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

Endings and beginnings

Regular readers may have noticed that my posts have been thin on the ground during the past academic year. This is because I was preparing for my Finals exams at Oxford and had lamentably little time for extra-curricular history, as it were. I finished Finals in June, but the intervening time has been a whirlwind of travelling and waiting for my results.

I will soon take up a job abroad, teaching history, and hope to devote more time to Dance’s Historical Miscellany. I am keen to write more frequently and on a wide range of subjects.

In this, I remain inspired by the pleasure I derive in writing for this blog, and by the encouragement I receive from my wonderful readership, whom I thank wholeheartedly.

Me, just after my last exam. (I am wearing a gown over sub fusc, the traditional garb for Oxford exams)
Me, just after my last exam. (I am wearing a gown over subfusc, the traditional garb for Oxford exams)

The rise and fall of the English coffee-house

There seems to be something inherently social about drinking coffee. We ask people to come in for a cup of tea, but we go out for coffee with friends, family and colleagues. This isn’t a modern phenomenon; coffee has always been intimately connected with sociability. In North Africa and the Middle East, coffee-houses had been widespread ever since people there started drinking coffee in the 15th century. When coffee was introduced to Europe in the late 16th century, within a matter of decades it was enjoyed in the coffee-houses which were springing up in the great cities of Venice, Vienna, Paris and Amsterdam. The English proved just as quick to adopt coffee as their European counterparts. A coffee-house opened in Oxford in 1652 and was swiftly followed by one on Cornhill in London, established by an entrepeneurial young Greek servant named Pasqua Rosée. Coffee-houses rapidly grew in number and popularity and it is estimated that by 1700, London boasted up to 3,000 coffee-houses; more than any other city in the world except Constantinople.

To the English, the coffee-house was an entirely new and excitingly cosmopolitan phenomenon. For centuries, taverns had enjoyed a virtual monopoly on being the place where you went to meet friends and relax with a drink; now, this foreign phenomenon was rapidly becoming the most exciting scene of urban sociability. Never before had England seen such a space, where men of diverse ranks of life gathered in a more or less sober fashion to discuss current affairs, philosophy, contemporary literature and the latest scientific ideas and inventions. Topics of conversation varied according to the particular clientele and ranged across diverse subject matter. You could always be certain of hearing and discussing current affairs; runners were sent around the coffee-houses to report breaking news, and London’s first newspapers and journals began by circulating out of coffee-houses.

A London coffeehouse, c.1700
A London coffeehouse, c.1700

In an issue of Tatler (itself founded in and run from a coffee-house), Richard Steele described how patrons would spend their time “deposing princes, settling the bounds of kingdoms, and balancing the power of Europe with great justice and impartiality”. Such discussions could take unexpected and interesting turns. The judge and diarist Dudley Ryder recorded in 1715 how a conversation at John’s Coffee House about the execution of a rebel Jacobite lord soon took a scientific and philosophical turn. Customers began to discuss the “ease of death by beheading”, with one man recounting an experiment where he had chopped a viper in half and watched in amazement as the two halves slithered away in opposite directions. At this, others began to argue whether this was in fact proof of the existence of two consciousnesses.

Coffee-houses were not only vibrant centres of debate, they were also surprisingly democratic institutions. As long as you were reasonably dressed, for just a penny you could get a dish of coffee with unlimited refills along with access to all the latest newspapers and journals. Coffee-houses were decorated in a spartan style with long wooden-benches where lowly civil servants could rub shoulders with prominent politicians, where a poor curate visiting from the country could enjoy an energetic discussion with a prosperous City stockbroker.

In this respect, English coffee-houses were very different from their French equivalents, which from the beginning were designed for intimate conversation among crystal chandeliers, ornate mirrors and little marble tables. The English model meant that men from many walks of life had access to a very cheap way of keeping up with current affairs and engaging in intellectual discussion. One contemporary quipped, “so great a Universitie,/ I think there ne’er was any;/ In which you may a Scholar be/ For spending of a Penny”. In one of his visits to London, Jonathan Swift remarked, “I am not yet convinced that any Access to men in Power gives a man more Truth or Light than the Politicks of a Coffee House”.

'Coffee-house politicians', c.1700: coffee-houses were an ideal place to discuss the news with friends and strangers alike
‘Coffee-house politicians’, c.1700: coffee-houses were an ideal place to discuss the news with friends and strangers alike

What was the public reaction to coffee-houses? Despite their popularity, there were those who saw both coffee and coffee-houses as a pernicious influence on public morals and behaviour. The authorities worried, perhaps not without reason, that coffee-houses were hotbeds of sedition. In 1675, King Charles II issued a proclamation against them, saying that they produced “very evil and dangerous effects…for that in such Houses…divers False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majestie’s Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm”. This provoked a public outcry and Charles backed down, settling on a rather vague order that the owners of coffee-houses should refuse admittance to spies and mischief-makers.

Coffee-houses were also the target of much mockery. In his bitingly satirical 1703 book The London Spy, writer and publican Ned Ward dismissed coffee-houses as grubby dens stuffed with “a parcel of muddling muck-worms…some going, some coming, some scribbling, some talking, some drinking, others jangling, and the whole room stinking of tobacco like a Dutch barge”. However, defenders of coffee-houses maintained that they stimulated sociability and intellectual debate, besides which they exercised a sobering function on the population as they drew people away from the taverns. They also argued that coffee itself was beneficial for one’s health, notwithstanding opponents’ claims that coffee tasted “like syrup of soot and the essence of old shoes”.

Critics would have been glad to see the gradual decline of the coffee-house in the last decades of the 18th century. Thanks to the rise of the mighty British East India Company, tea was imported in ever-greater quantities and quite swiftly became the nation’s favourite drink, thus forever cementing Britain’s reputation as a land of tea-drinkers. The social and economic functions of coffee-houses also became less important as daily newspapers started circulating outside of coffee-houses and home mail delivery was gradually established. Increasingly, men could keep up with current affairs without stirring from their fireside. The coffee-houses which continued to prosper did so by becoming exclusive members’ clubs designed for the wealthy, fashionable or academic elite.

Early 18th-century coffee-house

Edward Gibbons’ 1762 description of The Cocoa-Tree Club, “that respectable body of which I am a member”, clearly shows the ever more elite nature of some coffee-houses: “[it] affords a sight truly English; twenty, or perhaps thirty, of the first men in the kingdom in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat on a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch”. Yet for over a century, the political, social and intellectual life of a nation was crammed into London coffee-houses where anyone who was reasonably dressed and had a penny to spare could come in and join the discussion. As Isaac Disraeli noted, “the history of Coffee-houses, ere the invention of clubs, was that of the manners, the morals, the politics of a people”. A broadside ballad of 1667, entitled ‘News from the Coffee House’, illustrates how influential and important coffee-houses were, whilst affectionately lampooning them:

You that delight in Wit and Mirth,
And long to hear such News,
As comes from all Parts of the Earth,
DutchDanes, and Turks, and Jews,
I’le send yee to a Rendezvouz,
Where it is smoaking new;
Go hear it at a Coffe-house,
It cannot but be true.

Before the Navyes fall to Work,
They know who shall be Winner;
They there can tell ye what the Turk
Last Sunday had to Dinner;
Who last did Cut Du Ruitters Corns,
Amongst his jovial Crew;
Or Who first gave the Devil Horns,
Which cannot but be true.

There’s nothing done in all the World,
From Monarch to the Mouse
But every Day or Night ’tis hurld
Into the Coffe-house.
What Lillie or what Booker can
By Art, not bring about,
At Coffe-house you’l find a Man,
Can quickly find it out.

Here Men do talk of every Thing,
With large and liberal Lungs,
Like Women at a Gossiping,
With double tyre of Tongues;
They’l give a Broad-side presently,
Soon as you are in view,
With Stories that, you’l wonder at,
Which they will swear are true.

The Drinking there of Chockalat,
Can make a Fool a Sophie:
‘Tis thought the Turkish Mahomet
Was first Inspir’d with Coffe,
By which his Powers did Over-flow
The Land of Palestine:
Then let us to, the Coffe-house go,
‘Tis Cheaper farr then Wine.

You shall know there, what Fashions are;
How Perrywiggs are Curl’d;
And for a Penny you shall heare,
All Novells in the World.
Both Old and Young, and Great and Small,
And Rich, and Poore, you’l see;
Therefore let’s to the Coffe All,
Come All away with Mee.


“This murdering play”: the violent origins of English football

Football in the form that we recognise today didn’t really begin to coalesce until the 16th and 17th centuries, but English references to games of “fote-ball”, “fute-ball”, “ffootballe”, and so on, start in the late medieval period. At this early stage there were few, if any, regulations. There was no set number of players and no clearly marked out pitch. The game involved an unlimited number of people, which could number several hundreds on the annual Shrovetide football match between neighbouring towns and villages. If that many people were involved, the area played on could cover several miles and the game could last for hours or even days.

The aim was to drag an inflated pig’s bladder to the marker in the opposing side’s town or village. Sometimes the mob would attempt to kick the bladder into the balcony of their opponents’ church, something which the local priest probably didn’t appreciate (unless, of course, he was also playing). It’s not surprising that without solid rules or a referee, the game could easily become nasty. Punching, biting, kicking and tripping up your adversary were all, in theory, allowed. A large-scale local football game must have been a flashpoint for inter-community tensions, as well as the perfect excuse to beat up that loathsome neighbour of yours under the cover of sport.

Shrove Tuesday (the last day before Lent) was the most popular day for football matches in medieval and early modern England. Here, in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559), Pieter Breughel the Elder portrays a Dutch celebration of Shrovetide.
Shrove Tuesday (the last day before Lent) was the most popular day for football matches in medieval and early modern England. Here, in The Fight Between
Carnival and Lent (1559), Pieter Breughel the Elder portrays a Dutch celebration of Shrovetide.

The authorities didn’t turn a blind eye to this violence. Indeed, the earliest references to football are to be found in official legal documents relating to football-related fatalities. A Cornish plea roll from 1238 mentions a man named Roger who was accused of striking a fellow player with a stone, a blow which proved fatal. Forty-two years later at a game in Ulgham, Northamptonshire, a player was killed as a result of running against an opposing player’s dagger. These are dry accounts yet, clearly, football-related violence involved much personal tragedy, particularly when a death was accidental.

In 1321 William de Spalding, a canon of Scoldham monastery, accidentally murdered his lay friend William in a game of football. As de Spalding was kicking the ball, his friend ran against him and wounded himself on a sheathed knife which de Spalding was carrying. He died within six days. William de Spalding was distraught, and applied for and was granted a papal dispensation to absolve him of all blame. The dispensation read, “no blame is attached to William de Spalding, who, feeling deeply the death of his friend, and fearing what might be said by his enemies, has applied to the pope”.

The next few centuries saw numerous attempts to ban football. The game was generally frowned upon by the authorities as it distracted men from their archery practice, created a lot of noise, resulted in damage to houses and crops and was potentially fatal. In 1314 Edward II was so concerned about the rowdy and violent consequence of football matches that he got the Mayor of London to ban it in the city on his behalf, saying:

“Forasmuch as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large foot balls in the field of the public from which many evils might arise which God forbid; we command and forbid on behalf of the king, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems that football was very popular among university students. The first reference to it being played at university is a 1555 decree by St John’s College, Oxford, which bans the game. Given that this was the year of the college’s foundation, it is possible that football had such a bad reputation that it was forbidden preemptorily. Other Oxford and Cambridge colleges soon followed suit.

St John's College, Oxford, the first Oxbridge college to ban football (in 1555). © Caecilia Dance
St John’s College, Oxford, the first Oxbridge college to ban football (in 1555). © Caecilia Dance

By 1500, football was looking more like the game we know today. A late 15th century Latin account of a football game in Cawston, Nottinghamshire, says that “throwing [the ball] into the air” was prohibited and that the players were supposed to kick the ball with their feet to opposing goals. The game was nevertheless still very rough. At a match in Somerset in 1508, Thomas Bryan accidentally fell onto his knife, and died immediately. The official verdict, that he killed himself “by misfortune”, was an important distinction to make in an age where suicide was considered a terrible sin. A Yorkshire death record from 15 years later reads, “John Langbern of Allerston was playing football with Roger Bridkirk of Allerston, labourer, and many others…Roger fell on top of John and crushed his body by misfortune, so that John immediately died”. As in the case of William de Spalding, “there was no malice between them”; this was an unfortunate accident.

As with almost any popular pastime in the medieval and early modern periods, football came in for a a lot of criticism. One 15th century description of football laments its violent nature, whilst the Tudor diplomat and scholar Sir Thomas Elyot dismissed the game as “beastly fury and extreme violence whereof proceedeth hurt; and consquently rancour and malice do remain with them that be wounded”. Most virulent of all was the Puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbes. Stubbes was the author of The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), a polemic which attacked every imaginable aspect of popular culture. Football was not excluded from Stubbes’ righteous wrath; he abused the immoral game of football at length. This extract from his book shows how much football has changed since the late 16th century:

“Football may rather be called a friendly kind of fight than a play or recreation; a bloody murdering practice than a fellowly sport or pastime. For doth not everyone lie in wait for his adversary, seeking to overthrow him and to pitch him on his nose…by this means sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their legs, sometimes their arms…sometimes their noses gush out with blood, sometimes their eyes start out…Is this murdering play now an exercise for the Sabbath day?”

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

Drunken church bell ringing, then and now?

To hear church bells ringing continuously for as long as half an hour, several evenings a week, is no surprise if you live in central Oxford as I do, so I was particularly amused at something I read about today. In 1797 a book called Travels in England During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth was published by the Earl of Orford. It was a translation of a travel account written around 1600 by Paul Hentzner, a German lawyer who set out on a 3-year European tour with his protege, a young Silesian nobleman. Hentzner remarked that the English “are vastly fond of great noises that fill the air, such as the firing of cannon, drums, and the ringing of bells, so that in London it is common for a number of them, when drunk, to go up into some belfry and ring the bells for hours altogether”.

I can only trust that the bell-ringers in central Oxford are law-abiding citizens who live a ‘godly, righteous and sober life’ according to the dictates of the Book of Common Prayer, though as it’s now approaching the end of exams, one does wonder whether some drunken students might have taken it upon themselves to resurrect this old tradition…

No, this isn't Oxford. But it's a nice painting. ~ Bernhard Stange, Das Abendläuten, 1880 ~
No, this isn’t Oxford. But it’s a nice painting. ~ Bernhard Stange, Das Abendläuten, 1880 ~