Development of St. Mary’s College Buildings on the Present Site



1934 THE NEED FOR A NEW BUILDING: St. Mary’s needed to expand on one site instead of making the best of six buildings scattered around near the Cathedral, the main one being 8, The College, now the Chorister School.  Plans for a new College building were under consideration.

1935 ARCHITECT: Vincent Harris was invited to take on this role.  His watercolour of the 1952 building in the planning stage, now on display near the main entrance, showed a fountain and a chapel to the East and a vegetable garden to the West.  The North-East Wing was built instead of a chapel but a chapel was eventually made in the roof space.

1946 SITE: “It is to stand on the Charleyfield hill, with the playing fields and the Science Laboratories below it to the north-east, and the Cathedral rising before its north windows.  We all regret that it cannot be on the peninsula, but no possible site could be found there where new buildings would not be cramped.  The College is to be built for 100 students, with several Common Rooms, a music room, and an adequate stage in the Dining Hall, which will also be large enough for dances.”


1949 FRAME: “The steel and concrete frame of the new building is now complete: the second part of the contract, the building of the walls of Otterburn sandstone is about to begin.  We expect to move there for October 1951.”

1950 WALLS have gone up. The outside is nearly finished.

1951 NORTH EAST WING: Occupation by 19 students and a house tutor.  “They have breakfast there and come to College for lunch and dinner; and they seem well pleased with their rooms.  The porter and his wife and family were installed in the porter’s flat in September.”


1952 REMOVAL TO NEW SITE: “The removal to the new building began on 28th July, and the last of Pickford’s vans left on 8th August.  Your President [i.e. Principal, being President of the former students’ society] is unable to report at first hand on that busy fortnight, because she unfortunately had to have an operation for appendicitis in the beginning of August, and for more than six weeks the entire business of the College was carried on without any help from her.”  The Principal continues, “When I came back in September, the building echoed still with the noise of hammers and the tramp of workmen, giving some idea of what discomforts had been endured throughout August…We have 114 students, of whom 54 are in their first year.  The first College dance was held in the opening week of term as a housewarming; and it was delightful to be able to have more than 300 guests and hostesses dancing in our own Dining Hall.”

1953 OPENING CEREMONY CANCELLED: “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was to have opened the new building on Monday 4th May.  It was a bitter disappointment when the sad news reached us on the night of Friday, 1st May, that the sudden death of her brother would prevent Her Majesty from coming.  In the course of Saturday morning all the guests were put off and all arrangements cancelled…There will not now be any official opening of the building, since it has been in occupation for a full year; but Her Majesty has said that she hopes to visit us, possibly next spring.”

1954 INTERIOR AND GROUNDS: “The building was decorated for the first time during this Long Vacation, and the stairs have been carpeted.  A stage with proscenium arch and curtains was finished just in time for the annual College play in the Michaelmas Term.  The grounds are improving, as the lawns become smoother and trees and hedges grow.  There are now 120 polyantha rose-trees in the bed outside the Dining Hall windows, and as well as the avenue of limes, various lilacs, cherry trees and laburnums, birches and poplars have been planted.”

1956 VISIT OF THE QUEEN MOTHER: The promise was fulfilled on 1st November.  Despite the grey, damp day, the Queen Mother lingered outside, after the formal presentations of the civic dignitaries and the Principal, admiring the wonderful view, before the sherry party in the West JCR at which various members of the College and University were presented. She had lunch in the College Dining Hall with High Table guests and her Lady in Waiting and Equerry.  The Principal was grateful to members of the Governing Body who lent the silver for High Table and also to the Warden for entertaining the other guests at lunch in the Castle!  Her Majesty had coffee in the flat of the Principal, Dr Marjorie Williamson, visited some students’ rooms in the East Wing and talked to students in the Library and the East JCR.  Finally, she paid an unexpected visit to the Kitchen, then, after signing the visitors’ book, bade farewell to everyone at 3.45pm and was cheered on her way while her personal standard was lowered from the flagstaff on the roof.

1960 VISIT OF QUEEN ELIZABETH: On 27th May, the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, made a brief visit to see how the College had progressed.  After coming from the Cathedral over Prebends Bridge, they were welcomed at the portico steps by the Warden and Principal then made a short tour of the building, including the Dining Hall, where she was shown the foundation stone that she had laid.  Various presentations were made then she talked to students and visited some rooms in the East Wing. She signed the visitors’ book in the Library then departed from the forecourt amid cheers of appreciation from members of the College.

1940-1955 PRINCIPAL: Margaret Fergusson saw the whole process through.  She captured the excitements and frustrations of the new venture in her newsletter reports of the years indicated above.  Throughout the planning and building stages she had frequent discussions and altercations with the architect about practicalities such as the positions of bathrooms, which, at one point, he thought should all be on the top floors of the two wings!




1958 EXPANSION: As St. Mary’s needed to take more students to become financially viable, plans were afoot to extend by 100 places.

1959 PLANNING: Marshall Sisson was to be the architect.  The site was the north slope between the College and Quarry Heads Lane and the new building was designed so as not to obstruct the view of the Cathedral, because citizens of Durham had the right to walk across the forecourt and admire the view.  Two three-storey buildings, opposite the two JCRs were to be joined by a two-storey centre block with a low-pitched roof; a central way through would lead to Quarry Heads Lane.

1961 CONSTRUCTION: “For the last twelve months we have been watching the new building grow.  The low pitched roof of each wing is now in place and it is possible to get an idea of the final roof line over which the Cathedral with its supporting roof tops, rises.  We shall still see the old St. Mary’s.  We have almost forgotten that the way to Prebends Bridge lay down the garden from the terrace steps and we have, for the most part, remained peacefully detached from the building operations,” wrote the Principal, Marjorie Williamson, in the 1961 newsletter.  Of course, more students would need more catering and dining facilities in the main building.  “The Kitchen alterations proved a vexatious business, but the Dining Hall has been greatly improved by cutting away the larger part of two of the walls so as to include the corridor and the anteroom.  The general effect of arcading is pleasant to look at and the acoustic treatment of the ceilings has greatly reduced the noise.”

1962 COMPLETION: Building was finished in the long vacation!  Although Marjorie Williamson, after whom the new building is named, saw the planning and construction through, the actual opening was overseen by the new Principal, Mary Holdsworth.

1993 EXTENSION: This consisted of three new blocks connecting East and West Wings, to create a quadrangle and projecting at either side, providing 52 study bedrooms.  The entrance has a pediment echoing that on the portico outside the dining-room.  Graham Butcher was the architect.

2007 REFURBISHMENT: Williamson’s central heating and roof were replaced.



1964 CHAPEL: This was created in the roof space of the North-East Wing.  The basement room where the Chapel was previously situated, became a sewing-room, then in 1966, the MCR and in 1969, the JCR bar!

1970 WEST COURT: Four new houses were ready for occupation by three members of the College staff and a caretaker.

1971 WASHBASINS: Installation began in study bedrooms.

1976-77 FIRE PRECAUTIONS: Screenings of open staircases, fire doors, emergency lighting and demolition of some walls became necessary; some thought these detracted from the charm of the building!

1979 SHEPHERD ROOM: created in the former maids’ sitting-room at the south-west corner of the College, for formal entertaining.  It housed a bequest of Sheraton furniture from former student, Amy Shepherd (1919-1922).

1990 TEIKYO BUILDINGS: Land was leased by the University to the east of St. Mary’s for student accommodation for the Teikyo University Institute in Britain (Yoko Hall and Shoichi Hall) and to the west, for a block of flats for Japanese staff.  The buildings were in keeping with the existing College buildings.  In 1991, the official opening ceremony in the Cathedral was attended by the Duchess of Kent.

1993–94 CONFERENCE HALL: This was designed by Graham Butcher and connected to the dining-room by a glass-roofed atrium.  He also designed two seminar rooms, converted from storage rooms in the kitchen block. These would encourage conferences and private functions.

2002 RENAMING: When the 1952 Building arrived, St. Mary’s previous home on the peninsula was referred to as “the old St. Mary’s” and the new one was “New St. Mary’s”.  When the 1962 extension came, the “New St. Mary’s” became the “Old Building” and the extension turned into the “New Building”.  Then this was extended and the new bit was the “New New Building”. This was getting complicated!  Miss Jenny Hobbs, Principal (1999-2007), said in the 2003 newsletter, “2002 saw the 50th Anniversary of the College’s move to our Elvet Hill site.  And what better way to mark this milestone in our history than to add distinction to our fine buildings by naming them after two former Principals?  At the Renaming Ceremony on 13 October 2002 what has variously been known as the Main or Old Building became the Fergusson Building and the New Building was named the Williamson Building after Miss Margaret Fergusson (1940-1955) and Dame Marjorie Williamson (1955-1962) respectively. Other spaces within the Fergusson Building were re-named: our very fine Conference Hall is now the Kenworthy Hall after Miss Joan Kenworthy (1977-1999); the Committee Room previously the Principal’s office, became the Calvert Room after Miss Irene Calvert (1974-1977); and the two Seminar Rooms were renamed after Mrs Mary Holdsworth (1962-1974) and Miss Rachel Donaldson (1915-1940).”


2006 SHEPHERD WING: Formerly the Mews, above the kitchens, and named after Amy Shepherd, this was adapted to be a quiet, self-contained area of accommodation for women only, in this new mixed environment.  It houses 26 students and there is one SCR flat. A reading-room with social and study space was made by enclosing and glazing the small balcony.  On 9th March 2007, University Chancellor, Bill Bryson, officially opened the Shepherd Wing.

2009-2011 THE ART COLLECTION: Among his many innovations, Professor Philip Gilmartin, Principal (2008-2011), expanded the art work in College.  He created The Principals’ Gallery in the dining-room to consolidate the tradition of portraits of past Principals; he established an impressive and growing collection of paintings and photographs on the walls; he obtained statues and sculptures to grace the interior and grounds of the Fergusson Building, making St. Mary’s the first college to develop a sculpture garden.  He also established the artist-in-residence scheme.

2012 DIAMOND JUBILEE: St Mary’s College, led by Professor Simon Hackett, Principal from 2011, celebrated 60 years in the FERGUSSON BUILDING!

2012-2013 ST MARY’S COLLEGE TERRACE: To mark the Jubilee, the forecourt was re-laid in its original design and opened by the Vice-Chancellor at a ceremony in January 2013.


Anne Elliott

St. Mary’s College Archivist

Information and quotations from St. Mary’s College Society Newsletters