John Brookes… ‘one of Oxford’s finest’

In a new series, Priscilla Waugh looks back at some of the people who have shaped Oxfordshire in to the county it is today

Oxford Brookes University takes its name from John Brookes (inset),
who became principle of what was then a technical college, in 1934
Watercolour by David Langford

As just about everybody knows by now, Oxford has two universities. And for some years, the university that has consistently topped popularity polls with students and employers of graduates has been the ‘new’ university of Oxford Brookes.

Of Oxford’s total population of over 36,000 university students, 19,000 are from Brookes. Brookes began in 1865 as a one-room School of Art on the ground floor of the Taylorian Institute, next to the Ashmolean Museum. In 1870, somewhat incongruously, a School of Science was incorporated into the foundation and in 1871 the whole enterprise was somewhat unceremoniously displaced by the Ruskin School of Art, who wanted its premises.

The school found a new home in St Ebbes, but, by the end of the century, it was bursting at the seams, and when John Henry Brookes, silversmith, sculptor, artist and craftsman joined the staff as head of art and vice principal of the now technical college, it had been dispersed to 19 different locations about the city.
Subjects included just about everything you can think of, from catering to architecture. With all those different locations, one might think it a bit like Oxford University, but the truth is far from that.

Whereas each of the Oxford colleges had its own august history and grand buildings, the technical college, having grown at an embarrassing rate, was packed into rooms about the city of Oxford wherever there might be a temporary space.

In 1934, Brookes was appointed principal. It was probably the most important appointment ever made by the college. Brookes was a modest man, but an inspirational teacher with tremendous vision.

A story circulates of how, after the war, a demobbed sergeant-major arrived for an interview. Seeing a small and clearly unimportant man at the door, he handed over his belongings and the small man obligingly carried them upstairs for him.

The small man (for of course it was Brookes) then proceeded to interview him. And one suspects he did it fairly and with humour, too.
It was John Brookes who finally gathered his institution into one campus, high on Headington Hill. It was, he said, like setting foot in the promised land.
And when the now famous Oxford Polytechnic was granted university status in 1993 it was, in tribute, named after John Henry Brookes: an educator and administrator without parallel and one of Oxford’s finest.

From the Brookes site you can admire the dreaming spires while breathing rather fresher air. And while the 35 Oxford colleges exude an air of genteel gravitas, Brookes exudes, you might say, a buzz: the more brassy confidence that here could well lie Oxford’s future.

The Oxford Limited Edition April, 2005