What do the Oxford Colleges own?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Updated 28th September with more info from St Hugh’s & Wadham Colleges. Updated 10th January 2017 with info on Queen’s, Brasenose, St Peter’s, Worcester, Oriel and LMH.

There is a persistent urban legend that you can walk between Oxford and Cambridge without ever leaving college land.

The ancient colleges of Oxford University are certainly wealthy institutions: the combined funds of all the colleges in 2015 were revealed to be some £4.1 billion, with £1.3 billion invested in property. It’s clear that beyond the dreaming spires of the colleges themselves, with their honey-coloured quads dating back to medieval times and cobbled streets strewn with post-examination revelries, stretch property empires worth many millions of pounds.

Wealth brings with it great power, and in the words of Spider-Man’s mentor, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. I had the privilege of studying at Oxford, and certainly benefited from its wealth and the education it helped paid for. Clearly, Oxford has wider social responsibilities – from ensuring anyone, from any background, can gain an education there; to investing its money ethically (such as by divesting from all fossil fuels, which the University has so far failed to do). I believe the Oxford Colleges should also be open about what they own. So, I asked them to tell me.

I began with a Freedom of Information request to the central University of Oxford, asking for a GIS map of all the land owned by the University and its colleges. But I had forgotten how fiercely independent each college remains. I was told: “The University’s Estates Department does not hold a GIS map of all University land or college land. Please note that colleges are separate public authorities under the Freedom of Information Act”. 

So I girded my loins and prepared an FOI request to all 44 of Oxford’s colleges and halls of residence. The website FOI Directory has a handy list of email contacts for all the colleges, but some of them are out of date, so here’s my corrected and updated list of FOI addresses for Oxford Colleges.

One month on, and the results so far demonstrate rather well that while the relatively poor are happy to be open about their lack of possessions, the rich often like to conceal their wealth.

Below is a table showing the responses I’ve had to date. I’ve ranked each college by their overall wealth, as of 2015.

Oxford College Total funds (2015) Property investments (2015) Land holdings (acres) Source of land holdings figure
St John’s £489,584,000 £198,087,000 Refused to answer FOI  FOI response Sept 2016
Christ Church £436,308,000 £100,369,000 Not yet responded to FOI request
All Souls £356,041,000 £159,853,000 9,500 FOI response Sept 2016 (Exeter Uni report 2012 states 10,000)
Queen’s £264,919,000 £72,739,000 5,777.2 FOI response Oct 2016. Full data in Google Spreadsheet
Merton £250,448,000 £116,790,000 14,707 FOI response Sept 2016; see also Exeter Uni report 2012 (5,567 ha ie 13,756 acres) and FOI response 2010: 13,447 acres
Magdalen £223,036,000 £31,779,000 1,200 Exeter Uni report 2012
New £222,801,000 £50,011,000 Referred to speak to a Land Agent.
Nuffield £194,049,000 £97,019,000 373.95 FOI response Sept 2016
Jesus £186,141,000 £90,930,000 Refused to answer FOI – referred me to Land Registry FOI response Sept 2016
University College £157,406,000 £52,025,000 Refused to answer FOI – stated exceeds cost limits FOI response Sept 2016
Trinity £148,814,000 £57,237,000 Not yet responded to FOI request
Corpus Christi £140,220,000 £43,525,000 Not yet responded to FOI request
Brasenose £134,962,000 £25,755,000 2,238.73  FOI response Oct 2016. Full data in Google Spreadsheet
Lincoln £128,677,000 £53,812,000 Not yet responded to FOI request
Exeter £115,299,000 £20,609,000 Not yet responded to FOI request
Balliol £111,903,000 None listed College properties & 2 other sites in Oxford FOI response Sept 2016
Wadham £109,099,000 £33,862,000 2,600  FOI response Sept 2016
St Catherine’s £86,771,000 £705,000 College buildings only FOI response Sept 2016
Oriel £78,082,000 £40,149,000 College buildings & residential properties in Oxford only FOI response Jan 2017 (refused to disclose acreage; only disclosed property in Oxford – might still own land outside it?)
Somerville £76,905,000 £580,000 College buildings and Oxford accommodation only FOI response Sept 2016
Pembroke £74,414,000 £2,153,000 14 FOI response Sept 2016
Hertford £71,734,000 None listed College buildings & Oxford accommodation only (see separate spreadsheet for details) FOI response Sept 2016
Worcester £68,128,000 £13,556,000 1,000 (at most) Exeter Uni report 2012. FOI response Oct 2016 suggests much less – 26 acres for the college & otherwise just residential properties
Wolfson £66,986,000 £13,329,000 Not yet responded to FOI request
Keble £64,690,000 None listed College buildings only FOI response Sept 2016
St Antony’s £63,789,000 £1,070,000 College buildings only  FOI response Oct 2016 (map here)
St Hilda’s £62,368,000 None listed College buildings & Oxford accommodation only FOI response Sept 2016
St Edmund Hall £60,990,000 £2,619,000 12.09 FOI response Sept 2016
St Anne’s £58,918,000 £779,000 8.5 FOI response Sept 2016
Lady Margaret Hall £57,948,000 £2,405,000 College buildings & a few properties around Oxford FOI response Sept 2016
St Hugh’s £56,716,000 None listed 14 FOI response Sept 2016
Green Templeton £53,902,000 £14,820,000 College buildings & Oxford accommodation only (see PDF map) FOI response Sept 2016
St Peter’s £44,217,000 £2,264,000 College buildings & a few properties in Oxford FOI response Oct 2016 (College has sent me title registers for each property)
Linacre £24,377,000 None listed College buildings & a few properties in Oxford (listed in notes) Exeter Uni report 2012, FOI response Sept 2016
Mansfield £19,762,000 None listed 3.5 acres (College properties & accommodation only) FOI response Sept 2016
Harris Manchester £15,555,000 None listed College buildings & single Oxford accommodation site only FOI response Sept 2016
St Cross Not known Not known Does not own any land or property (unusual legal entity, more of a department than a college) FOI response Sept 2016
St Stephen’s House Not known Not known College buildings only FOI response Sept 2016
Wycliffe Hall Not known Not known Not yet responded to FOI request
Blackfriars Not known Not known Not yet responded to FOI request
Campion Hall Not known Not known Not yet responded to FOI request
Kellogg Not known Not known Not yet responded to FOI request
Regent’s Park Not known Not known Don’t own any property FOI response Sept 2016
St Benet’s Hall Not known Not known Not yet responded to FOI request

TOTALS:        £4,647,282,000  | £1,298,831,000 | 37,446 acres  

What the colleges own

As you can see, St John’s College, the wealthiest of all Oxford colleges – with declared funds in 2015 of some £489.5 million, including £198 million invested in property, the most of any college – has refused to disclose details of its landholdings.

Jesus and University College, both in the top ten richest colleges, have also refused to answer, though the information officer at Univ says: “I imagine Univ would probably be towards the upper end of a hypothetical landholdings table.”

I’m still waiting to hear back from Christ Church, the second wealthiest college overall and fourth place in terms of property investments (and inspiration for Hogwarts’ dining hall in the Harry Potter movies).

All Souls and Merton Colleges – 2nd and 3rd respectively when it comes to property investments – have, however, disclosed details of their lands. All Souls owns some 9,500 acres, whilst Merton owns 14,707 acres. We know that Merton’s landholdings have been steadily increasing for a few years, as a previous FOI request in 2010 revealed them to own 13,447 acres, while Exeter University’s report on college landholdings in 2012 stated Merton owned 13,756 acres.

Indeed, Merton has given me a full breakdown of their landholdings and areas, while All Souls has also supplied location data, allowing me to map their land:

Nuffield College, though comparatively wealthy, owns just 373.95 acres, but its property wealth appears to stem more from the value of its urban properties than from the extent of its land holdings (full document here). Magdalen, meanwhile, was estimated in 2012 to own 1,200 acres, and Worcester around 1,000 acres. Wadham have stated in response to my FOI request that they own 2,600 acres of agricultural land, though haven’t said what area of commercial and residential buildings they own.

But the colleges that have been most forthcoming with information are the ones with least land. Five other colleges have supplied calculations of the areas of land they own, all small and confined to college buildings and Oxford properties: Mansfield (3.5 acres), St Edmund Hall (12.05 acres), Pembroke (14 acres), St Hugh’s (14 acres), and St Anne’s (8.5 acres). A further nine colleges claim to only own college buildings and student accommodation. St Cross College and Regent’s Park College do not own any property at all, the latter stating that “As a Baptist foundation the College’s property – as [with] most Baptist churches in England – is held in trust by the London Baptist Property Board.”

Missing acres

So we’ve identified the colleges that own some 37,446 acres. Yet previous studies have suggested Oxford’s colleges own far more than this.

As recounted in this recent study (see chapter 6), the 1872 Return of Owners of Land recorded Oxford Colleges as then owning some 185,000 acres, and that by 1989 this had declined to some 127,690 acres.

So what’s happened? How come the colleges appear to now own almost 100,000 fewer acres today than just 25 years ago?

Perhaps some of the missing acres are accounted for by the many properties owned by colleges in Oxford itself. But this can’t account for more than a fraction of the missing total. The whole of Oxford, or at least the area sandwiched between the A40 to the North, the A34 to the South and West, and the Eastern Bypass, comprises some 37.6 square kilometres, or 9,291 acres. Even if the colleges owned the entirety of this area, it doesn’t take us much further towards the ‘missing’ 100,000 acres.

So do the colleges who haven’t yet responded to my FOI requests harbour vast expanses of land? Or have they, in fact, disposed of around 100,000 acres since the early 1990s? We’ll hopefully soon find out.

As for the legend that you can walk from Oxford to Cambridge without leaving college land… well, I’m no longer so sure. But then, my investigations have only examined one half of the equation. Some digging by a Cambridge student paper last year uncovered that St John’s College Cambridge owns 14,700 acres and Trinity College Cambridge 13,335 acres. Can anyone step forward to complete the picture?

5 thoughts on “What do the Oxford Colleges own?

  1. I know that Oxford colleges (possibly St Johns) owned a lot of land in Cheltenham. Many of the oldest buildings carry the crest of one of the Oxford colleges. No idea if they still own them but it wouldn’t surprise me. I expect a local historian in Cheltenham could assist. I no longer live there or I would do some research myself.

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    1. I was under the impression that the Oxford University Chest also owns large areas of land…Certainly Have farmland here in Hertfordshire

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  2. I gather that Christ Church College used to own a series of streets in Kentish Town in north London, that at the time were known collectively as the Christ Church Estate. The individual streets were named after various famous alumni. But in 1955 many of the houses were sold by auction and the freeholds transferred to the London Borough of St Pancras. I am trying to find out more about this. What I think was happening was that Christ Church had let the various houses to individuals who then behaved like rogue landlords and crammed the buildings with so many tenants per room that after World War II, the local council became anxious and bought up the streets of houses, possibly by compulsory purchase. They are still mostly council properties. Can anyone add anything to this?

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