IN A small room in the Taylorian Institute in St Giles’, working men and their families were invited to convene and discuss setting up a new art school, almost 150 years ago.

The Oxford School of Art opened in 1865 and over the next century-and-a-half would develop into what we know today as Oxford Brookes University.

But the university, which is today launching its 150th year celebrations, has an interesting and diverse history. A few years after it began it was relegated to a dank basement room in the Institute when Ruskin College was formed.

Hannah Marsh, who has been investigating the university’s history, said: “They suffered this setback when Ruskin College opened in the Taylorian Institute.

“That pushed them down to the basement and it was so damp and dingy that it was only appropriate for the “artisan class” shall we say.

“Those who were “well born” couldn’t possibly have been scribbling away in the basement. We became the underdog really but have since developed into this wonderful institution.”

As the school grew in popularity, it needed to find new accommodation. But without a large campus, students had to make do with taking classes in buildings and rooms dotted around the city.

There was no Headington base or beautiful locations such as Headington Hill Hall to call its own.

The mansion, previously described as the “best council house in the country”, by its owner Robert Maxwell when he leased it from Oxford City Council, has been part of Brookes for the past 22 years.

Miss Marsh added: “There was a big push for the arts and science, and soon the Oxford School of Art and Science was born.

“Everyone always seems to have this idea of the [frosty] relationship between Oxford University and Brookes but it is actually really interesting that during some of the time the university donated lab space when the college was looking like it might have to close, as did a lot of other businesses in the town.”

She said the establishment was popular throughout Oxford and when the city council refused planning permission for what is now its Headington base, there was uproar.

Miss Marsh said: “It was an absolute furore. Kenneth Wheare, who was on the city council, called a protest meeting at the Town Hall.

“There were people spilling out, down the stairs and out of the building, to object to this decision. It really was quite amazing.

“And it was eventually overturned.”

thisisoxfordshire: Founder's vision of education for all

  • BORN in 1891 in Northampton, John Henry Brookes, pictured, (known as JHB throughout his life) was committed to the goal of making education available to all.
  • He studied at the Leicester College of Art where he was influenced by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement.
  • He learnt and practised craft skills at the Guild of Handicrafts in Chipping Campden and, at the age of 37, moved to Oxford as head of the School of Art in 1928.
  • At that point he had just two members of staff and 90 students.
  • When the Headington site was bought in 1950, planning permission was refused by the city council.
  • But after a long campaign, the college was eventually allowed to move in and in 1963 was officially opened.
  • He called it “The promised land”.
  • The University of Oxford gave him an honorary MA and he was also given an OBE.

He retired in 1956 and his dedication to the school was formally recognised in 1992 when the new university was named Oxford Brookes in his honour.

The new campus was officially opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1963 and was known as the Oxford College of Technology, under the leadership of John Henry Brookes, and in 1970 became a polytechnic.

It wasn’t until 1992 when it took its modern founder’s name and was designated a university.

It now has three main campuses – Headington, Wheatley and Harcourt Hill – as well as a fourth in Swindon, the Ferndale campus.

And today more than 17,000 students, more than 3,000 from outside the UK – come to Oxford to study at the university – showing just how far it has come in almost 150 years.

It’s one of the largest employers in Oxfordshire with a workforce of around 2,800 and its School of Architecture is one of the UK’s biggest.

TONIGHT, Oxford Brookes University will show off how far it has come since 1865 with everything from archived pictures to a lifesize robot on display.

At the Ashmolean, next door to Brookes’ origins at the Taylorian Institute, current staff and pupils will display work from its different departments.

Artie the Robosthespian can perform and interact with users, while the eye-tracking equipment can show you how you look at some of the Ashmolean’s masterpieces.

Visitors can also learn how to save a life from the paramedic and nursing students, while being entertained by music from students and staff, and hearing the business department’s poetry.

Anna Myers, who is in charge of the celebrations, said: “It really is going to be so exciting.

“There are so many different exhibitions on offer and it will really showcase what we as a university can do.”

She added: “This is just the start of what we are planning on doing between September and June 2016 there are going to be so many things going on to celebrate the 150th year.

“What is also really interesting is that Professor Kenneth Wheare’s (Gladstone Professor of Government at Oxford University) grandson contacted us because he is a current fourth year architecture student and wants to get involved.

“His grandfather helped make us what we are and now he is here studying with us.”

The Live Friday event will start at 7pm tonight.