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No Peel: Advent Doors 2018

Written by Eleanor Sanger, posted on Saturday, December 8, 2018

An enduring political statement that's still visible nearly two hundred years after it was hammered into this door, the 'No Peel' door is unmissable in its prominent location at the foot of the Hall stairs. Which was exactly the intention of the perpetrators of this action – and the mark they left both on the door and Christ Church more widely survives to this day.

No Peel door - originally this was the door to the college treasury.Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), one of thirteen prime ministers to have been educated at Christ Church, is one of our most illustrious alumni – but even now there is barely any acknowledgement of him in college, and his painting is still not among those lining the walls of our Hall. He was an exceptional student – he began studying at Christ Church in October 1805, and in November 1808 was examined in both Literae Humaniores (Classics) and Mathematics, and became the first person ever to get a First in both subjects. All in all, a pretty smart bloke. So why did his reputation at Christ Church become so tarnished?

We’re going to have to get a bit political to explain this one. Peel was Prime Minister on two occasions, December 1834 to April 1835 and August 1841 to June 1846, but this story takes place a few years before then. Back in 1829 Peel was the MP for the University, and on 31st January that year he wrote to the Dean of Christ Church to tell him of his newfound support for Catholic emancipation (reducing the restrictions that had up to that point been placed on Catholics, such as those preventing them from holding public positions). The University was very much against Catholic emancipation, so because of their differing positions Peel resigned as its MP, but was immediately nominated to stand for re-election.

There was a huge amount of conflict between the pro-Peel and anti-Peel groups in Oxford, particularly given that his view now differed dramatically from that held by the University itself. And so it was that our door gained the notoriety it enjoys today – members of the anti-Peel group made their feelings known, hammering home their statement (quite literally) with nails in the door of what was then Christ Church’s Treasury, spelling out the words ‘No Peel’ in a prime position where nobody could fail to spot it.

In the end, they got their wish – Peel was defeated in the election, although did return to Parliament as the MP for a borough in Wiltshire. But despite the incredible achievement of his double-first, he was never viewed in quite the same way by the college where he’d gained this distinction.

These days, the door leads to the Law Library, although the entrance everyone uses is just around the corner in Tom Quad. But the strong feelings that were expressed so vividly and enduringly on one of our doors remain to this day, as a permanent reminder of the clash that once divided both Oxford and Christ Church.