusual step of writing and forwarding a Bill through Gladstone, then the MP representing the University, to the Aberdeen government.

Though a clergyman, he was never of the high Anglican variety. He took a broad view of the Church, famously pleading in his Essays and Reviews for the Bible to be read like any other book - a remark that made him enemies in Oxford and elsewhere, and led to him being labelled a heretic. A sermon by Jowett was likened to Platonism, flavoured with a little Christian piety.

As Master of Balliol, Jowett immediately made changes. Clerical Fellowships and the necessity of the Master to be in clerical orders were abolished. Services in chapel were rewritten with an ecumenical slant. Jowett delivered addresses on religions other than Christianity.

He embarked on an ambitious building programme, partly because so many students wanted to come to Balliol - lured by its academic renown - but could not get in. Jowett threw himself into fund-raising, finding begging letter writing a very fascinating occupation'.

It was also time consuming, in an age before typewriters, let alone computers. He was keen follower of university and college sport and the man behind the purchase of the Balliol sports ground in Holywell. He supported the laying out of the university cricket ground in the Parks, and defended the University Boat Club before Convocation in 1881.

Jowett also strongly encouraged cultural activities such as theatre and music. He paid for the organ in Balliol hall out of his own pocket and started weekly music concerts in the college.

His influence was greatest with his pupils. Balliol men were subject to a vigorous course of prodding and rousing . . . you might be propelled in any direction, but at least you would not stand still.' Under Jowett, academic excellence was encouraged and expected. And so was originality. He met every Balliol student once a week, inspiring them through a mixture of respect, admiration and sometimes fear.

They were urged to become leaders with a profound sense of public duty and administrative rigour, at a time when many were turning their back on a post-Oxford life at the Bar or in Holy Orders.

In his time he was Master at Balliol to a roll-call of the famous: cultural figures like Matthew Arnold, Swinburne, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Hilaire Belloc; clerics such as Frederick Temple and Cosmo Lang; and politiciians and statesman, among them Asquith, Grey, Milner, Curzon and Lansdowne.

By 1900, there were as many as 40 Balliol men sitting as MPs in the House of Commons. No wonder Harold Macmillan, another Balliol alumni, once remarked that life was one Balliol man after another.

And Jowett kept prodding and rousing them even after they had left Oxford - witness his letters to the young and somewhat indolent Lansdowne, urging him to work hard and strive for wordly success.

Lest it should be seem that Balliol was the only focus for Jowett, he also achieved change and progress in his four years as vice- chancellor.

Although defeated in some of his ambitious projects, he oversaw a growth in the Oxford University Press, the Bodleian and increased support for non-collegiate students - a group dear to his heart. Indeed he made sure that Balliol allowed such students to attend free any Balliol honours lecture.

In all this, though facing some jealousy on account of Balliol's renown, he was helped by the fact that so many Fellows in other colleges were Balliol alumni. Indeed by 1900 , nine colleges had Balliol men as their head of House.

Jowett also took a continuing interest in both India and the Empire, serving on Macauley's committee on the Indian civil service, and accepting civil servants at Balliol as probationary students. Jowett was determined that his college would produce an elite capable of inoculating England with Balliol'. A mandarin class would oversee the nation and the empire.

Of course Jowett had his share of defects. He could be arrogant, ruthless with the second rate, and quick to administer snubs. Against that, as Jan Morris has pointed out, he was unexpectedly liberal, an educational reformer and in social affairs a champion of middle-class opportunity, often supporting a class outsider'.

Benjamin Jowett's first concern though was always his pupils, and, in his own words, he remained a teacher all his life'.