– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

Q & A – Let us now praise famous men, or not

Q: There is no blue plaque or other commemoration for Adam Smith / Harold Macmillan / Nevil Shute / Lord Peter Wimsey / any other famous Old Member of Balliol on the front of the college or visible on the college buildings. Surely this lack deserves to be corrected?

A: Given the sheer number of Prime Ministers, Viceroys of India, heads of other states, Archbishops of Canterbury, Nobel Prize winners, heads of other colleges, poets, social reformers, lawmakers and people of national and international renown in every field who have been members of Balliol, if every Old Member who fulfilled the criteria were given a blue plaque on Broad Street, and if every other college followed suit, Oxford would be the Blue City of England. It would be positively embarrassing. No college does it; see Oxfordshire Blue Plaques  for a list of plaques in the city of Oxford.

Balliol is, of course, well aware of the accomplishments of its alumni, and this information is far from hidden from the rest of the world. To give one example, although the economist Adam Smith (d.1790), author of The Wealth of Nations, famously detested his time at Balliol, the International Adam Smith Society and the Adam Smith Review held a conference here in 2009. A necessarily selective list of famous Old Members is available here, and the College Register of all members from 1854 can be browsed in full here. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography  is another rich source; its predecessor, the Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Sir Leslie Stephen, is available in separate volumes here,  though unfortunately the entries do not specify which volume is which…

There is one notable and voluminous exception to this lack of commemoration: Balliol’s fallen in both World Wars – students, Fellows and staff – are commemorated on the War Memorials outside the chapel. Memorials throughout College are listed here.

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