An Oxford exam from 1884

Coming across a compilation of University of Oxford women’s exam papers from the 1870s and 80s was something of a treat for me. Having studied History and German at Oxford from 2011-2015, I was eager to find out how the exam papers from 130 years ago differed from those now. Imagine, then, my horror when I realised how many details of the examinations remained unchanged. Exams are still of the same duration (3 hours), they take place at the exact same time of year, and even at the exact same time of day (9:30-12:30, 14:30-17:30).

Worse still, some of the questions were eerily similar to those I answered on my own Finals papers. For instance, ‘Summarise Milton’s arguments against the censorship of the press. Which do you consider the most convincing, which the most rhetorically effective?’, and ‘Explain, by reference to this or any other of his prose writings, Milton’s idea of Liberty’ (funnily enough, I didn’t do especially well on that paper). However, I have to admit that the English to German translations in the 1884 paper are more difficult than those now, though there was no speaking exam as there is today.

In terms of difficulty of questions, they are something of a mixed bag. For the arts subjects there are rather a lot of factual questions alongside the argumentative essays which would be standard now. Questions such as the following are not uncommon: ‘Give the origin of the following suffixes’; ‘Write a short life of Pope Paul III; ‘What acquisitions of territory were made by France in 1643-1678?’ There are some very old-fashioned judgemental questions which particularly amused me, including the following from the English exam: ‘Are there (1) any signs of the immaturity of Shakespeare’s genius in Richard II; (2) any parts of Macbeth which seem so unworthy of Shakespeare as to justify a doubt as to their being genuine; (3) any traces of a failure of dramatic power in the Tempest?’.

Notwithstanding the shallowness of some of the questions, female students were expected to have a good grounding in all subjects, particularly for the First Examination (Prelims). For the first examination female candidates were expected to pass in English Composition, Arithmetic, Euclid, and any two of Latin, Greek, French, Italian or German. In the Second (Final) Examination for Honours candidates, women had more opportunity to specialise. They were required to sit exams in languages, as well as one of the following: ancient history; modern history; mathematics; physical science; logic and political economy (clearly the forerunner of PPE). Students could also offer themselves for examination in ‘Rudiments of Faith and Religion’, which basically meant comprehension questions on the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer – no aethistic or methodistical material could be allowed to pollute the firmly C of E university precincts!

The introduction in the 1880s of the ability to specialise in subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology and geology reflects a wider trend in English universities. By the latter half of the 19th century, German universities had moved far ahead of their English counterparts in scientific research. Britain, as a Great Power, could not of course be left behind, so the traditional focus on theology, Classics, languages and history was widened to include the sciences. For a long time, however, sciences were not considered quite the thing; most upper-class students still read a traditional subject such as Classics.

The beautiful Radcliffe Camera, part of the University of Oxford’s central library

I must reiterate that this was a set of exam papers for women; sadly, I haven’t been able to find a men’s examination paper from the period to compare. I do wonder whether the questions would have been more challenging. However, the prologue to the 1884 women’s paper claims that ‘the standard of attainment both for Pass and Honours is the same as that required in the corresponding [male] Public Examinations of the University’. It was even promised that the women’s results would be published in the University Gazette, alongside the men. It is perhaps unlikely that Oxford would wish to dilute its academic prestige by offering exams which were seen as easy, even if they were only for women.

Students at Lady Margaret Hall, one of the first women's colleges in Oxford (late 19th century)
Students at Lady Margaret Hall, one of the first women’s colleges in Oxford (photo 1880s)

Further reading

University of Cambridge Women’s Examination Paper for 1871

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8 thoughts on “An Oxford exam from 1884

    1. Oh it’s not too bad – though I did take it about 15 years ago so my maths has almost certainly deteriorated since then!

    1. Oh how interesting, what are they like? Did you find them as hard copies floating around the department, or were they digitised at the Bodleian?

      1. I grabbed about a dozen volumes of past papers when BNC library was doing a clear out. All college libraries used to keep fairly comprehensive collections of past papers, but I doubt many survive.

        It’s hard to compare 1905 physics papers with the modern version because the subject has changed so much: 1905 papers have no relativity, no quantum mechanics, and only very elementary atomic and nuclear physics. On the other hand they have more on the properties of simple materials, more problems on electromagnetism, and they expect a far wider range of knowledge. The practical exams are also pretty impressive.

        On topics which are directly comparable I would say that the 1905 papers are much easier than modern equivalents: parts of the Prelims paper are now A-level, and the Finals paper is similar to our Finals Part A, taken at the end of the second year.

        The papers in later years get harder, peaking I think in the late 70s or early 80s. After that dumbing down begins again. I once showed some of my students an entrance examination paper from the early 80s and they were aghast: many of the topics are now taught in our second year course.

        1. Wow that’s interesting, thank you for the detailed information! I wonder why the exams started getting easier in the 80s. Perhaps secondary education was getting less demanding. Certainly, it is my impression that that the language standards expected of potential Oxford students were far higher in past decades than nowadays, almost certainly due to the reduced level expected at (state) school.

  1. “..sadly, I haven’t been able to find a men’s examination paper..”

    That could mean one of two things: they didn’t archive such things or they didn’t exist. Either conclusion is amusing.

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