Category Archives: Spotlight

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

To prevent mail robberies!

A United Kingdom General Post Office printed poster on how to securely send bank notes through the post, 9 Feb 1782

General Post Office poster on how to securely send bank notes through the post, 9 Feb 1782 [click to enlarge]

A helpful 18th-century public information campaign by the General Post Office advises the unwary about how to safely send bank notes through the post.

It is recommended to all Persons, at present uninformed, who may have Occasion to send BANK NOTES by the Post, to cut them in two Parts, according to the following Specimen where it is marked with a  black Line, and send them by different Posts; first writing the Name, Date and Year at one End of the Note, and the Letter and Number at the other End; by this Means each Part will contain a sufficient Specification of the Whole, and prevent any kind of Difficulty in the Payment of it at the Bank of England…in case of the Loss of the other Part.

Highway robbery–your money or your life!–was a very real and present danger in 1782, so this was useful advice.

Bank notes, which were issued in denominations up to a staggering £1000, were a much more discreet and sensible way to carry or send money than hauling around bags of golden guineas, and interestingly, it seems that the growing circulation of notes was one of the reasons for the decline in highway robbery in England in the 19th century, because paper currency was more traceable than coins. And it tickles me to think that it’s possible that enough people started using this secure, two-step technique to send their money through the post that it was no longer worth the effort to hold up a mail coach.

Also notable? This poster only concerns Bank of England notes. The Bank of England did not have a monopoly on issuing paper currency in England and Wales in the 18th century (or for a surprisingly long time afterwards), but this reminder that the Bank would make good on half a note might have encouraged people to use their notes rather than a provincial bank’s.

Another thing it’s interesting to see is the use of the placeholder names John Doe and the now less well-known Richard Roe. To a British reader these might sound very American, but those names have actually been used in English law since the middle ages, and John Doe still is, in some instances, even though we don’t use it to name unidentified bodies!

These papers, of the Earls of Clarendon of the second creation, are currently being catalogued and will be available to readers in 2022.

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)

Royal velvet

Vivid purple and gold artificial flower made from Queen Elizabeth's 1937 coronation robe by the Girls of the John Groom's Crippleage

Artificial flower made from Queen Elizabeth’s 1937 coronation robe [click to enlarge]

This gorgeous purple lily with downward-curling petals and a golden stem is one of two pieces of royal fabric in the archive of the Earls of Clarendon (2nd creation), along with a swatch from a dress of Princess – later Queen – Alexandra. The artificial flower was made in 1937 from the velvet coronation robe of Queen Elizabeth and presented to Verena, Countess of Clarendon, who attended the coronation.

It deserves a better picture (sorry about that) but you can see just how vivid and deeply coloured the purple velvet still is, as are the petals’ golden undersides, the gold thread-wrapped stem and the five tubular stamens at its centre. Although a tiny gold bauble “anther” is still delicately glued in place at the tip of one stamen, it looks like it might have lost four others, and if so, perhaps that’s because it was actually worn by the Countess enough times to damage it slightly. But for an artificial flower (and fabric!) made so long ago, it’s in remarkable condition, thanks to the fabric spending the last 84 years safely hidden and protected from light, damp and insects in its small presentation box.

For me, though, the most interesting thing is the label which tells us who made it: the Girls of The John Groom’s Crippleage.

Who were they?

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Jenny Joseph poetry notebooks digitised

Digitised copy of 'Warning', from Jenny Joseph's poetry notebooks [MS. 12404/41]

Digitised copy of ‘Warning’, from Jenny Joseph’s poetry notebooks [MS. 12404/41]

Five of Jenny Joseph’s poetry notebooks [MS. 12404/41have been digitised and you can now see every page on Digital.Bodleian.

The notebooks are a rich distillation of 60 years of Jenny Joseph’s writing career, starting in 1949, just before she came to the University of Oxford to study English. The third notebook (page 3) includes a draft of her most well-known poem, ‘Warning‘ – When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me – two famous first lines which you can see corrected in this draft.

She wrote the poem in 1961 and first published it in the newsletter of the old people’s home her husband was working in at the time, and then in the magazine The Listener in 1962. She revised it further for her 1974 Cholmondeley Award winning poetry collection Rose in the Afternoon. The poem was a slow burner which surged in popularity in the 1980s, particularly in America, and it was widely anthologised and re-used for everything from tea-towels to cancer campaign adverts. The poem took on a life of its own, even losing its author at times – the Jenny Joseph archive includes a poster that attributes the lines to a mythical ‘Anonymous’. In 1996 ‘Warning’ was voted Britain’s favourite post-war poem and it even inspired new social groups like the Red Hat Society, a club for women over 50. You can find recordings of Jenny Joseph reading ‘Warning’ on YouTube, and readings of four other poems at the Poetry Archive.

 

Secret ciphers

Deciphered diplomatic code in a letter to Thomas Villiers, later 1st Earl of Clarendon, 12 Aug 1746

Deciphered diplomatic code in a letter to Thomas Villiers, later 1st Earl of Clarendon, 12 Aug 1746 [click to enlarge]

An 18th-century British diplomatic cipher is revealed in a 1746 letter to Thomas Villiers.

Decades after this letter was sent, Villiers revived an extinct title and became the 1st Earl of Clarendon (2nd creation) but in August 1746 he was the Hon. Thomas Villiers, second son of the Earl of Jersey, and working in Berlin as Britain’s envoy to the court of Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia, following a succession of diplomatic positions with the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Electorate of Saxony and the Archduchy of Austria.

Frederick the Great liked Villiers enough to, many years later, give him a special grant to use the Prussian eagle on the Villiers family coat of arms but Horace Walpole, the writer, historian, and Whig politician thought that Frederick liked Villiers mainly because Frederick was wary of genuinely capable men: ‘[Villiers] has,’ Walpole wrote, ‘been very much gazetted, and had his letters to the king of Prussia printed, but he is a very silly fellow’ (Walpole, Corr., 20.17).

Whatever Thomas Villiers’ qualities as a diplomat, this coded letter shows something of his everyday work and the importance of confidentiality in the diplomatic service. They were right to be cautious. The ‘My Lord Sandwich’ the letter refers to, who is currently in Breda in the Netherlands, is the 4th Earl of Sandwich (the very man the sandwich is named after) who, at the Congress of Breda, apparently employed the British secret service to intercept and read French secret correspondence. This move helped Britain to diplomatically outmanoeuvre the French at the Congress, which were the peace talks to end the ruinous War of Austrian Succession.

This letter to Villiers is most interesting because it shows not just a number-based cipher, but the deciphered plain text. And although the letter itself doesn’t reveal any thrilling state secrets, it does show the essential exchange of keys so that sender and receiver can read the code.

And that, unfortunately, is about the limit of my understanding of cryptography. If there are any cryptographers reading, feel free to drop into the comments!

These papers, of the Earls of Clarendon of the second creation, are currently being catalogued and will be available to readers in 2022.

A pottle of strawberries (on this day in 1842)

Two evocative lists from the Clarendon archive show the impressive range of foods that a Victorian country estate was capable of producing.

The Grove, an estate in Hertfordshire on the outskirts of Watford, was the country seat of the Earls of Clarendon (2nd creation) for about 170 years after it was purchased by the 1st earl Thomas Villiers in 1753.

A list of fruit and vegetables sent from the Grove estate, 22 July 1842

Fruit and vegetables sent from the Grove estate, 22 July 1842 [click to enlarge]

Two lists addressed to the Countess of Clarendon itemise the vegetables, fruit, game, poultry, fish, wood, eggs, butter and bakery items ‘Sent from the Grove the 22nd day of July 1842′, presumably to the Clarendons’ London house. It includes heads of artichokes, pecks of french beans, dozens of carrots, bushels of peas, sticks of rhubarb, baskets of salad and bunches of sorrell, and, since the printed list was not sufficient, there are handwritten additions itemising pecks of black cherries, pottles of mushrooms and strawberries, and a box of cut flowers, amongst other wonderful things.

A list of provisions sent from the Grove estate, 22 July 1842

Provisions sent from the Grove estate, 22 July 1842 [click to enlarge]

The list of non-vegetable items sent that day looks sparse by comparison but it’s still a staggering amount of food: 1 fawn, 1 leaveret (hare), 12 eggs, 5lb of butter, 5 loaves of bread and 36 fagotts of wood. It’s notable that this is only the list for one day. There is another printed list of fruit and vegetables sent on the 19th of July 1842 with very similar amounts of food. The household was catering on a grand scale.

I was reasonably familiar with pecks and bushels and heads, but curious what a ‘pottle’ amounted to. The Oxford English Dictionary came to my rescue, as it often does. A pottle was, when used to measure liquids and dry goods like corn, equal to half a gallon (approximately 2.3 litres). But when used for strawberries it is, enigmatically, just a small basket of conical shape, designed to protect soft foods in transit.

And what might they have done with their strawberries? This recipe for strawberry salad, by the celebrity French chef Alexis Soyer, published in his useful work of affordable, plain cookery A Shilling Cookery for the People (1845), might not have been fancy enough for the countess, but it does at least make good use of a pottle of ripe strawberries, should you also have a gill of brandy handy.

These papers, of the Earls of Clarendon of the second creation, are currently being catalogued and will be available to readers in 2022.

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.

A flying woman

Letter from the Viceroy of India to the 6th Earl of Clarendon, 1932

Letter from the Viceroy of India to the 6th Earl of Clarendon, 1932 [click to enlarge]

My dear Bertie

writes the Viceroy of India to his friend the 6th Earl of Clarendon in a letter of 15 March 1932:

Thanks so much for your letter, & the personal one enclosed. My poor boy has had a very rough time, & the girl appears to have gone mad about this pilot. […] it will be hard for him to start again all alone. I really thought my two young people were the happiest couple in the world.

When I read an opener like that I lean in for the whole story: please continue, Viceroy! But that, sadly, is all he divulges about the girl or her pilot.

Luckily, it was not difficult to find out more.

The ‘poor boy’ was the Viceroy’s son, Inigo Freeman-Thomas, and the girl was Maxine “Blossom” Miles. And she, it turns out, led an absolutely fascinating life.

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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).