Balliol College Archives & Manuscripts

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History of the archives

Annual reports

The College, which was founded by John Balliol and Dervorguilla his wife about 1263 [1], is alone among the ancient foundations of the University of Oxford in having practically no direct records of its affairs in mediaeval times.  Muniments establishing corporate integrity and title to property survive in abundance from the 13th century, but registers of members, accounts, and the like do not begin until about 1540, when the office of Secretary was created.  Internal administrative records are progressively more copious thereafter.  The ancient deeds are mostly in excellent condition.  It is obvious from their appearance that they were folded into small packets and carefully stored in a secure place.  From the 16th century this place was the Vestry of the Chapel (rebuilt ca. 1530), which also served as a Treasury: it remained the Muniment Room until the 19th century.  Of the arrangements before 1530 we know nothing, but can conjecture that the Chest which is mentioned several times between 1540 and 1580 had been long in use.  It probably stood in the Treasury.  Movements of documents in and out of it were occasions for formality, which was carefully recorded in the Latin Register, as in the following examples [2]:

Memorandum.  That I, William Francis, in the presence of all the Fellows, took from the Chest fifty instruments concerning Abbotsley, on the 2nd day of the month of November, in the year of our Lord 1542.  Item.  At another time twelve court rolls concerning the same.

Memorandum.  That all the above-mentioned instruments were replaced in the Chest of the Society, on the 4th day of the following February, in the presence of the Fellows.

On the 16th day of the month of January in the year of our Lord 1556, the Venerable Mr. William Wright, STB, previously (viz. On the 1st day of December immediately preceding) elected Master or Warden of Balliol College, personally laid before the Fellows, who had been convened in the Chapel of the aforesaid College, an instrument or certificate of his admission by the bishop of Lincoln, Visitor of the aforesaid College, sealed with the seal of the Public Notary.  Which instrument, when they had inspected it and heard it read, the aforesaid Fellows of the aforesaid College took in a proper manner, and placed for preservation in the College Public Chest.  All of which was done lawfully, and in accordance with the meaning and form of the Statutes of the College aforesaid, on the day and year aforesaid, at about six in the afternoon. [3]

A hundred years later, the same care was still being exercised, and there was a separate Treasury Book recording deposits and withdrawals of documents as well as cash. The accumulated records were by now much more extensive, and we hear of arrangements in various boxes, e.g. [4]:

11 Dec. 1637.  Taken out of the Treasurie one double box of writings by the Vicegerent and the Society at a generall meeting

19 Jul. 1639.  Taken out then, out of  St Lawrence Box one indenture to Shrawby of our houses in London.  Allsoe eight other writings out of the old chests concerning Clerkenwell.  The wch were by the fellows brought to the Master the same day.

After the Restoration, there was a flurry of activity among the College records.  This was partly a product of the antiquarian enthusiasm of the time, but Anthony Wood was at the centre of it.  The Treasury Book records that on 20 September 1665 a box was "taken out of the Treasurie, To the Master's Lodgings, for the use of Mr Anthony Wood of Merton College", and Wood wrote in his diary [5] that on the following day he

Began to peruse the evidences of Ball. Coll.  They were taken out of the treasury there, which is a kind of vestry joyning on the south side to the east end of the chappell.  The evidences were taken thence by Dr Savage the master of that College, and conveyed to his lodgings, where A. W. perused them in a space of three or four days.  The old accompts of that Coll., wherein their fellows are either weekly or quarterly mentioned are lost.  So A.W. was much put to a push to find when learned men had been of that Coll.

Balliolfergus - front pageSavage himself was also at work, publishing in 1668 Balliofergus, or 'A Commentary upon the foundation, Founders and Affaires of Balliol Colledge, Gathered out of the Records thereof, and other Antiquities.  With a brief description of Eminent Persons who have been formerly of the same House'.  Balliofergus was the earliest of all College histories, but its purpose was not solely historical: there is much harping on financial difficulties and past dealings in which the College had been unfairly treated.  The extensive transcriptions and analyses undertaken by Nicholas Crouch (Fellow 1640 - 1690) were also in part motivated by concern over the College's near bankruptcy, and the need to take a more business-like attitude to the collection of debts and the administration of College estates.  All this industry either exposed or created disorder, which was remedied by "Mr Willm Ball, one of the yeomen Beadles of the University".  He was allowed to renew the lease of his house nearby for only half of the normal fine on 29 September 1675, as he had

then lately been very serviceable to the Colledge, in Looking = over all the Colledge = writings in the Treasury and Digesting them (which before were very much Confused, and out of order) into their severall places or Boxes, to which they did properly belong. [6]

The same William Ball - an early professional archivist - performed a similar service for New College [7].

The order re-established by Ball prevailed, despite growth, until the mid-19th century: to judge by surviving lists and endorsements in their hands, Joseph Sanford (Fellow 1714 - 1774), John Parsons (Master 1798 - 1819), Richard Jenkyns (Master 1819 - 1854) and Henry Wall (Fellow 1839 - 1871) deserve most of the credit for this.  Between 1850 and 1870, however, there were extensive rebuilding works, and the archives had to be rehoused.  There was some scattering, and it is probable that a good deal of bulky material was consigned to cellars at this time, soon to be forgotten. When HT Riley surveyed the records of the College for the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts in 1874 [8], he was ridiculously misled.  He reported that "The records of this College, in the shape of volumes, seem to be but very few in number", whereas, as the sequel describes, there were in fact several hundred volumes on the premises somewhere.  He only noted one Bursars' Book, which had probably survived oblivion by being kept in the Bursary because it contained lists of plate.  On 19 June 1877, a College Meeting resolved "that Mr Parker should be employed in arranging the college papers".  George Parker was a member of the Bodleian Library staff: his prodigious spare-time task in Balliol, was not completed until June 1889.  He made a minute examination and exhaustive indexed list of all the material put before him, comprising almost all the deeds and papers up to about 1870, but only one or two volumes.  He created the present system of Formal Archives. These were arranged in cabinets in the Bursary (which was at that time situated near the Library) and, reshaped only slightly by successive generations of Bursary Clerks, remain as the core of the College records.

In 1909 the well-known Oxford and Essex antiquarian Andrew Clark (Balliol 1875) initiated a search for the Bursars' Books, etc. which had been "dispersed into cellars and other obscure chambers", recording [9] that

no small difficulty was experienced in routing them out of their hiding places.  The MSS had to be examined disorderly as they came to hand.  It is certain that some have not yet been recovered.

Oral tradition which I had from Richard Hunt was to the effect that about 1920 the books thus rescued were sent off for scrap, but called back from destruction just in time, although not before being stripped of their boards in some cases.  It was probably shortly after this experience that they were deposited in a cellar beneath the Junior Common Room on Staircase XV, where they remained until about 1950, when they were listed and wrapped for the Library by EGW Bill.  The Library also acquired numerous other old volumes at various times, although the Senior or Estates Bursar remained nominally responsible for all Archives until the office of Archivist was established in 1981.  The Bursary moved from rooms off the Library Passage, across the Front Quadrangle to Staircase III, in 1913, taking the Formal Archives with it. Unfortunately Staircase III had a large damp cellar, and much loose material of date ca. 1780 onwards was put in it: periodic additions of dead files were made up to 1965, when the Bursary moved again to between Staircases VI and VII, leaving the contents of the cellar beneath Staircase III to fester.  The Formal Archives were again taken along but the cabinets did not fit into the new accommodation and they and their contents were distributed in stages between the Library and a most unsuitable small room nearby.

I was smitten with a dilettante interest in the College records about 1970, and started to take the matter seriously about 1975.  At that time most of the old records in volume form were in the Library, but were not catalogued, the Formal Archives were divided as explained already, and there was a vast amount of unexamined disordered material in the basement of Staircase III and in the Bursary loft.  A programme was undertaken with the aim of bringing archive material of all classes together, listing it, arranging it (as far as possible without disrupting previous partial arrangements) and restoring where necessary.  Much remains to be done - the project is in any case open-ended - but fair progress has been made.  It is now possible to say with reasonable confidence that all the surviving pre-1939 records of the College have been identified and listed, and the greater part of the collection (excepting a number of special items which remain in the Library and material in the Archivist's study) has been marshalled together in an Archive Room which is far short of ideality, but a vast improvement on previous arrangements.  The Archive Room is so full that it will soon be physically impossible to put more into it, and further change in the arrangements in the foreseeable future is inevitable.

The description which follows in Section II draws heavily on previous work, especially that of George Parker.  It has no pretensions to be a proper catalogue, and attempts only to give a general guide to the kind of material to be found, and its extent.  The present arrangement of the Archives (Section III) has evolved over a long period and is, in many ways, very illogical; and the description here given is only loosely geared to it.  The sub-section numbers used here do not lead directly to the actual material described: resort to indexes and other aids mentioned in Section IV is necessary for that.

This guide was first written 1982-1983 and published in 1984.  It was then an exhaustive survey of the contents of the Archives, almost all of which was pre-1939.  Since 1984 some material of early date has been added, and modern records have been copiously deposited.  For this web edition, the guide has been updated and corrected in respect of pre-War material, but no attempt has been made to survey more recent records systematically: these are in any case mostly not available for consultation except by the relevant College Officers.

All College records except those less than thirty years old or which relate to living persons are normally available for consultation.  Applications for access should be made in writing, or (preferably) by e-mail, to the Archivist, who will also be glad to advise and answer specific enquiries by correspondence.

"But the Author having had no natural Geny to the study of Antiquities and History_ hath committed many foul Errors."  Thus wrote Anthony Wood [10] of his friend Henry Savage, the first College Historian, three hundred years ago.  I am glad to say that I have been luckier with my friends: I am grateful for their help and interest, especially Sir Anthony Kenny (Master, 1978 - 1989), and all his successors; Penny Bulloch; the late Vincent Quinn; and the late Richard Hunt.

Balliol appointed its first professional archivist, Anna Sander, to the post of Lonsdale Curator of Archives and Manuscripts, in October 2004.

Annual reports


1. J[H] Jones, Balliol College: A History, 2nd edition, 1997.

2. Pages 68 and 80. Quoted as translated by de Paravicini, with some slips corrected.

3. F de Paravicini, Early History of Balliol College, 1891.

4. Bursars' Book I.E.1.

5. A Clark, The Life and Times of Anthony Wood, Vol. II (1892), p45.

6. Lease Log-book; see  HE Salter, Oxford Balliol Deeds, 1913, p345.

7. FW Steer, The Archives of New College, Oxford, 1974, p46: New College Archives 2437.

8. Fourth Report of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, 1874.

9. A Clark, Bodleian MS.Top.Oxon.e.123/1

10. A Wood, Athenae Oxonienses, 1721, II p499

- John Jones

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