The college was founded in 1851 in Horseferry Road, London, to train teachers for Methodist day schools. Its buildings were designed by James Wilson. In 1872, on the opening of Southlands College, it became an all-male establishment with some students accepting posts in the new Board Schools. Its first three Principals, John Scott (1851-1868), James H. Rigg (1868-1903) and H.B. Workman (1903-1930) made an important contribution to the place of Methodist teacher training within the voluntary sector of higher education. Hemmed in by crowded urban property, the college was evacuated during the Great War to the very different environment of Richmond College. The emphasis on higher education led to an increasing number of entrants qualified for university, so that by 1930 everyone followed a four-year course comprising a London University degree and professional training.
In 1959, under the Principalship of H. Trevor Hughes, the college moved to Harcourt Hill, North Hinksey, Oxford, where it expanded and admitted women students. Non-graduate trainees reverted to the Certificate course until 1967, when a minority were able to study for the BEd (Oxon) degree. It was one of the few colleges of education to survive the institutional closures of the 1970s without losing its individuality or straying far from its original purposes. It maintained its emphasis on education and theology and, through its centre at Saltley, Birmingham, retained an interest in inner-city schooling.
In 1997 it had 2,457 full and part-time students following professional and academic courses, at levels ranging from certificate to doctorate, validated by the University of Oxford and the Open University. It was later adversely affected by a reduction in the number of teacher training students and changes to the Government's funding system which led to consideration of its future as a free-standing college and a decision by the Conference of 1999 that it should be taken over by Oxford Brookes University. A long lease of the Harcourt Hill campus (subsequently renewed in 2017 for a period of 99 years) was granted to the university, managing trusteeship being exercised by Westminster College Oxford Trust Ltd, whose board members are appointed by the Conference. Teacher training has continued on the campus, and University-funded work which is church-related continues there in the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History.
The Centre holds a number of collections relating to the history of Methodism, including the library of the Wesley Historical Society, the archives of the Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies, the Voice of Methodism (VMA) and AVEC, documents on Anglican-Methodist Union, and the papers of several twentieth-century Methodists, including the Rev Dr Donald English, the Rev. Dr. Colin Morris and the Rev. William Gowland. In addition to these archive collections, the Centre houses the Smetham, James collection, and artworks from Methodist Church House.
'Westminster [College] was very diffferent from a present day Hall of Residence at University Much of the Spartan regime still applied. Every student had to attend Morning Prayers n Chapel. This was effected by the locking of an iron gate at the foot of the stairs leading from the bedooms, which was not opened agan until halfway through breakfast in the Dining Hall. Latecomers were greeted with slow clapping as they passed up the Hall to apologise at High Table. Attendance at Sunda Morning at ten o'clock was also compulsory. There was a Sunday Evening Service which was optional and open to visitors… Every student was expected to study in his own room at night, and the College gates were locked until morning. At weekends exeats were granted up to a spccific hour, and there were also some Saturday night dances…
'After about a year [from the outbreak of World War I] the College had to be evacuated to Richmond at very short notice, as the College premises had been requisitioned as headquarters for the administration of the Australian Expeditionary Force…When eventually evacuated by the Australians, the Horseferry Road buildings were an empty shell and quite uninhabitable. My father, the Vice-Principal, was the only member of staff who knew what the interior had been like. Reinstatement was slow and costly, and return from Richmond had to wait until 1920.'
Thomas S. Magson in The Westminsterian, Autumn 2001