St. Catherine's Society

Pages 338-339

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1954.

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The Royal Commission on the University of Oxford, appointed in 1850, suggested in its report that 'liberty be given for the extension of the University by permitting members of the University, under due superintendence, to live in private lodgings, without connexion with a College or Hall'. The suggestion was strongly opposed on many grounds, moral, religious, and financial, and from various quarters, and nothing came of its for a time. But in 1868 the University realxed the provisions of the Laudian Statutes so as to allow the matriculation of men 'nulli collegio vel aulae ascripti'. Such 'unattached students' (as they were called) were put under the charge of the newly appointed Delegates for the Licensing of Lodgings, of whom two were 'stipendiary'. The duties of the Delegates, chiefly exercised through the two stipendiaries, were to see that the students were in suitable lodgings, to supply certificates of residence and to present for degrees. They were also to draw up a register of authorized tutors, and each undergraduate was ordered by statute to have as his tutor one of those so authorized. But he was free to make his choice from the list, and the tutor's responsibility was not heavy. Each had to see that his pupil was receiving proper instruction (not to give it himself) and to look after his general moral welfare. Thus, at first, the attempt was to give the students all the freedom of choice and independence possible. Accommodation was provided for official purposes in the Old Clarendon Buildings, where were the University Offices.

In 1868 there were 36 students, 66 in 1869, a growth which proved that the new provision for poor students was appreciated. In 1870, therefore, a new statute was passed, constituting a delegacy solely for the supervision of unattached students, with two stipendiary officers now first called 'Censors'. A rather closer hold was laid on the lives of the students, in that the delegates were to 'exercise such discipline as is usually exercised over Undergraduate members of Colleges or Halls by the Heads or Governing bodies thereof, and the Censors were to exercise tutorial supervision and direct the studies of the students. In 1871 the 'Old Convocation House chapel' was restored at a cost of £330 and became the chapel of the Unattached, with an organist; there was service every Sunday at 9.30. (fn. 1) This arrangement came to an end in 1882. Under the first two Censors—G. W. Kitchin, D.D. (formerly Student of Christ Church, subsequendy Dean of Winchester and of Durham), 1868–83, and G. S. Ward (tutor of Magdalen Hall and subsequently fellow of Hertford College), 1868–81, the Society quietly grew and prospered, in spite of the fact that little official accommodation was provided for social life, a bare and uncomfortable room in the Clarendon Buildings being the only room in which undergraduates could meet. No doubt this was done so as to check, for poor students, the extravagance with which so much social life in the University was connected. But the undergraduates themselves developed their own social and athletic clubs, and hired club rooms at 29 Broad St. (now in the new buildings of Hertford College) where 'the St. Catharine's Club' was in existence in 1881 with a 'St. Catharine's Musical Society' which gave concerts in support of the 'St. Catharine's Rowing Club'. (fn. 2) The site was known as St. Catherine's chapel (but incorrectly): hence the name of the Society.

This new and spontaneous growth was recognized and approved by the Commission of 1877, and in the statute of 1882 resulting from their labours it was laid down that, as soon as the money was available, a capital sum of not less than £7,000 should be spent 'in providing offices, a Library and such other buildings as may be necessary'. The University, moreover, agreed to pay £1,000 a year towards the stipends of the Censor (since 1881 there had only been a single Censor) and tutors, and in 1885 the Delegates were empowered to appoint their own tutors and lecturers to give instruction to the students. The year 1884 was annus mirabilis, as H. H. Henson, afterwards bishop of Durham, was elected a fellow of All Souls and W. S. Unwin won the Diamond Sculls; the scholarship and the oarsmanship of the Unattached henceforth ceased to be a subject for undergraduate wit. (fn. 3)

In 1883 W. W. Jackson, D.D. (fellow and subsequently rector of Exeter College), became Censor. It was under him that, in 1884, the name 'unattached', with its suggestion of non-residence, was changed to 'Non-Collegiate', and the new premises were erected by the University. They were next to the Examination Schools in High St. and consisted of a handsome and well-finished building containing, besides tutor's rooms and a fine library, a junior common room to foster social life. They were not, however, occupied till 1888 when the censorship was held by R. W. M. Pope, D.D., who continued to be Censor until 1919. After the War the Society prospered under the new Censor, J. B. Baker, M.A. (1919–30), and was much used by the increasing number of those who, having taken a degree elsewhere, wished to do post-graduate work at Oxford. There was also a notable growth among the undergraduates of corporate spirit and of desire for better social opportunities than the existing building afforded. The Royal Commission of 1922 therefore urged that 'the central rooms to which students resort for work and recreation should be adequate in size and attractive in appearance, and that funds be provided by the University for such improvements as may be required.'The building in High St. was no longer suitable; it was too small, it was not convenient, and it was noisy with the growth of motor traffic, but nothing was done. In 1930 V.J.K. Brook, M.A., was appointed Censor and in 1934 an opportunity arose. The University owned a site in St. Aldate's south of Christ Church. This site was offered to St. Catherine's Society and handsome buildings at a cost of £20,000, designed by J. H. Worthington, were erected there. Besides tutors' rooms, &c., there is a good library, an attractive junior common room, and a dining hall. Thus the fullest possible provision was made for corporate life. The cost was met by the sale of the premises of the Society in High St., by funds collected by the Society, and by a gift of about £4,000 from the University. The new building was opened by the Chancellor of the University in Oct. 1936. One further change was that, in 1931, the name 'NonCollegiate' was formally abandoned, and that of 'St. Catherine's Society' sanctioned by the University.

The Society had long had its own playing-field, boats on the river, and so on; thus, with the opportunities of the new building, full provision was made for all the normal activities of undergraduate social and athletic life. A full scheme for tuition in all subjects had for many years been in force. But the Society continues to maintain its original purpose of providing an Oxford education as full and many-sided as possible for poor men who cannot afford the expenses of a college life. It is used chiefly by such men as wish to read for and Honours Degree (Pass men are not normally accepted) or to undertake research.


  • 1. Bodl. Lib. G. A. Oxon. b. 133.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. As in Shrimoton's Caricatures.