– 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.


new academic year

I have pinched Society of American Archivists‘ excellent graphic and adapted it for Balliol!


Open Doors 2016 Q&A

Your questions from the weekend, answered:

Q: Where are the medieval manuscripts?

A: (We get this question every time St Cross is open, no matter what else is on display.) Balliol’s medieval manuscripts, like all the other archive and manuscript material, is kept inside the repositories in the aisles. But the question is really, are they on display right now and can I see them, and the answer is, yes, but only one at the moment. This term’s exhibition features Hebraica and Judaica from across the college’s collections, including a spectacular 15th codex in Hebrew, produced in Portugal.

There seems to be some feeling that the college really should be displaying more of its medieval manuscripts more of the time, that it has some obligation to do so. Well, I agree, but the college’s first obligation is to preserve the manuscripts, i.e. not to expose them to any further damage than they have already incurred through accident, misuse, fire, flood, pests etc through their sometimes 10 centuries of existence. And it’s not possible for St Cross to be open to the public all the time. One way we make LOTS of our manuscripts more accessible is through creating and sharing good digital images online, publicly, for free. That’s not the same as seeing the manuscripts in person, but remember they are *extremely* old and fragile, and the best conservators in the world (and we have them!) can’t change that.


That said, September 2017’s exhibition in St Cross is going to be ALL ABOUT MEDIEVAL MANUSCRIPTS, so be sure to come to that.

Q: Does Balliol have resources about its members who served/fell in WW1?

A: Yes. More. And here.


Oxford, Balliol College Archives, FF Urquhart Album 7.43D

Q: What’s the relationship between the Bodleian libraries and the colleges’ libraries and special collections?

A: The Bodleian is the collective shorthand for the University of Oxford’s libraries: the central library, departmental/faculty libraries, and a number of specialist libraries. Like any university library, they exist to serve current members of the university first, and also other researchers. College libraries don’t have an equivalent at most other universities; they exist primarily to serve current members of that college only. However, college libraries’ holdings of modern and in many cases rare/early/special collections printed books are on the University’s union catalogue, SOLO, and may be consulted (normally by appointment) by non-members of that college.

Archives and manuscripts are DIFFERENT from (especially modern) printed book collections in many ways. They are held, owned and looked after by various University libraries and by college libraries, separately. SOLO does not include archival or manuscript material from any university or college collections and there is no union catalogue of university or college archives or manuscripts. Colleges may have: their own historic administrative documents (‘the college archives’), personal papers of individual former heads of house, Fellows and sometimes students (‘modern personal papers’, ‘personal archives’ etc) and medieval manuscript books, which may be books from the college’s own medieval library, later acquisitions, or both. College archives and manuscripts may be looked after by the archivist or the librarian in different combinations – it varies from college to college. Some colleges have deposited their medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian for safekeeping and ease of access by researchers.

Archives and manuscripts in any library or archive are non-borrowable – you have to go to them (this is also true of early and rare printed books and other special collections). Researchers normally have to register with the institution and will be invigilated while using the material. Reading room regulations are generally stricter than those of ordinary university library reading rooms.

This all sounds very restrictive, and it is, because the material is mostly original, unique and irreplaceable. In many instances it is also very old and fragile, and requires training in how to handle it safely – never mind how to read or understand it! HOWEVER, there is a flip side to all this restrictiveness: archives and manuscripts in college collections are open to researchers from across the university and indeed to the general public – which is not generally true of their modern printed books. This is of course because – again, generally speaking – there are no copies of unique original material elsewhere. Researchers will need to apply in advance and make an appointment to see such material, and will need to present a bona fide research question to gain access, though an academic or other institutional affiliation is not essential.

There is no one place to find all this material, or to find descriptions of it. Archival arrangement and description is very different from regular printed book cataloguing – it has some aspects in common with early/rare printed books cataloguing – and is very time-consuming. It is not straightforward for researchers to find out what’s where – it will require some work, and also asking archivists and librarians for help. Small amounts of some collections have been digitized – this may or may not be useful, but in general there is MUCH more information available off the internet than on it. Some finding aids for colleges’ archives and manuscripts (or just start with a general search engine):

Q: Does Balliol hold many scientists’ archives?

A: No – scientists’ archives are often part of an ongoing research continuum, so they are not always deposited in a body in the same way as, say, a politician’s or poet’s personal papers. Scientists’ papers which are deposited as archival fonds often go to specialist repositories, such as Oxford’s Natural History Museum, the Edward Grey Institute for Field Ornithology, or the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge.

Q: I suppose Open Doors is the only time in the year that St Cross church is open to the public?

A: No. It is also open for a similar weekend in the spring, and for advertised exhibition opening hours and other events throughout the year. Anyone can make an appointment to visit the building. The church can also be used for occasional services, at the discretion of and arranged through the clergy of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, in the High Street. More details about public opening and how the building is used.

Q: Was Dame Stephanie Shirley involved in funding the St Cross building project?

A: Yes. More details

Q: How old is St Cross church?

A: That depends. The chancel arch is Norman (about 1100); there is no archaeological evidence among the foundations for any earlier building. Most of the building you see now is Victorian (C19). Here’s a fuller answer.

Copy of DSCN9609

Q: What’s the relationship of the churchyard next to the church, and the cemetery behind it, to St Cross church?

A: answered here

Q: Where is the sundial?

A: On the outside of the church,  on the south side of the tower. You can see it from the street as you approach from the south (i.e. from town); it’s blue. To the left of the south door of the church (on the side, in the churchyard) is a brass plaque about the sundial. Step back as far as possible from the plaque and look straight up to see the sundial.


Q: Is this the university cemetery?

A: No. There is no ‘university cemetery’ in Oxford. Most of the city’s churchyards and cemeteries have lots of headstones commemorating former members of the University.

Q&A: war memorials at St Cross Church

There are four WW1 memorials in St Cross Church, Holywell – two also record information about the fallen in WW2.

St Cross parish War Memorial

WWI fallen: AS Adams, FF Hunt, EV Giles, CB Wren, TW Haydon, EH Freeman, HE Miller

St Peter’s-in-the-East parish War Memorial.

This was in the parish church of St Peter’s–in-the-East, which is now the Library of St Edmund Hall. It was brought to St Cross and placed on the north tower pier facing the St Cross War Memorial when St Peter’s was closed as a parish church. It is now permanently fixed in the south aisle next to the St Catherine’s Society memorial.

WWI fallen: R Andrews, J Balaam, C Butler, GRW Dickinson, H Griffith, RB Macan, E Rix, A Roe, AF Salmon, THS Townsend, MB Wilks, J Williams

WWII fallen: HC Nicholl-Smith


St Catherine’s Society War Memorial

For information about the Society, see the History of St Catherine’s College.

WWI fallen: RA Abrams,T Baker, EK Bonsey , EW Brooks, AC Burrows, T Cann, BM Carpenter, HF Clarke, HTS Cole, HC Crichton, F Dann, R Dell, WR Dibb, GRW Dickinson, HJ Dunn, Rev.VS Dunstan, KM Dyott, H Garth, Rev HJB Green, NGB King, C Lakin, C Lewis, DG Lloyd-Williams , DJ Macdonald, Rev GH Merrikin, WC Milne, JA Moore , JHC Morris, AC Neale, PLS Phipps, HT Pitcairn, GH Pollard, CB Shrewsbury, S Spencer, TG Thomas, TJB Trowman, CS Unwin, OT Walton, THH Ward, FL Warland, FWWhitlock, EE Wicks, SA Wilkes, HMWillimas, TPC Wilson THH Wood, AJ Wooldridge

WWII fallen: HF Banister, WAO Chandler, S Coshall, CGP Cuthbert, KG Hope, EWG Hudgel, PO Johnson, EA Legrand, EW McKeeman, AS Mitchell, GS Morris, HC Pugh , LF Sheppard, RWO Spender, JR Stephen, MD Thomas, BG Tillyard, CW Turner, ACA White, WD Paul.

Transcriptions and other information are repeated here, along with lists of the other known burials in the church. For more information about the war memorials and other commemorative inscriptions in St Cross Church, see JH Jones’ history of the building and parish. All surviving parish records, including burial records, are at the Oxfordshire History Centre. Balliol does not keep copies in the church.

Also at St Cross church is the WW1 memorial of the Balliol Boys’ Club; more information here, and all names listed here.

Open Doors Questions

Here are some of the questions staff were asked at St Cross during 2015’s Open Doors days – and some answers:


Q: Request information about the building conversion project

A: See Dr John Jones’ History of St Cross.

Q: How was the building project funded?

A: See Dr John Jones’ History of St Cross.

Q: Has St Cross church been deconsecrated?

A. No. It has been decommissioned and is no longer a parish church, but there is no question of deconsecration. The conversion project has sensitively retained the ecclesiastical character of the building, preserved the furnishings of the chancel and left the nave space sufficiently flexible to allow for occasional services, which are held at least annually.

Q: What is the ecclesiastical status of St Cross Church now?

A:  It has been decommissioned and is no longer a parish church. St Cross last had its own vicar in 1962. It is part of the benefice of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, in the High Street. Occasional services are held in the chancel by St Mary’s clergy or Balliol’s chaplain.

Q: Is there a connection between St Cross church and St Cross College?

A: The name. The church gave its name to the road, which gave its name to the first site of the college – see the College History.

Q: Who painted the chancel and nave ceilings?

A: See p.17 of Dr John Jones’ History of St Cross.

Q: What happened to the pipe organ at St Cross?

A: It was dismantled in early 2009 under the direction of the Reverend Alan Matchett, Rector of Adare, Limerick, and taken to Ireland.

Q: Were old memorial stones used to make the new floor at St Cross?

A: Yes, stones that were already there. Some had to be relocated, ie from an aisle to the nave, so that they would remain visible, but in many cases it was clear that the location of a memorial stone did not correspond to a specific burial below it. Although at least a hundred people lie interred within the walls, and lead coffins and a couple of skeletons were exposed briefly during the restoration and conversion work, the new load-bearing floors in the aisle and vestry area were installed without (further) disturbing any burials. No memorials on the walls were disturbed or inscriptions destroyed.

Q: How old is the stained glass in St Cross?

A: 19th and 20th century only. Here are Dr John Jones’ notes on the stained glass.

Q: The information by the Stainer window at the east end of the south aisle says the glass was made by Powell & Sons of Whitehall. They were based in East London – should that say Whitechapel?

A: It should say Whitefriars (it does now). They started in premises off Fleet Street and moved in 1923 to Wealdstone – west London.

Q: Is Balliol College responsible for the upkeep of St Cross churchyard?

A: The City Council is responsible for the upkeep of all ancient city churchyards, all of which were closed in the mid-19th century. Holywell Cemetery is not connected with St Cross church or churchyard.

Q: Which ‘St Catherine’s’ does the war memorial plaque in the south aisle refer to? The College of that name was not founded until later.

A: It’s the same St Catherine’s in a previous form – see their website for an explanation of St Catherine’s pre-college history.


Q: Whose signature is on the 1588 charter mounted near the west door?

A: The text is heavily abbreviated: ‘Exctiatur per Willm Brend’ and a notarial mark. This expands to ‘Excutiantur per Willelmum Brendon’ – translated, ‘Examined by William Brendon’. (Thanks to Michael Riordan for his help on this one!) We do not yet know who William Brendon was. The seal is the Great Seal of Elizabeth I.

Q: Request information about the Officer Training Corps billeted at Balliol during WW1

OCB to be precise: Officer Cadet Battalion No. 6 Balliol College was housed at Balliol from 1916. More details from Balliol and the University Archives.

Q: Are there any lantern slides or glass plate negatives in the collection?

A: Barely half a dozen glass plate negatives of miscellaneous subjects.

Q: What is the oldest document in the collections here?

A: A title deed of ca. 1180; more details.

Q: What was the first printed book?

A: The Bible as printed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1455. A useful article from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

Q: What were books written on before printing?

A: Most western books were hand written on parchment – prepared animal skin, mainly sheep and calf. Paper was also used but it was extremely expensive and is not as durable as parchment, so relatively few medieval books on paper survive. Some early books were also printed on parchment, and imitated the look and style of manuscript books as closely as possible. The Medieval Manuscripts blog written by British Library curatorial staff is a great resource to learn more about medieval manuscript (handwritten) books.

Balliol College

Q: How do Oxford colleges work and how to they relate to University departments, central admin etc?

A: Good question! Think of it as a bit like the devolved government of Canada, with provincial governments as colleges and the federal government as the University.

Q: What is the college library like?

A: While colleges’ special collections are open by arrangement to any researcher, college libraries are normally for the use of college members only. Balliol Library website, some images


Q: How long is this exhibition up for and how available is it to the public?

A: The exhibition will be up until November and groups or individuals are welcome to make appointments to view it. Further public opening hours may be announced later.

Q: Do these collections get used?


Q: Are these collections digitised?

A: Some are. More will be. Images are online.

Q: How do I get to consult the books and collections kept here?

A: Have a look at the collection descriptions and catalogues on our website, and then get in touch to make an appointment.

Q: Do you have to wear gloves to handle documents?

A: Some repositories require them to be worn for handling all materials. Some require them only for handling photographic formats (prints, negatives, glass plates). I’m with the latter. If you are wearing them, remember that gloves are not magic and will not prevent you from causing many kinds of damage to the manuscript: avoid touching text, decoration and damaged areas with gloves on.

Q: I coordinate an MA course in archaeology and built heritage at another university. Can I bring my students to see the conversion of this building?

A: Of course! Always delighted to have students visit and to talk with them about the building and the collections. We’ll make an appointment.

Q: I am a University employee. Can I bring group visits here?

A: Of course! Always delighted to have groups visit and to talk with them about the building and the collections. We’ll make an appointment.

Q: Is this building open all the time?

A: Not for unscheduled access for the general public – it’s in use full time Monday-Friday, throughout the University year and most of the vacations, as Balliol’s special collections centre. For the security of the collections and staff working there, there is no access ‘off the street’ or out of staffed hours – you need to make an appointment and staff will meet you when you arrive. Much of the time there are researchers in the nave, which is used as the invigilated reading room, and unscheduled visitors would be highly disruptive as there is no separate space –  tourists do not have access to the Broad Street Library for the same reason. You CAN make an appointment to visit just to look at the building. More about access to St Cross.

Q&A: the Register

When using the Balliol College Register images online, I am confused by sets of usually 3 initials in parentheses, following the Balliol years in the education section of many entries. What do they mean?

Initials in parentheses are those of that student’s Balliol tutor(s). You can find a list of tutors’ initials just before the Index, and then use the Index to find that tutor’s own entry.

College Register 2nd edition 1833-1933

College Register 3rd edition 1900-1950

Family History enquiries

Looking for information about an individual who may have been a member of Balliol College? Here’s how:famhistenqs3
(1) Balliol biographical research resources – see also the University Archives’ helpful links to several of the same sources.

(2) AE Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to AD 1500 (3 vols, 1957) and a supplementary volume 1501 to 1540 (1974). (Print resource only)

(3) Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses 1514-1700 and 1700-1886

(4) Oxford University Archives

(5) Oxford University Calendar and the Oxford University Degrees Office

(6) Oxford Archivists’ Consortium (OAC) – contact details for all college archives and other local resources

(7) Balliol Archivist

Access to St Cross – MCR FAQ

Q: Where is St Cross?

A: It’s the church-shaped building next door to Holywell Manor.

Q: I live next door and I’ve never been in St Cross. Why is the door always locked? Shouldn’t church doors be open?

A: Ideally they should, but St Cross is no longer a parish church. It’s in use full time as Balliol’s special collections centre. For the security of the collections and staff working there, there is no access ‘off the street’ or out of staffed hours – you need to make an appointment and staff will meet you when you arrive. Much of the time there are researchers in the nave, which is used as the invigilated reading room –  tourists do not have access to the Broad Street Library for the same reason.

Q: So when can I see the inside of the building?

A: Just send the archivist an email and make an appointment for some mutually convenient time during working hours, Mon-Fri 9.30-5 except daily 1-2 and Friday afternoons. Well, it’s not ‘at the archivist’s convenience’, it’s about accommodating all the different kinds of users of the building considerately, including you and including the archivist who has a full day’s work to get done in addition to helping all kinds of visitors. Group visits are welcome.  There will be an MCR special collections private viewing event during the year, too, and MCR members will be encouraged to request items for display.

Q: Give us a sneak preview. What does it look like inside?

A: https://www.flickr.com/photos/balliolarchivist/collections/72157625216840610/

Q: I want to drop by informally, for a few minutes or a good browse, as I’m passing by, and after all I’m a member of the college. Can’t you make an exception to the appointments rule for once?

A: If I had a nickel for every time I’m asked that! Several times *a day*. Please save your friendly college archivist the embarrassment of having to say no yet again, and instead request an appointment, to which the answer will always be yes, even if your first choice of time isn’t possible. If you attempt to drop by, there may be a manuscripts seminar, a lecture or a school visit in progress, or staff may be in Broad Street or working inside a repository and not hear the door buzzer.

Q: I’m curious about the collections. How can I find out more, and can I ask to see an original manuscript purely for interest?

A: Normally you need a research question to access manuscript material, but yes, college membership does give you some extra-privileged access.  Please get in touch to start a conversation with staff about your interests, and we will do your best to accommodate your request. (Really.) There is lots of information about the many special collections held at St Cross here: http://archives.balliol.ox.ac.uk/ and there are regular exhibitions and college events including special collections material.

Q: College libraries are normally for the use of members of college only. Who gets to use the special collections?

A: Anyone, including members of the general public, with a valid research question requiring direct access to Balliol’s special collections. While the door to St Cross cannot be wide open most of the time, Balliol’s special collections are considerably wider open than the college’s working collection in the Broad Street library. This is because most of the special collections – certainly manuscripts and in many cases early printed books as well – are unique or have copy-specific features that make them effectively unique.

Q: This all sounds too complicated and time-consuming. Why don’t you just Digitise All The Things?

A: PLEASE come to one of our ‘introduction to special collections’ sessions, coming soon! Watch this space, website and social media for dates.

Q: If you’re asked for access so often, shouldn’t you be open to students and/or a wider public more often?

A: Ideally, but it’s a lot of extra work and time for a small and busy staff team, and the building’s core functions – research and teaching based on the special collections – are taking up more time at St Cross, which is a good thing. There are often open periods, displays, lectures and tours at St Cross as part of college events. 850 people came for the public Oxford Open Doors days in September 2014. We are planning to have a public open day in spring as well, from 2015. And members of college (and indeed anyone) can always *make an appointment*.

Q: I don’t mind making an appointment. So can I use St Cross as a regular reading space/alternative to the Broad Street library or my department library?

A: Sorry, not unless you are working on special collections or non-borrowable library material housed there. There are ever-increasing numbers of researchers, special collections-based seminar groups from across Oxford and school access/outreach groups using the space.

It’s a very attractive space, but there are a few extra considerations that set it apart from the usual library reading room. Standard practice in special collections reading rooms anywhere indicates that ink, food and drink including water, gum, sweets, erasers and having your bag at the table are not permitted for readers or staff. Access for any readers is only possible during staffed hours, and that means that the building is closed and locked at lunchtime, evenings and weekends, and no, we can’t lock you in. There are few reader spaces at a time – special collections researchers often need assistance from staff throughout their working day, and each needs a whole table to ensure that they have enough room for manuscripts, book supports, laptops, reference books, notebooks… so manuscripts don’t get crowded and fall on the floor. And it’s really quite cold in St Cross for about half the year – it’s a draughty old building and heating systems have only limited effect. But if you have a special reason for wanting to work in St Cross, please do get in touch. Other questions? Need more detail? Contact staff.