– 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.

spam spam spam not lovely spam

Q: I’ve emailed you at least once in the past month and haven’t had a reply.

A: (searches every email sent or received ever) This is the first time I’ve heard from you. Could you forward me a copy of your previous message?

Q: Here it is:

From: enquirer@email.com
Sent: date
To: archivist [at] balliol.ox.ac.uk
Subject: Hello



A: (twigs, checks junk mail) Aha, it disappeared into the spam box because of the vague subject  line – lots of spam and e-swindles are titled ‘Hello my friend’ etc. Enquiries titled e.g. ‘I need your help’, ‘Looking for a relative’ or ‘Urgent response required’, though reasonable in e.g. a family history research query, will have the same problem. Subject lines left blank? Bin. Exclamation marks? Bin. All caps in the subject line? Bin. Using red/green/purple text? Bin. Sending to lots of different email addresses at once? Bin.

It’s increasingly important these days to make your archives enquiry email look genuinely addressed to a particular person about something particular. Institutional addresses are bombarded daily with zillions of spam messages, not to mention things with malware and viruses attached. Firewalls and spam-detection levels are raised accordingly, usually by the institution’s IT department rather than individual users who do not normally have that kind of control, so it’s easier for messages to be automatically junked without the intended recipient ever seeing them. Due to the increasing volume, hardly anybody ever checks their spam boxes for possible genuine messages.

Best to use something short, clear and specific, e.g. ‘[College name] archives enquiry’ or similar. Using the name of the person you’re writing to in the salutation will also help lower the spam score.

If you are repeating a previous email enquiry that may have gone astray, include a copy of the first attempt, with headers (From, To, Date, Subject), in your next one. Email delivery and search functions aren’t perfect and do break down, and it may help, if not to find your first email, at least to let the archivist know when it was sent and what the original query was about.

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

a query

How can I access a copy of George F. Kennan’s Reith Lecture of 1957? Many thanks.

Thank you for your enquiry re Reith lectures of GF Kennan (George Eastman Professor at Balliol College 1957/8). If you Google ‘kennan reith lectures’ you will see that the BBC has made audio and full transcripts available online.

Balliol College during the First World War



From the Balliol College Annual Record October 1916 p.12 (the first of such updates):

‘The College in War Time

‘The College has received a large number of officers and men as residents for varying periods during the War, and has lent rooms from time to time for the purposes of a Recruiting Office, and of Recreation-rooms for soldiers quartered in Oxford. From Aug. 5 to 9, 1914, there were 3 officers and 120 of the 4th Oxford and Bucks. L.I. resident in College; from Sept. 3 to Oct. 3, 1914, from 100 to 150 men, with a varying number of officers, of the same regiment from Nov. 12 to 23, 1914, 4 officers and 268 men of the 6th Oxford and Bucks. L.I., the officers remaining for some months afterwards. From Jan. 1915 to Feb. 1916 about 50 sets of rooms in College were occupied by officers attending the Training School for Officers in oxford; each course lasted about a month, and in all nearly 600 officers resided in College for their period of training. Since March 1916 the College has been the headquarters of the 6th Officer Cadet Battalion, under Lieut.0Col. R. Wilkinson, D.S.O. from March 15 to May 25 there were 100 officer cadets resident in College at one time; from May 26 to July 11, 150; and since the latter date, 200, with brief intervals between the courses. From 5 to 7 officers of the Battalion have also lived in College as members of the Senior Common Room.
‘The College has lent large quantities of furniture to Territorials quartered in Oxford, and to the Serbian School established first at Wycliffe Hall and then in Linton Road, and has given hospitality to several Belgian and Serbian students.

‘Many of the College servants are or have been absent on Military Service.

‘The Master’s Field has been used throughout the War by soldiers quartered in College both for drill and games.’


From the Balliol College Annual Record October 1917 p.14:

‘The College is still partially occupied by 200 Cadets of the 6th Officer Cadet Battalion, now commanded by Lieut.-Col. H.P. Yates, D.S.O.; several Officers of the Battalion have been resident in College, and the Battalion Headquarters are also within the walls. The Master’s Field and the College Barge continue to be regularly used by the Cadets.
‘Only two Tutorial Fellows are in residence (in addition to the Master), and two Tutors not on the Foundation. The others are all engaged in military service or Government work. With only 40 Undergraduates, or thereabouts, and those largely occupied with military training, many College institutions are inevitably in abeyance; but the Boys’ Club survives actively. Dr. Walker arranges concerts on Sunday evenings for Cadets, Officers and members of the University, and there are occasional debates in the Junior Common Room. There is only one Undergraduate in residence who was up before the War; but there is every reason to think that the traditions of the College are being maintained and that there will be a revival of its full activities when the War is over.’


From the Balliol College Annual Record October 1918 p.18:

‘The College is still partially occupied by 150 Cadets of the 6th Officer Cadet Battalion, now commanded by Lieut.-Col. B. Evans; several Officers of the Battalion have been resident in College, and the Battalion Headquarters are also within the walls. The Master’s Field and the College Barge continue to be regularly used by the Cadets.
‘Only two Tutorial Fellows are in residence (in addition to the Master), and three Tutors not on the Foundation. The others are all engaged in military service or Government work. With only 40 Undergraduates, or thereabouts, and those largely occupied with military training, many College institutions are inevitably in abeyance; but the Boys’ Club survives actively, thanks mainly to the energy of Capt. M.L. Jacks. Dr. Walker arranges concerts on Sunday evenings for Cadets, Officers and members of the University, and there are occasional debates in the Junior Common Room. There are only two Undergraduates in residence who were up before the War; but there has been no break in the continuity of the life of the College, and it is hoped that when the War ends it will be ready to play its part in the difficult times that lie before us.’


From the Balliol College Annual Record October 1919 p.17:

 The College After the War

‘As soon as men began to be released from the Army, special arrangements were made by the War Office to enable ‘students’ of all classes to return to their studies. A large number of men began to apply to the College before the end of 1918; a few of these had been up before the War, most had been qualified for admission during the War. It seemed best to bring such men to Oxford as soon as possible after their demobilization, and every effort was made to get the rooms ready. On January 9, 1919, 150 Cadets left the College and a week later about the same number of undergraduates took their place. By the end of the Term 160 men were in residence, of whom 113 had been in the Rmy. In the Summer Term the numbers rose to 233, of whom 1898 were old service men. Of the men who were up before the War 33 returned to the College. Of the 147 who had been admitted, whether as Scholars, Exhibitioners, or Commoners, during the War, but who had postponed their residence, 28 had fallen, and of the remainder 95 have so far come up. These statistics show how quickly the College recovered in numbers and how substantial was the link with pre-war days. Before the War the number of undergraduates actually in residence rarely, if ever, exceeded 190. The present numbers are therefore abnormal, and naturally cause a good deal of discomfort, but the College was anxious to do its best for those who had been serving. Fortunately nearly all the Fellows who had been engaged in Government service were able to return for the Summer Term and to help in the work of the College during a most interesting period of its history.

‘This year, for the first time since 1914, a Gaudy was held. On June 27 the College entertained 110 old members, all of whom had seen service abroad during the War.’