All posts by alicemillea

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).

 

Relativity and an honorary degree

Ninety years ago this month Albert Einstein, the great physicist and mathematician, visited Oxford University. He came to give the Rhodes Memorial Lectures, a short series of lectures on the subject of relativity held on three successive Saturday lunchtimes at Rhodes House. According to notices in the University Gazette, the lectures were for members of the University, but a few tickets were available to members of the public. The first lecture on Saturday 9 May entitled ‘The Theory of Relativity’ was reportedly packed out. When the lecture began, there were so many people present (over 400 according to The Oxford Times), that there was standing room only for some.

While he was here, the University grabbed the opportunity to give Einstein an honorary degree. Already a famous scientist by this date, he had been invited by the University to receive an honorary degree twice before: at the Encaenia in 1925 and again in 1930. He had been unable to attend both times; his doctor advising him against the trip on the second occasion. His letters declining the offers are gracious and elegantly written. But this third time, the University succeeded and Einstein wrote again on 12 May 1931 accepting the offer with thanks. The arrangements were hastily made and his Doctor of Science (DSc) degree was conferred on the morning of Saturday 23 May, shortly before he gave his third, and final, lecture.

Gazette notice May 1931

University Gazette notice of the conferral of Einstein’s honorary degree, 1931

Einstein delivered that final lecture, on the ‘Latest developments of the Theory’ later than day but to a slightly smaller crowd than previously. The Times reported that there were notable absentees in the audience. Maybe even Oxford’s brightest minds had found an exposition of relativity in German rather challenging.

Einstein left Oxford for Hamburg five days later but the blackboard which he used in giving the second lecture, on ‘The Cosmological Problem’, was kept by the University and remains today in the Museum of the History of Science.

Einstein's blackboard

Blackboard used by Einstein during his second lecture on ‘The Cosmological Problem’. © The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With kind permission of the Albert Einstein Archives.