Our History

Ruskin has a proud and rich history. The college was founded in 1899 by two Americans who studied at Oxford University and decided that the same level of education should be available to everyone, not just the elite.

Named after John Ruskin, a radical pioneer of socialist thought, the college was founded at a time of real ferment in political and educational thinking. The college gave a voice to disenfranchised working class people; it empowered them to act more effectively on behalf of communities and organisations such as workers’ unions, societies and institutes.

The college was a champion for the newly-founded Labour Party. Numerous high profile Labour MPs have since passed through its doors, including former Prime Minister Clement Attlee, former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and the longest serving Labour MP, Dennis Skinner. Six current Labour Members of Parliament were educated at Ruskin.

Ruskin’s drive for social progress brought with it a history of activism. Through the years the college has campaigned vehemently in defence of human rights and equality. It has educated a high proportion of ethnic minority and disabled students, and welcomed female students since its early years. It was the birthplace of the Women’s National Liberation Movement and has educated prominent African politicians and activists, alongside notable disability campaigners Baron Jack Ashley and Mencap founder Judy Fryd.

Ruskin continues to have close ties with the Trade Unions, a relationship that has seen thousands of Trade Unionists educated at the college each year and many of Ruskin’s alumni go on to take key positions on trade unions bodies. Nancy Adam, the first female member of the Trades Union Congress, was educated at Ruskin.

Originally located in Walton Street in the centre of Oxford, today the main college activity takes place at the spacious and modern Headington campus, which it purchased in 1946. Here, Ruskin continues in its time-honoured commitment to providing learning that transforms the lives of its students, its communities and society as a whole.

As a truly pioneering establishment, Ruskin has enjoyed some remarkable episodes in its history. Take a look through our 120 year timeline below to find out more.

  • Americans Charles Beard and Walter Vrooman (centre, back row) establish Ruskin Hall, a free university offering evening and correspondence courses for working class people. This is largely funded by Walter Vrooman’s wife Amne (back row, right). Dennis Hird is appointed as the college’s first principal.

  • The first meeting of the Ruskin Hall General Council is held. Mr Vrooman is elected President of the Council. Ruskin Hall becomes Ruskin College.

  • The General Council approves the purchase of the college’s new Walton Street premises.

  • Ruskin moves to 3 Walton Street from its original location at 14 St Giles, which was leased from Balliol College. Ruskin begins to appear in press articles.

  • Ruskin adds French, German, Education and Evolution to its curriculum. Ruskin distributes prospectuses and advertises in Europe. Charles Buxton is named Assistant Principal and Henry Furniss becomes Lecturer in Economics.

  • A conference of TUC delegates convenes at the invitation of the Ruskin General Council. The Bishop of Hereford gives a lively speech on the ‘Higher Education of Working People’.

  • The Ruskin school year is divided into three terms, while some exams are introduced, alongside seminar teaching. J Arnott speaks at a debate at The Oxford Union opposing the motion that the idea of state-funded school meals is “abhorrent”.

  • Noah Ablett, a member of the South Wales Miners’ Federation attending Ruskin, runs unofficial classes on Marxian economics and history in opposition to the traditional liberal curriculum.

  • Led by Noah Ablett, a group of Ruskin students form the Plebs’ League and take strike action, refusing to attend lectures, as they agitate for a more socialist curriculum. Oxford University proposes a plan to take over Ruskin College, which will be rejected.

  • Dr Gilbert Slater is appointed as the new principal of Ruskin. A new Governing Council is created and student periodical ‘The Plebs’ is born.

  • Oxford University’s Diploma in Economics and Political Science is opened up to Ruskin candidates.

  • The Ruskin Fellowship is created, with yearly reunions of old students. A young Clement Attlee, future Prime Minister, joins Ruskin’s teaching staff. Bi-monthly magazine The Ruskin Collegian is created.

  • Ruskin moves to new buildings in Walton Street, central Oxford, built to replace the cottages that formerly housed the college.

  • Ruskin’s first report by HM Inspectors during Ruskin’s gives ‘great credit upon the teaching’ and praises the ‘perseverance, industry and ability of the students.’

  • Ruskin closes at the outbreak of the Great War. The site is offered to the Oxford Belgian Relief Committee and houses Belgian refugees.

  • Ted Brookes becomes the first Ruskin student to be killed in the war at Alexandria in July 1915. Dr Gilbert Slater steps down as College Principal.

  • Henry Sanderson Furniss is appointed to the position of Principal. The college building becomes nurses’ housing, supporting the war effort.

  • A series of conferences are held to discuss the re‐organisation of industry after the war.

  • Summer Schools for war veterans are held at the behest of the Workers’ Union.

  • Ruskin admits first female students. Ferdie Smith becomes General Secretary, a post he will hold for 37 years.

  • Prior to the post-war economic slump, as many as 72 students were in residence at Ruskin. Ruskin students join striking busmen.

  • Ruskin declines an offer from the University of Oxford inviting Ruskin students to become members.

  • Marie Stopes’ controversial ‘Birth Control’ lecture, banned by the University, was transferred to Ruskin College on the grounds of free speech.

  • Members of Ruskin speak at a debate at the Oxford Union on Socialism, where students ‘spoke impressively of the conditions of the general mass of the people’. Ruskin holds an International Transport Workers’ Federation conference.

  • Henry Sanderson Furniss retires from his position of Principal. The TUC propose taking over Ruskin College and the Central Labour College.

  • Vice-Principal Alfred Barratt Brown becomes the new Principal of Ruskin.

  • Oxford University sets up its Adult Education Centre, which will provide places for Ruskin students to train to be Adult Education Tutors.

  • A house is built at 25 Northmoor Road for the new principal of Ruskin, designed by architect Arthur C Martin.

  • Future MENCAP founder Judy Fryd joins Ruskin to study Economics and Political Science.

  • Mahatma Gandhi visits Ruskin Hall during a visit to the UK.

  • Ruskin students form the ‘Red Shirts’ to ‘give an impetus to the young Socialist movement of this country’. A free speech meeting at Ruskin is attended by Oxford undergraduates, in violation of a ban by the University.

  • Ruskin students join the Pressed Steel Company strike. Publication ‘This Unrest’ is produced by Ruskin student Donovan Brown.

  • A three day student strike ensues when then-Matron Clara Adams refuses to provide a boiled egg for residents at breakfast. The Principal soon concedes and boiled eggs are on the menu thereafter.

  • Ruskin students Jim Brewer and Kathleen McColgan join the International Brigades standing up to Franco’s forces in Spain. New buildings at the Walton Street campus are officially opened by the Right Honourable Viscount Sankey, High Steward of the University of Oxford.

  • A census of alumni shows that Ruskin has already produced sixteen Labour MPs, seven general and assistant secretaries of unions, two district officers, four organisers and four research officers. Esperanto is added to the college’s curriculum.

  • During the Second World War Ruskin is used as a maternity hospital.

  • Ruskin courses become available to members of the armed forces under the War Office scheme.

  • Lionel Elvin becomes the fifth principal Of Ruskin.

  • Ruskin purchases the current Old Headington site. Student publication the ‘New Epoch’ is printed for the first time.

  • Jack Ashley, future Labour Party MP and Peer, earns a scholarship to Ruskin. Ruskin hosts a conference of the National Union of Agricultural Workers.

  • 50-year-old Ruskin celebrates its Jubilee year and commences a funding appeal to raise money for new college buildings at the Old Headington campus.

  • Labour MP and educationist HD ‘Billy’ Hughes becomes Ruskin’s new principal. Lady Sanderson, widow of former Principal Lord Sanderson, opens a hostel for female students in The Rookery building.

  • Industrial Sociologist Alan Fox joins Ruskin to teach Economics and Industrial Relations.

  • An article appears in the New Epoch student magazine by playwright Bernard Shaw, based on a letter he sent some years before. It is entitled ‘If I were head of Ruskin Hall’.

  • Future Labour peer and industrial relations expert William McCarthy secures a scholarship to Ruskin College.

  • Future Kenyan cabinet minister Tom Mboya commences his studies in Industrial Management at Ruskin. Ruskin students march against the political crisis in Cyprus.

  • Ferdie Smith retires from his post of General Secretary of Ruskin, following 52 years’ service. He started as a Junior Clerk at 15 years old.

  • Bowerman House is constructed on Ruskin’s Headington site.

  • Ruskin submits a detailed proposal to the Higher Education Committee asking how the educational needs of the adult population – with a considerable ‘pool of ability’ and only minimal formal education – can be met.

  • British Marxist historian and intellectual Raphael Samuel joins Ruskin teaching staff as a Tutor in Sociology and Social and Political History, and begins the History Workshop movement.

  • The Rt. Hon. Sir Edward Boyle, Minister of Education, visits Ruskin. The TUC takes over Ruskin’s provision of correspondence courses.

  • Ruskin proposes developments in its relationship with Oxford University, enabling it to matriculate and put forward students for University courses. A new Diploma in Labour Studies is launched.

  • Ruskin purchases Stoke House adjacent to the Old Headington site. Future Labour Party Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott graduates with a diploma in Economics and Politics. Construction of Bowen House is completed.

  • The Rookery undergoes substantial renovation, including the construction of a new lecture hall and dining room.

  • Secretary of State for Education and Science, Rt Hon CAR Crosland visits the college. Longest ever serving Labour MP Dennis Skinner begins his studies at Ruskin.

  • Ruskin holds a ‘Teach-In on Immigration and Race Relations’. Students march against racism. Economist Peter Donaldson joins the Ruskin teaching staff.

  • Ruskin undergoes a series of procedural and curricular reforms, including issues of student participation in college government, teaching and syllabus.

  • Ruskin College hosts the first ever National Women’s Liberation Conference. Student publication the ‘New Epoch’ is printed for the last time and includes a private interview with Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

  • Ruskin provides family accommodation, based on the growing number of students who are married. Ruskin convenes a conference on the Trade Union Movement and Discrimination. Students join the Miners’ strike.

  • Baldwin Spencer, future prime minster of Antigua, graduates from Ruskin.

  • Ruskin introduces a new Social Science Diploma, broadly parallel to the University Diploma.

  • Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan speaks at Ruskin, giving a talk widely regarded as having begun ‘The Great Debate’ about the nature and purpose of public education. He lays the foundation stone of new residential block Biko House, originally named Cyril Plant Building.

  • Ruskin Women’s Studies course students hold a one-day seminar on Women’s Oppression under Capitalism.

  • David Rubenstein of the University of Hull gives a lecture on The Labour Government 1945-50. A Ruskin Christmas Carol is specially written for the History Workshop. It starts ‘Left wing, right wing, everybody run, fly to Ruskin College where studying is fun’.

  • John Hughes is appointed principal of Ruskin.

  • Ruskin students occupy the college’s four Victorian cottages in Worcester Place in a bid to save them from demolition.

  • Lionel Murray, General Secretary of the TUC, speaks at Ruskin Hall on the Trade Union movement and a Marxist Discussion Group is held about Dissidents in Poland.

  • Labour Party Leader Michael Foot oversees the formal opening of the Kitson Building and a new library.

  • Ruskin students join students at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) striking against proposed cuts.

  • Ruskin’s Smith House houses miners picketing Didcot Power Station and the college hosts miners and their wives as they tour the UK raising money. A team from Ruskin wins the Scottish shinty championships.

  • Ruskin students march in support of the striking miners and against apartheid in South Africa. Poet Anne Stevenson visits Ruskin College to give a talk ‘What Can Poetry Say?’ The Women’s Group hold a Women in Struggle day.

  • Political philosopher, social commentator and historian David Selbourne completes twenty years of teaching social and political theory at Ruskin.

  • Construction on residential accommodation block Beatrice Webb House commences.

  • Leader of the Labour Party Rt Hon Neil Kinnock officially opens Beatrice Webb House.

  • Dr Stephen Yeo becomes the eight principal of Ruskin.

  • Ruskin hosts a two-day celebration, marking twenty years of the Women’s Liberation Movement.

  • The Conservative government’s White Paper restructuring the Higher Educational funding system threatens Ruskin’s unique educational provision.

  • The Council for National Academy Awards (CNNA) visits Ruskin. Their findings state that the college’s ‘long tradition of achievement and success is being fully maintained and acknowledges its deserved reputation in the field of adult education’.

  • Current leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn speaks at Ruskin about the Northern Ireland question and possible solutions to the conflict.

  • Ruskin begins its offering of short computer courses, as the use of IT burgeons. Shadow Secretary of State for Health David Blunkett MP speaks at Ruskin.

  • Ruskin joins a £1 million online and digital learning initiative funded by the Training and Enterprise Council, along with five other FE colleges in Oxfordshire.

  • Soon-to-be Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair gives his ‘The agenda for a generation’ speech at Ruskin, marking the anniversary of Jim Callaghan’s ‘The Great Debate’ speech 20 years prior. John Prescott MP gives a lecture at Ruskin on Lifelong Education and the Comprehensive Ideal. NUM leader Arthur Scargill talks at Ruskin College about his new party, the Socialist Labour Party. Ruskin sponsors a ‘Youth Syntegrity’ to discuss the question of how unions can be relevant to young people.

  • Ruskin holds a Gay Rights Action Week and a conference on Unemployment. Ruskin holds discussions with Northern College about creating a new Trade Union Academy.

  • James Durcan is appointed new Principal. Ruskin’s Women’s Studies course is the fastest growing in the college. Tony Benn talks at Ruskin.

  • Ruskin celebrates its centenary year with a gala in Oxford Town Hall, the site of its inaugural meeting in February 1899.

  • Ruskin, the birthplace of the Women’s National Liberation Movement organises a conference celebrating the Movement, 30 years on.

  • Ruskin students join a national day of action organised by the NUS in protest against tuition fees.

  • Planners approve a controversial multi-million pound move to a new purpose-built site in North Oxford, though the move to unite both Ruskin campuses in one location will not materialise.

  • Ruskin Principal James Durcan moves on after five years at the helm. The college abandons controversial plans to move to a purpose built site in North Oxford. Ruskin’s launches a range of HE Certificate courses, equivalent to the first year of a degree course.

  • Audrey Mullender becomes the first female Principal of Ruskin College. Tony Benn visits Ruskin once more to talk to students.

  • Nomvuyo Ngwaxaxa, Education Officer for South Africa’s leading trade union confederation COSATU, graduates from Ruskin’s MA in Women’s Studies.

  • William Baldwin, ex-Ruskin student and Prime Minister of Antigua, visits the college.

  • Alumnus John Prescott visits Ruskin to give a talk and sign copies of his book Prezza.

  • Governors approve the sale of Walton Street campus and plans are put in place to make Old Headington the college’s primary location. Restoration work on The Walled Garden takes place and the Ruskin Crinkle Crankle Club is created.

  • Ruskin’s Walton Street site is sold to Exeter College for £7 million.

  • Bowerman House is demolished and work gets underway on the redevelopment of The Rookery.

  • Ruskin completes large-scale development work on the Headington campus, with a new building attached to The Rookery, including teaching rooms, offices, a library and café. The new headquarters is opened by Gordon Marsden MP.

  • In January 2013, Ruskin students join a Unite Against Fascism protest at the Oxford Union as it invites Nick Griffin, British National Party leader, to speak

  • Dr Chris Wilkes takes the reins as Principal of Ruskin.

  • Ed Hall, renowned Trade Union banner maker, visits Ruskin to talk about his experience of making banners for the labour movement.

  • Ruskin holds a conference on ‘The Future of Working Class Education’, with a keynote speech from soon-to-be Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. Following the sad passing of Dr Chris Wilkes, Vice-Principal Paul Di Felice is appointed Principal.

  • Ruskin College launches an apprenticeship service, following the government plans to introduce the Apprenticeship Levy.

  • Ruskin College holds a three day health symposium to celebrate 70 years of the National Health Service.

  • Ruskin celebrates its 120th anniversary, welcoming General Secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, as part of its celebrations.

  • Ruskin College joins the University of West London group.


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