Tag Archives: Archives & Modern Manuscripts

Oscar Wilde in the Chancellor’s Court

For LGBT+ history month, the University Archives’ blog looks at one of Oxford University’s most famous alumni: playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde. Wilde was a student at the University in the 1870s. He matriculated from Magdalen College in 1874 and studied classics (Latin and Greek), as did most students at the University the time. A brilliant student, he achieved first class honours in his Classical Moderations examination (or ‘Mods’, taken roughly mid-way through the BA degree) in 1876.

Oscar Wilde 1876

Oscar Wilde as an undergraduate, 1876

Alongside his impressive academic performance, Wilde also cut an equally impressive figure in his personal life, dressing stylishly and somewhat flamboyantly for the time. Having joined Apollo, the University Masonic Lodge, he also developed quite a liking, so the story goes, for masonic regalia. Wilde frequented the jewellers and gentlemen’s outfitters of Oxford to stock up and, as we will see, bought a lot of things which were probably not on the shopping list of your average undergraduate.

In late 1877 Wilde’s spending got him into trouble. He owed money to some of the shops at which he’d bought his goods on credit, and whether he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay, he ended up before the University’s Chancellor’s Court in the November of that year for non-payments of debts.

The Chancellor’s Court, whose ancient origins lay in the establishment of the post of Chancellor, back in 1214, was the University’s own court. For many centuries it had jurisdiction over University members, both in civil and criminal cases, and for much of that time, also over the people of the city of Oxford. By the late nineteenth century it had lost many of its earlier powers and was chiefly a debt-recovery court, used frequently by Oxford shopkeepers and tradespeople to recoup money owed to them by students at the University.

Two such shopkeepers who were owed money by Wilde did exactly this and took him to the court in November 1877. Wilde received two summonses within that month to appear before the Court.

Oscar Wilde summons 1877

Summons issued to Oscar Wilder, 8 November 1877 (Chancellor’s Court papers 1877/78:2)

The first summons was for the case brought against him by Joseph Alison Muir, a tailor of the High Street. According to the tradesmen’s bills, submitted as evidence to the hearing on 16 November, Wilde had ordered a considerable number of items from him over a period of two years, which amounted to over forty pounds’ worth of gentlemen’s attire. This would be roughly £4000 today. They included a ‘superior fancy angola [angora] suit’, ‘superior angola trousers’ and ‘India gauze pants’. Wilde had already paid roughly half of the bill but still owed the tailor over £20.

Chancellors Court bills 1877

Bills presented as evidence to the Court, 1877 (Chancellor’s Court papers 1877/78:1 and 1877/98:1)

His second summons to appear in the court, only two weeks later, was for the case brought by George Henry Osmond, a jeweller of St Aldates’. Wilde had purchase jewellery and Masonic regalia there, including gold and ivory collar studs and a Masonic apron and sword. Again, he had only part-paid the bill of over £15, still owing the jeweller just over £5.

In both cases, Wilde was ordered to pay the money owed, plus costs (for the summons and the hearing itself). The costs were sizeable: for the second case he was ordered to pay nearly £3 in costs (on the original debt of £5). Wilde was so outraged by this that he wrote a very angry letter to the court in protest. The letter survives amongst the papers for that case. The costs, he claimed, were ‘a most extortionate and exorbitant claim’. He was so incensed that he intimated that the procedure of the court itself was so corrupt that it was in need of investigation by the University Commission. By this he meant the University of Oxford Commission (Selborne Commission), which had just begun its meetings at Oxford, looking into the financial arrangements of the colleges. It seems unlikely that Wilde’s plea ever reached the Commission’s ears.

Extracts from letter of Oscar Wilde to the Chancellor’s Court, 1877 (Chancellor’s Court papers 1877/98:3)

He ended the letter ‘I trust that this monstrous claim will not be allowed to remain’ but it appears that his protests were to no avail. The official accounts of the cases in the Chancellor’s Court registers here in the Archives record that both were settled by payment of the debt in full. There is no indication that Wilde’s letter of protest let him off in any way.

Wilde’s contretemps with the University authorities did not adversely affect his studies, fortunately, and he performed as brilliantly in his final examinations in Literae Humaniores (Classics) the following summer as he had done in this Mods, achieving first class honours again. He also won the University’s prestigious Newdigate Prize for English Verse that year for his poem ‘Ravenna’ (having spent time there the previous year) which he read publicly at the 1878 Encaenia ceremony in June.

The Chancellor’s Court continued its decline and was used less and less as the nineteenth century wore on; very few cases were held throughout the twentieth century. The very last case to be put before the court took place in 1968 and eleven years later, in 1979, the court was formally abolished.

Wilde’s time at Oxford is discussed by Richard Ellmann in his 1988 biography ‘Oscar Wilde’ as well as within his many other works on Wilde.

For more information about Wilde’s involvement with freemasonry whilst at Oxford, see the article by Yasha Beresiner at OSCAR WILDE Freemasons (freemasons-freemasonry.com)

Stories about Wilde’s time in Oxford, and of other LGBT+ students at the University throughout its history, can be found on the ‘Queer Oxford’ website at Queer Oxford – Celebrating 600+ years of LGBTQ+ history and heritage in the city Oscar Wilde called ‘the capital of romance’.

 

Bicentenary of the Anti-Slavery Society: first minute book digitised

On 31st January 1823 a group calling itself the Committee on Slavery assembled at the Kings Head Tavern, Poultry, in the City of London. William Smith M.P. was in the Chair and those present included Zachary Macaulay, Samuel Hoare, Thomas Clarkson, Samuel Gurney, Thomas Babington, Thomas Hodgkin and William Wilberforce junior. The committee agreed that it was ‘deeply impressed with the magnitude and number of the evils attached to the system of slavery which prevails in many of the colonies of Great Britain, a system which appears … to be opposed to the spirit and precepts of Christianity as well as repugnant to every dictate of natural humanity and justice’ and resolved to found an association ‘for mitigating and gradually abolishing the state of slavery throughout the British dominions’ (MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 20, E2/1, pages 1-2).

Opening page of the minute book of the Anti-Slavery Society recording, in manuscript, its first meeting.

Opening page of the first minute book of the Anti-Slavery Society, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 20, E2/1, page 1 [click to enlarge]. © Anti-Slavery International      To mark the organisation’s bicentenary the minute book has been digitised and is now available on Digital Bodleian.

This was the beginning of a campaigning organisation, the successor of which is still in existence today, two hundred years later. The Committee on Slavery changed its name a number of times during the 19th century but came to be known as the Anti-Slavery Society and extended its focus from British territories to a commitment to end slavery worldwide. It merged in 1909 with the Aborigines Protection Society (founded in 1837) which campaigned against the ill-treatment of indigenous peoples. In 1990 the Society changed its name to Anti-Slavery International and continues to campaign against modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking.

 

The Society’s archive was purchased for the Bodleian Library in 1951, with further tranches of papers added in later decades, and is available for consultation in the Weston Library. The archive includes:

  • minute books from 1823 to 1935
  • long runs of correspondence from many parts of the world, bringing examples of slavery to the Society’s attention
  • correspondence with government departments
  • territorial files
  • lantern slides and photographs
  • financial papers
  • newspaper cuttings and printed ephemera
  • the records of associated groups such as the Mico Charity, the Committee for the Welfare of Africans in Europe and the British Armenia Committee

The Bodleian also holds The Anti-Slavery Reporter, published by the Society since 1825 with various changes of title.

The archive records key events during the Society’s history including the organisation of the first World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, the campaign against the atrocities perpetrated against enslaved labourers in the Congo and in Peru, the lobbying of the League of Nations and later the United Nations leading to international agreements to end slavery and the promotion of human rights for indigenous peoples. The Society’s work had a global reach from the apprenticeship system in the Caribbean, forced labour in Russian timber camps and pass laws in Africa to lynching in America and Mui Tsai in China and southeast Asia.

Oil painting of the Anti-Slavery Society Convention in 1841 showing packed room of delegates listening to a speaker.

The Anti-Slavery Society Convention in 1840 by Benjamin Robert Haydon. Oil on canvas, 1841. NPG 599. © National Portrait Gallery, London. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

To mark the organisation’s bicentenary the minute book recording the first meeting has been digitised and is now available on Digital Bodleian.

 

New Archive of the Conservative Party releases for 2023

Each January the Archive of the Conservative Party releases files previously closed under the 30-year rule. The majority of newly-available files this year include research, correspondence, briefs and reports created in the lead-up to the 1992 General Election. It has been just over thirty years since John Major’s somewhat surprising election victory, allowing us to open up files offering a unique insight into the behind the scenes work contributing to this win. These include subject files and briefs prepared by Conservative Research Department, campaign documents created by Conservative Central Office, and reports collected by the Public Opinion Research Department, each with significant historical value. Additional newly-released material this year includes Conservative Research Department letter books, files created by the Conservative Overseas Bureau/International Office, and papers and correspondence of Conservatives in the European Parliament.

This blog post will explore a number of highlights of the newly-released material, specifically focussing on files relating to the 1992 General Election. A full list of the newly de-restricted items is linked at the end of the post.

General Election Warbook, Mar 1992

The Conservative Party’s Organisation Department, the largest component of Conservative Central Office, underwent a significant number of structural and organisational changes throughout its lifetime, becoming known as the Campaigning Department from 1989. The Department oversaw campaigning, training, community affairs, and local government, many of their records therefore offering an insight into election planning. Being released this year is a final draft copy of Conservative Central Office’s General Election ‘Warbook’, a document prepared for John Major outlining campaign plans for the election (see file CCO 500/24/309/2). The purpose of the document, as stated in its introduction, ‘is to outline the political scenario in which the next Election will be fought and to provide the detailed guidelines and direction within which a successful campaign can be waged.’ The document is divided into sections on the ‘battleground’ and the ‘campaign’, covering issues such as target groups and floating voters, election timing, and the role of the Prime Minister in the campaign.

Below is an example of a couple of pages from the battleground section of the document, highlighting some of the key political issues of the time in the UK. Inevitably, the economy comes first. The country was still in the midst of a recession that had begun under Thatcher’s leadership, with high unemployment a particular worry. Throughout these pages there is a clear focus on ‘psychological’ impacts of certain issues, including the ‘psychological turning point’ of inflation in the UK falling below that of Germany, and the ‘psychological 2.5 million barrier’ in unemployment figures. It is evident that this election campaign was highly focussed on the way the general public perceived economic changes. Further issues explored in later pages include the NHS, Europe, crime and education.

General Election Warbook: Economic Issues, Mar 1992 – CPA CCO 500/24/309/2.

A later section of the document focusses on target groups and communications during the campaign. It highlights the importance of media in reaching target audiences, stating ‘the objective must be to saturate the media with the Party’s campaign. If the Party reaches the media then the Party’s target groups among the electorate will also be reached.’ Some of these target groups, those typically considered floating voters or who current messaging was failing to reach, included the 30-45 age group, and upper working-class men. The importance of John Major as Party Leader is also discussed here, the document emphasising that ‘the Election Campaign will be more presidential in its style and manner than hitherto experienced.’

General Election Warbook: Target Groups and Communications, Mar 1992 – CPA CCO 500/24/309/2.

Inside Conservative Research Department, Mar-Apr 1992

Conservative Research Department also played a fundamental role in preparations for the election, acting as an essential source of facts and figures for key party members and MPs during the campaign. During the build-up to the 1992 General Election, David Cameron was Head of the Political Section of the Research Department, playing an integral role in these preparations. Amongst the new releases for this year are a couple of his letter books, as well as letters and briefs created by him amongst the letter books of desk officers who worked under his leadership.

The memoranda pictured below, sent out by Cameron in successive days in the week before Labour released their Shadow Budget, illustrate the inner workings of the Research Department at this time. Cameron stresses the importance of making sure ‘we destroy, comprehensively, Labour’s Shadow Budget on Tuesday’, highlighting the need to find any ‘technical slip ups’ and to brief selected journalists with specific topics and questions that might be particularly harmful to the opposition. This period was obviously one of the busiest for those employed in this department, with specific focus on anticipating the moves and policies of other parties in order to effectively tackle them.

David Cameron Letter Book: Political Section (General Election briefing material), Mar 1992 – CPA CRD/L/5/6/14.

The same letter book also contains a document looking back on the work of Conservative Research Department during the campaign. In addition to leading the Political Section of the Research Department, Cameron was responsible for briefing John Major for his press conferences throughout the election campaign, contributing to the very early mornings demonstrated by this timetable. This was perhaps too much to take on, as he reflects: ‘It was a mistake for the job of briefing the Prime Minster to be given to the Head of the Political Section. I should have concentrated solely on monitoring and responding to the statements and activities of the Labour and Liberal parties. It was quite difficult to combine both jobs and do them properly.’ Other reflections include the fact that the Economic Section were ‘persistent offenders’ in being late to submit briefs, and that opposition monitoring had been a particularly successful aspect of the campaign.

David Cameron Letter Book: Political Section (General Election briefing material), Apr 1992 – CPA CRD/L/5/6/14.

Defence, 1990-1992

The issue of defence was an area in which the Conservative Party particularly sought to distance their policies from those of their opposition, emphasising their approach as the only one able to keep the country safe. A newly-released subject file on defence (COB 8/5/2 Folder 5) contains briefings and memoranda relating to the Saatchi and Saatchi Party Election Broadcast on defence. The file demonstrates the gradual process involved in creating such broadcasts, with various annotated drafts illustrating how phrasing and structure was altered. The image below shows Guy Rowlands, Conservative Research Department defence desk officer, emphasising the need to remove the naming of the Ayatollahs as ‘villains’, as this inclusion was ‘just too sensitive and would spark problems’.

Party Election Broadcast on defence: planning, Feb 1992 – CPA COB 8/5/2 (Folder 5).

This file also contains papers relating to a plan of ‘teasing out some damaging nuggets from the Labour hierarchy by way of inspired correspondence.’ The plan involved finding members of the public, identified by constituency agents, willing to send letters to opposition MPs such as John Prescott, Gerald Kaufman and Joan Ruddock, to help the Party learn more about Labour’s defence policy and even encourage admissions such as ‘their life-long support for CND’, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In a letter to the Oldham West Conservative Association, Rowlands offers recommendations for such correspondence, suggesting ‘perhaps the letter-writer could pretend to be full of concern for nuclear proliferation and argue that the world needs organisations like CND more than ever before…!’ This was certainly an interesting tactic but may well have contributed in some small way to the Party’s election victory.

‘The Quest for Labour’s Defence Policy’, Feb 1992 – CPA COB 8/5/2 (Folder 5).

All the material featured in this blog post will be made available from 3 Jan 2023. The full list of de-restricted items can be accessed here: Files de-restricted on 2023-01-03

Radcliffe Square before the Camera

This month’s University Archives’ blog looks at a small and rather battered plan which we hold showing the area between St Mary’s Church and the Old Bodleian Library. It shows the outlines of the buildings which used to exist in Radcliffe Square before the Radcliffe Camera was built.

Plan of Radcliffe Square

Plan of site of the Radcliffe Camera, showing properties which occupied the site before the Camera was built. undated (OUA/UD 28/33)

The plan shows which buildings used to stand along Catte Street, together with the names of the individuals or colleges who owned and occupied them.  Superimposed on them is the familiar circular outline of the Camera. Catte Street was originally a narrow street running from the High Street up to New College Lane, occupied by houses, shops and businesses which filled much of the open space that we’re used to today. These buildings even joined directly onto the Old Bodleian Library, known then as the University’s Schools quad, and marked ‘Schools’ at the top end of the plan. Duke Humfrey’s Library is indicated by ‘Library’.  The plan shows the surrounding colleges: All Souls and Brasenose, the latter of which has much detail including the chapel, woodyard and the rather alarmingly-named ‘Bogg House’. St Mary’s Church is shown at the bottom of the plan.

We know that the plan was kept and used for many years by the University as part of its collections of plans and drawings of University buildings. It bears the marks of two former plan referencing systems in its bottom right-hand corner. What we don’t know is when the plan was made, by whom, or why.

The Radcliffe Library (as the Radcliffe Camera was originally known) opened in 1749, the brainchild of Dr John Radcliffe, physician, politician and former student of the University. A wealthy man, he bequeathed to the University, in his will of 1713, a large sum of money (£40,000) for the building of a new library. Radcliffe not only decided exactly where he wanted his library to be, he also made provision in his will for the purchase and demolition of the houses on Catte Street which were, at that time, in the way.

Architect Nicholas Hawksmoor began drawing up plans for the new building in 1714. Grand plans were afoot to make the area south of what is now the Old Bodleian Library into a ‘forum universitatis’, an impressive central space and focal point of the University. Certain people were rather sniffy about the houses on Catte Street, Charles I remarking in the previous century that the houses there ‘take off from the lustre and dignity of the University’. It sounded like the plans for the Radcliffe Library were just what was needed to realise the vision and clear away the occupants of the Catte Street properties at the same time, whether or not they wanted to move.

A circular library was planned from the outset, but despite Radcliffe’s will stating precisely where the building should be, early aborted plans played around with its location. One proposal suggested joining it onto the west end of the Old Bodleian from Selden End of Duke Humfrey’s Library, sticking out into – and taking up rather a lot of – the gardens of Exeter College. Another located it in what is now Radcliffe Square, but stuck directly onto the south side of the Old Bodleian. Neither was aesthetically very satisfactory and the final location, mid-way between the Old Bodleian and St Mary’s was eventually settled upon.

Radcliffe died in 1714 leaving his estate and the plans for the new library to his executors, the Radcliffe Trustees. The Trustees began the long and tortuous task of acquiring the properties they needed. Despite Radcliffe’s foresight in his will, it still took many years for the Trustees to navigate through the complicated freeholds and leaseholds on each property and negotiate with all the different property owners. As well as private individuals, they had to deal with the five colleges who owned and leased out some of the houses. Brasenose College, for example, had several properties on the site including student lodgings, a coach house and a brewery. In 1719 the college brokered a deal with the Trustees: in exchange for their Catte Street properties, they wanted the Trust to purchase them houses to the south of their quadrangle. It’s said that in order to facilitate this, a plan was drawn up in 1720 by the Trustees, showing the various properties and their owners, with, superimposed on top, the outline of the proposed circular library.

This sounds very much like our plan, but ours is not as old as 1720 – the handwriting, for example, is not from that period. A version of the 1720 map which was apparently, at the time, kept in the Radcliffe Library itself, was later engraved and published in James Skelton’s book Oxonia Antiqua Restaurata of 1843.

Plan of Radcliffe Square

Plan of Radcliffe Square from ‘Oxonia Antiqua Restaurata’ by Joseph Skelton (1843)

Legal obstacles further complicated things and an Act of Parliament had to be created in order to allow the sale of some of the properties to go ahead and the Trustees to acquire the last of the properties. In the end it took nearly 20 years to acquire all the properties on the site and have them demolished. The very last one, the house and garden adjoining the south side of the Old Bodleian, was demolished in 1733, leaving the Library with the familiar appearance which it has now.

In 1736, John Radcliffe’s last surviving sister Hannah, who was looked after by his will until her death, passed away, meaning that the funds for the new library could finally be released. The long years of negotiation over, work to construct the library began. Hawksmoor had died in March that year, before building work had even begun, and James Gibbs took over the commission. The foundation stone of the new Library was laid on 17 May 1737 and Radcliffe Square was born. The building work was completed in 1748 and the Library officially opened on 13 April 1749.

The Radcliffe Library became known as the Radcliffe Camera in 1861 when its collection of scientific books moved out to the newly-created University Museum, the new science hub of the University. To differentiate the Radcliffe Library from this collection of books (now housed in what was called the Radcliffe (Science) Library), it was renamed the Radcliffe Camera (‘camera’ being the Latin word for ‘room’) and officially became a reading room of the Bodleian Library.

The Camera finally passed from the ownership of the Radcliffe Trustees to the University in 1927. As part of the property acquisition, the University also acquired a large number of deeds and documents relating to the houses which the Trust had purchased and demolished to build the Camera. These deeds came to the University Archives at about the same time, and we think that the plan arrived along with the deeds.

Many of those deeds were several hundred years old and told the stories of the people who had lived and worked in those properties over the centuries. One of the earliest relates to House number 10 on Catte Street. Dated 6 February 1425, it is a grant of the land (a tenement with shops) from John Whytewonge to John Dolle, bookbinder, and Jane his wife.

1425 deed for House 10, Catte Street

The oldest surviving deed for House no 10 on Catte Street, 6 Feb 1425 (OUA/UD 27/7/1)

Unfortunately we still don’t know much more about our plan. It certainly appears to be much later in date than the information it is showing, maybe a copy of part of the 1720 plan, but it’s difficult to say when or why it was made. Perhaps it was compiled at the time that the University acquired the Camera site. Maybe it was compiled by the Radcliffe Trustees to help them identify the many deeds and documents they were transferring to the University along with the property. Perhaps it was the University’s attempt to understand things from its side. Whichever it is, it is a fascinating plan which shows a very different Oxford than the one we’re used to.

For more information about the Radcliffe Camera and its history, see Stephen Hebron’s 2014 history, Dr Radcliffe’s Library: The Story of the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford. For an interesting chronological journey through the buildings of Brasenose College, see the College’s website at College buildings – Brasenose College, Oxford

A wooden model of Hawksmoor’s early plan for the Camera was given to the Bodleian in 1913. A short blog was written about it in 2008 at Radcliffe Camera model by Nicholas Hawksmoor – The Conveyor (ox.ac.uk)

The resilience of digital heritage. A session in focus from the iPRES 2022 Conference

iPRES, the annual International Conference on Digital Preservation, took place in Glasgow 12th-16th September 2022, hosted by the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC). In this blog post, Alice Zamboni reports on some of the highlights of the conference, held in person after a two-year hiatus.

The title chosen for the 2022 iPRES Conference, “Let Digits Flourish. Data for all, for good, for ever” is also an exhortation that perfectly captures the ambitions of the Digital Preservation community and the spirit of its annual gathering at iPRES. Its rich conference programme combined traditional panels with lightning talks, workshops and interactive sessions. The subdivision of the programme into the five thematic strands of Resilience, Innovation, Environment, Exchange and Community was an effective way to foster interdisciplinary conversations among experts who are busy tackling similar issues from different angles and work towards the same goal of ensuring the preservation of digital heritage worldwide.

Thanks to the generous support of the DPC career development fund, I was lucky enough to be able to attend iPRES in person. As I am only a few months into my role as graduate trainee digital archivist at the Bodleian, this was my first professional conference. For me, attending iPRES was the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with current trends and developments in the field of digital preservation and learn more about the important work undertaken in Archives and Libraries across Europe and further afield.

Souvenirs from iPRES: a tote bag and a tartan scarf in the DPC colour scheme

One session that skilfully interwove many of the ideas running through the conference was held on Thursday 15th as part of the Resilience strand. The session brought together archivists, researchers and experts from various Industries, which allowed for a multifaceted exploration of the obstacles posed by the preservation of complex digital resources connected to academia and the art world. The session touched upon a number of issues, from the threat that obsolete software poses to Internet art, to the importance of digital preservation strategies for academic research projects with a digital output and the application of web archiving to academic referencing.

The first two presentations highlighted the value of web archiving as a way to ensure the preservation of online resources used in academic research. Sara Day Thomson and Anisa Hawes’s talk focused on the website created as part of the Carmichael Watson Research Project, based at the University of Edinburgh. The website hosts an important online database of primary written resources and artefacts relating to Gaelic culture. Following the end of the research project, the website was taken down owing to security issues caused by its infrastructure. Day Thomson and Hawes were involved in the complex task of archiving this very large online database using Webrecorder.

Without the web archivists’ intervention, the Carmichael Watson Project website would have simply vanished. The presentation made a case for the development of digital preservation strategies, which should be viewed as a priority by academic institutions whose research output includes important digital archives and databases. Equally, this case study sparks questions about whether web archiving is the sole and most viable solution for the preservation of digital archives and databases. Does the website – its structure and the way in which it displays the database – matter and is therefore worth preserving for its cultural and evidential value, or could the research output be separated from the website and preserved through other means?

Martin Klein’s (Los Alamos National Laboratory) paper on Reference Rot presented another issued posed by the ubiquity of the internet in academic writing and publishing. As the number of scholarly resources available solely in electronic formats grows, so too does the amount of bibliographic citations that include a URL. Yet these links are easily broken. Many of us will have experienced the disappointment of clicking on a hyperlink only to find that the resource is no longer available on that webpage. Fewer will know that this phenomenon has its own nickname: content drift, which exposes URLs to link rot. Luckily, Klein’s project has devised an automatized programme for the creation of what he described as ‘robustified links’. In this way, it is possible to create an archived version of a URL, along with a unique resource identifier that includes information about date and time of creation of this robust link.

Both presentations offered me a new perspective on the work that I do at the Bodleian, where I help manage the Bodleian Libraries Web Archive. I often wonder who the current users of our web archive may be and what value this collection of websites may acquire in decades from now. The two talks made me appreciate the growing recognition of web archiving as a form of preservation of digital heritage as well as the value that these archived resources have for different stakeholders.

The second half of the session turned from academia to the art world, with papers by Natasa Milic-Frayling (IntactDigital Ltd) and Dragan Espenschied (Rhizome). The two papers explored some of the challenges faced by the preservation of Internet art. Both talks were interesting for the historical perspective they offered on recent developments in the art world such as NFT artworks, which may eventually find their way in a contemporary artist’s archive. As Milic-Frayling pointed out, the internet opened up a world of possibilities for emerging artists in the 1990s. Thanks to the web, artists could reach new audiences online without the mediation of art galleries and exhibitions. Yet the dissemination of artworks in the online environment has exposed them to the insidious threat of software obsolescence.

Espenschied showed the valuable work that Rhizome’s platform ArtBase has done to counter this issue. Active since 1999, this archive of Internet art employs various pieces of software to handle obscure data formats used by artists in the 1990s and allows users to perform the artefact choosing from different options, such as browser emulation or a web archived version of the artwork.

Milic-Frayling talked about her recent collaboration with artist Michael Takeo Magruder. Some of his Internet art pieces were created using Flash and VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language), both of which are no longer supported by today’s browsers.  At first, it may be difficult to comprehend how a piece of software can negatively affect a work of art. Conservation issues affecting analogue archival material – from the threat of humidity and bookworms for a rare printed book to the excessive exposure to light for a delicate drawing – are tangible and visible. Yet software obsolescence should be taken just as seriously for the way in which it affects the born-digital counterparts to works on paper. In Magruder’s net art piece World[s], the combination of FLASH and VRML contributes to the creation of mesmerizingly intricate three-dimensional virtual shapes floating through a dark space. If the software is not correctly read, the integrity and quality of the artwork are endangered and potentially lost forever. Milic-Frayling worked to ensure the preservation of these net art pieces, guided in her approach by the artist’s requirements around access to and display of his artworks.

Together, the four talks contributed to show that born-digital resources are fragile and especially vulnerable to obsolescence. Yet the picture they painted was far from bleak. The speakers also made a case for the resilience of digital heritage, which owes much to the work that digital preservation specialists do to ensure that born-digital complex objects adapt to constant technological advancement and continue to be accessible to future generations.

Some useful links:

Digital Preservation Coalition – https://www.dpconline.org/

Webarchiving with Webrecorder – https://webrecorder.net/tools#archivewebpage

Robustifying Links Project – https://robustlinks.mementoweb.org/

ArtBase archive – https://artbase.rhizome.org/wiki/Main_Page

 

 

 

 

The Pass School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A depiction of a student's nightmare of examinations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A marked up copy of the pass school regulations

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

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

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

Pages of text containing suggestions for new examination statutes 1869

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

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

A caricature of a common perception of a "passman"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

New: Catalogue of the archive of Peter Landin (1930-2009) computer scientist, academic and gay rights campaigner

The catalogue of the Archive of Peter Landin (1939-2009) computer scientist, academic and gay rights campaigner, is now online.

Landin’s early career was industry based; in 1960 he became the sole employee of  Christopher Strachey who was then working as an independent computing consultant. As Strachey’s research assistant, he was also encouraged to pursue his autonomous research interests alongside writing a compiler to translate the early programming language ‘autocode’ into the machine language of Ferranti’s new Orion machine. Landin’s radical approach was never finished, but underpins compiler writing to this day. He researched and published prolifically on formalising the semantics of language. His career and contribution to advancing programming languages and computer science in general was incredibly pioneering – encompassed by both industry and academic positions in the United States of America, returning to England to hold the position of Emeritus Professor of Queen Mary University of London (formerly known as QMC) and teaching hundreds of students, and publishing a formal description of ALGOL 60 programming language for the International Federation for Information Processing. His abstract thinking and constant discoveries mean that Landin is celebrated as a pioneering computer scientist today.

Early in his vocation Landin also lectured at the 1963 Oxford Computing Laboratory summer school on advances in programming and non-numerical analysis. He spoke on lambda calculus and applicative expressions, which he would later publish papers on. The names on the timetable below read as a ‘Who’s who’ of key figures in the computer programming sphere at the time.

Early version of timetable for the Oxford Computing Laboratory summer school in advances in programming and non-numerical analysis, 1963. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Landin 147. Rightsholder: University of Oxford

Particularly in the series of work papers, drafts and published works and correspondence, Landin’s conscientious and creatively chaotic work ethic is evident. However, computing was never his entire life [1].  As Landin aged, he became less enthused by computer science, particularly disillusioned at its misuse by large corporations and what he saw as the ‘surveillance state’.  This fed into his lifelong disenchantment with bureaucracy, hierarchy and the running of large organisations in general, which is particularly evident in notes, reflections and social aphorisms of Landin, as well as some personal correspondence. In the series of activism and social-political notes, 1961-2003, some papers are testament to his personal life which he kept fairly private. From early 1970s he was involved in facilitating campaigns for the newly founded UK branch of the Gay Liberation Front [GLF] and other social justice causes. Some of the issues we see Landin concerned with in his private notes include:

  • Nuclear free zones and disarmament [2]
  • ‘The Impossibility of getting a campaign going’ [3] and ‘notes for the unaffiliated campaigner’ [4] (This is interesting because  Landin’s involvement in grassroots organisations with a deliberate lack of structure such as the GLF and Bertrand Russell’s Committee of 100, corroborates he disagreed with bureaucracy, hierarchy and administration of organisations in general.)
  • social change and social demonstrations [5] (some of these notes are made on the reverse of a ‘Whose Camden’ poster and GLF poster.)
  • ‘socialists with Rolls Royces’ [6] and the Road crossers [RLF?] Piccadilly Circus ‘The Car Stops Here’ campaign, c.1972 [7] (Landin never owned a car)
  • ‘rights – individual and the collective’ [8]
  • ‘Social values’, including  a circular from Oxford Gay Action Group [9]

Even those colleague and friends closest to him were not fully privy to the entirety of Landin’s personal campaigning life, although correspondence with fellow computer scientist Rod Burstall does shed light on discussions about balancing social activism with work [10]. Other correspondents include:

  • Robert ‘Bob’ Mellor, one of the founders of the GLF [11]
  • Ted Honderich, philosopher [12]
  • Dana Scott, logician [13]
  • Mervyn Pragnell, [14] whose informal underground logic seminars Landin was invited to, c.1960.

However little these two ‘lives’ crossed over, Landin’s archive attests to his constant evolution of teaching and communicating computer science throughout the 1960s to the early 2000s, alongside his interests and involvement in activism, facilitating social change and politics.

Kelly Burchmore

References:

  1.  Bornat, R. ‘Peter Landin: a computer scientist who inspired a generation, 5th June 1930-3rd June 2009. Formal Aspects of Computing, Springer Verlag, 2009, 21 (5), pp.393-395.
  2.  Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Landin 17
  3.  Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Landin 18, folder 2
  4.  Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Landin 20, folder 3
  5.  Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Landin 18, folder 2
  6.  Ibid.
  7.  Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Landin 22, folder 1
  8.  Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Landin 20, folder 1
  9.  Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Landin 22, folder 2
  10.  Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Landin 46
  11.  Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Landin 69 (=Closed)
  12.  Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Landin 69
  13.  Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Landin 69
  14. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Landin 45

 

 

Notes in the margin

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

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

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

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

Manicule from Chancellor's Register Hyp/A/1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

African Poetry Project: an intern’s view

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Kelly Frost

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

Philip Larkin: Centenary of a Poet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

-Rachael Marsay


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