St Peter’s was founded by Bishop Francis James Chavasse (1846-1928), and his son Christopher Maude Chavasse (1884-1962), our first Master (1929-1939). The original aim was to provide a low-cost Oxford education for promising students of limited means.
Bishop Francis James died in 1928. St Peter’s thus became a memorial to this much-loved evangelical bishop, who was the inspiration and prime-mover behind the building of Liverpool Cathedral, and its second bishop. Sufficient supporters rallied to a memorial appeal launched by his son to raise £150,000 to build student accommodation and modify existing buildings.
A frenetic building programme enabled the University Vice Chancellor to license St Peter's first as a Hostel (St Peter's House), then as a Permanent Private Hall - principal donors at this time included Ella Rowcroft, after whom Staircases I-III are named.
Thus, in 1929 St Peter's Hall was born with 40 students. In the same year, the Hall was granted its Coat of Arms incorporating the Arms of Bishop Chavasse and a device representing the church of St Peter-le-Bailey (now the College chapel). St Peter’s is unusual amongst Oxford colleges in having had Black undergraduates in its community right from its foundation in 1929. That first cohort of undergraduates included Alfred Nathan Nsubuga Mayanja (b. 1905), who arrived in Oxford from Uganda to read Jurisprudence (you can read more about Alfred Majanja and Black history at St Peter's College here).
The rapid expansion was not without its dangers. By 1933, the worldwide financial crisis had struck down the Hall's principal supporter, an educational Trust, which had guaranteed the £70,000 mortgage secured on the Hall's own buildings. Fortunately, help was at hand: the motor-car manufacturer and philanthropist, William Morris (Lord Nuffield), came to the rescue, saving St Peter's from certain closure. Lord Nuffield's portrait as benefactor surveys the College Dining Hall.
During the Second World War, students evacuated from Westfield College, London, occupied the Hall's buildings. St Peter's men were boarded out in other colleges. In 1947, now with 120 students, the Hall was granted the status of "New Foundation", a significant step in the process of becoming a college. In 1961, with 250 students, the grant of a Royal Charter to "The Master, Fellows and Scholars of the College of St Peter-le-Bailey" completed the process to full collegiate status.
Since then, with the support of alumni and generous benefactors, the story has been one of growth and expansion. Women were admitted for the first time in 1979. Student numbers, including postgraduates, have risen to over 400.
Students entering St Peter’s via the oldest College building, Linton House (1797), will be struck by the diversity of architectural styles. Many of the buildings have been partially or wholly funded by benefactors, including William Morris, Antonin Besse, Sir Lloyd Dorfman, the Latner family and, most recently, the Perrodo family.
St Peter's is now an established and thriving college of the University. It occupies a site that for 600 years has been a home to students, and is a continuation of the medieval Halls that preceded it. The acquisition of this wonderful and most convenient central site in the City, was, in the words of the first Master ‘a chance of ages’. What St Peter's lacks in great quadrangles and extensive gardens it gains in intimacy and friendliness, a quality remarked upon by generation after generation of students for whom it has been home.