All posts by alicemillea

Oxford University and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln

By the late nineteenth century, Oxford University had developed strong links with the United States of America going back many years. It had conferred honorary degrees on US ambassadors and ministers, including a Doctorate of Civil Law in 1762 for Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers and signatory to the Declaration of Independence. Other figures in the history of the US had studied here: William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, and Charles Chauncy, President of Harvard from 1654 to 1672, were both students at the University in the 1600s.

So when news reached Oxford of the assassination on 15 April 1865 of the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, the University felt the need to respond.

Abraham Lincoln, c1863

Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States, 1863 (source: “Alexander Gardner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Courtesy of The Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/96522529/”)

In the days following the assassination, the Chancellor of the University, the Earl of Derby, wrote to Hebdomadal Council, the University’s executive body, proposing an address of condolence be sent to the US. Hebdomadal Council approved the idea at its meeting of 3 May and the text of the address, in the form of a letter, was drafted. As it was to be sent under the corporate seal of the University, the letter had first to be approved by Convocation (the body of MAs and higher degree holders of the University). Before its next meeting on 5 May, copies of the letter were made available to members of Convocation so that they could read what was proposed to be sent.

Hebdomadal order, 1865

Printed notice of the meeting of Convocation to be held on Friday 5 May 1865 (from OUA/HC 1/7/3)

The University’s letter itself does not survive in the University Archives, but the text of the letter was copied into the register of Convocation as part of the record of its proceedings. The text of the letter read:

“We the Chancellor Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford request your Excellency to convey to the Government and People of the United States of America the assurance of our sincere condolence on the occasion of the appalling calamity which has recently befallen your country.

It is not the practice of this University to notice in its corporate capacity events which do not directly affect the well being of our own country. But at this singular and lamentable crisis we are conscious of the full force of those recollections of the past which must at all times lead the British nation to regard with a community of interest the fortunes and destinies of a friendly and a kindred people. In accordance with these sentiments it is the anxious desire of the University to express to your Excellency the abhorrence with which we together with the whole civilized world regard the assassination of the President of the United States.

We would also at the same time express in common with all ranks of our countrymen our earnest hope that by the orderings of a merciful Providence the American people may speedily enjoy the restoration of internal peace and national prosperity.”

Letter to US ambassador, 1865

Text of letter to the US ambassador from the Register of Convocation, 5 May 1865 (OUA/NEP/subtus/Reg Bu, pp364-5)

Whilst formal addresses by the University were much used at this time as a means of conveying messages from the University as a corporate body, most often to send congratulations or condolences to the current monarch and Royal Family, or to other universities around the world, this expression of sympathy with another nation was unusual. As stated in the letter, the University didn’t generally comment on, or even formally ‘notice’ events which didn’t affect it or the UK directly. But it felt strongly enough about this ‘singular and lamentable crisis’ to step outside of its own conventions.

Convocation approved the text, the University’s seal was attached and the letter was sent. A response from the American ambassador was received and read to Convocation some days later on 11 May but unfortunately the text of that letter does not survive here.

The University’s close relationship with the US has continued and today its citizens are one of the largest groups of international students, academic staff and alumni at the University. Honorary degrees have been conferred on many US citizens including Abraham Lincoln’s successors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton; and a University centre for American studies, the Rothermere American Institute exists to promote the study of the culture, history and politics of the United States.

For more information about the University’s links today with the US, see its website at United States of America | University of Oxford .

Admission of the Proctors

Every year, on the Wednesday of the 9th week of Hilary Term, the University admits its new Proctors and Assessor to office. These are senior officers of the University, responsible for scrutiny and discipline, whose role is to oversee student matters and uphold the University’s statutes and policies. The two Proctors (a Senior Proctor and a Junior Proctor) and the Assessor are selected from the fellows of three colleges (one for each) on a rota basis and each officer holds their position full-time for 12 months.

The role of the Proctor is ancient. First referred to in 1248, the two Proctors were the principal officers of the University, along with the Chancellor. They were responsible for discipline and order, both in terms of academic studies and conduct. At first the Proctors were chosen from among the fellows of colleges, one Proctor for each of the two ‘nations’ into which the University was divided at that time. The Senior Proctor was chosen by the ‘southerners’ and the Junior Proctor by the ‘northerners’. The procedure for their election was complex until 1574 when they began to be elected annually by Convocation (the body of MAs of the University at that time). This lasted until the early seventeenth century when, following a number of rigged elections and some chaotic and pretty violent meetings of Convocation, a new way of selecting the Proctors had to be devised.

Illuminated transcript of the Proctorial cycle, 31 December 1628 (OUA/Long Box 21/2)

The Proctorial cycle, instituted in 1628 at the initiative of King Charles I and the Chancellor of the University, William Laud, established the basis of the current system of selecting the Proctors from each college in turn. Drawn up by two mathematicians, the prearranged order (at that time spanning 23 years) was designed to avoid the conflict of recent years and ensure that the larger colleges didn’t dominate the process (although they did have more frequent turns).

The new cycle came into effect in 1629 and ten full cycles had been completed by the time a new cycle was introduced in 1859. Later amendments have since been made to the cycle to incorporate new colleges and halls; and from 1960 the women’s colleges were permitted to elect a Representative, now known as the Assessor. The Assessor was formally incorporated into the Proctorial cycle in 1978.

The incoming Proctors and Assessor are admitted to office each March at a ceremony held, in recent years, in the Sheldonian Theatre. Due to the pandemic, the 2020 ceremony took place without an audience, and the 2021 ceremony was held online. This year’s admission ceremony, on Wednesday 16 March, is the first to be held in person and in full for three years.

Senior and Junior Proctors’ copies of the Laudian Statutes, 1636 (OUA/WPgamma/25c/3-4)

Senior and Junior Proctors’ copies of the Laudian Statutes, 1636 (OUA/WPgamma/25c/3-4)

As part of the ceremony, the incoming Proctors place their hands on two ancient volumes of University statutes while they swear their oaths of office. These are copies of the 1636  Laudian Statutes held in the University Archives. The Laudian Statutes, so named because their compilation took place under the Chancellorship of William Laud, represented a watershed moment in the history of the University: it was the first time that all the University’s statutes and regulations had been brought together and recorded in one place. They remained at the heart of University governance for several centuries.

The copies of the statutes used in the ceremony were specially made  in 1636 for the Senior and Junior Proctors.  They were to be their personal copies, handed down from Proctor to Proctor as the most important tool for their job. They have recently been handsomely recovered in leather wrappers, fit for their ceremonial role. The statutes are personally escorted to and from the ceremony each year by staff of the University Archives.

The statutes are of course no longer current, but along with a bunch of historic keys which is handed to the Proctors during the ceremony, they are symbols of the ancient but continuing power which the Proctors hold within the University.

 

Thomas Baty, gender critic

February is LGBTQ+ history month, an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the often overlooked and hidden histories of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people. Although LGBTQ+ students will have been part of Oxford University throughout its existence, for most of that time, they were unable to freely be themselves whilst here, and so many of their stories, unrecorded in the University’s archives, remain untold.

LGBTQ+ student societies only began to be formed about 30 years ago. The implementation of anti-gay legislation by the government, such as Section 28 in 1988, caused serious concern for the welfare of LGBTQ+ students. Until this point, their voices had been very rarely heard. Many students in previous centuries had to live a double life, presenting the facade of a ‘conventional’ student whilst living privately in a very different way.

One such student was Thomas Baty. Born in Carlisle in 1869, he was admitted to the University in 1888, a member of Queens College. A talented student of law, he achieved second class honours in Jurisprudence in 1892 and his BA was conferred that same year. He then went on to obtain a Bachelor of Civil Law in 1894 and became a Doctor of Civil Law in 1901. A high-achiever, he also obtained two degrees in law from Cambridge University during this period.

List of successful candidates for the BCL, 1894 (from OUA/UR 3/4/16/1)After his degrees, Baty lectured and examined for the University, holding a law fellowship at University College. There followed a distinguished career in international law, with numerous legal publications to his name. He moved to Japan in 1916 to work as a legal adviser to the Japanese government which he stayed for the rest of his life until his death in 1954.

Thomas Baty as an examiner for the BCL, 1908 (from OUA/UR 3/4/16/1)

But Baty led a very different life away from the University and the law. Only after leaving education does it appear that he began to be free enough to explore all elements of his personality. Regarded today as a gender pioneer, he described himself as a radical feminist. He railed against the restrictive gender conventions of his day, defying those conventions in his private life.

In 1993 it was discovered, by scholars Daphne Patai and Angela Ingram, that from 1909 Baty had been writing books and articles on gender under a different identity. Writing as Irene Clyde, he published works which argued against the strict binary division of gender into male and female. Genderfluid himself, he opposed the artificial gender conventions which society had constructed on biological sex. He thought they served only to create barriers between people. His 1909 novel as Irene Clyde, Beatrice the Sixteenth, was set in an imaginary utopian genderless society. In 1912 he founded the ‘Aëthnic Union’, and in 1915 he and a number of other influential individuals also founded the privately-circulated magazine Urania. Baty used both these channels to attack the system of two rigidly-defined genders.

Thomas Baty, c1915 (source: Bain News Service collection, Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/resource/ggbain.22216/ )

None of Baty’s queer identity can be found in the records here. These document his academic career only and shed no light on these other important aspects of his life. Tracing the experiences of LGBTQ+ students like him in the archives here is virtually impossible; nevertheless, we should not allow the silence of the archives themselves to keep these histories hidden.

Much of the information here about Baty’s life after Oxford has been taken from a series of interesting blogs by Ealasaid Gilfillan available at:

Thomas Baty | LGBT+ Language and Archives (wordpress.com)

Thomas Baty and Gender | LGBT+ Language and Archives (wordpress.com)

Reflections on Thomas Baty | LGBT+ Language and Archives (wordpress.com)

The blogs also give links to further reading on Baty concerning both his professional and personal lives. The discovery of Baty’s identity as Irene Clyde is discussed in Daphne Patai and Angela Ingram’s 1993 book Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals: British Women Writers 1889-1939 (‘Fantasy and Identity: the Double Life of a Victorian Sexual Radical’, pp265-304).

The play’s not decent

As it’s pantomime season, the University Archives’ blog for December looks at the control the University once had over theatres and entertainment in the city of Oxford.

It’s perhaps not widely known that the Vice-Chancellor of the University had, for many years, a huge amount of power within the city. Power not only over the students and staff of the University, as now, but also over the people of the city and their daily lives. From the University’s earliest days, the Chancellor (and, later, the Vice-Chancellor) had authority over all kinds of business in the city. This included activities which we wouldn’t associate with a university today such as the regulation of local trades and food and drink, provision of public utilities and services, and the right to administer law and order. The Vice-Chancellor also gained the power to allow, or refuse, the staging of plays.

From 1881 every intended theatrical performance or public entertainment in the city of Oxford needed the permission of the Vice-Chancellor before it could go ahead. These ranged from plays and concerts to film screenings (in later years) and other entertainments such as boxing tournaments. The Oxford Police Act of that year gave the University the power of theatre censorship, with the right to veto any play which it thought unsuitable. Unfortunately the townspeople of Oxford appear to have had very little say in the matter.

The University worried about the corruption of its youth and frowned upon its students (who were all male at this point) fraternising with the opposite sex. Before women were first admitted as students in 1920, the University saw them as a moral danger to undergraduates, to be avoided at all costs. Actresses were considered to be one of the worst types of women and, as a result, the University kept close eyes on theatre companies visiting the city. It maintained registers of all performances (plays, films, concerts etc) which sought permission to be put on in Oxford.

These registers occasionally note particular issues with the plays staged, and these almost always involved trouble caused by (in the University’s view) the female members of the casts. One play, ‘Little Miss Nobody’, performed in Oxford in May 1899, caused complaints to be brought to the University Proctors. A note in the register, written in red ink, says ‘the girls out continually with members [ie students] and with them at the stage door. The Proctor was told the play was not decent’.

Little Miss Nobody register entry

Register entry concerning ‘Little Miss Nobody’, 1899 (from OUA/PR/1/29/1)

Another, ‘Lord Tom Noddy’, playing in Oxford for a week in June 1896, also caused trouble. A further red note in the register remarks that a number of undergraduates were caught talking to the women in the cast who were lodging in Beaumont Buildings and ‘A number of members saw and cheered them off at the station on Sunday’. The final note (which hints at more) states ‘had a lot of trouble with them’.

Lord Tom Noddy register entry

Register entry concerning ‘Lord Tom Noddy’, 1896 (from OUA/PR/1/29/1)

Sometimes it was the content of plays themselves which gave the University authorities cause for concern, especially when the title was, to them, somewhat suspect. The play ‘A Gay Girl’, which hoped to transfer from a successful run at the Grand Theatre, Maidenhead, to the Empire Theatre on Cowley Road in 1905, caused the University some consternation. Letters between the Grand and the Empire were sent to the University to reassure authorities that the play was morally sound. A copy of the script was even sent over. The Grand tried to allay their fears stating ‘surely if it contained a double meaning [it] would not be commonly used by ladies’. The University must have been persuaded as the play was given permission to perform and ran for a week in May that year.

Of course the behaviour of undergraduates attending the plays was another problem the University had to deal with. A series of audience disturbances at the Empire and the New Theatre in the early 1900s, some involving students, led the University to consider pushing for the Empire to be shut down. In the end it joined forces with the city authorities to issue stern notices to anyone, town or gown, who disturbed the performances. Undergraduates were threatened with the University’s own punishments for such antisocial behaviour as making noise, using bad language and joining in with the play’s dialogue.

Proctors notice 1903

Proctors notice, 1903 (from OUA/PR/1/23/9/2)

The power of the Vice-Chancellor over entertainment in the city finally ended in 1968. Following many years of campaigning, the national fight to abolish theatre censorship led to the passing of the Theatres Act 1968. This repealed the 1881 Oxford Police Act and the Vice-Chancellor had no further power over what passed for entertainment in the city of Oxford.

 

The Langdon Hills map

This month’s University Archives blog looks at one of the most beautiful and colourful items in the University Archives: a 1585 plan of a farm and surrounding land at Langdon Hills in Essex. How did Oxford University Archives end up with a map of Essex? The reason is a bequest to the University which took place exactly 400 years ago.

In 1621 the University was given two plots of land in Essex by Thomas White, a clergyman and former Canon of Christ Church. The gift was intended to establish and provide ongoing financial support for a new professorship at the University: the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy.

Portrait of Thomas White

Portrait of Thomas White (Bodleian Library LP 81)

Donations to the University like this were not unusual. Wealthy individuals wanting to perpetuate their name, or gain some kind of connection with the University, gave land and its associated income (eg from renting the land to tenants) to endow new academic posts or institutions. In the original deed of benefaction which conveyed the two plots of land (known as Langdon Hills and Blackmans Farm) to the University, White set out what he wanted the income from the estate to be used for. The principal one of these was to pay for the salary, or ‘stipend’, of the professor – the sum of £100 a year.

The trouble with estates is that it costs money to run them – sometimes more than the income that you get from them. White’s gift came with its own problems for the University. During the period 1621-1798 the income from the property was never enough for everything it was supposed to pay for. In 1832 the University discovered that the estate, having been neglected by its tenant, was in such ‘a grievous state of dilapidation’ that it was completely unlettable. The University had to spend nearly £2000 on repairs so it could be let again. Until the works were completed, nearly a decade later in 1841, the estate gave the University no income and not one of the post-holders was paid. The situation never really improved and so, by the 1920s, the University decided to part with the estate. By 1924, both plots of land had been sold.

When the University acquired the estate back in 1621, it also acquired a number of much older historical documents as part of the property transaction. These included two plans of the estate – one of Langdon Hills, and one of Blackmans Farm. They had been drawn up in 1585 for the then owner of the estate, Sir Thomas Mildmay. Like many wealthy landowners of the time, Mildmay commissioned surveyors to survey his estates and produce plans of them. Expensive to produce, they would have been a status symbol for him as well as having a practical purpose. Mildmay commissioned John Walker, a surveyor from Essex, and his son (also John), to survey this estate as as well as a number of others he owned in the county.

Plan of Langdon Hills estate

Plan of Langdon Hills estate, 1585 (OUA/SEP/2/1/2)

The larger of the two plans, concerning Langdon Hills, shows the size and use of the farm, including detail of trees and gates and, at the bottom of the plan marked ‘A’, an impressive Tudor house which appears to have been Langdon Hills Hall. The Hall is no longer there, but a farm, Langdon Hall Farm, with the same recognisable field boundaries, can be found just outside Basildon.

Detail of house at 'A'

Detail of house at ‘A’ (from OUA/SEP/2/1/2)

The first black student at Oxford University

As part of Black History Month, the University Archives’ blog for October celebrates the achievements of the first black student at the University: Christian Frederick Cole.

Cole was admitted to the University (‘matriculated’) nearly 150 years ago on 19 April 1873. A young man of 21 from Sierra Leone, he was the adopted son of a clergyman, Jacob Cole. His grandfather had been enslaved. The information he gave the University at his matriculation was brief and the document itself, written in his own hand, is unremarkable. But the significance of this small piece of blue paper is great.

Matriculation form of Christian Cole

Matriculation form of Christian Cole, 1873 (from OUA/UR/1/1/5)

The University did not start recording the ethnicity of its students until late the following century, so we cannot say with absolute certainty that Cole was the first black student; but his presence in Oxford was remarked upon by contemporaries, suggesting that his appearance was something new. Unfortunately we don’t really know what he looked like: we have no images of Cole here in the Archives (the University didn’t take photographs of its students at this time) and the only known images of him are contemporary caricatures showing him racially stereotyped.

Cole was admitted as a non-collegiate student. Non-collegiate or ‘unattached’ students were first admitted to the University in 1868 as part of a move in the second part of the nineteenth century to open it up to a ‘larger and poorer class of the population’. It was one of a number of developments at the time to widen access to a university which was expanding, both in terms of undergraduate numbers, as well as the diversity of the backgrounds of its students.

Non-collegiate status enabled men (it was still only men) to become students without being members of a college or hall; college membership put studying at Oxford out of financial reach for many. Cole was not a wealthy man. He’s said to have suffered much hardship whilst a student, especially after financial support from his family ceased. He found different ways to fund his time here, giving music lessons and offering private tuition to undergraduates, advertising his services in the University Gazette.

University Gazette advertisements

Advertisements for private tuition from the ‘University Gazette’, 29 January 1878

Cole worked hard at his studies, in Latin and Greek, gaining fourth class honours in Literae Humaniores (ie classics), a very respectable achievement at the time, especially for a non-collegiate student. Non-collegiate students tended to pursue a broader and more general course of study for the BA (known as the Pass School) rather than the single-subject specialisation required for honour schools.

His BA was conferred  in 1876 and this is the last mention of him in the University’s own records here. Shortly after that, however, he became a member of University College, through its Master, George Bradley. Until Cole left there in 1880, Bradley personally paid his college membership fees. He also had the support of his fellow students in the college who started an appeal to help him after his family’s financial support ended.

Cole went on to study at the Inner Temple and became a barrister-at-law in 1883. He was the first black African to practise law in an English court. It appears, however, that he struggled to find enough work and had to return to Africa. Cole died in 1885 in Zanzibar of smallpox aged only 33, but he was a pioneer and his experience at Oxford opened the door for other black students to follow. A plaque was erected at University College in 2017 to commemorate his achievements.

More information about Cole’s connections with University College can be found on their website at https://www.univ.ox.ac.uk/news/plaque-univ-pioneer/ . Further information about Cole and other early black students at the University can be found on the Black Oxford website at HOME | blackoxford .

The University’s programme of events for Black History Month is available at Black History Month at Oxford | University of Oxford .  The Opening Oxford 1871- website also includes a recent blog by Patricia Daley, Professor of the Human Geography of Africa, on her experience as a black graduate student at the University in the late 1980s A Home for Black Students | Opening Oxford 1871-

450th anniversary of the incorporation of Oxford University

This year marks the 450th anniversary of the 1571 Act of Parliament, of Elizabeth I, which formally incorporated the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Both had already existed for over three centuries but this confirmed their legal statuses as corporations.

In contrast to the colleges, the central University of Oxford has no charter of foundation. It is said to have emerged during the eleventh century when a  small group of teaching masters and their pupils set up home in hired lodgings in Oxford. Not yet the large corporate body we know now, the University was merely a group of individuals living and working in an already-established town. In 1214,  these individuals were placed under the jurisdiction of a Chancellor appointed by the Bishop of Lincoln and they quickly gained recognition as a corporate body.

Award of the Papal Legate, 1214

Award of the Papal Legate, 1214 (OUA/WPbeta/P/12/1)

First gaining in 1216 the title of ‘universitas’ (which meant, simply, any body of people have a distinct purpose and status), the University’s corporate status was further enhanced over the years by having its own statutes, officers and premises.

Until the reign of Elizabeth, the University had accrued its rights and privileges through the issue of royal charters. Each monarch keen to support the University would grant it a charter conferring yet greater powers and freedoms on it, as well as confirming those issued by their predecessors. Covering a range of areas, from law and order to street cleaning, these additional privileges were often obtained at the expense of the city authorities who saw their rights and privileges reduced as a direct result.

Relations in Oxford between the University and the city were not particularly good at the time the 1571 Act was passed. The city was still smarting over the charter of Henry VIII issued in April 1523 which had given the University many new privileges and powers over it, including effectively putting much of the city’s business under the control of the Chancellor of the University. His powers had extended over control of certain trades (eg the regulation of essential goods such as bread and ale) as well as the right to claim legal cases for the University’s own court, the Chancellor’s Court, bypassing the city’s legal processes.

Exemplification of the Act of 1571

Exemplification of the Act of 1571 for incorporating the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, 7 June 1571 (OUA/WPbeta/A/10)

The Act of 1571 paid little attention to the bad feeling between the two and was instead intent on strengthening the two universities and confirming the rights and privileges they had already acquired over the preceding centuries. In it Elizabeth confirmed the validity of all the charters, deeds and documents previously issued by her predecessors, namechecking, somewhat pointedly, the contentious charter of 1523. The two universities’ possessions and freedoms were ratified and protected, now placed on a more secure statutory footing. The Act also established the University’s official title as ‘the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford’ and gave it a common seal.

In what seems to be a small placatory move towards the city, the last paragraph declared that the Act would not ‘extend to the prejudice or hurt of the Liberties and Privileges of Right’ of the city of Oxford and town of Cambridge.

The exemplification, or copy, of the Act in the University Archives bears the seal of Elizabeth I, showing her seated and holding her regalia. Annotated over the years by University officials and administrators, it has key clauses underlined, notes in the margins and a couple of doodles.

Detail of seal of Elizabeth I, 1571

Detail of seal of Elizabeth I, 1571 (from OUA/WPbeta/A/10)

Although this Act of Parliament did not create the University, it is the highest confirmation of its corporate status. More information about the legal status and constitution of the University can be found on the main University website at  https://governance.admin.ox.ac.uk/legislation/preface-constitution-and-statute-making-powers-of-the-university

Geography in the Long Vacation

The Long Vacation in August has, since the 1880s, been used by University departments to hold summer schools and vacation courses in Oxford while the undergraduates are away. The School of Geography (established in 1899 as a joint venture between the University and the Royal Geographical Society) began holding its own biennial summer vacation courses in 1902.

Geography at that time was very much perceived as a masculine subject – men of high social status exploring far-flung places, climbing mountains in their shirt-sleeves. The students of the School of Geography at the turn of the century, however, were much more diverse than this. Women made up a large number of the School’s students.

Although women were still not able to become members of the University at this time, they could study for a number of diploma courses which were introduced in the early 1900s. These were usually in subjects not offered to undergraduates as part of the BA course: subjects such as public health, anthropology and geography. Women often outnumbered the men in geography diploma classes which began in 1900, although some parts of the subject, such as surveying, remained male-dominated. The women students were also often a little older than their male counterparts and from a wider range of social classes, many of them schoolteachers.

1904 vacation course details

Details of the 1904 vacation course (from OUA/GE/4A)

The summer vacation courses were designed chiefly for schoolteachers. Held to coincide with the school holidays, they were open to anyone. Those attending spent a couple of weeks in Oxford during August for a special course of lectures and practical work in geography. The courses included field trips (for surveying and map drawing) as well as excursions to local places of geographical interest.

Photograph of 1910 field trip

Vacation course field trip, nd (1910) (from OUA/GE/5A)

Women not only attended the summer vacation course in significant numbers – of the 196 students on the 1912 course, 119 were women – they were also heavily involved in its administration. The 1912 course was organised by Nora MacMunn, Demonstrator in Geography and only the second woman to be appointed to an academic teaching position in the University. She was aided by Fanny Herbertson, wife of the Director of the School, AJ Herbertson, a writer and unofficial Geography staff member for many years.

Photograph of 1924 vacation course

Staff and students at the 1924 vacation course (OUA/GE/5B/1)

Geography eventually became part of the BA course in 1932. From that date it became possible to obtain honours in geography as part of the undergraduate curriculum. As a result, however, both the diploma and the vacation courses were abolished – the new geography Final Honour School needed increased staff time to teach it. The number of women studying geography declined as it became a more masculine subject once again – dominated by men looking to move into the civil service or armed forces – and its connections to schoolteaching declined.

A group of women scholars from the School of Geography has been researching the often forgotten history of women geographers in Oxford including their role in the vacation courses. Links to their work, from which some of the information here has been sourced, are available at:

Centenary Event recording ‘A thing inexpedient and immodest’: women in the University of Oxford’s School of Geography now available online | News | School of Geography and the Environment | University of Oxford

‘Must it be a Man?’ Women’s contribution to the University of Oxford | University of Oxford Podcasts – Audio and Video Lectures

Series 2: Nora MacMunn (1875 – 1967) – Women in Oxford’s History Podcast (wordpress.com)

Relaunching the Oxford Botanic Garden

The Botanic Garden celebrates its 400th birthday on 25 July 2021, marked by the current Bodleian Library exhibition ‘Roots to Seeds’  https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/event/roots-to-seeds. The Garden itself has changed over the four centuries since it was founded in 1621 (as the Physic Garden) and its fortunes have fluctuated.

By 1834 it was in a pretty bad state. Charles Daubeny was elected Sherardian Professor of Botany early that year and one of the first things he did on becoming Professor was to launch an appeal to raise money for the Garden. Daubeny had taken over a space which he felt was no longer fit for purpose and which he wanted to restore to ‘the character which it possessed a century ago’.

Daubeny wrote a report to the Visitors of the Garden, the body in charge of it, on 14 March 1834 setting out the problems, along with a detailed discussion of what was needed to put things right. The accompanying ‘Plan of the Botanic Garden with the projected additions’, by Henry Jones Underwood, showed the Garden as it was along with Daubeny’s proposed improvements.

Plan of Botanic Garden 1834

Plan of the Botanic Garden with projected additions by HJ Underwood

Alongside basic improvements such as better soil and the removal of vermin-ridden greenery, Daubeny wanted to expand the Garden and create new areas within it. He planned a new garden (where the Gin Border is now) for ‘plants used in Medicine, Agriculture, or the Arts’; and an ‘Experimental Garden’ for ‘ascertaining the effects of soils, or of chemical agents, upon vegetation’.

His most damning criticism was directed at the buildings in the Garden. The greenhouses, built over a century ago, when ‘the mode of constructing Greenhouses was but ill understood’ were ‘extremely ill-constructed for most kinds of plants’. The Stovehouse was ‘so miserably constructed, that all hopes of cultivating rare and curious Exotics… must be abandoned’. In such bad repair, he recommended they simply be pulled down. Other buildings desperately needed remedial work; the bedrooms in the gardener’s cottage were extremely damp on account of being ‘contiguous to a stagnant ditch’.

Daubeny proposed a range of new buildings including new greenhouses, a lecture room and a new library for the books in the Professor’s study space (themselves significant collections of historical importance which were going mouldy from being stored in a converted greenhouse) as well as for the collections of ‘dried plants’ which he saw as being equally important teachings aids as the living plants in the Garden.

A subscription committee was formed to organise the fundraising. So committed was Daubeny to the appeal that his name appeared at the top of the list of those subscribers who had already pledged money, personally donating £100 (over £13,000 today). The subscription raised enough money to make significant improvements to the Garden, but as Daubeny later reported back to the subscribers, there was still so much left to do that he donated another £100 of his own money.

Letter to subscribers, 1834

Letter to subscribers to the Botanic Garden appeal, 1834

Once the improvements were in place, the Garden flourished, even after the new museum (now the Natural History Museum) was built in the Parks in the 1850s as a centre for the sciences. Daubeny and botany had stayed in the Garden. But within twenty years of Daubeny’s death in 1867, the study of botany had declined yet again. Those sciences based in the new museum were prospering whilst the Garden was not. It took further improvements and yet more investment in the Garden to bring it back to life.

Centenary of the first woman to receive an honorary degree

It’s often said that the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the University was Queen Mary. She received a Doctorate of Civil Law (DCL) by diploma on 11 March 1921. A degree by diploma is similar to an honorary degree, in that it’s conferred without the recipient having to study or sit any exams. The difference is that degrees by diploma are for royalty and heads of state only.

The first woman to receive an honorary degree proper was Charlotte Byron Green who received an honorary Master of Arts (MA) on 14 June 1921. Honoured for her work as a longstanding campaigner for women’s education in Oxford, Charlotte had been a founder member of the Association for the Education of Women (or AEW) which had promoted women’s education in Oxford since 1878. She had connections with Somerville and St Anne’s Colleges, as well as with the city of Oxford, having trained as a district nurse at the Radcliffe Infirmary.

Charlotte was shortly followed by the second female recipient, Elizabeth Wordsworth, former Principal of Lady Margaret Hall and founder of St Hugh’s College (both women-only colleges at that time) who received her honorary MA on 25 October 1921. She was also honoured for her work promoting women’s education in Oxford.

It’s interesting to note that neither Charlotte nor Elizabeth received their degrees at Encaenia, and both were awarded the lesser honorary degree of MA (rather that the doctorates usually conferred at Encaenia). The two ceremonies appear to have been held with very little fanfare and no documentation from either survives in the University Archives. The only record is the decision made on 30 May 1921 by Hebdomadal Council, the University’s executive body, to confer the degrees on Charlotte and Elizabeth.

Given their ground-breaking nature, it’s perhaps surprising that more was not made of these events at the time. Although the University was finally acknowledging the achievements of these women in their long fight for equal academic opportunity (both were elderly by this time: Charlotte, 78, and Elizabeth, 81), there was maybe an irony in honouring them for achieving something which the University had spent so many years resisting.

In the new few years Charlotte and Elizabeth were followed by more eminent women receiving honorary MAs, nearly all of whom were honoured as campaigners for women’s education. The first honorary doctorate was not conferred on a woman until 1925 when Harvard astronomer, Annie Jump Cannon, received an honorary Doctor of Science (DSc).