Know Your Ruskins

Ever since Exeter announced in 2008 that it had reached an agreement to purchase Ruskin College’s Walton Street campus in Jericho, many Exonians have admitted to being a little confused about their Ruskins (Is that the famous art school? Is it a further education college?). We feel that an explanatory note is long overdue! So here’s the lowdown:

The Ruskin School of Art, part of the University of Oxford, was opened by John Ruskin in 1871 as the Ruskin School of Drawing. It offers a Bachelor in Fine Art degree for undergraduates and a Masters and DPhil in Fine Art for postgraduates. It has two sites, 74 High Street and 128 Bullingdon Road. Exeter welcomes one Fine Art student per academic year. The Ruskin School of Art has no direct connection to Cohen Quadrangle.

Ruskin School of Art on Oxford’s High Street. Photograph by Nic Ansell

In 1899, Ruskin College (originally Ruskin Hall) was founded in the city of Oxford, independent of the University. It “aimed to provide university-standard education for working class people to empower them to act more effectively on behalf of working class communities and organisations such as trade unions, political parties, co-operative societies and working men’s institutes”. Its alumni include British politician John Prescott, Kenyan civil rights advocate Tom Mboya and Siaka Probyn Stevens, Prime Minister and President of Sierra Leone.

Ruskin College is now an affiliate of the University of Oxford, which ensures that its students can access many University facilities such as libraries and social spaces, as well as academic and extra-curricular events and societies.

Ruskin’s campus is in Headington, East Oxford, but its original site was on Walton Street. Its grand red-brick Victorian building was completed in 1913 and various extensions were added over the next 60 years. This is the site that Exeter College purchased in March 2010.

The Ruskin College building soon after completion in 1913. Photograph taken from
Ruskin College garden
Ruskin College from the inside, taken from near the back of the site and looking west to east. The wing on the left-hand side is a 1930s extension. Photograph taken from
Similar view from 2009 after the sale agreement between Ruskin and Exeter was signed, taken from the very back of the site looking west to east. Note the addition of the 1960s grey concrete accommodation block, the 1980s redbrick accommodation block (left foreground) and the subterranean library (centre of image)

Yet the connections between Exeter and Ruskin College go deeper than that. When Rector Cairncross wrote to Exeter alumni in 2008 to tell them of the sale agreement, she said: “There is a nice historical twist to this arrangement. William Morris was an undergraduate at Exeter College, and had close links with John Ruskin. Ruskin College in turn was founded to educate those who were otherwise excluded from education – on principles established through the collaboration of these two social and educational pioneers.”

After the Second World War, an even closer link between the two colleges developed, when Exeter offered a place each Michaelmas term to an entrant from Ruskin to read for an undergraduate degree. You can read about the experiences of Ruskin and Exeter alumnus Tony Moreton (1952, PPE) on pp26-28 of the Exeter College Register 2011.

Exeter College took official possession of the site in October 2012 and all of Ruskin College’s activities were relocated to its newly-renovated campus in Headington.

Ruskin 055
Rector Cairncross receives the keys to the former Ruskin College building from Professor Audrey Mullender, former Principal of Ruskin College, in October 2012



We hope that this helps to explain Exeter’s history with Ruskin College and that any confusion between the two Ruskins has been cleared up. Of course, if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to be in touch.

Finally, fear not: we’ll be back to bricks and mortar in our next Cohen Quad update.

Sources: Ruskin College websiteThe History of Ruskin College by Harold Pollins (1984); Oxford History website; Wikipedia; Ruskin School of Art website; Exeter College Register (2011).

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