Selly Oak Colleges

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Selly Oak Colleges was a federation of educational facilities, primarily concerned with theology, social work and teacher training, in Selly Oak, Birmingham, England. The Federation was for many years associated with the University of Birmingham. They included the College of the Ascension (an Anglican college sponsored by the USPG), Crowther Hall (an Anglican college sponsored by the Church Mission Society), Kingmead College (sponsored by the Methodist Church), St Andrew's Hall (sponsored by the Baptist Missionary Society, the Council for World Mission and the United Reformed Church, and Woodbrooke College (Quaker)).

The early initiative was from a group of members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), led by George Cadbury, but other Protestant Christian denominations quickly became involved. From 1922 the colleges were loosely coordinated through a Federation, which from 1960 was headed by a President. However, in 2001 the largest college (Westhill College) passed into the hands of the University of Birmingham, and in the following years most of the remaining colleges closed, leaving two colleges which continue today, Woodbrooke College, a study and conference centre for the Society of Friends, and Fircroft College, a small adult education college with residential provision.[1][2]


Woodbrooke College was founded in 1903 by George Cadbury and other local members of the Society of Friends in Cadbury's former home. It was not an official institution of the Society of Friends, but it had the active support of many Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic, with the aim of developing good lay leadership.

Kingsmead was founded in 1905 by the Friends' Foreign Mission Association for the training of missionaries, especially women. From 1915 Methodists came to the college, and Methodist influence and commitment gradually increased, until in 1960 it became the centre for the training of all Methodist missionary candidates.

Westhill College (1907) was also begun by Quakers, to train Sunday school teachers. Its work soon expanded to train youth and community workers as well as primary and infants school teachers, and it became a pioneering teachers training college. From 1912-2001 its governing body included representatives from all the main Free Churches in the UK.

Fircroft College (1909), influenced by the Danish Folk High Schools, was founded a residential college for working men, to broaden their outlook and to increase their self-confidence. It maintained close links to the Quaker Adult School movement and the Workers Educational Association.

Attracted by Kingsmead, three mission agencies (Baptist, Congregationalist and Presbyterian) jointly founded Carey Hall (1912) as a training college for women missionaries.

By 1914 there were therefore five colleges in Selly Oak, Christian in inspiration, different in style and ethos, independently organized but sharing interests in:

  1. education as personal development and preparation for service rather than for academic qualifications and professional advancement - lay Christianity in Woodbrooke, Sunday school teaching in Westhill, citizenship in Fircroft;
  2. the training of teachers - for Church-related education in Westhill; this was a concern that was shared by the two missionary colleges;
  3. theology studied ecumenically by ordinary Christians, mostly lay, as an academic subject but also within the context of Christian commitment;
  4. social studies - Woodbrooke students could work for university diplomas in social studies, while the subject was also studied, in different ways, by the working men of Fircroft and by missionaries in training expecting to do social work overseas;
  5. an international dimension in all the colleges, not merely because several students were expecting to work overseas but also because many students came from overseas, unusual in the Britain of that time.[1]

Creation of federation[edit]

These colleges formed the federation which was created between 1919 and 1922. In 1923 the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) founded the College of the Ascension initially for the training of women missionaries, and in 1926 the Young Women's Christian Association established the YWCA College. In 1925 Fircroft produced a rural offshoot, Avoncroft, on a site in the Worcestershire countryside, about 12 miles from Selly Oak. Crowther Hall was created in 1969 by the Church Missionary Society. Prospect Hall was created in 1978 to assist in the rehabilitation of people with disabilities. By the end of the 1970s Carey Hall had become St Andrew's Hall, and the YWCA College had moved to London. Overdale, the theological college of the Churches of Christ, joined the federation in 1931; it closed when the United Reformed Church was formed in 1972.

Kingsmead, the College of the Ascension, Crowther Hall, and St Andrew's Hall were 'missionary colleges', used by UK-based Christian missionary societies to train missionaries prior to their departure overseas. In their later years they increasingly also provided training and experience for church leaders and administrators from across the developing world, assisted by courses in Westhill on church education and church management.

There were important facilities on the site – sports fields, a swimming pool, and a hall for meetings and performance. In 1929 a missionary guest house was opened for the use of missionaries on furlough. In the following year Edward Cadbury provided a new library building to house the growing number of books and the Mingana Collection of manuscripts of 3,000 manuscripts from the Middle East. An extension to the library in 1936 provided a home for a new department of missions, with professorships of missions and church history, financed by Edward Cadbury, who also made provision for a chair in Islamics in 1947. A new library, the Orchard Learning Centre, was opened in 2001, shortly before the Federation ceased to exist.

Important parts of the training were delivered centrally, organized in the 1960s under the Departments of Mission, English, and Social Studies (which included Development Studies). The individual colleges were much more than halls of residence: from the very beginning they were learning communities with their own tutors, where people experienced the interaction of different nationalities, faiths and opinions as well as the particular atmosphere of their own college. A number of influential units or centres were also established on the campus: the Centre for Black and White Christian Partnership, the Multi-faith Resource Unit, the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, the Centre for the Study of Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, and the Centre for New Religious Movements. In the late 1970s, the Federation took on a programme for the training of Namibians, whose country was soon to be independent, who added another dimension both to the teaching of development studies and to the lives of the colleges where they lived.

There was always an international character to the colleges, with an awareness of foreign theologies that was unusual for British theological institutions until late in the twentieth century. In the 1930s the federation welcomed many important guests, not least Mahatma Gandhi who visited while in Britain for talks on the Indian constitution in 1931, and it provided a haven for several scholars fleeing from the Nazis. It was closely connected with the ecumenical movement for the unity of the churches. In the 1980s it pioneered dialogue between Christians and Muslims and between the black-led churches, e.g. of inner-city Birmingham, and the mainstream, and a broad theology of mission. Throughout its life it influenced both the theologies and the practices of churches overseas through its teaching and its open-minded approaches to issues of controversy. Most of those who taught, and many who came to study, were profoundly influenced by the experience, not just of formal lessons but also of the collegiality, the openness, the opportunities to debate and discuss with those from other backgrounds.[1]

Final years of the federation[edit]

By the 1980s there were pressures on all the colleges. The missionary colleges were small and expensive to run. Questions were raised about whether training missionaries for countries overseas was better undertaken in those countries rather than the UK. Westhill College—the largest college by far in the federation—was small in comparison to other teacher-training colleges. To get over this, it worked jointly with Newman College, a Roman Catholic teachers training college on a separate campus about two miles away, but full joint-working was not acceptable to the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the collaboration ended after 1992. Westhill’s educational philosophy of child-centred education was out of favour with the government. Its governors responded by trying to re-create the college as a liberal arts university and raising money to finance the Orchard Learning Centre – before suddenly agreeing to be taken over by the University of Birmingham in 2001, after which its training of teachers, social workers, youth and community workers transferred to different parts of the University of Birmingham. Kingsmead College closed in 1993, its work and some of its staff joining the College of the Ascension. The Multi-faith Centre also closed in 1993, the Jewish Christian Centre the following year, the Centre for Black and White Christian Partnership in 1999, and St Andrew's Hall closed in 2000. CMS removed its reduced training programme to Oxford in 2005 and closed Crowther Hall. The United College of the Ascension closed in 2006. Some of its work is carried on by a reduced staff in the Selly Oak Centre for Mission Studies, located in The Queen's Foundation, Birmingham, an ecumenical theological foundation close to the Birmingham University campus in Edgbaston. St Andrew's Hall ceased to function when the Baptist Missionary Society withdrew from the partnership with the URC and the Council for World Mission. The buildings remain in use as the International Mission Centre, training missionaries for the BMS. That left the two colleges which continue today, Woodbrooke College and Fircroft College.[1]


The end of the Federation was far more than the loss of the individual colleges. It meant the loss of a culture, a way of working, of inclusiveness engendered by small institutions, of contacts overseas and within the churches in this country. It also meant the loss of a leadership role within liberal Christianity in the UK, and within the world of religious education.

Notable alumni[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "History".
  2. ^ O’Connor, Daniel (2 November 2006). "All Change at Selly Oak". Church Times. Retrieved 14 February 2018.