Our History

Free Speech Since 1842

The Durham Union was founded over 180 years ago, and has a rich history at the heart of Durham University.

“When a young person comes into residence in Durham, in seven cases out of ten they decide to become a member of the Union Society… And they are then in the succession of many whose first experience in oratory and official administration, gained in the Union Debating Hall and club-rooms, has stood them in good stead for the rest of their lives.”

PDA Campbell, President of the Union Society, 1951. [Revised]

The Beginning

The Durham Union first started out in 1835, as the Durham Debating Society. Much like its sister Unions at Oxford and Cambridge, founded in 1823 and 1815 respectively, it was orientated around promoting debate between students, holding meetings at Hatfield Hall and University College.

1842 – The ‘Modern’ Union

Durham Castle entrance” by jepoirrier is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

According to records, in 1842, the Debating Society was re-incorporated into the Durham Union Society, this makes it the 4th oldest continuously running Debating Society in the UK: preceded by Cogers of London: 1755 – today, as well as our sister Unions; the Cambridge Union: 1821 – today, and the Oxford Union: 1823 – today.

The 19th Century – Growth and Transition

The Union during the 19th century went from strength to strength, acting as the main counterbalance to the collegiate system of the University. In 1872, it moved for the first time to Palace Green, where it has remained ever since. In 1899, the foundation of the ancestor of the Durham Students’ Union (DSU) took on part of this role, though the Union has continued to maintain this tradition with our social and networking events and members’ benefits.

The 20th Century – New Traditions and Radical Campaigns

The 20th Century was a period of great change for the Union, we took up a new home on the Palace Green in the buildings adjacent to the Palace Green Library and codified many of our traditions that still survive to this day. The president’s chair and many other artefacts the Union still uses on a daily basis date back from this period. The early 20th Century also saw the foundation of the Women’s Union, resident at 44 North Bailey, alongside the Union’s campaign for Women’s suffrage in 1914.

The 60s and 70s – More than just a debating society

During the 1960s and 70s, the Union we know today was born. In 1959 we began the process of closing the segregated women’s and men’s Unions, and by 1964 were fully integrated. Alongside this, in 1964, the Union traded 44 North Bailey for our Grade II listed building at 24 North Bailey, the previous home of St. Aidan’s Society. In the 70s, the Union moved to our purpose built-debating chamber in the Pemberton Buildings, in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage site, where we have been ever since.
Today, where are we going?

Our Union Today

Today, the Durham Union plays an integral role at the heart of the University and perfectly complements the collegiate system. Founded to stimulate debate on pertinent issues, we now take on a far wider, and constantly growing role in Durham life with our wide range of events: from free Members’ Socials, and headline Balls, to Celebrity Debate and Addresses by high-profile speakers.