Category Archives: Archives and Modern Manuscripts

A folio-sized “book” in a teal felt-lined box; the cover is in brown leather with darker brown leather borders, with an ornate gilt eagle within a decorative border in the centre and gold-coloured “furniture” in the corners.

Fancy things: Cataloguing the Tercentennial Collection

What do you get a library for its birthday? Especially if it’s a big birthday?

An unusual question, perhaps, but one which was faced by institutions in both Europe and North America when the University of Oxford announced that there would be a celebration of the Bodleian Library’s 300th Anniversary in 1902.

The answer, as evidenced by the Tercentennial Collection, was fancy things…

A folio-sized “book” in a teal felt-lined box; the cover is in brown leather with darker brown leather borders, with an ornate gilt eagle within a decorative border in the centre and gold-coloured “furniture” in the corners.

Tercent. b.5, which was sent by the governing body of the Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen

As part of an ongoing project by the Rare Books team, my colleagues and I have been upgrading the records of collections which will be moved to offsite storage.

These are all items which have been in the library for some time, and most of them are on what we call Pre-1920 records, which were very minimal and transcribed from index cards. My remit is to deal with “recent” books which, in the context of collections that go back to the 15th century, means anything published after about 1850.

The Tercentennial collection had been sitting quietly in a corner of the bookstack ever since it was moved back in when the Weston Library first opened. Largely on records which described it as “[Miscellaneous papers relating to the tercentenary of the Bodleian library, 1902]” there was nothing on the catalogue to suggest the actual content, which was quite unusual.

There were boxes, in some cases very elaborate boxes, which contained salutations in a number of languages from institutions across Europe, often in very fancy bindings (pictured above Tercent. b.5, which was sent by the governing body of the Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen) and also quite often printed on parchment, with wax seals and signatures from the various senior members of the institutions.

Some institutions, perhaps deciding that flat parchment was less interesting, sent scrolls, which make up the Tercentenary Rolls collection.

a blue library trolley with flat wooden shelves containing a collection of telescopic tubes and one square box. The tubes are mostly red and blue leather, with one of brass and another of cardboard. The box for the image above is furthest to the left of the tubes on the top shelf.

Scrolls making up the Tercentenary Rolls collection

This one, Tercentenary Rolls 9, came from the Universität Göttingen, and is the only one which is presented as a box, rather than a telescopic tube:

A roll of paper within a long, tube-shaped box which is covered with brown leather and lined with gold-coloured silk. The box has brass fasteners which are visible on both sides.]

Tercentenary Rolls 9

Aside from the interest of the lengths people went to to present their letters, including a lot of crushed velvet and gold, the textual content of these items is fairly similar: wordy congratulations on the anniversary of the library in a range of languages, and if this were all that the collection held it would be fairly boring. What makes this an interesting snapshot of the library’s history are the scrapbooks.

Tercent. b.9 is a collection of papers relating to the celebrations which was compiled by Falconer Madan, an assistant librarian at the time. It is a comprehensive record of the activities of the University, beginning with a letter dated 1 March 1901, proposing a committee to arrange events for the Tercentenary celebration. In chronological order, the scrapbook contains reports of the committee, announcements from the Curators confirming that the celebrations would take place, and then an official announcement of the celebration, in English and Latin.

Madan was extremely thorough in his collecting and this scrapbook contains a wealth of ephemera including proofs of invitations, lists of the guests who were coming and the people who would be hosting them, copies of a “Lady’s ticket” to the reception (most of the guests being men, of course), plans of the Ashmolean, where the reception was to take place, and seating plans and menus for the dinner in the Hall in Christ Church, which was held on October 9th, 1902.

The scrapbook concludes with press cuttings about the celebration from a wealth of British and foreign newspapers and journals.

Another scrapbook, Tercent. c.5, holds similar material; both now have extensive content notes in the catalogue records, listing everything.

A published work, Pietas Oxoniensis was also produced by the Oxford University Press, and there is evidence in the Tercentennial collection of the painstaking work which went into it. There are several versions of the book in the collection; Tercent. c.6-c.12 are different iterations including proofs which were sent by the Press to the Librarian, Edward Nicholson, who annotated them in his distinctive spidery handwriting in bright red ink.

This example, Tercent. c.6, also shows a few annotations by Madan in black ink. A copy of the finished book can be found at Tercent. c.13.

Two pages of a folio-sized book, printed with a list of the librarians of the Bodleian Library. The text has been heavily annotated in red in the hand of Edward Nicholson, with a few annotations in black ink, and two blue-ink stamps of the Oxford University Press top and bottom

Tercent. c.6

This collection of disparate not-books represents a snapshot of a particular event in the history of the library and is all the more valuable for that. If it had not been for the diligence of the librarians at the time, these items might have been separated into different collections, or lost entirely.

Someone – presumably Falconer Madan – had the foresight to collect all the materials and gifts together, and it is our good fortune that they have been largely undisturbed for the last 120 years.

Everything has now been boxed and sent offsite (with the exception of Tercent. Rolls 11, which is printed on very friable paper and is awaiting repair), from where they can be ordered to the Weston Library by anyone who is interested.

This year marks 420 years since the opening of the library, and, while there will be no big celebrations (or fancy scrolls) to mark that birthday, it seems fitting that the celebrations of 1902 are now recorded in a way that makes them more accessible.

Katie Guest
Senior Library Assistant
Rare Books,

The Pass School

One of the most frequent enquiries received by the University Archives is along the lines of “My ancestor studied at Oxford, what subject did they study?” This is a deceptively simple question, as it assumes that the route to an Oxford BA has always had its current “shape” – a student is interested in a subject, they apply to specifically study that subject, they receive (if successful) a BA in that subject, usually with an honours class.

However, this was not the case for hundreds of years in the University. Instead, the system we know now is the result of the culmination of an astonishing number of changes to the examination statutes during the 19th century. The full history of these and the motivations behind them would comfortably fill a volume, so in this year, the 150th since its introduction in 1872, we’re going to look at the lead up to and implementation of one such (little known) change – the introduction of the Pass School.

From the early days of the University, then codified in the Laudian Statutes of 1636, students followed a common curriculum. In their first year, students studied grammar and rhetoric via the medium of Latin. From their second year, they studied logic and ethics. From their third year onward, they also studied Greek and Geometry. All of these subjects were studied via the works of Classical authors (Romans and Greeks) and can roundly be described as ‘Literae Humaniores’. The means of examination was oral – students were required to participate in debates and answer questions from a panel of examiners in order to demonstrate their knowledge of specific topics.

However, in the decades leading up to 1800, both Oxford’s curriculum and the means of examination were criticised. The narrow focus on the Classics seemed out-of-step with the range of subjects being methodically studied at other, newer universities, and the need to pass the BA before preceding to study any subject other than the Classics (with very few exceptions) was seen as a barrier to scientific studies. In addition to this, the examination system had become a farce. The questioning sessions had become a set series of questions, with students learning the answers by rote. There was no “ranking” of those examined – all successful candidates were awarded a BA.

It’s unsurprising therefore that many students never bothered to be examined or graduate, and the University, in the face of public contempt, sought to improve the system. Two resulting “themes” in the ensuing changes to the examination statutes throughout the 1800s can be identified – the separation of “pass” and “honours” candidates and the erosion of the common curriculum (through the introduction of new subjects and the ability to specialise).

Page of the original copy of the Laudian statute showing requirements for the BA degree

The first page of statutes relating to the exercises required for the BA degree in the first edition of the Laudian Statutes, 1636 (OUA/WPgamma/25c/1)

The Examination Statutes of 1800 retained the common and familiar curriculum, but made the method of examination more vigorous. A board of six examiners were appointed, with the requirement that at least three examiners were present at every examination. Furthermore, a separate “extraordinary” examination was instituted, which candidates could attend instead of the “normal” examination, which aimed to stretch the most able students. The highest performing twelve students were deemed to have passed, and their names were published, in order of merit.

The attempt was a disaster, with few entrants to the extraordinary exam, and a total of 10 individuals receiving honours between 1802 and 1807. In 1807 the Examination Statutes were again rewritten, but this time the changes were far more successful. Students were examined in much the same way, but all took the “same” examination. Honours were awarded to those who were deemed to have done exceptionally well – both through demonstrating a better understanding of the texts and ideas discussed, but also through displaying having read more widely. Successful students were placed in three groups, with their names arranged alphabetically within the groups – first class, second class, and the remainder who had “satisfied” the examiners. Furthermore, the same statute decreed that there should be two groups of classes – one for Literae Humaniores and one for the Mathematics and Physical Sciences elements of the exam. Thus, it was possible to get a “double first” – for exceptional performance in both elements.

These statutes set the tone for the changes over the next six decades. Class divisions remained, although the number varied, peaking at five (Classes 1-4, and the remainder). The examination of those seeking honours, and those aiming for a pass was gradually, increasingly separated. From 1830 candidates were required to submit in advance to the proctors not only their names, but also the lists of books which they intended to cover and discuss during the examination. Based on the lists of books submitted, examiners would divide candidates into two groups in advance – those to be examined for honours and those seeking a pass – and examine the two groups separately.

The subjects in which candidates were examined were also increasingly separated. In 1825, an additional examination for those seeking honours in Mathematics and Physical sciences was instituted. Once a candidate had passed the Literae Humaniores examination, they could say that they wished to be examined for honours in Maths and Science, and their name would be submitted for a later examination, by a separate group of examiners.

The most significant change came in 1850 when four final examination schools were introduced – Literae Humaniores; Mathematics and Physical Sciences; Natural Sciences; and Law and Modern History. However, the defenders of the common curriculum ensured that this did not mean the end of the dominance of the Classics at Oxford. In order to receive a BA, a student had to pass the examination in two subjects, and one of them had to be Literae Humaniores. All students were first examined in the Classics and only if they passed in that school could their names be passed to the examiners in one of the other three schools. Curiously, this would appear to mean that a student could not “only” study Literae Humaniores!

A depiction of a student's nightmare of examinations

The “horrors” of the common curriculum and oral examination clearly continued to weigh on the undergraduate mind during the 1800s (G.A. Oxon 4° 412 (v.1), folio 12)

However, the writing was on the wall for the defenders of the mandatory study of the Classics. In 1864 the statutes were changed to allow those who were placed in classes 1 to 3 in a single subject to obtain a BA. By 1870, this was extended to those obtaining fourth class honours. As such, those defending the common curriculum were forced to rely on the curriculums for examinations taken earlier in the students’ time at Oxford in order to retain at least some focus on Literae Humaniores – Responsions (introduced in 1808, and by the 1870s generally taken in the first year, with the stronger colleges often insisting on them being taken during the first term of residence) and Moderations (introduced in 1850 and taken roughly halfway through the student’s time at the University).

A student trying to translate from English to Greek during an examination

A caricature of an undergraduate taking “smalls” (the name given to Moderations) depicting the continuing importance of the Classics in examinations (G.A. Oxon 4° 412 (v.1), folio 48)

The recognition of new subjects and the separation of pass and honours candidates culminated in the new examination statutes of 1872 – the first year in which the examination statutes merited a separate printing to the other statutes of the University. The honour schools of Literae Humaniores, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, and Natural Sciences were retained; Law and Modern History had been split into two schools in 1871, and Theology had been introduced as a separate subject in 1869. There were four classes in each subject.

The greatest change in these statutes was the introduction of a specific school for those seeking a pass degree. A pass degree was no longer simply failing to be placed in a class in one of the honour schools. Instead, it was an entirely different course, with a surprisingly modern and revolutionary structure, content and method of examination. The curriculum was separated into groups (subject themes) and had “units” within those groups including some previously side-lined subjects within the University, specifically modern languages. The groups and units in 1872 were as follows:

Group A – essentially Literae Humaniores
A1 – Two books. Either both Greek or one Greek and one Latin. One to be a book of philosophy, one of history.
A2 – The outlines of Greek and Roman history
Group B – essentially Languages, Politics and Law
B1 = English history and literature; OR modern European History with Geography
B2 = French or German language and literature
B3 = The elements of political economy
B4 = A branch of Legal Study
Group C – essentially Mathematics and the Sciences
C1 = The elements of Geometry
C2 = The elements of Mechanics, Solid and Fluid, treated mathematically
C3 = The Elements of Chemistry
C4 = The Elements of Physics

Within this modular and varied course, it was mandated that students had to take and pass at least three units, giving candidates a wide selection of subjects to select from and explore. The examinations for each unit were separate from each other and could be spread over the candidates’ final two years in Oxford.

A marked up copy of the pass school regulations

A copy of the 1883 edition of the Student’s Handbook, owned by a student at the time. One motivation for the publication was to help students navigate the increasingly complex curriculum. The pages relating to the Pass School are clearly marked, indicating options of interest.

The passage of this course into statute was not straightforward. First suggested as a concept to Hebdomadal Council in February 1870, the statute was not passed by Convocation until March of 1872. In the interim, the statutes were the subject of much debate in Congregation, with amendments (often multiple and competing amendments to the same clause) being suggested and sent back to Hebdomadal Council in the intervening years. This prevarication was clearly a source of frustration to the University authorities. When the statutes came to face yet another contested vote in Congregation in February 1872, Dr Pusey, evidently frustrated, was recorded as saying “The last vote [relating to the Honour School of Literae Humaniores] was on principle, the present was a question of expediency. Let the statute pass.” (Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 10 February 1872). The statute passed, by 67 votes to 43.

It is notable that the main suggested alterations and objections were not to the idea of a pass school per se, but related to details as to its implementation. One of the amendments that was included in the final version of the statute was the rule that candidates had to take and pass either unit A1 (essentially Literae Humaniores) or B2 (French or German). This is a curious compromise between attempts to preserve an aspect of the common curriculum (the Classics) with the attempts to introduce a brand-new subject (modern languages) as part of a route to the BA. In a move that seemed to ensure the diversity of the curriculum for those taking the Pass School in an age of increased subject-specialisation, students were not permitted to take more than two units from any one group.

Pages of text containing suggestions for new examination statutes 1869

A copy of the recommendations of the Examination Committee, first proposing the reconstituted Pass School (OUA/HC 1/6/2, folio 45v)

The course came in for criticism, especially in its early days, notably in terms of academic perception. PA Wright-Henderson, a tutor at Wadham College, thought the new pass school widened the ever-expanding gulf between “passmen” and “classmen” which was “founded on the questionable assumption that the passman was an entirely different creature from his counterpart reading for honours.” Pass School coaches were depicted as “cramming” the students by rote in advance of examination (harkening back to the preparation for the questioning sessions of the examinations before 1800), in contrast to the idea of encouraging honours school candidates to read widely and explore their subjects. Passmen were commonly depicted as idle (which is a questionable assumption given that their examinations were spread over a longer period of time) with Edwin Palmer (Corpus Professor of Latin) in 1877 described the teaching of passmen as “a sort of police supervision”.

A caricature of a common perception of a "passman"

A depiction of one of the critical perceptions of “passmen”, spending his time with “ease”, “bliss”, “indulgence”, and rowing, before a period of cramming, and afterwards receiving a BA. A “testamur” was a certificate signed by the examiners, certifying you had passed an exam, and “ploughing” was slang for failing. One of the criticisms of the modular curriculum was that it meant that a candidate only had to repeat a smaller amount of work if they failed one of the three units (G.A. Oxon 4° 413 (v.2), folio 309)

However, the pass school provided a useful route by which the University could introduce new subjects as a part of the BA without (or before) developing a new honour school, and a means by which students interested in those subjects could incorporate them into their degrees. This is most clearly demonstrated with the incorporation of diplomas and certificates within the Pass School. First appearing in the Examination Statutes of 1905, diplomas (and later, certificates) offered a University-issued qualification (although not the equivalent to a degree), which could be obtained in a shorter timeframe, in new “practical” subjects such as Geography, Education, Economics, Engineering, Anthropology and Forestry. As early as 1908, candidates for the pass degree were able to use certificates and diplomas in lieu of completing units – a diploma counted for two units, whilst a certificate could be used in lieu of completing one unit.

Perhaps it is due to this public perception of the school or the emphasis of “otherness” but the pass school did begin to wane in popularity relatively quickly. According to figures compiled for the sixth volume of The History of the University of Oxford, in the 1870s, 30% of undergraduates took the pass school. By 1910, the number had decreased to 16%. Nevertheless, the pass school continued to add further subjects to its growing options over the years. In 1886 Group D was created – Elements of Religious Knowledge. This was followed three years later by a rather different addition when the preliminary examinations of many of the science-related honour schools became units. In 1904, Group E “military studies” was introduced. By 1930, Hebrew, Spanish and Italian formed part of the roster, alongside separate units for English Literature and History.

Although its popularity waned over the years, the pass school did not leave the statutes in this modular form until 1992. However, the existence and structure of the pass school reflects many of the pressures and social opinions that came to bear upon the University examinations in the 1800s. Its introduction marks the beginning of the dominance of the Honours School and the recognition of classes, alongside a desire to simultaneously widen the curriculum whilst permitting specialisation. Its innovative structure can be seen as providing a means for the University to pave the way to a more dynamic and diverse curriculum.

eds. Curthoys, M. C; Brock, M. G. The History of the University of Oxford: Volume VI: Nineteenth-Century Oxford, Part 1. Oxford: OUP, 1997, especially Chapter II, “The Examination System” by M.C. Curthoys.

Brockliss, Laurence W. B. The University of Oxford: A History. Oxford: OUP, 2016, especially Part II.7 – “Students and Teachers” and Part III.9 “A century of Reform”.

Cox, G. V. Recollections of Oxford. London: Macmillan, 1870.

Mallet, Charles Edward. A History of the University of Oxford, Volume III: Modern Oxford. London: Methuen, 1924.



Collecting COVID: Oral Histories now available

The Collecting COVID project has been underway at the Bodleian Libraries and History of Science Museum since late 2021, with an active collecting programme achieving a range of material acquisitions relating to the University’s research response to COVID-19.  To complement the physical COVID-19 collections established at both institutions, the Bodleian has also been collecting oral history interviews, all conducted by writer and broadcaster Georgina Ferry.

The first batch of born digital audio files have now been made publicly accessible through the University Podcasts website.

Consisting of 20 episodes relating to the interviews of 13 researchers and academics spanning across academic divisions, the interviews reveal an insight into some of the incredibly impactful work happening behind the scenes during the height of the pandemic. From drug discovery/repurposing, vaccine trials and development, government policy tracking and development of mass testing programmes, the interviews offer the listener a window into our recent past and into the immense efforts taken to combat a global health emergency.

The Collecting COVID project is funded by the E. P. A. Cephalosporin Fund.

The Roger Bannister catalogue is now online

The official race card for the 6 May 1954 athletics meeting at Iffley Road Athletic Ground featuring the world record mile race, signed by Bannister, Chataway and Brasher

The official race card for the 6 May 1954 athletics meeting that featured the world record mile race, signed by Bannister, Chataway and Brasher, who are all listed as members of Achilles, the club for current and former members of the Oxford University Athletic Club

You can now find the catalogue of the archive of athlete, neurologist, and Master of Pembroke College, Sir Roger Bannister (1929-2018) online at Bodleian Archives and Mansucripts.

A talented middle-distance runner from childhood, Bannister came to the University of Oxford in 1946 to study medicine. He served as president of the Oxford University Athletic Club where one of his achievements was to redevelop and resurface Oxford’s Iffley Road athletics track, where he later won a world record. In 1949 in the European Championships, which was his first international event, Bannister won bronze for Great Britain in the 800m final. By 1951 he was ranked first in the world over the mile. In 1952, Bannister concentrated all his efforts on the Olympics in Helsinki, but even though he was considered a favourite, he finished a crushing fourth.

This blow left him on the verge of retiring from athletics, but instead he decided on a new goal: being the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. The world record was 4:01.3 but two other men were drawing close to it: Australia’s John Landy, and America’s Wes Santee, who both ran 4:02 minute miles in 1952 and 1953.

On 6 May 1954, at a meeting between Oxford University and the Amateur Athletic Association at Oxford University’s Iffley Road track, Bannister and his pacemakers Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway (then a student at  Magdalen) were in the AAA team, and lined up at the starting line. There was a false start: by Chris Brasher. The wind had been swirling all day and the decision to run had been touch or go until the wind suddenly dropped, just before the race. In his memoir Twin Tracks, Bannister remembers how angry he was at this delay, afraid that they might be about to lose the lull in the wind.  The starter’s gun went off again.

At first Brasher held the lead, pacing Bannister for just over two laps, and then Chataway took over. With over 200 yards to go, Bannister turned on his famous finishing kick and accelerated into the lead with the Oxford crowd screaming in the stands.

He crossed the line at 3:59.4, not only breaking the world record but running the first ever sub-four minute mile.

Instantly internationally famous, Bannister was sent by the Foreign Office on a tour of America, while also finding time that spring to qualify as a doctor, but 46 days later his world record was broken by rival John Landy. In August 1954, the Landy and Bannister met in one of the most anticipated races of the twentieth century at the British Empire [Commonwealth] Games in Vancouver. The ‘Miracle Mile’ put Bannister’s finishing kick on full display. Landy, who was in the lead, made a famous mistake when he turned nervously to look for Bannister over his left shoulder, only for Bannister to overtake him immediately on the right. Bannister beat his own record with a time of 3:58.8 but Landy retained the world record.

Roger Bannister retired from athletics that year to concentrate on his medical career. He practiced clinical medicine as a neurologist at both St Mary’s Hospital and the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London and did his national service with the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1957-1959, which included writing a life-saving report on preventing heat illness. His research interests were in the autonomic nervous system, with a particular interest in the neurological control of breathing, on orthostatic hypotension (a failure to regulate blood pressure) and on multisystem atrophy. From 1982 he was the first chairman of a body he largely inspired, the Clinical Autonomic Research Society. Also in 1982, he published the first textbook on the autonomic nervous system, Autonomic Failure.

From 1971-1974 Bannister served as the first chairman of the Sports Council (now called Sport England) and was knighted for this in 1975. He oversaw an increase in central and local government funding of sports facilities and he also introduced the first testing for anabolic steroids. He was subsequently appointed the president of the International Council for Sport and Physical Recreation (ICSPR). Between 1985 and 1993, he returned to Oxford to serve as Master of Pembroke College.

Roger Bannister published two autobiographies, The First Four Minutes (1955) about the four-minute mile, and Twin Tracks (2014) about his dual careers in athletics and medicine.

The archive includes correspondence and papers about the four minute mile, including training schedules and many congratulations letters and requests for appearances and advice. It also includes correspondence relating to his working career as a doctor, head of the Sports Council, and Master of Pembroke, as well as an extensive range of photographs covering his athletic career and public appearances.

Notes in the margin

This month’s University Archives blog looks at some of the stranger annotations which appear in the University’s records over the centuries. Administrative records of any organisation can be fairly dry affairs. They were created because a job needed doing and the University’s officers and administrators, in the main, dutifully carried our their tasks. Many of the records in the Archives here, however, show that the people who wrote them were not that different from us today. They got bored at meetings, they criticised their colleagues, and they couldn’t resist a joke at someone else’s expense.

As well as recording the important business of the day, some records can contain extra notes and annotations in the margins, or sometimes right in the middle of the text, which add unexpected details. Although mostly mere scribbles and doodles (‘marginalia’ seems too grandiose a term for these), some of the notes are making a very different point. The following is just a very small selection of what we’ve found.

One of the earliest registers of University business in the Archives is a register kept by the Chancellor. Known as the Chancellor’s Register (Registrum Cancellarii), it was maintained by successive Chancellors from 1435 to 1469 and contained a range of business with which they, or their specially-appointed commissaries (deputies) personally dealt. The Chancellor’s powers were wide and as well as being head of the University, he also had to act as judge, magistrate and keeper of the peace in Oxford.

Throughout the register there are little pointing hands drawn in the margins, directing the reader to something important. Known as manicules, these were commonly used for centuries as a way of highlighting key points or interesting parts of a text, much like the fifteenth-century equivalent of a post-it note.

Manicule from Chancellor's Register Hyp/A/1

Pointing finger, or ‘manicule’, in the Chancellor’s Register, 1435-59 (from OUA/Hyp/A/1)

In other places, there are more elaborate doodles which appear to serve no purpose whatsoever other than to quell the boredom of the writer. On one page, written by one of the Chancellor’s commissaries, John Beek, during his deputising for the Chancellor in September 1451, there is an elaborate circular drawing. This must have taken some time to do as it is carefully drawn. Perhaps the business that day was particularly dull?

Doodle from the Chancellor’s Register, 1451 (from OUA/Hyp/A/1)

Some records in the Archives also show evidence of officers’ recordkeeping skills being criticised by their colleagues. A Register of Congregation contains a terse exchange of 1580 written in the margin in which the Registrar (and writer of the register) Richard Cullen receives a complaint from an unhappy anonymous critic. The note is written next to a blank list of inceptors (those who were proceeding to higher degrees) in Theology, Civil Law and Medicine. The names haven’t been filled in yet. The anonymous critic starts things off, complaining about the emptiness of the list:

‘Mr Cullen, you must use to make your book more perfit and not leave their names owt so long til thei be quite forgoten’

Richard Cullen retaliates, firmly passing the blame onto someone else, namely one of the University’s Bedels:

‘not forgotten but the bedell not paynge of me for regestring this act hath dune me injurye and so you’

The matter seems not to have been resolved within the pages of the register. The entries remained empty. Let’s hope the people receiving their higher degrees were not forgotten as a result.

Exchange recorded in margin of Register of Congregation (NEP/supra/Reg KK, fol 311r).

Less commonly, the University’s records have been annotated to make a joke. Robert Veel, who matriculated from St Edmund Hall on 6 May 1664, was the victim of such a joke. Robert signed his name in the University’s subscription register, as every student was required to do at that time, confirming his assent to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England.

Someone, we don’t know who, then thought it hilarious to write in the word ‘py’ after Robert’s surname, so he is now listed for posterity as Robert Veel py (ie veal pie). It looks as if the comedy addition to the register was done at pretty much the same time as Robert wrote his name, but we don’t know whether it was a bored administrator who snuck the joke in, or perhaps one of the students signing their name further down the page after Robert who saw an opportunity. Either way, the joke made it into Joseph Foster’s Alumni Oxonienses, the multi-volume register of members of the University up to 1888, published in the late nineteenth century. There, Foster rather cheerlessly describes the insertion ‘doubtless as a jest’.

Subscription entry for Robert Veel (from OUA/SP/41)

It will be interesting to see how the transition from paper to digital records in the University affects the survival of doodles and other annotations like this in the future. Born-digital records offer many benefits, but they could, rather sadly, hail the demise of such notes in the margin.

African Poetry Project: an intern’s view

What do we mean when we say ‘African poetry’? Do we mean poetry by an African writer? But who counts as an African writer? A poet born in Africa? A poet living in Africa at the time of writing? And what does ‘poetry’ mean here? Are we referring to traditional verse forms like sonnets, villanelles, quintets, with regular metre and rhythm, printed in verse collections or neatly typewritten in English? What would happen if we broaden our definitions, if we recognize the various types of communication, broadcast, and preservation of traditions and how they may inform how poetry is carried in different cultures? What if we were open to these forms? These are the questions which I have been helping to answer over the past few weeks during my internship in the Bodleian Library’s Archives and Modern Manuscripts department. By using broader defining terms and broader answers to these questions, we can dive back into the archives to find new sources of African poetry which may have been buried.

This project is associated with the African Poetry Digital Portal, an initiative of the African Poetry Book Fund. The Fund promotes and advances the development and publication of the poetic arts through its book series, contests, workshops, and seminars and through its collaborations with publishers, festivals, universities, conferences and all other entities that share an interest in the poetic arts of Africa. The Portal is a new and evolving resource for the study of the history of African Poetry and will provide access to biographical information, artefacts, news, video recording, images and documents related to African poetry from antiquity to the present. It will also feature specially curated digital projects on various aspects of African poetry. The first two sections of the portal—‘The Index of Contemporary African Poets’ and ‘The African Poets and Poetry in the News’ have been developed with the support of the Ford Foundation and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

The Bodleian Library is one of the collaborating institutions working on the project. When I said ‘dive back into the archive’, the archives of most interest to us are the collections of records relating to Africa, many of which were created during the colonial era. While the collections under consideration also include those more commonly associated with ‘African poetry’, such as the protest songs and poems in the Archive of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, this is what the project is designed to do – to recover the occluded and the lost voices, of which there are many in the collections.

Guided by the APDP’s brief, I began by creating a list of search terms. The project’s definition of an ‘African’ with regards to poetry is: “The poet must be African, which we define as someone who was born in an African country, is a citizen of an African country, or has at least one parent who is/was an African.” Their definition of poetry is a broad one, and too extensive to quote here, but to give a hint of what it entails, my list of search terms ended up including, without being limited to:

poetry, proverb, saying, aphorism, motto, epigram, verse, rhyme, ballad, song, incantation, folk, folklore, custom, history, fable, art, runes, oral, chorus, vernacular, oath, tradition…

With this list of terms, I first tackled the online catalogue, Bodleian Archives & Manuscripts. There were limited results here and the outlook seemed bleak. But then I began to gingerly approach a selection of scanned and OCR’d handlists, each of which gives an outline of what each collection includes. Ctrl + F is your friend here. And a good playlist. It was slow progress, and the names are enough to make one doubt: Lord Scarborough. Sir Mark Wilson. Humphrey William Amherst. Searching for ‘folk’ turns up more instances of ‘Norfolk’ and ‘Suffolk’ than African folk songs. ‘Customs’ finds lengthy papers on ‘Customs and Tariffs’ instead of traditional African customs. ‘Histories’ of African tribes look promising, until you see the author – a John, Charles, or George – and realise the history is a type of history written for a particular reason, and not the one we’re looking for.

But there are flashes of discovery. A vague handlist entry tells us about a letter which might contain something of interest:

f. 35. Philip (JOHN) to James Crapper concerning his attack on slavery, his own experiences and findings among the… [Khoekhoe people], and the English translation of a song from Madagascar.

When I had a hunch that here might be an example of African poetry just waiting to be found, I requested the box up from the subterranean levels of the Weston Library. Such was the case for Rev. John Philip’s letter to James Crapper dated 29th September 1830. Having collected the item, I could see that Philip includes in his correspondence ‘A Song Concerning the Dead’ which is ‘translated literally from the Madagascan language’. Squinting through his handwriting, we can make out the origins – he overheard the song while anchoring for a short time in a coastal town. He provides a commentary on the ‘Song’ and compares its beauty to that of Gray’s ‘Elegy’. This is success – a Madagascan poem, composed by an unknown African poet, housed among colonial records and now given its literary due thanks to the project.

Photograph of a handwritten letter including text for a Song Concerning the Dead, 29 September 1830‘Song Concerning the Dead’, letter from John Philip to James Crapper, 29 Sep 1830, Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Afr. s. 4, fols. 35-36

Another example might be the Papers of Lord Claud David Hamilton, who spent much of his life involved in colonial affairs, as well as travelling through and researching Kenya. The handlist reads:

HAMILTON. (Lord Claud David). Correspondence on the Masai [Maasai] tribe, Kenya, with collections of tribal folk-tales and songs, articles on life in Kenya and a MS history of the Masai.

As expected, we find his unpublished (rejected) manuscript on the Maasai. Perhaps more unexpectedly, this manuscript is bursting with Maasai songs, prayers, and poems in various African languages, neatly typewritten. These range from women’s fertility prayers at an ‘ol-omal Ceremony’ to a ‘Song of the Il-Peless age-set’. While we cannot attribute the songs to a named poet or verify the accuracy of his transcriptions of course, these certainly originate from the Maasai tribes and are certainly poems – ‘African poetry’, if we take APDP’s definition.

Hamilton’s and Philip’s papers are just two examples of many more discoveries that we have made, and so far, after combing through catalogues and calling up boxes, I have found fifteen definite instances of African poetry. And the list of boxes for further checking is still extensive. While my internship is over, the project is definitely not – and I’m sure there is much more to find.

-Kelly Frost

This internship was sponsored by the Mellon Foundation as a part of the grant awarded to the African Poetry Book Fund  and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries for the development of the African Poetry Digital Portal. Collaborators include: the University of Cambridge, the University of Cape Town, the University of Ghana, the University of Lomé,  the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, Oxford University, and the Library of Congress.

Philip Larkin: Centenary of a Poet

Today marks the centenary of the birth of the poet Philip Larkin, who was born in Coventry on 9th August 1922.

Larkin was educated at King Henry VIII School in Coventry and at St John’s College, Oxford, where he read English language and literature, graduating with a first-class degree in 1943. Whilst many generations who studied his poems at school will remember him first and foremost as a poet, he also had a long and successful career as a librarian, most notably at the University of Hull where he worked for the last thirty years of his life.

Photograph of the poet Philip LarkinPhilip Larkin by Godfrey Argent, bromide print, 19 June 1968, NPG x29214  © National Portrait Gallery, London (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Larkin’s association with the Bodleian Library started in his undergraduate years, and continued throughout his creative and professional life. On his death, Larkin bequeathed the Bodleian several collections of letters. These include letters from: Kingsley Amis, a fellow English student at St John’s who became a life-long friend; the novelist Barbara Pym; and Larkin’s long term friend, lover, and companion, Monica Jones. In 2006, the Bodleian acquired the corresponding letters Larkin wrote to Jones and it is in these letters we get an insight into the creation of one of his most famous poems, An Arundel Tomb.

The tomb that inspired Larkin to write the poem is located in Chichester Cathedral and is now generally thought to be the tomb of Richard FitzAlan, the 10th Earl of Arundel (d.1376) and his second wife, Eleanor of Lancaster (d.1372). Larkin and Monica Jones visited Chichester in January 1956 and his letters to her after their visit refer to the poem in progress (MS. Eng. c. 7413)*.

The letters show that Larkin particularly deliberated over the last verse and the famous oft-quoted last line in particular. On 12th February 1956 (fol. 7), Larkin wrote to Monica saying that he was

absolutely sick of my tomb poem… It’s complete except for the last verse, which I can’t seem to finish: but I can’t feel it is very good, even as it stands. It starts nicely enough, but I think I’ve failed to put over my chief idea of their lasting so long, & in the end being remarkable only for something they hadn’t perhaps meant very seriously.

A postcard to Monica followed, postmarked 21st February (fol. 10), where he gives two alternatives to his last line:

‘That what’  } survives of us is love.
‘All that’

Larkin asks for ‘Comments please’ before rapidly moving on to yesterday’s bout of indigestion. On 26th February (fol. 19v-20r), he wrote that he has ‘about finished the tomb’, the last lines now reading:

Our nearest instinct nearly true:
All that survives of us is love.

Larkin is however still unsure, writing that including ‘almost’ instead of ‘nearest’ and ‘nearly’ in the penultimate line

wouldn’t do if the last line was to start with All: I didn’t think it pretty, but it was more accurate that this one, & I felt an ugly penultimate line would strengthen the last line. Or rather, a “subtle” penult.[imate] line w[oul]d strengthen a “simple” last line. Sea-water mean?

It seems ‘All that’ won out for a time, appearing again in pencil at the end of the typescript draft Larkin sent to Monica (fol. 22). The very fact that these lines are in pencil indicates Larkin was still undecided. On 2nd March, he wrote that he ‘shall ponder the last two lines. I quite like the “almost” set up, but don’t like the “that what” construction it entails’ (fol. 26).

Typescript draft of Philip Larkin's poem 'An Arundel Tomb'
Typescript draft of Philip Larkin’s poem An Arundel Tomb, Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 7413, fol. 22. By kind permission of The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Philip Larkin.

In the end, the ‘almost’ won through and the ‘that what’ was avoided:

Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

An Arundel Tomb was published in May that year and would go on to be included in Larkin’s 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings. Whilst possibility not one of his own favourite poems, it is certainly one of his best remembered. The poem was read at Larkin’s memorial service at Westminster Abbey in February 1986 and the two last lines from the poem were inscribed on Larkin’s memorial stone in Poets’ Corner, which was dedicated on 2nd December 2016.

-Rachael Marsay

*Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from letters from Philip Larkin to Monica Jones, Feb 1956-Jul 1956, Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Eng. c. 7413 and are quoted with the kind permission of The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Philip Larkin.

Mysterious donors, salaries and swordfish – a year in the life of the University’s accounts

As the University’s financial year draws to a close (it runs from 1 August to 31 July), this month’s University Archives blog takes a look at how the University managed its finances in years past. Financial records might, at first sight, seem a little dull, but take a closer look and they can yield some unexpectedly fascinating and intriguing details.

Until 1868, the Vice-Chancellor was personally responsible for maintaining the University’s accounts. That seems an improbably large amount of work for one person, but it wasn’t as onerous as you might think. The central University administration had been, until the late nineteenth century, very small; the only senior officers were the Vice-Chancellor, Registrar and two Proctors. The business of that central administration was also very small – most went on in colleges, independent bodies which are not part of the central University.

The Vice-Chancellor maintained a series of volumes of accounts. These were the successors to rolls of accounts which the Proctors had kept during the fifteenth century. The volumes, written in a combination of Latin and English, contained neat and well-organised summary accounts detailing University income and expenditure for the preceding financial year. Just one year’s worth of these accounts can shed some very interesting light on what was going on at the University at that time.

The accounts for the financial year October 1698 to October 1699 were drawn up by the Vice-Chancellor at the time, William Poynter. As was customary, they were arranged into money received (ie income) and money spent (ie expenses). Money spent was further divided into ordinary expenses and extraordinary expenses. The ordinary expenses were things which the University generally had to pay for every year, such as salaries (or ‘stipends’) of University staff. Extraordinary expenses were a much more varied affair. They could include expenditure on building projects, one-off purchases by the University, or costs incurred by random events.

The money received in that year was much as you’d expect. Written in Latin, the accounts record rent received from tenants and other income from the University’s estates and investments, income from University fees and benefactions. The final line in the list of receipts is rather intriguing however. This records the sum of one pound and ten shilings received from ‘ab Anonymo qui Nomen suum celatum Voluit’, ie from an anonymous man who wanted his name concealed. Was this an anonymous benefaction from someone too modest to publicise their name, or something more controversial? Unfortunately we’ll probably never know.

Receipts 1698-9

Vice-Chancellor’s accounts for 1698-9 showing receipts (from OUA/WPgamma/21/6)

Then there are the lists of ordinary expenses. Also in Latin, they are mostly regular salary payments, but even these can reveal more then they first appear. One particularly large stipend is paid to the Keeper of the Archives, or ‘Custos Archivorum’ to give him his Latin title (meaning ‘guardian of the archives’). In this year, the Keeper, Dr John Wallis, was paid the princely sum of forty pounds. Just two lines below, the stipend of Dr Thomas Hyde ‘bibliothecario’ (ie Bodley’s Librarian) is given. This is the relatively measly sum of six pounds, thirteen shillings and fourpence. Why the discrepancy when both might appear to us to be doing similar kinds of jobs? Well, that was due to the differing roles of Drs Wallis and Hyde and the importance which the University gave to one and not the other.

The Keeper of the Archives was the University’s chief weapon in its constant battles with Oxford city. A new post created in 1634, the Keeper took a prominent, hands-on role in the University’s many disputes with the city. He was responsible for gathering written evidence and providing the documents the University needed to fight its case in court to protect its privileges and rights within Oxford. The Keeper was a key part of the University’s defensive arsenal against its ancient rival, and one of the most significant officers in the seventeenth-century University after the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor and Proctors. His stipend reflected that importance and he was remunerated accordingly.

Bodley’s Librarian, on the other hand, responsible since 1602 for the day to day running of the Bodleian Library, was not seen in quite the same way. More of an administrator than a University champion, his much smaller stipend reflected this perceived lower status.

Ordinary expenses 1698-9

Vice-Chancellor’s accounts for 1698-9 showing ordinary expenses (from OUA/WPgamma/21/6)

For the list of extraordinary expenses, the volume switches into English – maybe because of the more random and miscellaneous nature of the transactions involved. There are a range of one-off payments to individuals doing work for the University (carriers, printers and the ‘University Ingraver’), ad hoc payments to University staff (eg the Musick Master), and payments for work being done around the University, such as repair of the organ at St Mary’s Church.

The payments also allude to other things going on in the country at the time which had an impact on the University. There is an oblique reference to the credit crisis in England in the late 1690s, the University having lost money ‘by the fall of guinnys’ [guineas].

Extraordinary expenses 1698-9

Vice-Chancellor’s accounts for 1698-9 showing extraordinary expenses (from OUA/WPgamma/21/6)

Further down the list of extraordinary expenses is a payment by the University of two pounds and six shillings to the Bedel of Beggars for a new coat and badge of office for two years. The Bedel of Beggars later became the University Marshall, the head of the former University Police. A role still in existence today as the head of the University Security Services, the Marshall can be easily spotted at ceremonial occasions due to the size of the badge which they wear.

On the line below is a record of a payment by the University for the sizeable sum of £10 for a ‘swordfish placed in the Museum’. This would have been the Old Ashmolean Museum, opened only 16 years before where the Museum of the History of Science is now. Quite why the University wanted a swordfish, and whatever happened to it, is not known.

Again there are hints at much more involved and interesting stories in these seemingly uninspiring lists of payments. The very last extraordinary expense was the sum of fifteen pounds paid to ‘Mr Sherwin the University Bayliffe for his extraordinary paines about the Repaires and Buildings in the University’. Who knows what ‘extraordinary paines’ this man went to. Unfortunately there is no other record in the Archives here to show exactly what Mr Sherwin had battled with.

The University’s financial management was taken over from the Vice-Chancellor in 1868 by the Curators of the University Chest. The amount of work had increased by this time and the University had received criticism during the 1860s about how it managed its finances. In an attempt to find a more robust way of controlling its money, it created a new body of nine persons known as the Curators of the Chest (‘Curatores cistae academicae’) together with a new post of Secretary to the Chest to support them. The Secretary was the first professional non-academic University officer, although not, at that point, a professional accountant. The Secretary of the Chest is now the University’s Director of Finance.

An interesting and detailed history of the University’s finance and accounting practices can be found on the University Finance Division website at History of Finance Division | Finance Division (

The Earls of Clarendon catalogue is now online

You can find the new catalogue of the family and working papers of seven Earls of Clarendon (2nd creation) online at Bodleian Archives and Manuscripts.

The archive adds considerably to the Bodleian’s existing collections of Clarendon family papers, which include the seventeenth-century state papers of the very first Earl of Clarendon (1st creation) who was chief advisor to Charles I and Lord Chancellor to Charles II. His heirs in the Hyde and Villiers families took up the mantle and continued to serve the British government and the royal family well into the twentieth century. Notable postings included the 4th Earl of Clarendon serving as Viceroy of Ireland during the Great Famine and later as Foreign Secretary, and the 6th Earl of Clarendon serving as Governor-General of South Africa in the 1930s.

The archive includes approximately 800 letters from Queen Victoria and correspondence with monarchs and statesmen including Frederick the Great of Prussia and Viscount Palmerston. It also includes intimate family and estate papers, including letters between mothers and sons and husbands and wives.

I have been blogging about interesting items I’ve found along the way, ranging from 19th-century condoms to letters from the front during the American War of Independence (plus one extremely cute dog) and you can find those posts all here at the Archives and Manuscripts blog.

‘Hummings and other clamorous noyses’ – keeping the peace at Encaenia

Encaenia hasn’t always been the solemn and serious ceremony it is now. For much of its life, it was the victim of some very bad behaviour – some of which was formally sanctioned by the University, but most of which was not. Until the Sheldonian Theatre was built in 1669, the Act (the predecessor of Encaenia) took place at St Mary’s, the University Church. By the late fifteenth century, however, this, once sober occasion had begun to turn into a much less respectable and rather outrageous event.

As well as the conferral of honorary degrees, the Act (effectively the University’s annual graduation ceremony) also contained a theatrical element absent from the modern Encaenia ceremony. It attracted travelling players and musical performers, and was livelier and more exuberant than it is now. Part of the exuberance came from a character at the event who was appointed by the University almost deliberately to lower the tone. The Terrae Filius (‘son of the earth’, meaning someone of very lowly origins) was an anonymous speaker whose role was to poke fun at the University and give a satirical speech about the honorands.

Whilst originally a solemn and serious participant in the proceedings, the Terrae Filius’s speech gradually descended over the years into downright rudeness. Although the University officially tolerated this licensed outrageousness, some of the individuals present (especially those on the receiving end of the rudeness) did not. Some speeches were so offensive that the Terrae Filius was attacked and beaten afterwards. In other years the speech gives were expelled from the University, forced to retract their speech, and even arrested on the spot and taken to Oxford’s bocardo prison.

The theatricals and the insults of the Terrae Filius appealed to many undergraduates and visitors from outside Oxford and the came to the Act in large numbers. The crowds and the general spirit of licentiousness proved a dangerous cocktail with undergraduates seeing the event as an opportunity to misbehave. They made noises which disrupted the ceremony (‘Hummings and other clamorous noyses’), were rude to the honorands, and deliberately sat in the wrong seats, ie those set aside for more senior University individuals. The University started having to issue notices to undergraduates warning them of the consequences of their bad behaviour.

Notice of 1652

Notice of 5 July 1652 concerning student behaviour at the Act (from OUA/WPgamma/28/8)

The Act became such an undesirable part of the University’s calendar that by the late seventeenth century it wasn’t even held every year. It seems that the University looked for any excuse not to have to hold it. Some years there were ‘not enough honorands’; other years, it wasn’t held for fear of sparking political disturbances. The event had become so rowdy that many thought it no longer appropriate to be held in a church. As a result, the Sheldonian Theatre was built and the Act moved there in 1670.

The Act was held only three times in the first half of the eighteenth century: in 1703, 1713 and 1733. The Terrae Filius didn’t even speak at the 1713 Act, his speech apparently having been burnt. His very last appearance in 1763 was in a much reduced, and heavily-censored, role.

The 1733 Act, famous for involving the composer George Frideric Handel, was the last traditional Act to take place. It was replaced shortly afterwards by the new annual Encaenia ceremony, a much-reduced version of the Act. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Encaenia (also known as the Commemoration) was becoming an important part of the University calendar again. Unfortunately rowdy undergraduate behaviour was also becoming a regular part of Encaenia. The move to the Sheldonian had not curbed the behaviour, it had simply moved it to a new location. Student rowdiness was such a part of the tradition of the event that although the Terrae Filius had long been consigned to history, his spirit lived on.

University notice concerning students banished for disruption of Encaenia 1843 (OUA/WPgamma/26/2/18)

In June 1843, four students were banished from the University for between one and five years each for ‘grievous violation of the peace’ at the Sheldonian Theatre. The University issued numerous notices over the following decades chastising the undergraduates for their continuing bad behaviour, repeated without fail each Encaenia.

University notice concerning behaviour at Encaenia, c1840 (from OUA/WPgamma/26/2/19)

The notices reminded undergraduates that they had no formal right to even be at the ceremony. Encaenia was technically a meeting of Convocation (the body of MAs and higher degree holders of the University) of which undergraduates were not members.

University notice of 24 June 1867 concerning student behaviour (from OUA/WPgamma/26/2/84)

By the time Encaenia 1867 was about to take place, the University was issuing strongly-worded notices to its undergraduates about the impact of their behaviour. It was not only bringing the University into disrepute, it was even, allegedly, putting people off accepting an honorary degree from Oxford. They just couldn’t face the ‘ordeal’ of it.

The problem of undergraduates’ bad behaviours at Encaenia was finally solved in the 1870s. The Curators of the Sheldonian Theatre were established in 1872, a direct result of the Encaenia disturbances. A new body set up to take responsibility of the Sheldonian, one of its first acts was to tackle the issue of crowd control at Encaenia. Until that time, entry to the Sheldonian had not been restricted in any way and any member of the University, undergraduate or otherwise, could turn up. In 1872 the Curators decided to admit undergraduates to Encaenia by ticket only. In 1878 they went even further, deciding on 30 May that year that undergraduates would no longer be allowed at Encaenia. Removing undergraduates from the ceremony entirely finally enabled the University to bring Encaenia back under control and into the realms of respectability.

For more information about the chequered history of the Terrae Filius, see the article by Bromley Smith and Douglas Ehninger ‘The Terrafilial disputations at Oxford’ at

The Acts of 1713 and 1733 are discussed by H Diack Johnstone in his article ‘Handel at Oxford in 1733’ available at and in his chapter ‘Music and Drama at the Oxford Act of 1713’ in Concert Life in Eighteenth-Century Britain (ed Susan Wollenberg, 2017).

Further information about the Encaenia ceremony today can be found on the University’s website at