Port not claret in plastic age

The History of the University of Oxford, Volume III, Nineteenth-Century Oxford, Part 2

May 31, 2002

Asa Briggs looks at change and continuity at Oxford in the 19th century.

There is much of interest, topical as well as historical, in this second part of the history of what is called 19th-century Oxford. There are no dates in the title, but there is a separation, not complete, between Victorian and Edwardian Oxford. The story ends in 1914, but in an appendix we learn that on November 24 1914, the war having begun, the Convocation of the University, always a controversial body, decided that the constitution of the Hebdomadal Council should be changed. Members elected by heads of houses (ie colleges) should be reduced from six to three, and members elected by Congregation increased from six to nine. The change, which could scarcely be regarded as a move towards democracy, needed Privy Council approval, and this was not given until February 1915 when hopes that the war would be over by Christmas had been dashed. By December 1914 two-thirds of all university members, including more than 50 college fellows, were wearing khaki, not gowns.

How to relate university history to national history always poses problems for individual and teams of historians; and admirably edited and footnoted though this volume is, it does not entirely dispose of the problems. A trio of articles called "Oxford and the nation" appeared in The Times in 1907 but, like all outside comment, it divided the university rather than pulled it together. During the years leading up to the first world war there was increasing "irritation at external pressures". More important, there was limited interest in change, although the existence of Toynbee Hall and the creation of the Workers' Educational Association provided evidence of Oxford-based attempts to reach beyond the gates of the colleges.

The new chancellor of the university, Lord Curzon, who took office in 1907 in an elaborate ceremony, "believed to be traditional, but... concocted for the occasion by the vice-chancellor", was concerned about outside criticism but blamed the constitution of the university, "devised for procrastination and impotence", for fostering it. It was, indeed, a curious constitution, and many readers of this volume who are unfamiliar with Oxford may find it difficult to cope with the intricate inter-relationships of Congregation, Hebdomadal Council and the non-resident Convocation, let alone with the differences in structure and outlook between colleges. Readers from within Oxford will judge it from their own vantage points, for no two colleges are or were quite alike. I responded immediately to a comment made by one of my predecessors as provost of Worcester College - he was then its bursar - which is quoted in the epilogue. He told Congregation in 1914 that "a multi-subject entrance exam that included compulsory Latin and Greek amounted to a formula for emptying his college".

Volume VIII, the history of the university in the 20th century, has already appeared, so it is possible to make connections between the volumes at many points in the text. It is dangerous, however, to assume that late-Victorian and Edwardian Oxford and late 20th-century Oxford were essentially the same, although by 1914 much on the surface at least was familiar, including the bicycles. In a tantalisingly brief preface, the editors of volume VII warn readers inside and outside Oxford that while the University of Oxford depicted in their pages "may look modern at first glance", this does not imply that the Oxford under review "resembled today's either in opportunities or constraints". They note that while an independence from governmental decisions in the period that their volume covers "may seem enviable", not only to present heads of houses, their predecessors had to face financial problems of their own. There is relatively little in this volume about finance, and what information is provided is scattered. In much current discussion, not least about student numbers, there is little else.

Whatever the differences between 19th and 20th-century Oxford, volume VII of The History is useful reading for students of the early 21st-century university, because it forces a reconsideration of the relationships between continuity and change and structure and image, the last more relevant, perhaps, than structure as far as Oxford is concerned. The volume provides invaluable comparative evidence for studies of schooling, entry and access, and for studies of the role of educational factors in social mobility. Of course, few if any of the individuals mentioned in volume VII were thinking in those terms. One of the chapter authors, Janet Howarth, a fellow and tutor at St Hilda's College, clearly and fortunately is. She has written some of the most interesting chapters in the volume, dealing not only with women's colleges but with the natural sciences, "The self-governing university, 1882 to 1914", and "The Edwardian movement". The chapter on schooling that she co-authored with M. C. Curthoys, "Origins and destinations: the social mobility of Oxford men and women", sets out, as does the previous chapter also 0co-authored by Curthoys on "Oxford and schooling", a mass of relevant quantitative evidence.

The story looks different if approached in the light of what came before 1870 rather than of what came afterwards, as M. G. Brock clearly recognises. Along with Curthoys, he has edited both volumes with meticulous care as well as writing the challenging first chapter, a huge chapter that he calls "A 'plastic structure'", and the epilogue, which begins with the correct statement that "none of the university's preoccupations during the last academic year before the first world war will surprise a reader of the preceding pages". For the title of the first chapter he has borrowed the adjective plastic from F. T. Palgrave, editor of the Golden Treasury (1861), although Palgrave referred not to a structure but to a period, seeing Oxford in 1868 as entering "a short plastic period, (one of) those very rare and precious epochs" when "radical changes are possible". The seven-year campaign to abolish the Test Acts, which kept religious dissenters out of Oxford, a campaign in which Gladstone participated and that was described in volume VI, had in 1870 been won beyond doubt following the general election of 1868, but as anti-clericalism, strong in the 1860s, declined in post-1870 Oxford, clericalism did not immediately disappear. "The excitement aroused by the abolition of the test soon subsided", and many of the "radical changes" that reformers hoped for were never realised.

Brock is right to insist that "the university's failure to attract students from families which were neither affluent nor high in the social scale" in itself demonstrated the limits of plasticity. Plus ça change . There was to be a fiery attack on the university's failure in 1907 when J. M. Mactavish, a Portsmouth shipwright and Labour councillor, condemned in slanted language the fact that "not only are workpeople deprived of the right of access to that which belongs to no class or caste, the accumulated knowledge and experience of the race, but Oxford herself misses her true mission, while the nation and the race lose the services of its best men".

Much of the most interesting evidence on this subject is impressionistic rather than statistical and it is found in novels rather than in official reports. Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895) is unforgettable, but it is easy to forget that the letter from the head of Biblioll College, telling Jude to "remain in his own sphere" rather than to seek to enter the university was a barely disguised reference to Benjamin Jowett, the thoroughly out-of-fashion master of Balliol College, who believed that bringing "a greater number of the middle or lower class of people to Oxford would be analogous to the change that we see going on around us in society". It is Jude's own reactions rather than those of "the head of Biblioll" that are most memorable. When he got the letter "he had known all that before". The undertaking had been "hopeless".

Novels figure frequently in this volume, which picks out curious, often significant detail at many different points. Thus, in Curthoys's chapter, "The colleges in the new era", we learn that "one sign of the new seriousness" apparent in the mid-century was "the exclusion of dogs, whose nocturnal howlings had occasionally disturbed the peace of the unreformed colleges". And in Howarth's chapter on "The self-governing university" we learn from Warden Spooner, one of the many Oxford characters in the dramatis personae , that it was symbolic of a reaction against rapid change that set in during the mid-1870s that port was drunk in common rooms rather than claret.

The chapter on "University and college sport" by H. S. Jones is full of out-of-the-way information. Mark Pattison, often pitted against Jowett, denounced "athletic furor". C. B. Fry regarded rugby as an easier game to pick up from scratch than soccer. When he went up to Keble in 1875, Cyril Garbett, a future archbishop of Canterbury, "was absurdly gratified to be noticed by some demi-god in a dark blue scarf". Jowett was the inspiration behind purchase of land for a Balliol sports ground, an influential supporter of the laying out of a university cricket field in the parks and a defender of the University Boat Club before Convocation in 1881.

The chapter on Oxford architecture covers a period from 1880 to 1914. For many people living in Oxford and for most 21st-century visitors, it is the buildings, old and new, and the gardens in which they are set that matter most. The rise of the Gothic is well charted by the author of the chapter, Peter Howell, who like Howard Colvin before him, does not rest content with "straightforward aesthetic criticism". It seems remarkable that the historian E. A. Freeman considered Exeter College chapel "the most glorious building in modern England". Howell is not alone in singling out Pusey House. Keble chapel's interior is described as "especially magnificent". Howell mentions no spires in his chapter, and although there are ten index references to Matthew Arnold, his "dreaming spires" are missing too. It needed a new 20th-century college to add a new, if small, one.

Lord Briggs was formerly provost, Worcester College, Oxford.

The History of the University of Oxford, Volume III, Nineteenth-Century Oxford, Part 2

Editor - M. G. Brock and M. C. Curthoys
ISBN - 0 19 95 1017 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £80.00
Pages - 993

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