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Ch. 7: Georgian Oxford

Oxford has usually been described either by her lovers or her malcontents. She has suffered the extremes of filial ingratitude and affection. There is something in the place that makes all her children either adore or detest her; and it is difficult, indeed, to pick out the truth concerning her past social condition from the satires and the encomiums. Nor is it easy to say what qualities in Oxford, and what answering characteristics in any of her sons, will beget the favourable or the unfavourable verdict. Gibbon, one might have thought, saw the sunny, and Johnson the shady, side of the University. With youth, and wealth, and liberty, with a set of three beautiful rooms in that "stately pile, the new building of Magdalen College," Gibbon found nothing in Oxford to please him--nothing to admire, nothing to love. From his poor and lofty rooms in Pembroke Gate-tower the hypochondriac Johnson--rugged, anxious, and conscious of his great unemployed power--looked down on a much more pleasant Oxford, on a city and on schools that he never ceased to regard with affection. This contrast is found in the opinions of our contemporaries. One man will pass his time in sneering at his tutors and his companions, in turning listlessly from study to study, in following false tendencies, and picking up scraps of knowledge which he despises, and in later life he will detest his University. There are wiser and more successful students, who yet bear away a grudge against the stately mother of us all, that so easily can disregard our petty spleens and ungrateful rancour. Mr. Lowe's most bitter congratulatory addresses to the "happy Civil Engineers," and his unkindest cuts at ancient history, and at the old philosophies which "on Argive heights divinely sung," move her not at all. Meanwhile, the majority of men are more kindly compact, and have more natural affections, and on them the memory of their earliest friendships, and of that beautiful environment which Oxford gave to their years of youth, is not wholly wasted.

There are more Johnsons, happily, in this matter, than Gibbons. There is little need to repeat the familiar story of Johnson's life at Pembroke. He went up in the October term of 1728, being then nineteen years of age, and already full of that wide and miscellaneous classical reading which the Oxford course, then as now, somewhat discouraged. "His figure and manner appeared strange" to the company in which he found himself; and when he broke silence it was with a quotation from Macrobius. To his tutor's lectures, as a later poet says, "with freshman zeal he went"; but his zeal did not last out the discovery that the tutor was "a heavy man," and the fact that there was "sliding on Christ Church Meadow." Have any of the artists who repeat, with perseverance, the most famous scenes in the Doctor's life--drawn him sliding on Christ Church meadows, sliding in these worn and clouted shoes of his, and with that figure which even the exercise of skating could not have made "swan-like," to quote the young lady in "Pickwick"? Johnson was "sconced" in the sum of twopence for cutting lecture; and it is rather curious that the amount of the fine was the same four hundred years earlier, when Master Stoke, of Catte Hall (whose career we touched on in the second of these sketches), deserted his lessons. It was when he was thus sconced that Johnson made that reply which Boswell preserves "as a specimen of the antithetical character of his wit"--"Sir, you have sconced me twopence for non-attendance on a lecture not worth a penny."

Sconcing seems to have been the penalty for offences very various in degree. "A young fellow of Balliol College having, upon some discontent, cut his throat very dangerously, the master of his College sent his servitor to the buttery-book to sconce him five shillings; and," says the Doctor, "tell him that the next time he cuts his throat I'll sconce him ten!" This prosaic punishment might perhaps deter some Werthers from playing with edged tools.

From Boswell's meagre account of Johnson's Oxford career we gather some facts which supplement the description of Gibbon. The future historian went into residence twenty-three years after Johnson departed without taking his degree. Gibbon was a gentleman commoner, and was permitted by the easy discipline of Magdalen to behave just as he pleased. He "eloped," as he says, from Oxford, as often as he chose, and went up to town, where he was by no means the ideal of "the Manly Oxonian in London." The fellows of Magdalen, possessing a revenue which private avarice might easily have raised to 30,000 pounds, took no interest in their pupils. Gibbon's tutor read a few Latin plays with his pupil, in a style of dry and literal translation. The other fellows, less conscientious, passed their lives in tippling and tattling, discussing the "Oxford Toasts," and drinking other toasts to the king over the water. "Some duties," says Gibbon, "may possibly have been imposed on the poor scholars," but "the velvet cap was the cap of liberty," and the gentleman commoner consulted only his own pleasure. Johnson was a poor scholar, and on him duties were imposed. He was requested to write an ode on the Gunpowder Plot, and Boswell thinks "his vivacity and imagination must have produced something fine." He neglected, however, with his usual indolence, this opportunity of producing something fine. Another exercise imposed on the poor was the translation of Mr. Pope's "Messiah," in which the young Pembroke man succeeded so well that, by Mr. Pope's own generous confession, future ages would doubt whether the English or the Latin piece was the original. Johnson complained that no man could be properly inspired by the Pembroke "coll," or college beer, which was then commonly drunk by undergraduates, still guiltless of Rhine wines, and of collecting Chinese monsters.


Carmina vis nostri scribant meliora poetae
Ingenium jubeas purior baustus alat.


In spite of the muddy beer, the poverty, and the "bitterness mistaken for frolic," with which Johnson entertained the other undergraduates round Pembroke gate, he never ceased to respect his college. "His love and regard for Pembroke he entertained to the last," while of his old tutor he said, "a man who becomes Jorden's pupil becomes his son." Gibbon's sneer is a foil to Johnson's kindliness. "I applaud the filial piety which it is impossible for me to imitate . . . To the University of Oxford I acknowledge no obligations, and she will as cheerfully renounce me for a son, as I am willing to disclaim her for a mother."

Johnson was a man who could take the rough with the smooth, and, to judge by all accounts, the Oxford of the earlier half of the eighteenth century was excessively rough. Manners were rather primitive: a big fire burned in the centre of Balliol Hall, and round this fire, one night in every year, it is said that all the world was welcome to a feast of ale and bread and cheese. Every guest paid his shot by singing a song or telling a story; and one can fancy Johnson sharing in this barbaric hospitality. "What learning can they have who are destitute of all principles of civil behaviour?" says a writer from whose journal (printed in 1746) Southey has made some extracts. The diarist was a Puritan of the old leaven, who visited Oxford shortly before Johnson's period, and who speaks of "a power of gross darkness that may be felt constantly prevailing in that place of wisdom and of subtlety, but not of God . . . In this wicked place the scholars are the rudest, most giddy, and unruly rabble, and most mischievous." But this strange and unfriendly critic was a Nonconformist, in times when good Churchmen showed their piety by wrecking chapels and "rabbling" ministers. In our days only the Davenport Brothers and similar professors of strange creeds suffer from the manly piety of the undergraduates.

Of all the carping, cross-grained, scandal-loving, Whiggish assailants of Alma Mater, the author of Terrae Filius was the most persistent. The first little volume which contains the numbers of this bi-weekly periodical (printed for R. Franklin, under Tom's Coffee-house, in Russell Street, Covent Garden, MDCCXXVI.) is not at all rare, and is well worth a desultory reading. What strikes one most in Terrae Filius is the religious discontent of the bilious author. One thinks, foolishly of course, of even Georgian Whigs as orthodox men, at least in their undergraduate days. The mere aspect of Mr. Leslie Stephen's work on the philosophers of the eighteenth century is enough to banish this pleasing delusion. The Deists and Freethinkers had their followers in Johnson's day among the undergraduates, though scepticism, like Whiggery, was unpopular, and might be punished. Johnson says, that when he was a boy he was a lax TALKER, rather than a lax THINKER, against religion; "but lax talking against religion at Oxford would not be suffered." The author of Terrae Filius, however, never omits a chance of sneering at our faith, and at the Church of England as by law established. In his description of the exercises of the Club of Wits, only one respectably clever epigram is quoted, beginning, -


"Since in religion all men disagree,
And some one God believe, some thirty, and some three."


This production "was voted heretical," and burned by the hands of the small-beer drawer, while the author was expelled. In the author's advice to freshmen, he gives a not uninteresting sketch of these rudimentary creatures. The chrysalis, as described by the preacher of a University sermon, "never, in his wildest moments, dreamed of being a butterfly"; but the public schoolboy of the last century sometimes came up in what he conceived to be gorgeous attire. "I observe, in the first place, that you no sooner shake off the authority of the birch but you affect to distinguish yourselves from your dirty school-fellows by a new drugget, a pair of prim ruffles, a new bob-wig, and a brazen-hilted sword." As soon as they arrived in Oxford, these youths were hospitably received "amongst a parcel of honest, merry fellows, who think themselves obliged, in honour and common civility, to make you DAMNABLE DRUNK, and carry you, as they call it, a CORPSE to bed." When this period of jollity is ended, the freshman must declare his views. He must see that he is in the fashion; "and let your declarations be, that you are CHURCHMEN, and that you believe as the CHURCH believes. For instance, you have subscribed the Thirty-nine Articles; but never venture to explain the sense in which you subscribed them, because there are various senses; so many, indeed, that scarce two men understand them in the same, and no TRUE CHURCHMAN in that which the words bear, and in that which they were written."

This is pretty plain speaking, and Terrae Filius enforces, by an historical example, the dangers of even political freethought. In 1714 the Constitution Club kept King George's birthday. The Constitutional Party was then the name which the Whigs took to themselves, though, thanks to the advance of civilisation, the Tories have fallen back upon the same. The Conservative undergraduates attacked the club, sallying forth from their Jacobite stronghold in Brasenose (as seen in our illustration), where the "silly statue," as Hearne calls it, was about that time erected. The Whigs took refuge in Oriel, the Tories assaulted the gates, and an Oriel man, firing out of his window, wounded a gownsman of Brasenose. The Tories, "under terror of this dangerous and unexpected resistance, retreated from Oriel." Yet such was the academic strength of the Jacobites and the Churchmen, that a Freethinker, or a "Constitutioner," could scarcely take his degree.

Terrae Filius, who lashes the dons for covetousness, greed, dissipation, rudeness, and stupidity, often corroborates the Puritan's report about the bad manners of the undergraduates. Yet Oxford, then as now, did not lack her exquisites, and her admirers of the fair. Terrae Filius thus describes a "smart," as these dandies were called--Mr. Frippery:


"He is one of those who come in their academical undress, every morning between ten and eleven, to Lyne's Coffee-house; after which he takes a turn or two upon the park, or under Merton Wall, whilst the dull REGULARS are at dinner in their hall, according to statute; about one he dines alone in his chamber upon a boiled chicken or some pettitoes; after which he allows himself an hour at least to dress in, to make his afternoon's appearance at Lyne's; from whence he adjourns to Hamilton's about five; from whence (after strutting about the room for a while, and drinking a dram of citron), he goes to chapel, to show how genteelly he dresses, and how well he can chaunt. After prayers he drinks tea with some celebrated toast, and then waits upon her to Magdalen Grove or Paradise Garden, and back again. He seldom eats any supper, and never reads anything but novels and romances."


The dress of this hero and his friends must have made the streets more gay than do the bright-coloured flannel coats of our boating men.


"He is easily distinguished by a stiff silk gown, which rustles in the wind as he struts along; a flax tie-wig, or sometimes a long natural one, which reaches down below his [well, say below his waist]; a broad bully-cock'd hat, or a square cap of about twice the usual size; white stockings; thin Spanish leather shoes. His clothes lined with tawdry silk, and his shirt ruffled down the bosom as well as at the wrists."


These "smarts" cut no such gallant figure when they first arrived in Oxford, with their fathers (rusty old country farmers), in linsey- woolsey coats, greasy, sun-burnt heads of hair, clouted shoes, yarn stockings, flapping hats, with silver hatbands, and long muslin neck- cloths run with red at the bottom.

After this satire of the undergraduates we may look at the contemporary account-book of a Proctor. In 1752 Gilbert White of Selborne was Proctor, and may have fined young Gibbon of Magdalen, who little thought that Oxford boasted an official who was to become an English classic. White paid some attention to dress, and got a feather-topp'd, grizzled wig from London; cost him 2 pounds, 5s. He bought "mountain wine, very old and good," and had his crest engraved on his teaspoons, that everything might be handsome about him. When he treated the Masters of Arts in Oriel Hall they ate a hundred pounds weight of biscuits--not, we trust, without marmalade. "A bowl of rum-punch from Horsman's" cost half a crown. Fancy a jolly Proctor sending out for bowls of rum-punch, and that in April! Eggs cost a penny each, and "three oranges and a mouse-trap" ninepence.

White, a generous man, gave the Vice-Chancellor "seven pounds of double-refined white sugar." I like to fancy my learned friend, the Proctor, going to the present Vice-Chancellor's with a donation of white sugar! Manners have certainly changed in the direction of severity. "Share of the expense for Mr. Butcher's release" came to ten and sixpence. What had Mr. Butcher been doing? The Proctor went "to Blenheim with Nan," and it cost him fifteen and sixpence. Perhaps she was one of the "Oxford Toasts" of a contemporary satire. Strawberries were fourpence a basket on the ninth of June; and on November 6, White lost one shilling "at cards, in common room." He went from Selborne to Oxford, "in a post-chaise with Jenny Croke"; and he gave Jenny a "round Chinaturene." Tea cost eight shillings a pound in 1752, while rum-punch was but half a crown a bowl. White's highest terminal battels were but 12 pounds, though he was a hospitable man, and would readily treat the other Proctor to a bowl of punch. It is well to remember White and Johnson when the Gibbon of that or any other day bewails the intellectual poverty of Oxford.


Andrew Lang