Skip to main content

History of Grey College

Building a family for students

Grey College was founded in 1959 as part of the University’s drive to expand its student population which in 1951 stood at 1,150 (compared to 19,500 in 2019-20). Syd Holgate, the then Secretary of Durham Colleges, was employed to be the new Master. He and his wife Bel were concerned with building a family for the students here, and that community ideal that has since become part of Grey College’s DNA.


“Get things done”

In March 1959, eight months before the College opened, there was a terriblePainting by Thetis Blacker of a phoenix rising from the ashes fire leaving questions as to whether the College would open. Grey’s first students, 47 men were undeterred, and took the Phoenix as their emblem for obvious reasons: Felix the Phoenix is now regularly seen around the College. With the support of the staff they had to create every aspect of college life from scratch, setting up a JCR, a calendar of events and sports teams - the rugby team was a particularly big ask, requiring just under a third of the student body!

Many things began then which still happen today with Syd panelling the dining hall at his own expense and a procession of College Days consisting of films and dances. From the beginning, the JCR has wanted to “get things done” with an attempt at a Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament Society put forward in 1961 and discontent about the rules about kettles in rooms still being debated in 1975.



Grey expanded dramatically in the early years with 358 students studying here by 1964. In the 1980s there were concerns that Grey was too insular due to its distance from Durham town centre, proving that students’ aversion to walking is no recent invention! The College was still all-male at this point and while the JCR voted to become mixed in 1970, women were not admitted until 1984. Not long after their introduction this perception began to change.


Enterprising spirit

By the early 2000s the College and its calendar would be recognisable to students of today, with things like President’s Guest Night (PGN) and the then famous Grey College Fireworks all in place. The College has lost none of its enterprising spirit either; in 2011 students set up Grey In The Community, which has run events for the both the elderly and the disabled in Durham, including being the first collegiate group in the country to run Contact the Elderly Teaparties. More recently the Vice Master, Peter Swift, has focused on non-academic learning and enrichment through the #Opportunities Programme.

Some of this information is taken out of From the Ashes by Nigel Watson. The image above is Fire Phoenix by Thetis Blacker, which hangs in the dining hall. For more information do get in touch.

Event advert for a College Open Day featuring students dressed in pink tops standing with their phoenix mascot