Professor William Whyte

Featured Publication

Unlocking the Church (Oxford University Press, 2017)

The Victorians built tens of thousands of churches in the hundred years between 1800 and 1900. Wherever you might be in the English-speaking world, you will be close to a Victorian built or remodelled ecclesiastical building. Contemporary experience of church buildings is almost entirely down to the zeal of Victorians such as John Henry Newman, Samuel Wilberforce and Augustus Pugin, and their ideas about the role of architecture in our spiritual life and well-being. 

In Unlocking the Church, William Whyte explores a forgotten revolution in social and architectural history and in the history of the Church. He details the architectural and theological debates of the day, explaining how the Tractarians of Oxford and the Ecclesiologists of Cambridge were embroiled in the aesthetics of architecture, and how the Victorians profoundly changed the ways in which buildings were understood and experienced. No longer mere receptacles for worship, churches became active agents in their own rights, capable of conveying theological ideas and designed to shape people's emotions. 

These church buildings are now a challenge: their maintenance, repair or repurposing are pressing problems for parishes in age of declining attendance and dwindling funds. By understanding their past, unlocking the secrets of their space, there might be answers in how to deal with the legacy of the Victorians now and into the future.

Redbrick: A Social and Architectural History of Britain's Civic Universities (OUP Oxford, August 2016).

Cover for Redbrick

In the last two centuries Britain has experienced a revolution in higher education, with the number of students rising from a few hundred to several million. Yet the institutions that drove - and still drive - this change have been all but ignored by historians. 

Drawing on a decade's research, and based on work in dozens of archives, many of them used for the very first time, this is the first full-scale study of the civic universities - new institutions in the nineteenth century reflecting the growth of major Victorian cities in Britain, such as Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham - for more than 50 years. Tracing their story from the 1780s until the 2010s, it is an ambitious attempt to write the Redbrick revolution back into history. 

William Whyte argues that these institutions created a distinctive and influential conception of the university - something that was embodied in their architecture and expressed in the lives of their students and staff. It was this Redbrick model that would shape their successors founded in the twentieth century: ensuring that the normal university experience in Britain is a Redbrick one. 

Using a vast range of previously untapped sources, Redbrick is not just a new history, but a new sort of university history: one that seeks to rescue the social and architectural aspects of education from the disregard of previous scholars, and thus provide the richest possible account of university life. 

It will be of interest to students and scholars of modern British history, to anyone who has ever attended university, and to all those who want to understand how our higher education system has developed - and how it may evolve in the future.


As professor of social and architectural history I am very glad to discuss graduate supervision with anyone whose interests fall within these fields. In the past, I have supervised doctoral theses on science in the nineteenth century, theology in the twentieth, and architectural history over both periods. Recent theses include Will Clement on nineteenth-century French housing and Graham Harding on the history of Champagne. Current DPhil projects include work on architectural publishing in eighteenth-century England, church building in nineteenth-century Canada, planning in twentieth-century Russia, the Italianate style in Regency London, hotels in Victorian England, and neo-Georgian houses in interwar Britain.

To get a sense of the sort of work I have supervised, it is worth looking at the publications of previous doctoral students. Edward Gillin and Horatio Joyce have recently published Experiencing architecture in the nineteenth century (2018), a project which grew out of work we did – and a conference they ran – during their doctorates. Other students have published revised versions of their theses. These include Ursula De Young, whose DPhil thesis was published as A Vision of Modern Science: John Tyndall and the Role of the Scientist in Victorian Culture (2011), Daniel Inman, whose thesis was published as The Making of Modern British Theology: God and the Academy at Oxford, 1833-1939 (2014), Edward Gillin, whose thesis became The Victorian Palace of Science: Scientific Knowledge and the Building of the Houses of Parliament (2017), Matthew Andrews, whose thesis became Universities in the Age of Reform, 1800–1870: Durham, London and King’s College (2018), and Sam Brewitt-Taylor, whose thesis was published as Christian Radicalism in the Church of England and the Invention of the British Sixties (2018).

Forthcoming books include David Lewis’ biography of Giles Gilbert Scott (RIBA), Neal Shasore’s Architecture and the public in interwar Britain (OUP), and Simeon Koole’s work on touch in Britain, 1870-1960 (Chicago).

I encourage my students to publish whilst working on the DPhil, and they have been very successful in so doing. Sam Brewitt-Taylor won the Duncan Tanner Prize for his essay 'The invention of a "secular society"? Christianity and the sudden appearance of secularization discourses in the British national media, 1961-64', which was published in Twentieth Century British History 24 (2013). Philip Aspin won the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain essay prize for his article '"Our ancient architecture": contesting cathedrals in late-Georgian England', Architectural History 54 (2011). Edward Gillin won the same award in 2015 for his 'The Stones of Science: Charles Harriot Smith and the importance of geology in architecture, 1834-1864' (Architectural History 59 [2016]), as well as the Society for the History of Technology's Usher Prize for his ‘Prophets of Progress: Authority in the Scientific Projections and Religious Realizations of the Great Eastern Steamship’ in Technology and History 56 (2015).

  • Architecture, faith, and Charlotte M. Yonge

  • Learning from Redbrick: utopianism and the architectural legacy of the civic universities

  • A Cultural History of Objects

  • Class and Classification: the London Word Blind Centre for Dyslexic Children, 1962-1972

  • The Problem of Dyslexia: historical perspectives

  • Ecclesiastical Gothic Revivalism

  • Building Corpus Christi

  • Introducing Thomas Rickman

  • Somewhere to live: Why British students study away from home – and why it matters

  • ‘Architecture’

  • More
In the Media


Beyond belief (Jane Austen):


Beyond Belief (William Blake)

Restoration Man, Channel 4:

The architecture of Keble College:


The architecture of the Oxford mathematical institute:

The Long View, policy reversals: