Category Archives: Oxford University Archives

Blog posts relating to Oxford University Archives, the institutional archive of the University of Oxford

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 (

Alan Tyson, ‘the Sherlock Holmes of the music world’

Born in Glasgow and educated at Magdalen College, Oxford and the University College Hospital Medical School, London, Alan Tyson (1926-2000) held Research and Senior Research Fellowships at All Souls College, Oxford from 1952 to his retirement in 1994. He was a distinguished musicologist and a world authority on music manuscripts of the Viennese Classical composers, especially Mozart and Beethoven. His other musicological interests included authenticity, music printing, and music publishing. Initially, however, his career evolved around medicine and psychoanalysis.

1. Alan Tyson collecting his Honorary Degree from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

2. Alan Tyson in a more relaxed context.

It is not certain what prompted him to devote the rest of his life to musicology, especially as he did not undergo a formal music education. Some suggest it was his passion for collecting, especially music, that made him change his mind.  Maybe he was curious how (well) the early and subsequent editions reflected the intentions of the composers? As he was not able to speak to Mozart or Beethoven as he would to his patients, he once explained, he turned to the composers’ autographs as his primary sources of information. While his earlier career helped him to determine the composers’ creative processes to some extent, it was his own meticulous methods when working with music manuscripts that brought the desired results. His pioneering work on watermarks, for example, enabled him to date (or re-date) many compositions. Tyson even invented his own term for the classification of watermarks resembling crescent moons, selenometry, a term which he advised should not be taken ‘wholly seriously’ (please see images 3 and 4).  He considered watermarks (together with the types of paper that contained them) so significant that he spent over 15 years working on an inventory of all watermarks in Mozart autographs. The watermarks catalogue was published in 1992 as part of the much-respected Neue Mozart-Ausgabe collected edition.

3. Explanation of the term selenometry in A. Tyson’s ‘Mozart: studies of the autograph scores’ (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987).

4. Tracing of watermarks in a Mozart autograph with noted selenometry.

5. Watermark from Beethoven’s autograph clearly visible thanks to beta-radiography, an imaging technique innovative at the time of Tyson’s research.

Tyson was also fascinated by composers’ sketches. As early as 1964 he gave two BBC interviews (one radio and one television) on the sketchbooks used by Beethoven throughout his life. There are 11 archival boxes of notes spanning some 20 years on the subject and twice as much correspondence discussing the topic. The work and discussions culminated in 1985 with a publication (co-written with Douglas Johnson and Robert Winter) of The Beethoven sketchbooks: history, reconstruction, inventory.  This is just one of many significant publications with Tyson as author, co-author, or editor.

It was important to Tyson to examine as many original sources as possible, not only because he was a thorough researcher (earning him the designation ‘Sherlock Holmes of the music world’), but also because he wanted his work to be as comprehensive as possible. He got to know which institutions and which private collections held the autographs, and visited them one by one. He also had a good rapport with auction houses, who were happy to pass on his requests for viewing or information about (sometimes anonymous!) purchases just made. Additionally, Tyson was in demand when it came to authenticating ‘recently discovered’ manuscripts, which likewise expanded his ‘portfolio’. In one of his letters he expressed his amazement and delight that his research into Viennese composers would take him as far as New Zealand and Japan, where he would find further autographs. I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Tyson personally when he visited the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków, Poland. Anecdotally, he declined an offer of lunch and suggested a dinner after the Library closed as, he said, ‘when you are holding a Mozart manuscript, you do not feel like doing anything else but study it!’

Tyson continued to collect throughout his life eventually amassing an important collection of some 70 manuscripts and 2,200 early (sometime extremely rare) editions of music. In addition, his personal library comprised some 350 books representing both, source and up-to-date research material. Tyson used the items from his private collection to compare with those in libraries and elsewhere, which led him to a deep (and often authoritative) understanding of the history of the musical texts.

Tyson very generously bequeathed his archive to the British and Bodleian Libraries. In 2002 over 1000 items of printed music in the Bodleian’s portion of his collection were catalogued by one Margaret Czepiel. It was therefore thrilling for me to deal with the collection of Tyson’s working papers years later. Here, just as he had observed the creative processes of the composers he studied, I was able to see Tyson’s own working methods. An example can be seen in the images (6 and 7) where he annotated his earlier notes with additional, dated comments, no doubt following subsequent visits to the respective repositories and discussions with fellow researchers. In fact, the sheer volume of correspondence (26 boxes of just mail, with further exchanges among the 43 boxes of notes) is telling; he valued the views of his colleagues highly. It is clear that he thrived on these intellectually stimulating epistolary (and over-the-phone) debates.

6. Notes on music manuscripts at the Morgan Library, New York, 1978-1981.

7. Notes on music manuscripts at the Moran Library, New York, 1983-1988.

The Tyson archive, now catalogued online, also contains a great number of reproductions of music manuscripts, both autographs and copies.  Many of them, however, offer no clues as to the identity of the works or indeed the composers. Unfortunately, the scope of this music-cataloguing project did not allow for identifying the vast quantities of photocopies, photographs, and microfilms of the various manuscripts. It would take a significant amount of detective work to identify and match the reproductions with their originals. We would welcome any offers of help in this respect if anyone would be up for the challenge!

Margaret Czepiel


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’ 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.