Tag Archives: Oxford University

“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.

An introduction to the Collecting COVID project

Luke Jerram’s glass sculpture of a nanoparticle of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, courtesy of the History of Science Museum.

On 4th January 2021 the NHS became the first health service in the world to roll out the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. The first person to receive a dose was 82-year-old Oxford resident Brian Pinker, who had travelled to Oxford University Hospital to receive the jab at 7:30am. This milestone event exactly one year ago today was the result of a year’s intensive work to develop a vaccine by a small team led by Professor Sarah Gilbert at the University’s Jenner Institute. As of November, over 2 billion doses of the vaccine have been released for supply to more than 170 countries, with a 3 billion target set by AstraZeneca for the end of 2021.

The project

Collecting COVID is an exciting two-year collaborative project (funded by the E P A Cephalosporin Fund) between the Bodleian Libraries and History of Science Museum. The project aims to capture the extraordinary story of the University’s COVID-19 research response and to preserve and share it with future generations.

We are inviting members of the University who have been involved in shaping this response to contribute material to a contemporary collection that will inform research on the current pandemic and aid preparation for any potential future global health emergencies.

What are we looking for?

We are keen to hear from anyone at the University who can identify any of the following for the collection…

Objects from individuals and teams across the University such as:

  • Equipment relating to COVID-19 research and clinical practice including testing, vaccination and treatment
  • Personal items, photos, artwork or ephemera relating to the impact of COVID-19 on the work and personal lives of staff

Personal digital or physical records of individuals and teams who were involved in developing the University response to COVID-19 (e.g., academic and clinical research or social policy recommendations):

  • Correspondence
  • Diaries (current and retrospective)
  • Laboratory and research notebooks
  • Working papers
  • Draft and unpublished articles
  • Photographs and videos

Websites, blogs, or Twitter feeds, which help to develop the narrative behind the University’s efforts during the pandemic can be nominated for archiving in the Bodleian Libraries Web Archive.

Personal testimonies and recollections of daily life during the pandemic from those who were directly involved in the University’s response to it (which could be in the form of a short memoir or account of experiences).

What happens next?

Once objects or records have been identified (either by submission or through direct contact by the team), we will set up a meeting to discuss the donation to ascertain its suitability for inclusion in the collection. We will then arrange a visit to survey the material before it is transferred to either the library or museum. Once on-site the material will be appraised, accessioned, catalogued and eventually made available for research and public engagement activities.

We are extremely keen to speak with individuals and teams who would like to contribute to the collection, or may be able to help us to identify important material at risk of loss. General enquiries and submissions can be sent to Michaela Garland (Project Archivist) and Tina Eyre (Project Curator) at collectingcovid@glam.ox.ac.uk

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.

 

The Langdon Hills map

This month’s University Archives blog looks at one of the most beautiful and colourful items in the University Archives: a 1585 plan of a farm and surrounding land at Langdon Hills in Essex. How did Oxford University Archives end up with a map of Essex? The reason is a bequest to the University which took place exactly 400 years ago.

In 1621 the University was given two plots of land in Essex by Thomas White, a clergyman and former Canon of Christ Church. The gift was intended to establish and provide ongoing financial support for a new professorship at the University: the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy.

Portrait of Thomas White

Portrait of Thomas White (Bodleian Library LP 81)

Donations to the University like this were not unusual. Wealthy individuals wanting to perpetuate their name, or gain some kind of connection with the University, gave land and its associated income (eg from renting the land to tenants) to endow new academic posts or institutions. In the original deed of benefaction which conveyed the two plots of land (known as Langdon Hills and Blackmans Farm) to the University, White set out what he wanted the income from the estate to be used for. The principal one of these was to pay for the salary, or ‘stipend’, of the professor – the sum of £100 a year.

The trouble with estates is that it costs money to run them – sometimes more than the income that you get from them. White’s gift came with its own problems for the University. During the period 1621-1798 the income from the property was never enough for everything it was supposed to pay for. In 1832 the University discovered that the estate, having been neglected by its tenant, was in such ‘a grievous state of dilapidation’ that it was completely unlettable. The University had to spend nearly £2000 on repairs so it could be let again. Until the works were completed, nearly a decade later in 1841, the estate gave the University no income and not one of the post-holders was paid. The situation never really improved and so, by the 1920s, the University decided to part with the estate. By 1924, both plots of land had been sold.

When the University acquired the estate back in 1621, it also acquired a number of much older historical documents as part of the property transaction. These included two plans of the estate – one of Langdon Hills, and one of Blackmans Farm. They had been drawn up in 1585 for the then owner of the estate, Sir Thomas Mildmay. Like many wealthy landowners of the time, Mildmay commissioned surveyors to survey his estates and produce plans of them. Expensive to produce, they would have been a status symbol for him as well as having a practical purpose. Mildmay commissioned John Walker, a surveyor from Essex, and his son (also John), to survey this estate as as well as a number of others he owned in the county.

Plan of Langdon Hills estate

Plan of Langdon Hills estate, 1585 (OUA/SEP/2/1/2)

The larger of the two plans, concerning Langdon Hills, shows the size and use of the farm, including detail of trees and gates and, at the bottom of the plan marked ‘A’, an impressive Tudor house which appears to have been Langdon Hills Hall. The Hall is no longer there, but a farm, Langdon Hall Farm, with the same recognisable field boundaries, can be found just outside Basildon.

Detail of house at 'A'

Detail of house at ‘A’ (from OUA/SEP/2/1/2)

The first black student at Oxford University

As part of Black History Month, the University Archives’ blog for October celebrates the achievements of the first black student at the University: Christian Frederick Cole.

Cole was admitted to the University (‘matriculated’) nearly 150 years ago on 19 April 1873. A young man of 21 from Sierra Leone, he was the adopted son of a clergyman, Jacob Cole. His grandfather had been enslaved. The information he gave the University at his matriculation was brief and the document itself, written in his own hand, is unremarkable. But the significance of this small piece of blue paper is great.

Matriculation form of Christian Cole

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

The University did not start recording the ethnicity of its students until late the following century, so we cannot say with absolute certainty that Cole was the first black student; but his presence in Oxford was remarked upon by contemporaries, suggesting that his appearance was something new. Unfortunately we don’t really know what he looked like: we have no images of Cole here in the Archives (the University didn’t take photographs of its students at this time) and the only known images of him are contemporary caricatures showing him racially stereotyped.

Cole was admitted as a non-collegiate student. Non-collegiate or ‘unattached’ students were first admitted to the University in 1868 as part of a move in the second part of the nineteenth century to open it up to a ‘larger and poorer class of the population’. It was one of a number of developments at the time to widen access to a university which was expanding, both in terms of undergraduate numbers, as well as the diversity of the backgrounds of its students.

Non-collegiate status enabled men (it was still only men) to become students without being members of a college or hall; college membership put studying at Oxford out of financial reach for many. Cole was not a wealthy man. He’s said to have suffered much hardship whilst a student, especially after financial support from his family ceased. He found different ways to fund his time here, giving music lessons and offering private tuition to undergraduates, advertising his services in the University Gazette.

University Gazette advertisements

Advertisements for private tuition from the ‘University Gazette’, 29 January 1878

Cole worked hard at his studies, in Latin and Greek, gaining fourth class honours in Literae Humaniores (ie classics), a very respectable achievement at the time, especially for a non-collegiate student. Non-collegiate students tended to pursue a broader and more general course of study for the BA (known as the Pass School) rather than the single-subject specialisation required for honour schools.

His BA was conferred  in 1876 and this is the last mention of him in the University’s own records here. Shortly after that, however, he became a member of University College, through its Master, George Bradley. Until Cole left there in 1880, Bradley personally paid his college membership fees. He also had the support of his fellow students in the college who started an appeal to help him after his family’s financial support ended.

Cole went on to study at the Inner Temple and became a barrister-at-law in 1883. He was the first black African to practise law in an English court. It appears, however, that he struggled to find enough work and had to return to Africa. Cole died in 1885 in Zanzibar of smallpox aged only 33, but he was a pioneer and his experience at Oxford opened the door for other black students to follow. A plaque was erected at University College in 2017 to commemorate his achievements.

More information about Cole’s connections with University College can be found on their website at https://www.univ.ox.ac.uk/news/plaque-univ-pioneer/ . Further information about Cole and other early black students at the University can be found on the Black Oxford website at HOME | blackoxford .

The University’s programme of events for Black History Month is available at Black History Month at Oxford | University of Oxford .  The Opening Oxford 1871- website also includes a recent blog by Patricia Daley, Professor of the Human Geography of Africa, on her experience as a black graduate student at the University in the late 1980s A Home for Black Students | Opening Oxford 1871-

450th anniversary of the incorporation of Oxford University

This year marks the 450th anniversary of the 1571 Act of Parliament, of Elizabeth I, which formally incorporated the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Both had already existed for over three centuries but this confirmed their legal statuses as corporations.

In contrast to the colleges, the central University of Oxford has no charter of foundation. It is said to have emerged during the eleventh century when a  small group of teaching masters and their pupils set up home in hired lodgings in Oxford. Not yet the large corporate body we know now, the University was merely a group of individuals living and working in an already-established town. In 1214,  these individuals were placed under the jurisdiction of a Chancellor appointed by the Bishop of Lincoln and they quickly gained recognition as a corporate body.

Award of the Papal Legate, 1214

Award of the Papal Legate, 1214 (OUA/WPbeta/P/12/1)

First gaining in 1216 the title of ‘universitas’ (which meant, simply, any body of people have a distinct purpose and status), the University’s corporate status was further enhanced over the years by having its own statutes, officers and premises.

Until the reign of Elizabeth, the University had accrued its rights and privileges through the issue of royal charters. Each monarch keen to support the University would grant it a charter conferring yet greater powers and freedoms on it, as well as confirming those issued by their predecessors. Covering a range of areas, from law and order to street cleaning, these additional privileges were often obtained at the expense of the city authorities who saw their rights and privileges reduced as a direct result.

Relations in Oxford between the University and the city were not particularly good at the time the 1571 Act was passed. The city was still smarting over the charter of Henry VIII issued in April 1523 which had given the University many new privileges and powers over it, including effectively putting much of the city’s business under the control of the Chancellor of the University. His powers had extended over control of certain trades (eg the regulation of essential goods such as bread and ale) as well as the right to claim legal cases for the University’s own court, the Chancellor’s Court, bypassing the city’s legal processes.

Exemplification of the Act of 1571

Exemplification of the Act of 1571 for incorporating the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, 7 June 1571 (OUA/WPbeta/A/10)

The Act of 1571 paid little attention to the bad feeling between the two and was instead intent on strengthening the two universities and confirming the rights and privileges they had already acquired over the preceding centuries. In it Elizabeth confirmed the validity of all the charters, deeds and documents previously issued by her predecessors, namechecking, somewhat pointedly, the contentious charter of 1523. The two universities’ possessions and freedoms were ratified and protected, now placed on a more secure statutory footing. The Act also established the University’s official title as ‘the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford’ and gave it a common seal.

In what seems to be a small placatory move towards the city, the last paragraph declared that the Act would not ‘extend to the prejudice or hurt of the Liberties and Privileges of Right’ of the city of Oxford and town of Cambridge.

The exemplification, or copy, of the Act in the University Archives bears the seal of Elizabeth I, showing her seated and holding her regalia. Annotated over the years by University officials and administrators, it has key clauses underlined, notes in the margins and a couple of doodles.

Detail of seal of Elizabeth I, 1571

Detail of seal of Elizabeth I, 1571 (from OUA/WPbeta/A/10)

Although this Act of Parliament did not create the University, it is the highest confirmation of its corporate status. More information about the legal status and constitution of the University can be found on the main University website at  https://governance.admin.ox.ac.uk/legislation/preface-constitution-and-statute-making-powers-of-the-university

Geography in the Long Vacation

The Long Vacation in August has, since the 1880s, been used by University departments to hold summer schools and vacation courses in Oxford while the undergraduates are away. The School of Geography (established in 1899 as a joint venture between the University and the Royal Geographical Society) began holding its own biennial summer vacation courses in 1902.

Geography at that time was very much perceived as a masculine subject – men of high social status exploring far-flung places, climbing mountains in their shirt-sleeves. The students of the School of Geography at the turn of the century, however, were much more diverse than this. Women made up a large number of the School’s students.

Although women were still not able to become members of the University at this time, they could study for a number of diploma courses which were introduced in the early 1900s. These were usually in subjects not offered to undergraduates as part of the BA course: subjects such as public health, anthropology and geography. Women often outnumbered the men in geography diploma classes which began in 1900, although some parts of the subject, such as surveying, remained male-dominated. The women students were also often a little older than their male counterparts and from a wider range of social classes, many of them schoolteachers.

1904 vacation course details

Details of the 1904 vacation course (from OUA/GE/4A)

The summer vacation courses were designed chiefly for schoolteachers. Held to coincide with the school holidays, they were open to anyone. Those attending spent a couple of weeks in Oxford during August for a special course of lectures and practical work in geography. The courses included field trips (for surveying and map drawing) as well as excursions to local places of geographical interest.

Photograph of 1910 field trip

Vacation course field trip, nd (1910) (from OUA/GE/5A)

Women not only attended the summer vacation course in significant numbers – of the 196 students on the 1912 course, 119 were women – they were also heavily involved in its administration. The 1912 course was organised by Nora MacMunn, Demonstrator in Geography and only the second woman to be appointed to an academic teaching position in the University. She was aided by Fanny Herbertson, wife of the Director of the School, AJ Herbertson, a writer and unofficial Geography staff member for many years.

Photograph of 1924 vacation course

Staff and students at the 1924 vacation course (OUA/GE/5B/1)

Geography eventually became part of the BA course in 1932. From that date it became possible to obtain honours in geography as part of the undergraduate curriculum. As a result, however, both the diploma and the vacation courses were abolished – the new geography Final Honour School needed increased staff time to teach it. The number of women studying geography declined as it became a more masculine subject once again – dominated by men looking to move into the civil service or armed forces – and its connections to schoolteaching declined.

A group of women scholars from the School of Geography has been researching the often forgotten history of women geographers in Oxford including their role in the vacation courses. Links to their work, from which some of the information here has been sourced, are available at:

Centenary Event recording ‘A thing inexpedient and immodest’: women in the University of Oxford’s School of Geography now available online | News | School of Geography and the Environment | University of Oxford

‘Must it be a Man?’ Women’s contribution to the University of Oxford | University of Oxford Podcasts – Audio and Video Lectures

Series 2: Nora MacMunn (1875 – 1967) – Women in Oxford’s History Podcast (wordpress.com)

Relaunching the Oxford Botanic Garden

The Botanic Garden celebrates its 400th birthday on 25 July 2021, marked by the current Bodleian Library exhibition ‘Roots to Seeds’  https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/event/roots-to-seeds. The Garden itself has changed over the four centuries since it was founded in 1621 (as the Physic Garden) and its fortunes have fluctuated.

By 1834 it was in a pretty bad state. Charles Daubeny was elected Sherardian Professor of Botany early that year and one of the first things he did on becoming Professor was to launch an appeal to raise money for the Garden. Daubeny had taken over a space which he felt was no longer fit for purpose and which he wanted to restore to ‘the character which it possessed a century ago’.

Daubeny wrote a report to the Visitors of the Garden, the body in charge of it, on 14 March 1834 setting out the problems, along with a detailed discussion of what was needed to put things right. The accompanying ‘Plan of the Botanic Garden with the projected additions’, by Henry Jones Underwood, showed the Garden as it was along with Daubeny’s proposed improvements.

Plan of Botanic Garden 1834

Plan of the Botanic Garden with projected additions by HJ Underwood

Alongside basic improvements such as better soil and the removal of vermin-ridden greenery, Daubeny wanted to expand the Garden and create new areas within it. He planned a new garden (where the Gin Border is now) for ‘plants used in Medicine, Agriculture, or the Arts’; and an ‘Experimental Garden’ for ‘ascertaining the effects of soils, or of chemical agents, upon vegetation’.

His most damning criticism was directed at the buildings in the Garden. The greenhouses, built over a century ago, when ‘the mode of constructing Greenhouses was but ill understood’ were ‘extremely ill-constructed for most kinds of plants’. The Stovehouse was ‘so miserably constructed, that all hopes of cultivating rare and curious Exotics… must be abandoned’. In such bad repair, he recommended they simply be pulled down. Other buildings desperately needed remedial work; the bedrooms in the gardener’s cottage were extremely damp on account of being ‘contiguous to a stagnant ditch’.

Daubeny proposed a range of new buildings including new greenhouses, a lecture room and a new library for the books in the Professor’s study space (themselves significant collections of historical importance which were going mouldy from being stored in a converted greenhouse) as well as for the collections of ‘dried plants’ which he saw as being equally important teachings aids as the living plants in the Garden.

A subscription committee was formed to organise the fundraising. So committed was Daubeny to the appeal that his name appeared at the top of the list of those subscribers who had already pledged money, personally donating £100 (over £13,000 today). The subscription raised enough money to make significant improvements to the Garden, but as Daubeny later reported back to the subscribers, there was still so much left to do that he donated another £100 of his own money.

Letter to subscribers, 1834

Letter to subscribers to the Botanic Garden appeal, 1834

Once the improvements were in place, the Garden flourished, even after the new museum (now the Natural History Museum) was built in the Parks in the 1850s as a centre for the sciences. Daubeny and botany had stayed in the Garden. But within twenty years of Daubeny’s death in 1867, the study of botany had declined yet again. Those sciences based in the new museum were prospering whilst the Garden was not. It took further improvements and yet more investment in the Garden to bring it back to life.

Centenary of the first woman to receive an honorary degree

It’s often said that the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the University was Queen Mary. She received a Doctorate of Civil Law (DCL) by diploma on 11 March 1921. A degree by diploma is similar to an honorary degree, in that it’s conferred without the recipient having to study or sit any exams. The difference is that degrees by diploma are for royalty and heads of state only.

The first woman to receive an honorary degree proper was Charlotte Byron Green who received an honorary Master of Arts (MA) on 14 June 1921. Honoured for her work as a longstanding campaigner for women’s education in Oxford, Charlotte had been a founder member of the Association for the Education of Women (or AEW) which had promoted women’s education in Oxford since 1878. She had connections with Somerville and St Anne’s Colleges, as well as with the city of Oxford, having trained as a district nurse at the Radcliffe Infirmary.

Charlotte was shortly followed by the second female recipient, Elizabeth Wordsworth, former Principal of Lady Margaret Hall and founder of St Hugh’s College (both women-only colleges at that time) who received her honorary MA on 25 October 1921. She was also honoured for her work promoting women’s education in Oxford.

It’s interesting to note that neither Charlotte nor Elizabeth received their degrees at Encaenia, and both were awarded the lesser honorary degree of MA (rather that the doctorates usually conferred at Encaenia). The two ceremonies appear to have been held with very little fanfare and no documentation from either survives in the University Archives. The only record is the decision made on 30 May 1921 by Hebdomadal Council, the University’s executive body, to confer the degrees on Charlotte and Elizabeth.

Given their ground-breaking nature, it’s perhaps surprising that more was not made of these events at the time. Although the University was finally acknowledging the achievements of these women in their long fight for equal academic opportunity (both were elderly by this time: Charlotte, 78, and Elizabeth, 81), there was maybe an irony in honouring them for achieving something which the University had spent so many years resisting.

In the new few years Charlotte and Elizabeth were followed by more eminent women receiving honorary MAs, nearly all of whom were honoured as campaigners for women’s education. The first honorary doctorate was not conferred on a woman until 1925 when Harvard astronomer, Annie Jump Cannon, received an honorary Doctor of Science (DSc).

 

Relativity and an honorary degree

Ninety years ago this month Albert Einstein, the great physicist and mathematician, visited Oxford University. He came to give the Rhodes Memorial Lectures, a short series of lectures on the subject of relativity held on three successive Saturday lunchtimes at Rhodes House. According to notices in the University Gazette, the lectures were for members of the University, but a few tickets were available to members of the public. The first lecture on Saturday 9 May entitled ‘The Theory of Relativity’ was reportedly packed out. When the lecture began, there were so many people present (over 400 according to The Oxford Times), that there was standing room only for some.

While he was here, the University grabbed the opportunity to give Einstein an honorary degree. Already a famous scientist by this date, he had been invited by the University to receive an honorary degree twice before: at the Encaenia in 1925 and again in 1930. He had been unable to attend both times; his doctor advising him against the trip on the second occasion. His letters declining the offers are gracious and elegantly written. But this third time, the University succeeded and Einstein wrote again on 12 May 1931 accepting the offer with thanks. The arrangements were hastily made and his Doctor of Science (DSc) degree was conferred on the morning of Saturday 23 May, shortly before he gave his third, and final, lecture.

Gazette notice May 1931

University Gazette notice of the conferral of Einstein’s honorary degree, 1931

Einstein delivered that final lecture, on the ‘Latest developments of the Theory’ later than day but to a slightly smaller crowd than previously. The Times reported that there were notable absentees in the audience. Maybe even Oxford’s brightest minds had found an exposition of relativity in German rather challenging.

Einstein left Oxford for Hamburg five days later but the blackboard which he used in giving the second lecture, on ‘The Cosmological Problem’, was kept by the University and remains today in the Museum of the History of Science.

Einstein's blackboard

Blackboard used by Einstein during his second lecture on ‘The Cosmological Problem’. © The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With kind permission of the Albert Einstein Archives.