‘The mighty oak from an acorn towers’

  • Sir John Cockcroft appointed the first Master
  • Architectural competition held: Richard Sheppard is chosen
  • Exhibition of architectural competitors held at RIBA, London
  • Sir Winston pays his only visit and plants an oak and mulberry tree
  • College office opens at 59 St Andrew’s Street
  • Bernard Sunley & Sons appointed contractors to build Sheppard Flats
  • Founding of the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States


Sir John  Cockcroft, OM, KCB, CBE, FRS (27 May 1897–18 September 1967) was announced as the College’s first Master on 26 January 1959. Sir John was the British physicist who shared with Ernest Walton the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1951 for splitting the atomic nucleus, and was instrumental in the development of nuclear power. In the 1950s, he was one of Britain’s best-known scientists, dubbed the ‘atom chief’; and, partly to counter the sombre fact of Cold War nuclear weaponry, he was a pundit for the ‘peaceful atom’, promising limitless, cheap, clean, safe atomic energy.


The competition held in 1959 to select an architect for the College was one of the most important of the post-war era, for it provided a point of entry to university work for rising practices, many of whom went on to build the new universities of the 1960s. Twenty firms were invited to submit designs, all of them modernists, even though Winston Churchill would have preferred something classical. The winner was selected by the College trustees in June: Richard Sheppard (1910–82), of Sheppard, Robson and Partners, who had hitherto specialised in schools for local authorities.


Sir Winston Churchill made only one visit to the College site (he never saw it completed) on 17 October 1959 when he planted a mulberry and an oak tree. In his speech he said:


I trust and believe that this College, this seed that we have sown, will grow to shelter and nurture generations who may add most notably to the strength and happiness of our people, and to the knowledge and peaceful progress of the world. ‘The mighty oak from an acorn towers; A tiny seed can fill a field with flowers.’

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