The college has its origins in the small group of women, known as home students, who were first allowed to study at Durham in 1895. At that time, and indeed until the Second World War, it was considered unsuitable for female students to live in lodgings: they either had to be members of a College or to live at home. The numbers were never very large; for example, in 1936 there were only five. However, a substantial increase in the number of female students after 1945 meant that the former group of home students was reorganised, emerging as the St Aidan's Society in 1947.
The St Aidan's Society had its offices at 24 North Bailey (now the bar and club of the Durham Union Society). Some of the students lived in Shincliffe Hall, and others in lodgings. A Common Room was soon found in 50 North Bailey and chapel services held at the church of St Mary-le-Bow. The first principal was Ethleen Scott, having been "Censor" of the female home students since 1937.
In 1961 St Aidan's was reconstituted as a full "Council College" (meaning that its governing council is a sub-committee of the University Council, the university's governing body). It moved to its present buildings on Elvet Hill in 1964, becoming one of the first of the university's "Hill" colleges. The college buildings are in a modernist style, having been designed by architect Sir Basil Spence and arranged in a semi-circular arrangement surrounding a central lawn. The original design was intended to represent the hand of God holding a jewel, with the curved corridors as the fingers, the straight corridors as his thumb, and a small chapel as the jewel. However, financial constraints prevented the chapel from ever being built and later extensions to the straight section did not follow the original idea.
In 1963, Scott was succeeded as principal by Dame Enid Russell-Smith, who handed over to Irene Hindmarsh in 1970. It was during her tenure as principal that it was agreed that St Aidan's should become a mixed college. The first male students were admitted in 1981. John Ashworth took over in 1998, before becoming Dean of Colleges in 2007, at which point Susan Frenk became acting principal. In 2008 work on improvements to the extensions were started. The aim was to turn previous fresher rooms into ensuite accommodation for finalists and postgraduates. In February 2009 students were allowed to tour the newly refurbished extensions, named Elizabeth Pease House.
The college membership divides itself between the Senior Common Room (SCR) and the Junior Common Room (JCR). The SCR is a self-regulating body of senior members of the university, college officers, tutors and postgraduate students. The JCR consists of the undergraduate members of the college and elects its own officers, including a sabbatical president and a bar steward, who liaise on its behalf with the college and university.
^‘SCOTT, Ethleen Mary’, Who Was Who, A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 1920–2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2007 accessed 7 April 2013
^‘RUSSELL-SMITH, Dame Enid (Mary Russell)’, Who Was Who, A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 1920–2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2012 ; online edn, Nov 2012 accessed 7 April 2013
^‘HINDMARSH, Irene’, Who's Who 2013, A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, 2013; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2012 ; online edn, Nov 2012 accessed 7 April 2013