10 Oxford Donors and How They Made Their Money

The University of Oxford has a long and rich history of philanthropic donations.

You should also read…

Last year, the university revealed it raised more than £2bn over the course of a 10-year campaign – that’s more than the GDP of the Maldives. There were some multi-million pound donations that contributed to that huge total, but a lot of it was also just in the ordinary donations of alumni who wanted to give back to their alma mater – in a single year, 18% of Oxford alumni donated to the university.
The history of donations to British universities goes back rather further than this example. For instance, Lady Margaret Hall is named after Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, who contributed to the foundation of Christ’s College and St John’s College in Cambridge as part of her significant patronage of education. Wandering around Oxford, you’ll notice lots of buildings named after a wide variety of people – very frequently, they are the names of the donors whose generosity allowed them to be built. You might wonder who all of these people are and what works enabled them to be able to afford their lavish donations. Here’s our list of some of Oxford’s most notable and interesting donors past and present, and how they made their money.

1. Michael Moritz and Harriet Heyman

Oxford University's largest ever single donation included money made through the technology companies.
Oxford University’s largest ever single donation included money made through the technology companies.

A 2012 donation given jointly by Michael Moritz and Harriet Heyman, a married couple based in San Francisco, was possibly the largest ever given to a European university: £75 million. It was put to use by the university to keep fees, which were rising to £9,000 per year, at their former level of £3,500 for students from families with an income of less than £16,000 per year, as well as providing funding for their living costs.
Moritz is a Welsh-born former journalist turned venture capitalist. He started out writing about tech companies and wound up investing in them, including Google, Yahoo!, Skyscanner, PayPal, Webvan, YouTube, eToys, and Zappos. Heyman is an American journalist and novelist, who has written for the New York Times, the Financial Times and LIFE, among a long list of others. Moritz’s family were Jews who had escaped Nazi Germany thanks to the generosity of others; Moritz explained that the donation was motivated by the desire to pay that back. He had also seen through his investments that successful people often came from “the most unlikely and impossible circumstances” – and that university scholarships enabled such people from deprived backgrounds to succeed. Moritz is himself a graduate of Christ Church, Oxford.

2. Wafic Saïd

Said Business School, Oxford.
Saïd Business School, Oxford.

Ever wondered whom the Saïd Business School, opposite Oxford railway station, is named after? Its namesake is Wafic Saïd, a financier born in Syria and resident in Monaco, with an estimated net worth of £1.5bn. He came from a prominent family and was offered a place at the University of Cambridge, but was forced to flee Syria for Switzerland in the 1960s and couldn’t afford to study. Up to this point the various versions of his biography are consistent; then they begin to diverge. He married in Switzerland, moved to London and – in the words of the Guardian, “helped his brother run a kebab restaurant in west London”. In the Spectator’s version, it’s more glamorous: he “set up two successful restaurants, one of which, Caravanserai in Kensington High Street, was favoured by Princess Margaret”.
Either way, during this time he got to know two sons of the Saudi Arabian royal family, and became invaluable to them, moving to Saudi Arabia to build infrastructure on a massive scale. From there, he was trusted to help broker the biggest arms deal in history between the UK and Saudi Arabia, which was worth £43bn to the British company BAE Systems. In 1996, a portion of the vast wealth he had earned from these various activities was put towards the creation of the Saïd Business School, to which he has continued to donate up to a present sum of £70 million.

3. David Cameron

David Cameron studied Philosophy, Politics & Economics at Oxford.
David Cameron studied Philosophy, Politics & Economics at Oxford.

Remember that 18% of alumni who donated to the University of Oxford? Among them is David Cameron, graduate of Brasenose College, Oxford and current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. How large his donation was isn’t easily Googled, but it was presumably rather lower than either of the first two donors on this list. This isn’t to say that Cameron is impoverished – his net worth is approximately £4 million, and it’s been estimated that he’s earned £500,000 in rent alone over the past 5 years.
Before becoming an MP, Cameron worked in politics as a special adviser and for the media company Carlton; neither the kind of job that makes a multimillionaire. UK Prime Ministers earn £142,500 a year. Cameron’s wealth is therefore presumably mostly inherited, dating back to a great-great grandfather who became fabulously rich trading grain in Chicago, having first left Scotland for Canada to seek his fortune at the age of just 17.

4. Sir Dickson Poon

If you’ve attended an Oxford Royale Summer Schools course based in the beautiful St Hugh’s College, you’ll have come across the Dickson Poon building – or the Dickson Poon University of Oxford China Centre Building, to give its full name. It’s named for the Hong Kong businessman who gave a £10 million donation to found Oxford’s first interdisciplinary centre for research interests related to China. It also houses the Bodleian Library’s Chinese collection.
Originally a producer of martial arts films, Poon bought the British department store chain Harvey Nichols in 1991 to some discomfort from the British press – but the chain thrived in his hands and in 2014 he was knighted for services to business and higher education.

5. Dr James Martin

The Oxford Martin School find technological solutions to the big issues facing humanity.
The Oxford Martin School find technological solutions to the big issues facing humanity.

Dr James Martin was a record-breaking man on several levels. He wrote a record-breaking number of textbooks (104, on the subjects of computing and related technologies), held honorary degrees from universities on six continents and gave a record-breaking £100 million to the University of Oxford to found the Oxford Martin School (leaving Moritz and Heyman’s donation on the top spot only because Martin’s was given over several years, rather than all in one go). He was also a Pulitzer prize nominee and for 25 years, the world’s best-selling author of books on computing.
Martin was both deeply concerned and highly optimistic about the future – believing its challenges and its opportunities would be greater than ever before. So the Oxford Martin School (originally called the 21st Century School) was tasked with solving the most challenging problems to face humanity in the 21st century, from climate change to nuclear proliferation to global poverty.

6. Dame Stephanie Shirley

Dame Stephanie Shirley, also known as 'Steve'.
Dame Stephanie Shirley, also known as ‘Steve’.

Another philanthropist from the world of computing, Dame Stephanie Shirley – known as Steve – came to the UK as a child refugee in the Second World War, learned programming in the early 1950s, gained a degree in Mathematics through evening classes and eventually founded her own, hugely successful software company. Having continually faced discrimination as a female programmer, she wanted to redress the balance and create jobs for women with dependents, so employed only 3 male programmers out of a staff of over 300 until this was made illegal by the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act.
Shirley gave £10 million of her £150 million net worth to the University of Oxford to found the Oxford Internet Institute, which aims to bring together researchers from a variety of different disciplines to study the impact of the Internet on society from all perspectives including economics, geography, sociology and politics.

7. Mary Ward

Mary Ward is a fascinating and – from a modern perspective – contradictory figure. She was a self-made woman who was for a time Britain’s best-selling novelist under the name Mrs Humphrey Ward, an intellectual who spoke six languages and a passionate campaigner for equality and education, opening one of the first schools for physically disabled children, arguing in favour of women’s university education and establishing play centres for the children of working mothers. At the same time, she was one of Britain’s leading opponents of women’s suffrage as the founding president of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, holding that women should be allowed to participate in local elections, but that only men were capable of addressing military, financial and legal matters.
Ward was a resident of Oxford for most of her life, and was married to a fellow of Brasenose College. She was heavily involved in the foundation of Somerville College, the first Oxford women’s college to be open to students regardless of religious affiliation. Ward was the one to propose that the college be named after Mary Somerville, a Scottish mathematician and supporter of women’s education.

8. Dr John Radcliffe

The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford.
The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford.

Dr John Radcliffe is probably one of Oxford’s most visible donors, in the form of the Radcliffe Camera on Radcliffe Square, one of the city’s most popular sights. He was a graduate of University College, Oxford, a Fellow of Lincoln College, an MP and most importantly a very successful physician, becoming royal physician to William III and Mary II. Another of his patients was Lady Jane Spencer of Yarnton Manor, where Oxford Royale Summer Schools’s International Study Centre is now based. He was a skilled diagnostician and opposed the then-common treatment of bleeding patients to cure their illnesses – which probably contributed to his clinical success.
When Radcliffe died in 1714 at the age of 61, his will established a charitable Trust that remains a registered charity today. He left around £140,000, which would be worth millions today. He took pride in the fact that his skills came from personal study, not from the books of others, so it came as some surprise that £40,000 of his fortune was bequeathed in his Will to the foundation of a new library – which became the Radcliffe Camera.

9. Christopher Codrington

Christopher Codrington
Christopher Codrington

Just across from the Radcliffe Camera, in All Souls College, is the beautiful Codrington Library. This was paid for by another legacy: £10,000 and books worth £6,000 from his Will in 1710. Codrington had studied at Christ Church as a commoner and All Souls as a probationer fellow, and then accompanied King William III to fight in the Nine Years’ War. Having impressed the king, he was made commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands in the West Indies. When war broke out again and his military operations were less successful, he resigned and retired to his estate in Barbados. He was then just 35, and died 7 years later.
Like many of Oxford’s imperialist donors, Codrington is by no means an uncontroversial figure. He made his fortune first on the back of his military endeavours, and then through his family estate in Barbados, which was a slave plantation. That estate was then donated to the Anglican Church on Codrington’s death, and they ran it until slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. In 2006, the Church revealed that they had run this plantation, and apologised to the descendent of the slaves held there after the Archbishop of Canterbury urged the Synod to share the “shame and sinfulness of our predecessors”.

10. Mica Ertegun

Ahmet Ertegun has been described as "one of the most significant figures in modern recording industry."
Ahmet Ertegun has been described as “one of the most significant figures in the modern recording industry.”

In 2012, Mica Ertegun gave the University of Oxford the largest donation it has ever received specifically for the humanities – £26 million to go towards graduate scholarships in subjects such as history, music, languages, literature, art and archaeology. The donation was made in memory of her husband, Ahmet Ertegun, who was the founder of Atlantic Records and a pivotal figure in rhythm and blues and rock music. Mica Ertegun told the Telegraph, “What else am I going to do – buy diamonds?”
The donation was motivated by the Erteguns’ shared belief in the value of humanities in bringing people together, and Mica Ertegun has spoken of her hope that the scholars will be from diverse culture and backgrounds. She has said: “In these times, when there is so much strife in the world, I believe it is tremendously important to support those things that endure across time, that bind people together from every culture, and that enrich the capacity of human beings to understand one another and make the world a more humane place.”
Image Credits: Coins, tech tree, said business school, david cameron, pixellated globe, stephanie shirley, christopher codrington, ahmet ertegun.