Category Archives: Oxford University Archives

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

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.

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 (ox.ac.uk).

‘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  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00335635009381578

The Acts of 1713 and 1733 are discussed by H Diack Johnstone in his article ‘Handel at Oxford in 1733’ available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/3138069?seq=1 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 https://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/The-University-Year/Encaenia

 

Oxford University: Stories from the Archives

This month sees the publication of a brand new book, Oxford University: Stories from the Archives. This is the first book about the University Archives to be published in 50 years and is an illustrated collection of stories about the University of Oxford as told by its own records.

The University Archives was established in 1634. Based in the tower of the Old Bodleian Library, it is the institutional archive of Oxford University and looks after its historic administrative records. It provides a service making those records available to all who need them, by they University administrators here in Oxford or historians from across the world.

The book is designed to be a readable and entertaining introduction to these records. It consists of fifty-two chapters, each showcasing an item from the Archives to tell a story about the University’s history. Arranged chronologically, these span 800 years and include documents, photographs, plans and drawings, models and objects. Each tells its own story, giving a unique perspective on the University’s history and presenting it in a way rarely seen before.

Copy of an illuminated charter of Edward III, 1375, written into the Chancellor’s book, (OUA/NEP/supra/Reg A, fol 13r)

Some of these items are impressive artefacts in their own right, such as the early charters and statute books of the University; others are relatively modest documents which tell a much more interesting story than their appearance may first suggest.

The stories told cover a range of issues and subjects. Some show how the University reacted to the changing world around it, to major national and international events such as war (both civil and global) and its relations with governments and monarchs. They show it having to change in the face of external, often unwanted, pressures such as the coming of the railways in the 1840s, and the rise of student protest in the 1960s.

Matriculation form of Christian Cole

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

Other documents illustrate how the University instigated change. The opening up of membership of the University to members of all religions, and none, in 1871, and the admission of women in 1920 were key developments in increasing inclusion and diversity amongst the student population. Beyond Oxford, the book looks at the University’s initiatives in widening access to higher education through its adult education programmes in the north of England in the early twentieth century, and in West Africa in the 1940s.

Closer to home, the book looks at the effect of the University on Oxford city and its people; from its sometimes difficult relations with the city in the past, to co-operation and reconciliation in the twentieth century. Badly-behaved students appear, as do the University Proctors, upholding the discipline and the ‘morals’ of the University over many centuries. The idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of the University are also not forgotten. The book tells the stories of the University’s MPs, its very own Police force, and some of its ceremonial traditions.

Green lamps issued by the Proctors for affixing to undergraduates’ cars c1926-1960s (OUA/PR 1/21/7/1-3)

There are stories about the University’s buildings and institutions such as the construction of the University Museum of Natural History, and the failed proposal to build a futuristic Pitt Rivers Museum in North Oxford in the 1960s. The chapters on the Bodleian Library’s stories look at its foundation and early years, including the admission of the very first overseas reader in 1603, as well as the more recent transformation of the New Bodleian into the Weston Library.

Some famous faces appear in the book such as Albert Einstein and Oscar Wilde. But there are also the stories of people you might not have expected to find in a history of Oxford University. The book includes some very personal, human stories which we can relate to today.

It’s hoped that the book will bring all of these stories, many of which are relatively unknown, to a wider audience and that even those who already know the University well will find something new and interesting here.

Cover image of Oxford University: Stories from the Archives

Oxford University: Stories from the Archives is published by Bodleian Library Publishing and can be ordered through their website at Oxford University: Stories from the Archives – Bodleian Libraries (bodleianshop.co.uk)

Oxford and the Birth of Reading University

The origins of Reading University have been described as being that of a “University of Oxford extension college”. However, to really understand what this means and the nature of the relationship between the two institutions, it’s necessary to first understand Oxford’s push towards “University Extension” in the 1800s, what that term signifies, and the motivating ethos behind it.

The idea of “University extension” was essentially to make a University-level education more affordable and accessible to a greater number of people. The idea first started to gain traction in Oxford in the first half of the nineteenth century, when both the Low and High-Church parties within the University became interested in opening up the University to potential clergymen from poorer backgrounds. The debates about how best to increase access to University-level education rumbled on throughout the century, until they culminated in a meeting, held in Oriel College in 1865 to “consider the question of the Extension of the University”. Many of the resulting sub-committees looked at options for Oxford itself (such as new colleges or permitting non-collegiate students). However, some of the sub-committees investigated how to provide such an education “outside the walls” of Oxford, responding to a national swell in demand from the country’s growing towns and cities. Although difficult to imagine now, Oxford was one of only nine universities in the UK in 1860.

The result of these investigations came in 1878, with the formation of a Standing Committee of the Delegacy for Local Examinations to provide “lectures and teaching in the large towns of England and Wales” (reconstituted as a separate Delegacy, the Delegacy for the Extension of Teaching Beyond the limits of the University, in 1892). The aim of this committee was not to create outposts of Oxford across the country, but an outreach programme, encouraging the growth of local centres managed locally, which would provide high-quality educational opportunities.

Extract from Extension Lectures: Lecturers’ and Examiners’ Reports. 1885-1939

Extract from Extension Lectures: Lecturers’ and Examiners’ Reports. 1885-1939 showing the first class held by the Delegacy at Reading (OUA/CE 3/28/1)

Reading was one of the earliest such Extension Centres, starting life in 1885. The first lectures, held in the evenings and aimed at a mature audience, focused primarily on English Literature. Looking at other such initiatives in the Reading area, it’s unsurprising that the Delegacy’s work began so early in Reading. There was a clear thirst for adult education in the town. Classes in “the Arts” (which we’d now refer to as the Humanities), run by the Science and Art Department (a subdivision of the Government’s Board of Trade) had been operating from West Street, Reading, since 1860.

Yet, the idea of building to house these lectures, and provide a focus for adult education in the town came not from the Government, nor from Oxford. Instead, Walter Palmer, a local biscuit manufacturer and President of the Reading University Extension Association in 1891, made the suggestion. This local initiative clearly demonstrated the town’s commitment to the cause, and the academics in Oxford involved with the delegacy were keen to support the scheme. After a little “behind the scenes” campaigning, Christ Church College (home to many of those involved with the Extension Delegacy) wrote to the Reading Association, offering the services of H J Mackinder (an academic at Christ Church, specialising in Geography) “with a view to giving system and completeness” to the work of the Reading University Extension Centre and “for the advancement, the co-ordination and the deepening of study.” The offer was unanimously accepted in Reading, and when the doors of “The University Extension College in conjunction with the Schools of Science and Art, Reading” was opened for the first time in September 1892, Mackinder was its principal.

Photograph of the first site of the University Extension College – rooms and the vicarage on Valpy Street

Photograph of the first site of the University Extension College – rooms and the vicarage on Valpy Street “bounded on the south by the churchyard of St Lawrence”. Image courtesy of University of Reading, Special Collections, (MS 5305)

In its first year alone, the College had 658 students. No students were full-time, but instead classes were arranged to accommodate the needs of the working populace of the town, being hosted in the evenings or on Saturdays. The space afforded to the classes allowed them to increase in range. The Oxford Delegacy and the Government Science and Art department continued to offer a variety of courses such as chemistry, biology electricity, mathematics, and art but these were supplemented with more overtly practical and vocational courses, such as Pitman’s Speed Certificates in typing and classes in machine drawing and wood carving. This variety reflected Reading’s aim to design a curriculum that would “fuse university training (producing thinkers) with technical training (producing the adept).”

This successful novel approach from Reading, of bringing together different locally run initiatives within a central hub, fast attracted other participants. For example, by 1893, the College offered training approved by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. However, a core issue remained in that, under the legislation of the time, as a local college, Reading had little power to issue its own qualifications. Thus, when Reading made its biggest gain to date – a new department of agriculture, supported by the surrounding County Councils and the Board of Agriculture – it was unable to offer an accompanying recognised qualification.

It was in such cases, as well as running extension classes, that Oxford could provide direct and meaningful support to the College, by offering oversight and university-backing, leading to recognised qualifications. Although the University, at that time, did not offer its own degrees or diplomas in Agriculture, there were those in Oxford with expertise in this area, such as the holders of the Sibthorpian Chair of Rural Economy. Thus, Mackinder was able to advocate for Oxford’s backing of the Agricultural Diplomas issued by Reading, reporting to the Extension Delegacy in 1894 that the Reading College Council would “much prefer this University as Examining Authority, to any other body”. His arguments clearly resonated, as later that year Oxford’s Convocation (the University’s body of MAs and higher degree holders) passed a decree, authorising the issuing of Agricultural Diplomas at Reading by a Joint Committee, made up of representatives of the Oxford University Extension Delegacy and the Reading College Council. These were to be Reading’s first full-time students.

Sketch of the British Dairy Institute, as it opened its new building in Valpy Street

Sketch of the British Dairy Institute, as it opened its new building in Valpy Street, following its move from Aylesbury to Reading in 1893-1894. Image courtesy of University of Reading, Special Collections, (MS 5305)

Again, Reading’s innovation provided a template for further success, as in 1895, the British Dairy Farmers Association agreed to move the Dairy Institute to Reading. This was placed under the aegis of a different Joint Committee – this one made up of representatives of the British Dairy Farmers Association and the Reading University Extension College.
This collaborative relationship continued to operate well for a period of time. Oxford clearly recognised contributions of key individuals in Reading, for example, by conferring the Honorary Degree of MA on Herbert Sutton, Chairman of the Reading College Council. It also demonstrated its understanding of the educational achievements offered by Reading when, in 1899, Convocation voted to grant Reading College “affiliate status”. This status, offered to select universities and colleges in the UK and around the world, gave special privileges to alumni of these institutions when they came to Oxford, recognising that their prior academic achievements could exempt them from certain Oxford requirements (such as first year examinations and so forth).

However, there was evidence of growing tension between the two institutions from the late 1890s onwards. It became clear that were those in Oxford who were resistant to the developing interconnection. In 1898, again at the instigation of Mackinder and the Extension Delegacy, Hebdomadal Council (the “cabinet” of the University) proposed the introduction of an honour school of Agricultural Science. Crucially, this degree course would be open to students at Reading, Reading would provide some of the teaching, and Reading would have a say in the curriculum. However, certain individuals within the University campaigned against the involvement of “foreign bodies” in the core business of the University, and this proposal was rejected in Congregation by 47 votes to 45.

Extract from Reports by H. J. Mackinder on the progress of the University Extension College, Reading

Extract from Reports by H. J. Mackinder on the progress of the University Extension College, Reading; 1895-6, 1896-7, 1897-8, 1898-9. Courtesy of Christ Church Archives (GB xvii.c.1)

There was, likewise, a growing sense of frustration and of being constrained in Reading, as Oxford degrees were not open to Reading students, largely owing to Oxford’s requirements that all students were to live within a mile and a half of Carfax Tower. WM Childs (a tutor, then Vice-Principal (1900), then Principal (1903) of Reading) wrote “Oxford had always been kind to us; she had helped us, and was still helping us… But her rules of residence, the corner-stone of her system, debarred her from admitting to degrees students attached to a university college twenty-six miles from Carfax”. As such, the only degree courses open to Reading students were those offered by London University, who offered an external degree system to colleges across the country. However, the syllabus and examinations set for these were entirely governed by London, and Reading resented these confines.

Even the pre-existing collaborative work between Oxford and Reading became the subject of scrutiny. From 1900 the Extension Delegacy had worked with Reading to issue the Reading “Associateship Diploma in Letters or Science”. The Diploma was the result of an extensive period of study – requiring students to attend no fewer than 72 lectures and classes in Science subjects, or 24 lectures and classes in Arts subjects, and pass final examinations in each subject. The examiners were a joint board made up of external examiners from Oxford Delegacy and internal examiners from Reading. Once having obtained a diploma, students could attend a ceremony (akin to a degree ceremony) at Reading, and thus become Associates of the College. The diploma was particularly popular with students at Reading training to be teachers, as the examinations could be counted towards their qualification by the Department of Education. However, in 1905, Reading received correspondence from the Government Board of Education stating that, following their review of teacher training regulations, they would no longer accept the Diploma examinations in lieu of standard teacher training examinations. The crux of the issue appears to have been that the Board of Education saw the diplomas as being issued by the Delegacy and not by the University. Childs appealed to the University’s Hebdomadal Council, writing that “no examination conducted by the Delegacy can meet the present difficulty… the only course which can relieve us of our present difficulties, and satisfy the Board of Education, is that an Examining Board of the University should be appointed”. Thus, in May 1905, Oxford University’s Convocation had to issue a decree clarifying that this was an examination done in partnership with the University (as opposed to solely by the Delegacy) and that the syllabuses were to be approved by Convocation.

Extract from Extension Lectures examination papers 1900-1901

Extract from Extension Lectures examination papers 1900-1901 showing the special papers set by the Delegacy for the Reading Diplomas (OUA/CE 3/26/10)

These areas of tension occurred simultaneously with a period of growth at Reading. The College had relocated to a new site on London Road, donated by Alfred Palmer, which would allow for expansion. Construction on the College buildings began early in 1905. As a growing, mature, and successful institution, being fettered by requirements for external interference in both syllabuses and examinations must have been increasingly irksome, and it is clear that Reading began to plan for long-term independence. Some of the changes made to establish Reading as an institution that could operate independently were directly drawn from the Oxford pattern – a tutorial secretary was appointed, a tutorial scheme for teaching students was introduced, internal examinations (called “collections”) were scheduled, as were termly meetings between individual students and the college principal. When Childs succeeded Mackinder as principal of the college in 1903 (thus removing one of the strongest ties between Oxford and Reading), plans for Reading to obtain its own University Charter gathered pace.

Letter from the Registrar of Reading College, to the Dean of Christ Church College

17 November 1903 – Letter from F. H. Wright (Registrar of Reading College) to T. B. Strong (Dean of Christ Church College). Courtesy of Christ Church Archives (GB xvii.c.1).

The letter pictured above is from the Registrar of Reading College, to the Dean of Christ Church College, following Childs’ appointment as Principal of Reading. The first Principal, Mackinder, had been a member of Christ Church, but Childs was not. Thus, Childs’ appointment reflects one of the many examples of Reading’s increasing independence in this period.

Childs wrote “The College had now passed beyond the stage permitting direction from Oxford. That arrangement no longer enabled the Principal to discharge his responsibilities comfortably to himself, or to others” and that if Reading were to become a University “we should be released from the fetters of external examinations, and we should be empowered to shape our own curriculum”.

Preparation for University status, nevertheless, took some time to come to fulfilment. The College had to ensure it had sufficient accommodation for both sexes. In 1905 the College opened St George’s Hostel for female students and in 1908 it opened its new accommodation hall for men (Wantage Hall), which could accommodate 76 students.

An undated photograph of Wantage Hall

An undated photograph of Wantage Hall, modelled on the traditional college quadrangle arrangement. Image courtesy of University of Reading, Special Collections, (MS 5305)

The College also began to focus on the make-up of the student body in preparation for University status, by giving preference in admission to students reading for degrees (offered via the University of London) or those taking other higher courses of study. In 1909, it reorganised its governance constitution to enable members of the Academic Board of the College to be better represented on the Council of the College, and thus more closely resemble the constitution of other universities. However, one of the key issues to resolve was that of funding, and for that, Childs turned to local supporters. To set out his case, and garner support, he published a pamphlet called Statement of the Case for University Independence in January 1920. The pamphlet enumerated the objections of the College to continued “subjection to disabilities born of accident” making clear Reading’s lack of control over the subjects it taught: “A university is one thing; a college is another. A university, for example, grants degrees and controls the curriculum and examinations leading to those degrees. A college can do neither…” Childs’ arguments were clearly met by a receptive audience, and over the next five years, sufficient funds were accumulated to sufficiently endow a new University, with a notable donation by George William Palmer, grandson to the man who had first suggested a college at Reading in 1891. On the 17 March 1926, Reading received its Royal Charter as a University.

Following the award of the charter, Childs published another pamphlet, titled The New University of Reading: Some Ideas for Which it Stands. The pamphlet concludes “And my readers will understand why I mentioned with particular gratitude the kind letters we have received from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and from the Dean of Christ Church; for to Christ Church and to Oxford we are proud to be able to trace the original impulse of our own foundation”. Whilst Childs’ acknowledgement is perhaps fair, in that the work of the Oxford Extension Delegacy may have provided an impulse, it is clear from Reading’s history that the sustained work and innovative initiatives that led to Reading’s success really came from the local area. Perhaps a more telling acknowledgement of Reading’s achievements and the “direction” of the debt owed can be found in a form of words that appear in the minutes of the Oxford Extension Delegacy when discussing the development of another centre “suggests the consideration of… the method adopted in the case of Reading”.

With thanks to our colleagues in the Special Collections Service at the University of Reading, especially Sharon Maxwell and Guy Baxter, for their assistance and insight.

Further Sources
Childs, W. M. Making a University : An Account of the University Movement at Reading. London: J. M. Dent, 1933.
Childs, W. M. The New University of Reading : Some Ideas for Which It Stands. Reading, 1926.
Goldman, Lawrence. Dons and Workers: Oxford and Adult Education since 1850. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.
University College, Reading. Statement of the Case for University Independence. 1920.

The records of the Delegacy for the Extension of Teaching Beyond the limits of the University are held by the Oxford University Archives, as part of the records of the Department for Continuing Education. Please contact enquiries@oua.ox.ac.uk for more information.

If you are interested in researching particular individuals who attended Reading in its early days, Reading Special Collections holds the following sources. Please contact specialcollections@reading.ac.uk for more information:

Annual reports and accounts … / University College, Reading.
Holdings: 1892/3-1900/1 – 1924/25.
Journal
Format: Print journals

Calendar and general directory / University Extension College, Reading.
Holdings: 1892/3 – 1897/8.
Journal
Format: Print journals

Calendar / University College, Reading.
Holdings: 1902/3 – 1925/6.
Journal

Oxford University and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln

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

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

Abraham Lincoln, c1863

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

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

Hebdomadal order, 1865

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

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

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

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

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

Letter to US ambassador, 1865

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

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

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

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

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

Admission of the Proctors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thomas Baty, gender critic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Procuring, Prostitution, and Perjury”

Perhaps unsurprisingly for an institution that did not formally admit women as members until 1920, the early records of the University are dominated by men – with academic progress records documenting their achievements; the minutes of Congregation and Convocation recording their appointments, actions and voices; and accounts noting how they chose to spend money. In contrast, the actions of women are seldom documented, unless they happened to be wealthy and gave large parcels of land for the use of the University.

An exception to this comes from a quirk of Oxford’s history – the existence of the Chancellor’s Court. The Chancellor’s Court was effectively the University’s own judicial system. Believed to have originated in 1214, when the Award of the Papal Legate ensured that arrested clerks would be handed over to the Chancellor, the powers of the Court grew over the years. By 1290, it had the power to hear all cases where one party was a University member; by 1341 the Chancellor had the right to banish people from the city; and by 1355, the Court had powers to enforce the peace of the city (by punishing those carrying weapons, for example). It is the records of the Court that detail the daily lives of “lower class” women and attitudes towards them.

One such woman is Lucy Colbrand. She appears in the first volume containing records of the Chancellor’s Court, the Chancellor’s Register 20 March 1435 – 3 March 1469 (Reference: OUA/Hyp/A/1). The Register is not an easy document to penetrate. The entries (written on a mixture of parchment and paper sheets) are thought to be in handwriting of individual Chancellors and their representatives (known as Commissaries). Furthermore, there is evidence that these entries were made hurriedly, perhaps even verbatim. The entries also use “scribe specific” abbreviations – just as we now have our own ways of shortening words when writing under time pressure. It’s rather like trying to read the prescriptions of dozens of different doctors!

Image of handwritten Latin on page from the Chancellors' Register

The page in the Chancellor’s Register, documenting Lucy’s transgressions (OUA/Hyp/A/1)

Fortunately, we are able to turn to the Reverend H.E. Salter’s two-volume transcription of the Register (Registrum Cancellarii Oxoniensis 1434-1469 (1932)) which removes the need to decipher handwriting, but still preserves the entries in their original Medieval Latin, the formal written language of this period. The entry relating to Lucy, dated 13 March 1443/4, can be found on pages 92 to 93 of Volume I.

A translation of the passage reads:

In that same year, namely the year of the Lord’s Incarnation 1443 on the day after the day of St Gregory the pope, Lucy Colbrand, procuress and whore, was publicly banished for numerous insurgencies and perjuries for which she had previously sworn that she would leave outside the University and its precincts forever. However, notwithstanding her oath, she did not leave but she was, within the University, the cause of ensuing quarrels, whoredoms, arguments and murders; therefore because she was thus the reason and cause for further evils and disturbance of the peace, and because she herself [was] incorrigible and unreforming after imprisonment, therefore on the aforesaid day she was banished publicly in the presence of many doctors and masters in writing in the form which follows:
‘In the name of God, Amen. We, Thomas Gascoigne, acting Chancellor of the University of the school of Oxford, do decree that you, Lucy Colbrand – who have been in the presence of the official judicially and at other times lawfully convicted of the frequent disturbance of the peace, of procuring, prostitution, perjury and many other outrageous trespasses and offences, and have confessed the same, and are wholly incorrigible — are to be banished on account of the aforementioned matters. According to this writ we banish you, warning you the first time, the second time, and the third and final time that you must leave and depart within three days from this University of Oxford and beyond its precincts, not to return again under the penalties and threats according to the privileges granted to us on that account.’
Enacted on the day of St Benedict the Confessor at Oxford at Carfax; and the punishment of incarceration is imposed on anyone who illicitly receives her into the University or its precincts.

The Medieval Latin of the original immediately presents its own challenges to understanding the entry. By the Medieval period, Latin had evolved to include words for new concepts, often specific to the context in which they were used. Even more of a headache for the would-be reader, sometimes words changed their meanings from those used in Ancient Rome. For example, in the first line, Lucy is described as “pronuba et meretrix”. “Meretrix” is straightforward, translating as “prostitute”, but in Classical Latin “pronuba” means “bridesmaid”, a word that does not fit comfortably in this context! An investigation of this word in its medieval context indicates that there was a complex vocabulary surrounding the sex industry active during this period. There were specific words, not just for prostitute, but also for brothels (lupanaria), brothel keepers (fautor lenocinli), and pimps (leno). “Pronuba” was sometimes used to describe a female pimp, but it was also specifically used to mean “procuress”, meaning someone who received money from a client for providing the introduction to a sex worker, perhaps the equivalent of running a modern-day escort agency.

The passage also gives us insight into the punishments used (not only towards prostitutes) at the time. The least harsh penalty was abjuration. In this context, it can be interpreted as a promise to withdraw from the University to a set radius (for example, five miles) for an agreed period of time (for example, one year). Imprisonment was another punishment option, probably deeply unappealing at a time when the city’s prison had been nicknamed the “Bocardo”, thought to have been derived from the word “Boggard”, meaning toilet. Finally, the Chancellor had the power to exile individuals from the University and its precincts (technically within two miles of Carfax tower, although in 1444 the King gave the Chancellor permission to banish disturbers of the peace to a distance of 12 miles), a punishment that also carried public shame as it was announced at Carfax on market days.

detail of map of Oxford in 1400 showing the Bocardo and CarfaxAs well as transcribing the Chancellor’s Register, Salter also “retro-created” a map of how Oxford might have looked in 1400. The Bocardo would have been located within the North Gate, and Carfax is by St Martin’s Church (only the tower of the church remains today, known as “Carfax Tower”). This vibrant modern update of Salter’s work is an extract from the brand new “British Historic Towns Atlas, Volume VII, Oxford” and is kindly provided by and is copyright of The Historic Towns Trust, 2021. 

Lucy seems to have, through numerous infractions, worked her way through the system of punishments to the most severe available, obviously trying the Chancellor’s patience in the process. It’s clear that at some point previously, she did abjure, and thus her reoffending is referred to as a “perjury”, a breaking of her oath. It is notable, however, that at the time of abjuration, Lucy’s crimes must have been substantial, for the period of withdrawal was “forever”. It’s evident that she had also already spent some time incarcerated (“after imprisonment”) – again, given the structure of the wording, most likely for the same crimes. Her refusal (or inability due to financial circumstances) to stop offending seems to have infuriated the authorities – the words “incorrigible” and “unreforming” are often amplified by words of repetition and continuation – “previously”, “ensuing”, “numerous”, “further”, contributing to the impression that Lucy seems to have been before the Chancellor a number of times in the past.woodcut print of a line drawing showing a woman on a cart in a market placeSource: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This sense of exasperation is supported by the immediacy of the writing. Although, this provides some challenging palaeography, it nevertheless, in this circumstance, conveys the feelings of the author. The first paragraph heaps up her crimes: although it is clear that the crimes of sexual immorality are the focus of the punishment, it is made plain that she is an “unseemly” woman – she is not quiet and submissive. She quarrels, argues, and is disruptive. The second paragraph apparently gives us the precise words spoken by the Chancellor when handing down his sentence, possibly in the very speech that Lucy would have heard. Although recorded for administrative purposes, the direct language places the reader in Lucy’s shoes: “You… have been… lawfully convicted and… have confessed… we banish you… you must leave”. The use of the “the first time, the second time, and the third and final time” conveys a sense of rhythmic emphasis given to this warning – we can practically hear the speaker’s delivery when reading the piece.

pen and ink sketch of document with seal

A piece of marginalia from later in the Register depicts the form of official decrees (OUA/Hyp/A/1)

The order in which Lucy’s crimes are listed is also of interest, as the crimes do not fit our preconceptions of importance. As identified above, those regarding sexual immortality are front and centre, but the list goes on – she does not respect authority, she breaks her oath, and causes arguments. It is one of the last crimes listed that provides the surprise, as the passages cites her involvement in murders (plural). It is not clear from the passage to what extent Lucy was involved or how active a participant she was. It may perhaps have been a passing involvement, as it is not mentioned at all in the direct speech of the second paragraph. Yet, it does seem to convey the sense that involvement in murder is of the least concern to those in power, certainly behind being a quarrelsome and argumentative woman!

Unfortunately, this is the first and last we hear of Lucy in the University’s records. She makes no further appearance in the Chancellor’s Court records. A cursory search of non-University contemporary judicial documents (such as Rogers’ Oxford City Documents and Salter’s Records of Mediæval Oxford and Munimenta Civitats Oxonie) appear not to record her name. We have no information on whether Lucy continued to exercise her profession and her temper outside the city boundaries, or whether the Chancellor’s harshest punishment finally “reformed” her character. It would seem that, to quote Laurel Ulrich, “well-behaved women seldom make history”.

For further information on the Chancellor’s Court and prostitution in Medieval Oxford the following sources are a good starting point:

Salter, H. E. Registrum Cancellarii Oxoniensis, 1434-1469. Oxford, 1932. Print. Oxf. Hist. Soc. (Ser.) ; v. 93-94.

Kavanagh, H. (2020) The Topography of Illicit Sex in Later Medieval English Provincial Towns. MPhil thesis. Royal Holloway, University of London. Available at: https://pure.royalholloway.ac.uk/portal/files/37318718/2020KavanaghHMphil.pdf (Accessed: 8 December 2021)

Karras, RM. “The Regulation of Brothels in Later Medieval England.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14.2 (1989): 399-433. Web.

Mazo Karras, Ruth. “The Latin Vocabulary of Illicit Sex in English Ecclesiastical Court Records.” The Journal of Medieval Latin 2 (1992): 1-17. Web.

The play’s not decent

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

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

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

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

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

Little Miss Nobody register entry

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

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

Lord Tom Noddy register entry

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

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

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

Proctors notice 1903

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

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