The history of Harris Manchester College is complex, covering various physical incarnations across different geographical locations from the end of the eighteenth century to the present day. While it has had an involved administrative history, what unifies the different versions of the College is its rational dissenting tradition, with a focus on Unitarian ideas and traditions.
The College, originally the Manchester Academy, was founded in 1786 and was one of the last dissenting academies to be established. It is the direct successor to the famous Warrington Academy. While the Manchester Academy was founded by Unitarians, the College imposed no religious tests of any sort and welcomed all religious faiths from the beginning. The foundation meeting sets out this clearly by stating 'this institution will be open to young men of every religious denomination from whom no test or confession of faith will be required'. The principle of freedom of thought was maintained throughout the institution's subsequent history. The focus of the teaching initially was to provide a progressive and rounded curriculum for not only ministerial students but also for those who wished to study for other professions and for business.
Initially, the College held classes in Cross Street Chapel, an important and influential Dissenters' Meeting House, before moving to premises purchased with the help of the Chapel Trustees. Dr Thomas Percival was a Trustee of the Chapel and the first President of the newly formed Academy. The first tutors of the Academy were Reverend Barnes and Reverend Harrison. John Dalton, developer of atomic theory, taught at the Academy during this period.
Due to financial problems and difficulty recruiting tutors and students, the College moved to York in 1803 under the name Manchester College, York. The College Principal during the York period was Charles Wellbeloved, a notable Unitarian who taught at the College until his retirement. By 1840 the number of students attending college had declined significantly, in part due to the establishment of the University of London, so the College made plans to relocate once again. In 1840 the College moved back to Manchester and changed its name, to Manchester New College, Manchester. The College recruited new staff including philosopher James Martineau, Francis Newman (brother of Cardinal Newman), William Gaskell (husband of novelist Elizabeth) and social reformer John James Tayler. Teaching was restructured and while the college continued to provide a general university education, training for Unitarian ministry was offered as a separate course.
With the establishment of Owen College in 1851 (later the University of Manchester) and the popularity of UCL within dissenting families, the College struggled with admissions and a decision was made in 1853 to relocate the College to London. Operating in London allowed the College closer contact with London University and provided greater intellectual opportunities for students and staff. Manchester New College, London became a theological college housed in University Hall, Gordon Square. From 1869-1887, James Martineau served as Principal and then President. Martineau also presided over the opening of lectures to female students. The 1860s saw the first ministerial students arrive from Hungary, a result of the connections with the Unitarian Church of Transylvania.
The passing of the University Test Act, 1871, enabled Nonconformists to attend Oxford and Cambridge (excluding the Theology faculties) and this began a long running debate about relocating the College once again. The debate continued for a decade and the final decision to relocate to Oxford was only narrowly passed in 1888. The College made its final move in 1889 to Oxford as Manchester New College, Oxford. New buildings for the College were designed by Thomas Worthington and officially opened in 1893. Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris designed the chapel windows, and the organ pipes were decorated by Morris & Co. Sir Henry Tate provided the money for the Library which is named after him. Soon after the move the College changed its name once again to Manchester College dropping the New.
By the end of the 19th century, the College had already admitted its first Indian student, and this was followed by further Indian and Japanese students. Females attended college and Gertrude von Petzold completed her ministerial training in 1901, the first female to train for ministry in England.
The early 20th century saw the College extending its reputation for internationalism, particularly the serious academic study of non-Western cultures. College tutors furthered research into Comparative Religion and the study of Asian cultures. J Estlin Carpenter, Principal from 1906-1915, was especially influential in the early 20th century through his work on Buddhism and other religions in Asia. He also built connections with liberal movements in India and Japan. L.P. Jack became Principal in 1915 and continued the open and intellectually curious approach of the College. He was editor of The Hibbert Journal and continued to invite important intellectual figures to the College, including Professor Radhakrishnan, the first Indian to hold a professorial chair at Oxford and Upton Lecturer at the College, and Rabindranath Tagore.
During World War II the College was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works and Buildings for the use of Naval Intelligence and the Inter Services Topographical Department was based in the building. The personnel stationed in the College helped to plan Operation Overlord, known as the D-Day landings.
The post-war story of the College is one characterised by strengthening links to the University of Oxford. In 1965 College students were given the right to matriculate for Oxford degrees in Theology or Theology and Philosophy. Two years later, the College was authorised to enter names on the Register of Diploma Students. The most significant changes occurred in the 1990s, when the College first became a Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford (1990) and then a full constituent college, receiving a Royal Charter in 1996. At this time the College became Harris Manchester College, following a generous benefaction from Lord Harris of Peckham and his family.
The current Principal is Professor Jane Shaw, Professor of the History of Religion and Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University. Harris Manchester College is the only college within Oxford that is dedicated to taking undergraduates and postgraduate students who are aged 21 or over.