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Durham University

Van Mildert College

Building the College

Sic vos non vobis – Not for yourselves. Van Mildert's motto is a fitting maxim for a college which gives so freely of itself. Its students number among the most frequent and generous givers in Durham, not just in charitable endeavours, but in sport, drama, outreach and student politics. In giving of themselves, Mildertians thrive in a community built on collective progress and communal enterprise.

History of Van Mildert College

In the 1950s and 1960s there was a great expansion of university education in the UK, encouraged by the Robbins Report of 1963; in the case of Durham, growth was also boosted by its separation from Newcastle in the same year. Between 1959 and 1972, St Mary’s and St Aidan’s acquired new buildings and four new colleges were created: Grey, Van Mildert, Trevelyan and Collingwood.

The College is named after William Van Mildert (1765-1836), the last Prince Bishop of Durham. An Englishman of Dutch descent, he was instrumental in the founding of Durham University in 1832 and his castle is the present University College. His portrait hangs in Van Mildert College's Ann Dobson Hall. From his episcopal arms come the distinctive crossed scythe blades, on a red shield, of the college’s coat of arms.

The first master of the College, Dr Arthur Prowse, was appointed in 1964 but the College dates its foundation to 1965 when the first students were admitted. Dr Prowse was a graduate of the University and had been a member of the Physics Department since 1929; in 1964 he was Reader in Physics and Vice-Master of University College. In the summer of 1965 Mr Arnold Bradshaw joined him as the first Senior Tutor. Together Arthur Prowse and Arnold Bradshaw set the tone and culture of Van Mildert – participatory, liberal, forward-looking – that has lasted until today.

In October 1965, the first students of the College came into residence in Parsons Field House, described by Arnold Bradshaw as “a brand-new but repulsive-looking economy building next door to the prison.” (Van Mildert College, The First 25 Years: A Sketch, Arnold Bradshaw, 1990). Fortunately this was only a temporary arrangement and in October 1966 Van Mildert occupied its permanent site on Elvet Hill.

The College buildings had been designed by Middleton, Fletcher & Partners of Middlesbrough; having also designed the Oriental Museum they knew the area and that parts of the site were waterlogged in wet weather. Accordingly they incorporated a small lake into their plans. The lake (and its flock of ducks) is perhaps the most distinctive visual feature of the College. Abutting the lake was the College’s main building containing the magnificent Dining Hall, the largest in Durham, as well as a library, bar, common rooms, and offices. Either side of the lake were grouped the four original accommodation blocks: Derwent, Wear, Tyne and Tees. Pevsner describes the College’s original buildings as “an impressive formal composition…” The College was officially opened on 13 June 1967 by His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Arthur Ramsey, (better known as Michael Ramsey), who had been Van Mildert Professor of Divinity at Durham, and was an old friend of Arthur Prowse.

By this time the College had reached its full complement with three undergraduate years in residence (around 300 students), together with some graduate students and some resident members of the Senior Common Room. The students were all men – Durham colleges were single-sex then – but while the College was filling up it had taken in students from other colleges, including over 50 women. These had now departed but the seeds of a mixed-sex college had been sown.

During 1969/70 the Governing Body of the College took two important decisions: to build a new accommodation block (eventually named Middleton Stairs, after the architect Philip Middleton) and to go mixed. The new block was completed in 1972 but was initially occupied by the first students of Collingwood College, whose buildings were not yet ready. Thus during 1972/3 two colleges, Van Mildert and Collingwood, shared the same premises. On formal occasions there were two Masters, Dr Paul Kent (who had succeeded Arthur Prowse upon his retirement in 1972) and Mr Peter Bayley, presiding at opposite ends of the Hall. The first intake of women were admitted in October 1972, though a small number of women had transferred from other colleges in 1971/2. Van Mildert was the first Durham college to go mixed, though it was not long before the others followed suit.

During the 1960s and 1970s the Hall was used extensively for concerts featuring Northern Sinfonia and well known artistes including Peter Pears, the Deller Consort, Shura Cherkassky and others. Members of the college enjoyed these concerts, without charge, from the comfort of the landing above the Hall. Sadly, with the development of new facilities elsewhere, such as the Sage Gateshead, these concerts are no longer possible.

In succeeding years the numbers in College steadily grew, reaching 498 in 1976/77. Various internal reorganisations allowed the library to expand into adjoining offices, the bar expanded by the roofing over of the “beer garden” and some accommodation outside the College was acquired for the overflow of students. An important development came in 1986 with the opening of the Conference Centre, which provided the College with additional meeting and event rooms and a means to expanding its conference business.

In 1990 the College opened the Tunstall Building, providing an additional 30 single bedrooms with ensuite facilities. Further expansion of the College’s accommodation came in 2002 with the completion of the Deerness block, providing 97 single ensuite bedrooms. The College could now accommodate around 515 students, enough to take all first years as well as some final year and graduate students.

By 2013 the College had grown to a community of over 1000 students, staff and tutors from all over the world.


  • Dr Arthur Prowse (1964-1972)
  • Dr Paul Kent (1972-1982)
  • Mr Arnold Bradshaw (1983-1988)
  • Dr Judy Turner (1989-1999)
  • Prof. Ian Taylor (1999-2000)
  • George Patterson (2000-2004)
  • Prof. Patrick O’Meara (2004-2011)
  • Prof. David Harper (2011-present)