Our Origins

By the mid-twentieth century, the University of Oxford had been educating undergraduates for around 900 years. Times were changing, however, and in the wake of the Second World War universities were expected to play a new and expanded role as centres of research, taking advantage of new technologies and equipping societies to face the scientific, political and cultural problems of the modern age. The authors of the Robbins Report, commissioned by Britain’s increasingly concerned government, wrote in 1963 that highly-trained postgraduates were needed to confront “the enormous extensions of knowledge in all fields of study”, “the scientific and technological revolution that we are living through,” “the pace of social change,” and “the complexity of modern social and economic organisation”.

“The continuous process of re-interpreting and re-assessing the achievements of mankind […] demands a depth and range of knowledge today far beyond what was within the power of our grandfathers and even of our fathers.”

– the Robbins Report

Despite its reputation, Oxford was not equipped to deliver this kind of advanced education. In 1963, there was little to no infrastructure to accommodate graduates – no housing, no courses, and no academic staff who could train them. A new arrangement was needed, where academics (college “Fellows”) could fulfil other roles beyond teaching undergraduates and begin to supply the need for postgraduate training. After the University’s Franks Commission released its findings in 1964, this led to the creation of two new graduate colleges, St Cross and Iffley – the second of which would soon be renamed Wolfson. Their foundation was initially made possible through grants from twelve colleges, and aimed to provide better opportunities for graduate students while increasing the availability of college Fellowships.


The mansion house and ornamental gardens at Court Place.

Iffley College officially began life in September 1965, and its first home was some way downriver from where Wolfson stands today. Initially located at Court Place in the south of the city, just over the river from Iffley Meadows, the College was a far removed from the tight-knit, historic centre of Oxford, and in particular the bustling science labs that would host much of its students’ research. The College also lacked a President, and after much discussion the Fellows approached Sir Isaiah Berlin – one of the most renowned, charismatic and well-connected philosophers of the day.

Sir Isaiah Berlin

Sir Isaiah Berlin was the first President of Wolfson, and was responsible for garnering support for the College in its early days and deciding its ethos for years to come.

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Sir Isaiah agreed to the appointment – on the condition that he could secure the kind of funding that would allow the College to provide a supportive home for graduates and their research. Sir Isaiah’s reputation was well-deserved, and in 1966 it was announced that the Wolfson Foundation, the philanthropic foundation of the British businessman Sir Isaac Wolfson, together with the Ford Foundation in the United States, had agreed to provide endowment grants totalling £3.1m (around £49m in 2024). At the same moment, the University of Oxford acquired Cherwell house in North Oxford along with the surrounding land, and agreed to donate it to the newly-christened Wolfson College as its permanent site.

Towards a Permanent Home

60 Banbury Road, a large nineteenth-century house with a turret in the centre of the frontage.

Though the land had been secured, the College still had no premises. The College was temporarily housed in 15 Banbury Road, now home to the University’s IT Services, before the University made available 47 and 60 Banbury Road, two nineteenth-century townhouses. 60 Banbury Road offered space for a dining room and a small library, which allowed Wolfson to begin admitting its first cohort of graduate students in 1968. Wolfson’s time on Banbury Road saw the creation of the first College committees, the General Meeting, the founding of the Boat Club, and the beginning of the College’s now extensive art collection. The College colours – Wolfson Red and Gold – were also chosen in these early days.  

A postcard of Cherwell House seen from Linton Road, circa 1910.

Meanwhile, around ten minutes’ walk away, work was proceeding on Wolfson’s permanent home. Cherwell House sat on the banks of the Cherwell River, on land that had been marshy floodplain up until the middle of the nineteenth century. Constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century, Cherwell was the residence and laboratory of Professor J.S. Haldane, physiologist, physician and philosopher. His work – which had resulted in the first gas masks, amongst other discoveries – had included shutting test subjects into sealed metal chambers to study the effects on the respiratory system. J.B.S. Haldane, his son and later a famous biologist, was often one of those subjects (when not making fireworks in the attic). The initial plan for Wolfson College was to preserve the Edwardian house and its historic laboratory, but this proved impractical when the College hoped to provide for hundreds of graduate students and researchers at the cutting edge of their fields. Cherwell was demolished in 1967, leaving the site open for development, and planning could begin for a new college that would preserve the mature trees and the scenic view across the River Cherwell towards Marston. The intention was to create buildings in harmony with both the environment and the people who would occupy them. Following the selection of architects, the foundation stone was laid by Queen Elizabeth II in 1968, and work was completed six years later.

Our Architecture

Our Grade-II listed site, integrated into the lush surroundings of the River Cherwell, was designed by architects Powell & Moya and completed in 1974.

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In 1974, the College transitioned to the new premises, which included a hall, common room, seminar rooms, library, administrative spaces, and accommodation for both graduate students and Fellows. The design, which was not permitted to exceed the height of the surrounding houses, embraced the landscape rather than the city. Concealed behind the relatively diminutive Lodge, the College’s main buildings include five storeys of graduate accommodation, in a modern twist on the traditional architectural language of quads and cloisters that typify Oxford’s colleges. The move marked Wolfson’s establishment, and the beginning of the next phase of its history.