Boys will be boys: gender segregation in Edwardian Oxford

Inspired by a recent re-read of Philip Larkin’s Jill, the story of a working class northern student in 1940s Oxford, I decided to do some research on early twentieth century student life in Oxford. While I’ve always known that Oxford a hundred years ago was a heavily male-dominated place, until this week I’d not realised the lengths to which colleges went to prevent any kind of contact – academic or social – between students of the opposite sex. The picture which results from my reading is one of a university whose authorities were desperately trying to keep women out of their students’ lives, where misogynistic attitudes and a reluctance to associate with women (particularly female students and women of their own standing) were shared by many male undergraduates.

Max Beerbohm’s 1911 novel Zuleika Dobson is a parody on the average Oxonian’s relationship with women. The stunning Zuleika arrives in Edwardian Oxford to visit her grandfather, the Warden of St. Judas College (modelled on Merton, Beerbohm’s alma mater). She unwittingly makes every male undergraduate – none of whom have had any experience with women – fall wildly in love with her. The story focuses on the besotted Duke of Dorset, a student at Judas who has an intense horror of unmarried women and spends all of his vacations trying to avoid them and their chaperones. In the end, almost every male student drowns themself in the Isis after Summer Eights, with the Duke throwing himself in dressed in the robes of a Knight of the Garter.

Zuleika Dobson
Zuleika looks on as the unfortunate Duke of Dorset jumps to his death in all his ceremonial finery

The novel was very successful, which is both a testament to its comedic appeal and a suggestion that there was a degree of reality underpinning the apparent absurdities in the plot. Although it was obviously a caricature, other novels, the views of many male undergraduates, and college regulations give its harsh portrayal of Oxford men some credence. In Sinister Street (1914), Compton Mackenzie declares that ‘Oxford was divided into Bad Men and Good Eggs. The Bad Men went up to London and womanised – some even of the worst womanised in Oxford’. The novel’s protagonist, strictly a ‘Good Egg’, proudly maintains that ‘the great point of Oxford, in fact the whole point of Oxford is that there are no girls’.  Isis magazine followed suit. It had a ‘Weekly Idol’ column, and in 1913 the young and popular Magdalen Fellow John Leslie Johnston featured, where it was noted approvingly that ‘his dealings with the fair sex are limited to the one-time possession of a bicycle named Phyllis’.

L.E. Jones remembered in 1956 that the male students’ lives were ‘women-free’, and that any invasion of their ‘sanctuaries’ (mens’ colleges) by the fairer sex would be an interruption and a bore. As late as 1975, Harold MacMillan could reminisce over his pre-war Oxford education in which ‘there were no women. Ours was an entirely masculine, almost monastic society. We knew of course that there were womens’ colleges with women students. But we were not conscious of either. Their students never came into our college rooms…for practical purposes, they did not exist’. Elizabeth Wordsworth, the first principal of Lady Margaret Hall, reiterated this view when she remarked that male undergraduates thought of female students as ‘strange and for the most part plain creatures, not as other girls to be flirted with, kissed, and perhaps one day married’.

Oxford University Boat Club, 1891
Oxford University Boat Club, 1891

Not that it was easy for them to get at those ‘other girls’. Aside from meeting the daughters of academics, whose numbers had increased since Fellows were allowed to marry from 1872 onwards, the only respectable contact with women allowed to Oxford undergraduates was during Summer Eights and Commemoration balls. In Edwardian Oxford, Summer Eights (now mostly a rowing competition) involved theatre performances, balls and summer concerts and was thus the ideal time for romance. At this time, family – including sisters – would come and visit.

During these times, references to women and romance would suddenly crop up in student publications. In 1909, one Eights Week magazine offered ten pieces of ‘advice for lovers’. They suggested taking a girl out punting and knocking a hole through the bottom of the punt so that ‘when it sinks, she is sure to embrace you’. The magazine also advised undergraduates not to hurry, for ‘the chaperone, if there is one (bad luck), is sure to go to sleep – soon’. More determined match-making also took place at these times. When Violet Asquith (daughter of the Prime Minister) came to Commemoration Week in 1905, she remarked, ‘my heart bled for poor Timmy Jekyll whom his mother was hurtling from one young lady to another, clamouring at the same time for a fresh supply of partners for Barbara [Timmy’s sister]’.

Any other contact with women – including female students – was prohibited. Lectures were segregated, and there were no opportunities for dining out together since colleges already forbade male undergraduates from frequenting pubs and restaurants. Womens’ colleges certainly did nothing to help the matter. They were, arguably, even stricter than mens’ colleges when it came to regulating contact between the opposite sexes and controlling their students’ behaviour more generally. Women had so much more to prove in early 20th century Oxford; they had to demonstrate that they were capable of academic work and were not mindless, frivolous ‘beagling things’ (as Sylvia Plath put it in the 1960s).
Very likely this accounted, along with a Victorian belief in the need for women to retain propriety at all times, for the strict rules on contact with men. In the mid-1890s, Somerville declared that its (female) students were to cycle in the afternoons only in couples. Somerville students were strongly discouraged from making contact with male undergraduates. By 1914, Lady Margaret Hall had a policy which meant that no woman who got engaged whilst at Oxford was allowed to stay on. Although the chaperone system had relaxed somewhat by 1914, it was still the case that at Lady Margaret Hall, ‘it was forbidden to go out with or entertain in one’s room any man other than a brother unless a chaperone was provided’. Female halls were, for a long time, marked by a quasi-monastic lifestyle.
Staff at St. Hilda's, 1919
Staff at St. Hilda’s, 1919
Lady Margaret Hall
Lady Margaret Hall

Of course, despite the university’s best efforts, many male students could not be kept away from women, so they tended to visit brothels and have casual affairs. There’s clear evidence that both Oxford and Cambridge were magnets for prostitutes because of the large numbers of sexually frustrated undergraduates. In the mid-19th century, Oxford housed 300-500 prostitutes, most of whom only stayed for term-time. Towards the end of the century, the university grew so worried about this that it used its special powers to raid Oxford houses and patrol the streets, looking to arrest prostitutes and send them to prison ‘by order of the vice-chancellor and [at] the expense of the university’. The sexual double standard was certainly in evidence here; one Fellow commented in 1909 that ‘it does not matter if boys will be boys so long as one can prevent girls being girls’.

The university was no less forgiving to liaisons with lower-class town girls. Several students were disciplined in 1911 and 1913 for ‘waiting for, accosting and walking about with [a] Pantomine actress’ after a theatre performance. The proctors also tried to target undergraduates who dared to talk to women at open-air performances of the city band. Undergraduates who had lower-class lovers could often be thoughtless and uncaring, particularly when faced with university retribution. There was a case in 1902-3 in which two students walking out with their girls ran away and hailed a cab as soon as they saw proctors approaching; the girls, abandoned by the students and unable to afford a cab, were apprehended. Likewise, Marie Hunt (the daughter of an odd-job man) recounted how in pre-war Oxford, ‘we used to meet them round the corner or at the end of a certain street or something like that, but nowhere near the colleges. They were not to be seen anywhere near our homes, well, it just wasn’t done, you see. And if the bulldogs [university police] were about, you see, the men daren’t be seen with the girls at all’. An 1894 student pamphlet contains the poem An Eights’ Week Epistle in which the student unapologetically recounts how he misled such a girl:

Dear Jack,
The Eights are ended,
And I (between us two)
Have met with my “intended”,
A girl without a sou.
I sometimes think it folly,
I may at once confess;
But then it was so jolly,
To hear her whisper “yes”.
There is just one thing about it,
I’m half ashamed to tell;
Yet you can scarcely doubt it –
I’m penniless as well.
Of course I didn’t mention
This last to her; I’m sure
She must prefer prevention
Of broken hearts to cure.

It’s difficult to see what advantage the university and college authorities hoped to gain from trying to stop all contact between male students and women. All evidence points to an attempt on their part to make Oxford little more than an extension of the single-sex boarding school. Probably they thought that women would distract men from their academic work, although as is now obvious, that argument is flimsy at best. Anyway, it’s not as though every male student was there to work; despite generally rising academic standards in the 19th century, many students still treated Oxford as a place at which one completed a “gentleman’s education”. These students spent their days partying, playing sport and cementing their place in the country’s social elite. The number of undergraduates who failed their degrees and indeed failed to sit Finals at all would be unacceptable at Oxford today. The ban on contact with women suggests a deeply misogynistic attitude which was evidently shared by much of the student population.

Attitudes have obviously changed since then, and I take as one example something a tour guide said a few months ago. This tour guide pointed out Oriel and solemnly said, ‘this college has a bad history – it was the last one in the university to admit women’.

Pre-WWI Oxford: Christ Church library, portrayed as an orderly academic paradise, totally free from women
Pre-WWI Oxford: Christ Church library, portrayed as an orderly academic paradise, totally free from women

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