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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

Oxford opens up

The dominance of the Church of England was slowly eroded across the nineteenth century. This was the result of pressure from outside and reformers from within. It was a change symbolized by the foundation of new sorts of institutions for new kinds of students: Non-Conformist Protestants, Roman Catholics, and women of all faiths and none. Manchester College, now Harris Manchester, for Unitarians was one; non-denominational Somerville founded for women in 1879 another.

Both Manchester and Somerville represented the arrival of forces that many members of the Church of England had sought to exclude. Unitarians, who questioned the idea that God was best understood as a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, were regarded by many as scarcely Christian at all. There were some clerics who likewise doubted the wisdom of female higher education. ‘Inferior to us God made you, and our inferiors to the end of time you will remain’, declared one in an ‘Address to the women of Oxford’ in 1884. There were also those who welcomed the arrival of women but doubted the wisdom of a non-denominational college. In every way, Manchester and Somerville symbolize a new dispensation for Oxford.