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Durham First

The Legacy of Earl Grey

Earl Grey

Setting the standard for Equality & Diversity at Durham

This year Grey College celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. There was, apparently, some debate over the name that should be given to this fine new institution, which was built as part of Durham's response to a national shortage of science students. Cromwell, an early champion of the University, had been considered as a possible name, but was rejected in favour of Charles Grey, the "Reforming Earl". It might seem surprising that he had to wait until 1959 before a College was indeed given his name, considering his great importance in the foundation of the University. It took an Act of Parliament and a Royal Charter to break the ancient stranglehold Oxbridge had on English university provision, and Grey, as Prime Minister of the time (1830-1834), was the right man to carry it out.

Charles Grey's political career was noted from the start for his advocacy of civil and religious liberty and support for parliamentary reform. This was ironic in view of his uncontested election to the seat of Northumberland at the age of 22 in 1786, made possible by the influence of his father. He joined the Whig party, encouraged by his mistress Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; the personal was the political in those days! In 1806 Grey became foreign secretary and was responsible for the Act abolishing the slave trade. In 1807 the government fell, the Tories returned to power, Grey inherited his father's title and entered the House of Lords.

It is hard today to imagine the widespread opposition to reform in the early nineteenth century. Those who demanded the extension of political rights, and the modernisation of constituencies, were regarded as dangerous revolutionaries. Riots and demonstrations were savagely repressed. The other main issue, namely political and civil rights for Roman Catholics, Dissenters and non-believers, was considered equally controversial especially by George III, who saw it as a violation of his coronation oath. Grey continued to campaign for both, and in 1829, when William IV was King, Roman Catholics were allowed to become MPs, a move which was vital to prevent an Irish rebellion.

Grey's chance came when he became Prime Minister in 1830. After a battle with the Lords, a general election and serious riots, the First Reform Act was finally passed in June 1832, the same year Durham was founded. Its proposals were modest: he had no intention of radical reform, but aimed to strengthen and preserve the established constitution. He wanted to bring the new industrial class into the existing system, valuing their vital contribution to national wealth and power. The Whig government went on to further reforms, including the factory act, limiting childrens' hours of work, grants for schools, and the abolition of slavery.

The foundation of Durham University should be seen within the context of Grey as an enlightened, albeit restrained, reformer. The new University of Durham would increase "access" for the middle classes, regardless of religious belief and would be free from the most extreme class prejudices. It would enable its graduates to take their place within the establishment, which had begun to espouse the causes for which Earl Grey had always campaigned and which would still be seen as important today. Grey College, which bears his name, honours his memory and strives to be a community of scholars of all ages, where social, racial or religious background is irrelevant and everyone may benefit from a tolerant and generous atmosphere. We hope our College continues to be worthy of his name as we move on into the second half of our first century.

Sarah & Martyn Chamberlain

Sarah Chamberlain is a College Tutor at Grey and recently retired as a history teacher. Martyn is a physicist and Master of Grey College.