July 2021: Meeting cancelled
Talk rescheduled for July 2022 – see Events Calendar
June 2021: Spitfires over Oxfordshire
On 14 June Nic Vanderpeet, learning and outreach officer at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock, described the wartime reconnaissance missions of the Spitfires based in Oxfordshire.
Reginald Mitchell (1895 – 1937) of Supermarine Aviation, Southampton, designed the Spitfire as an evolution from the firm’s successful seaplanes. After the flight of the prototype in March 1936, the test pilot commented ‘Don’t change a thing.’
The Spitfires in Oxfordshire were deployed in training and reconnaissance roles, based at RAF Benson, RAF & USAAF Mount Farm (around what is now Berinsfield), and RAF Bicester. The planes were equipped with stereoscopic cameras. Teams including many women, notably the famous Constance Babington Smith, identified features on the photographs in interpretation centres at Nuneham House and Medmenham (nearby in Buckinghamshire).
Key intelligence included sightings of the German battleship Bismarck in 1941, the construction of the ‘Atlantic Wall’, confirmation of the damage done by Allied bombing raids, and reconnaissance of the territory inland from the D-day beaches.
John Hugh Saffery, based at RAF Benson, recorded the hazards of flying at high altitude, including extreme cold and lack of oxygen. On YouTube, you can find a short film Spitfire 944 in which US pilot John Blyth describes his experiences at Mount Farm, including a crash landing. At ncap.org.uk the National Collection of Aerial Photography is available online.
May 2021: The Oxford of Inspector Morse
On 10 May Alastair Lack explored the characters of Inspector Morse and his colleague Sergeant Lewis, as depicted in Colin Dexter’s books and three television series.
On holiday in Wales in the early 1970s, reading a poor detective novel, Colin Dexter exclaimed that he could do better. ‘Why don’t you?’ his wife replied. The result was Last Bus to Woodstock, published in 1975 to immediate success, and followed by 12 further Morse novels.
Colin Dexter’s favourite poet was A E Housman. Morse’s early life recalls Housman’s: unhappy in love at Oxford, dropping out without a degree, and initially taking an unsuitable job. Morse becomes a brilliant but wayward detective, still unhappy in love, devoted to opera and real ale. Lewis is the perfect foil: stolid, happily married, and almost always paying for the ale.
The novels make the most of their settings in and near Oxford, for example including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s appearance in Dr Faustus at the Playhouse in 1966, as well as pubs in and around Oxford.
From 1987 to 2000 Morse and Lewis appeared in the famous and popular television series based on the novels, and then in further episodes written by gifted scriptwriters. Colin Dexter wanted to cast John Thaw as Morse – an inspired choice – and Kevin Whately was perfectly cast as Lewis. The scripts used Morse and Lewis’s sessions in famous Oxford pubs to recapitulate – for viewers’ benefit – the complex story so far, and to explain their next steps.
After a long day of arduous filming, Thaw in particular disliked being recognized in Oxford pubs, and preferred the relative seclusion of the Randolph Hotel, in what was later named the Morse Bar.
It is estimated that almost 19 million people watched the episode Twilight of the Gods in 1993. The cast included John Gielgud, as Chancellor of the University.
In 1999 Colin Dexter published what he firmly declared to be the last Morse novel, The Remorseful Day, in which Morse dies of a heart attack. This was televised in 2000, and was the 33rd episode. Thaw himself died in 2002. Whately went on to star in a new series, Lewis (without Morse) which also ran for 33 episodes. From 2012 a young Morse has appeared in a third series, Endeavour.
Answering the many questions after his talk, Alastair Lack confirmed that Colin Dexter had often appeared in Morse in cameo roles, including, most unusually, a speaking part as the Bishop of Oxford; and that Morse was often seen parking his famous Jaguar car outside Brasenose College but then, in the next shot, appearing in a different college.
April 2021: Pagans and Puritans – the story of May morning in Oxford
On 12 April Tim Healey explained how pagans and puritans have shaped the celebration of May morning in Oxford. See Tim’s website, May Morning Oxford, for photos and details of recent events on 1 May in Oxford.
Magdalen College choir launches the day at 6 am by singing, from the top of the tower (or, in 2020, online), the Hymnus Eucharisticus. This was (until the current plague forbade it) followed by morris dancing in the streets, and then general shenanigans in the pubs and elsewhere. Historically, the hymn is relatively recent, the dancing is ancient, and the shenanigans go back thousands of years.
The custom of ‘bringing in the May’ (hawthorn blossom) has distant origins in the Celtic festival of Beltane and Roman celebrations of Flora, goddess of the spring. In 1250, the Chancellor of Oxford University forbade ‘… all dancing in masks or with disorderly noises, and all processions of men wearing wreaths and garlands made of leaves of trees or flowers or what not.’
Morris dancing was first documented in England at the Goldsmiths’ feast in 1448. By the 16th century, it was widespread in many villages. At Maytime, there was often a cheery complicity between the parish church authorities, the gentry, and the revellers. But the Puritans were horrified, and in 1589 had the constable of Banbury ‘take down all Maypoles … and repress and put down all Whitsun ales, May games and morris dances and utterly forbid any wakes or fairs …’ In 1648 the Oxford diarist Anthony Wood recorded ‘zealous persecuting of the young people that followed May-Games, by breaking of Garlands, taking away fiddles from Musicians, dispersing Morrice-Dancers, and by not suffering a green bough to be worn in a hat or stuck up at any door, esteeming it a superstition or rather an heathenish custom.’
Jollification returned with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and in 1695 Wood recorded that at Magdalen ‘the choral ministers … do, according to an ancient custom, salute Flora every year on the first of May, at four in the morning, with vocal music of several parts.’
In the 18th century, the performance still had a secular character: ‘a merry Concert of both Vocal and Instrumental Music … lasting almost 2 hours.’ Then, according to Dr Routh, President of Magdalen from 1791, one wet May morning the choir just sang the Hymnus Eucharisticus. It was mercifully short, and, being the college Grace, needed no rehearsal.
In Victorian times, a famous painting by Holman Hunt, and Henry Taunt’s photographs and postcards made May morning in Oxford widely known. From 1923 university, town, and (for a while) police morris ‘sides’ have danced in the streets, inviting the famous ‘sides’ from Headington, Abingdon and Bampton to join them, and afterwards enjoying a well-aled morris breakfast in St Edmund Hall. Sides often include a ‘Jack in the Green’, a dancer completely encased in foliage.
In the lively questions and comments after Tim Healey’s talk, Christine Wootton mentioned the vicar’s report of Radley’s May celebrations in 1895. Young Mark Villebois was Jack in the Green. ‘After silently enduring the heat for some time, he at last broke loose from his leafy dungeon, and saved his life.’
March 2021: Living the Lexicon – James Murray and the OED
On 8 March Simon Wenham presented James Murray’s work on the creation of the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, now known as the Oxford English Dictionary.
Murray was born in 1837 in Denholm, in the Scottish Borders. From childhood he was fascinated by words and languages, but his father, a tailor, could not afford to keep him at school beyond age 14. At 17, he became a teacher at Hawick Grammar School. In 1862 he married Maggie Scott. In 1864 their baby daughter died of tuberculosis, and Maggie also contracted it. They were advised to escape the Scottish winters, and chose to move to London. However, soon Maggie also died. In 1867 Murray married Ada Ruthven. Murray’s friend Alexander Graham Bell was best man. Murray prized (but did not use) his wedding present of a telephone.
Murray had taken a job in a bank, but continued to study languages, and in 1868 joined the Philological Society. Under the enthusiastic but ineffectual editorship of Frederick Furnival, the Society was amassing material for a New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. The plan was to record the evolving meanings of every English word from Anglo Saxon to modern times, illustrated by copious quotations, sent in on paper slips by volunteer readers. Progress was slow and chaotic.
In 1878 Furnival persuaded Oxford University Press to take on publishing the Dictionary, and to appoint Murray as editor. He was then a teacher at Mill Hill School, north London. A formal agreement was signed in 1879: the project was expected to take 10 years. Murray had a corrugated iron shed built in the school grounds as a ‘scriptorium’ to house and organize the quotation slips. Murray was said to work a 77 hour week: 20 hours teaching, and 57 in the scriptorium, with a small team of assistants, and a torrent of quotation slips sent in by volunteer readers.
The first ‘fascicle’ (instalment) was published in 1884. It covered A to ant. Many subscribers could reasonably wonder whether they would live to receive the whole dictionary. At the Press’s insistence, Murray recruited more assistants, and moved to Oxford, at 78 Banbury Road, where he installed an enlarged scriptorium. The editorial team was expanded, and fascicles continued to appear regularly, but still slowly.
One of the most effective volunteer contributors was William Chester Minor, who (Murray eventually learnt) was imprisoned in Broadmoor asylum after having been found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. This story became a book by Simon Winchester and, in 2019, a film (mis)titled The Professor and the Madman.
As a (congregationalist) non-conformist, Murray was not fully accepted by the University establishment. Benjamin Jowett befriended him, but no college offered him a fellowship, and he was awarded an honorary D Litt only in 1914.
By 1914, the project had reached Sh. Murray died in 1915 and is buried in Wolvercote cemetery. Murray’s co-editors completed the work in 1928. In 1933 the dictionary was reprinted in 12 huge volumes with a supplement, and rebranded the Oxford English Dictionary. The latest version is now available online, and under continuous revision.
February 2021: Kingerlee – the family & the building firm
On 8 February Liz Woolley described the history of the Kingerlee family and their building firm, founded in 1868 by Thomas Henry Kingerlee, and celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2018 under the chairmanship of Thomas’s great great grandson David Kingerlee.
In 1868 Thomas Henry took over his father’s plumbing and glazing business at 5 Butcher’s Row, Banbury. By 1881 he was a ‘master builder’ employing 20 men. In 1883 he acquired an established building business in Queen Street, Oxford. This was an astute move: Oxford’s suburban ‘base and brickish skirt’ was growing rapidly, and builders were in keen demand.
The firm’s first major commission in Oxford was an isolation hospital at Cold Arbour. Kingerlee established yards near Osney Bridge (Botley Road), and from 1890 to 1915 the family lived in the fine house which is now the River Hotel. The firm built, and rented out, terraces of houses in new streets on both sides of Botley Road, and also developed new streets off Abingdon Road and Iffley Road. They built a delightfully quirky hotel in Queen Street, Frank Cooper’s marmalade factory in Park End Street, and what is now the Ultimate Picture Palace in Jeune Street.
Thomas Henry was a prominent member of the Congregational Church, and master-minded the construction of a new chapel in Summertown. He was active as a Liberal city councillor and twice mayor. He died in 1928; his will enjoined his sons Henry and Charles to ‘provide help to old employees … during the evening of life’.
In 1937 Kingerlee won the contract to build St Luke’s Church Cowley (now the Oxfordshire History Centre). From 1938 the firm had major ongoing contracts at Pressed Steel, Cowley. They built a beautiful ice rink in Botley Road, later converted to a cinema (and sadly now replaced by Waitrose). For many years they had staff permanently working at Blenheim Palace.
In 1939 Henry gave land to North Hinksey Parish Council to be laid out as a playing field in memory of his second wife Louie. Henry died in 1945, and his son Jack took over as head of the firm.
After 1945, the firm continued to flourish. Notable projects included BBC Radio Oxford, Summertown (1988); the Jacqueline du Pré concert hall at St Hilda’s College (1995); and placing an Antony Gormley statue on the roof of Exeter College (2009). In 1999 the firm moved its headquarters to Kidlington.
The Club was particularly glad to be able to welcome as guests for this talk former employees, and descendants of former employees, who spoke warmly of the firm. In response to a question about the reasons for Kingerlee’s success, Liz Woolley mentioned the firm’s sound finances, and Thomas Henry’s weekly meetings with colleagues from other firms, which possibly avoided too fierce competition between them.
You can view here the beautifully illustrated commemorative book by Liz Woolley and Siân Smith.
January 2021: Unknown yet well-known – the story of the Unknown Warrior
On 11 January Dick Richards described the final journey of the Unknown Warrior to his burial in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920.
The idea had come to David Railton, an army chaplain, in July 1916. In the garden of his billet near Armentières he saw a grave marked by a rough cross inscribed ‘An Unknown British Soldier of the Black Watch’. That suggested to him his plan, which he hoped would comfort relatives mourning a warrior with no known grave. But he decided it would have to wait until the end of the war; and was then uncertain about who to approach. In August 1920 his wife said: ‘Now or never’. He wrote to Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster, suggesting the burial in the Abbey of the body of ‘one of our unknown comrades’ recovered from France.
Bishop Ryle liked the idea, and did know who to approach, up to and including the (initially reluctant) King George V. Lloyd George and Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson were enthusiastic. On 15 October 1920 the Cabinet approved the proposal, and appointed a committee under Lord Curzon to plan the event – in an astonishingly short time.
They took the utmost precautions to ensure that the warrior would be truly unknown. Four skeletons were exhumed from separate battlefields: maybe a scrap of khaki to show that the remains were reliably British but lacking any identifying badge or button. They were taken to a makeshift chapel at Army HQ, St Pol. Brigadier General Wyatt chose one, and the others were reburied along a roadside, so that it remained unknowable where the selected warrior had fallen.
The bones, in a simple pine coffin, were taken, with 6 barrels of soil from a French battlefield, to the Château at Boulogne. Here the simple coffin was placed inside a huge ceremonial coffin brought from England, decorated with a sword from the Tower of London. On the morning of 10 November British soldiers carried it through Boulogne to the quayside, watched by large crowds. At the quayside, Marshal Foch, present on his own initiative, joined the ceremony. The coffin was put on board HMS Verdun (chosen as a compliment to France), and taken to Dover. At Dover Marine station it was loaded into the luggage van that had previously been used to convey Edith Cavell’s body. A plaque on platform 8 at Victoria station records the Unknown Warrior’s overnight stay there.
On 11 November huge crowds watched the procession from Victoria to the Abbey via Constitution Hill, The Mall and Whitehall. The sergeant in charge of the bearers was Harry Ivey, great uncle of a History Club member. The King unveiled the new Cenotaph in Whitehall and laid a wreath there. He had also placed a wreath of red roses and bay leaves on the Unknown Warrior’s coffin: ‘In proud memory of those Warriors who died unknown in the Great War. Unknown, and yet well-known … George R[ex] I[mperator]’.
The procession continued to the Abbey, entering by the north door. Tickets for the service had been allocated by ballot, except that 99 widows who had lost both their husband and one or more sons were guests of honour. The Union Flag which had served David Railton in France as an altar cloth, and sometimes as a shroud, was used as a pall, and still hangs in the Abbey. The grave was filled with the French soil.
You can watch a short (silent) Pathé News film of scenes from the journey.
December 2020: Einstein and the refugeee scholars of Oxford
On 14 December, Radley resident Victoria Bentata Azaz recounted by Zoom how Einstein and many other refugee scholars enriched (especially) science at the University of Oxford in and after the 1930s.
By 1900, Germany was pre-eminent in science, thanks to many dedicated research institutes and the outstanding Technische Hochschulen (specializing in science and engineering). German scientists dominated the first Solvay conference of world-leading physicists, held in Brussels in 1911, attended by the young Albert Einstein (naturalized Swiss), and Frederick Lindemann, British son of a German-born father.
Einstein’s work on ‘special’ and ‘general’ relativity explained motion, light, and gravity by rigorous but perplexing mathematics. Einstein was eccentric and self-effacing, and became much admired in England. In 1919 the British astronomer Eddington made an expedition to the island of Principe to observe stars near the sun during a total eclipse. He found that Einstein’s mathematics correctly predicted the bending by the sun’s mass of light from the stars.
By the 1930s, ‘Aryan’ German scientists were disparaging Einstein’s work as ‘Jewish’ physics, and published a book 100 authors against Einstein. Einstein remarked that, if he had been wrong, one would have been enough.
Meanwhile, until 1919, physics was badly taught and little researched at Oxford. From 1919 Lindemann revived it – facing down the assertion that ‘anyone with a first in greats (classics) could get up science in a fortnight’.
In 1931 Lindemann persuaded Einstein to come to Oxford, and arranged a ‘studentship’ (teaching post) for him at Christ Church. In May 1931 Einstein gave 3 famous public lectures (in German). Some of his equations chalked on a blackboard were (and still are) preserved, including what Einstein later acknowledged were mistakes.
From 1933 Hitler assumed dictatorial power. Scientists (and others) with one or more Jewish grandparents were summarily dismissed. William Beveridge founded the Academic Assistance Council to bring academics fleeing Nazi persecution to Britain. In October 1933, shortly before taking up a post at Princeton, Einstein gave a speech (in English) at the Albert Hall in defence of academic freedom: ‘without such freedom there would have been no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Faraday, no Pasteur and no Lister.’
Lindemann and others attracted many distinguished refugee academics to Oxford. They played key roles, notably in the ‘Tube Alloys’ project to develop the atomic bomb, and in neurosurgery at Stoke Mandeville. They included fascinating eccentrics such as Nicholas Kurti, the ‘physicist in the kitchen’, and Eduard Fraenkel, who gave what was surely the longest ever series of graduate seminars on a Greek play.
Beveridge’s Council is still operating, now as the Council for At-Risk Academics, and Oxford University continues to be enriched by many staff and students from overseas.
November 2020: Oxfordshire in the Second World War – Stephen Barker
On 9 November (appropriately near Armistice Day), Stephen Barker described events in Oxfordshire during the second world war.
From September 1939, Oxford City Council workmen were already constructing public air raid shelters. Over the weekend 1–4 September, 16,000 children were evacuated to rural Oxfordshire. Some enjoyed new experiences, such as seeing rabbits and growing vegetables. Others desperately missed their parents, including one whose subsequent angry letter to her cruel ‘hosts’ survives in the Banbury archives.
Local Defence Volunteers (later renamed the Home Guard) were formed to resist the feared invasion. At Bicester, one volunteer, when asked what steps he would take if paratroopers landed at a local airfield, replied ‘Big ones, sir!’
German bombers were deceived into attacking a mock factory built outside Banbury, instead of the real factory vital for the production of aluminium airframes. However, on 3 October 1940 bombs devastated Banbury gas works and railway goods yard.
Women ‘land girls’ replaced farm workers. Jean Procter, founder of the British Women Land Army Association, vigorously disputed their depiction in Angela Huth’s novel Land Girls: ‘… this stupid story comes along about us getting off with the farmer’s son. There were no farmers’ sons; we’d replaced them.’ There were however tales of flirtations with American servicemen and German prisoners of war.
In 1942, American servicemen were issued with a guidebook of instructions on British customs. They were warned, for example, against saying ‘bloody’ in mixed company.
Women led the success of ‘make do and mend’, and Banbury girl guides won a county prize for organizing waste paper collection.
Units from Oxfordshire led the capture of the Pegasus bridge on D-day in June 1944, and took part in the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. On VE Day in the Bartons, for example, the feeling around the bonfire was more of relief than celebration.
Answering questions after his talk, Stephen Barker explained that there is no evidence for the (always implausible) claim that German bombers spared Oxford because Hitler wanted it as the capital of occupied Britain.
October 2020: Artists in Wonderland – Mark Davies
On 12 October, via Zoom, Mark Davies (local historian and author of Alice in Waterland) described and illustrated the adventures in Oxford of some of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, and their encounters with Thomas Combe, Printer to the University, philanthropist, and art collector; and Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
In 1850 John Millais and Charles Collins were experiencing what Millais described as ‘Bottleyonian privations’, receiving poor fare at a boarding house near Wytham Woods. Through James Wyatt, an Oxford art dealer and picture framer, they met Thomas and Martha Combe. Martha supplied them with a meat pie; and Thomas assisted Millais in locating the shoes of the child model for The Woodman’s Daughter, so that Millais could paint them accurately. Collins later painted the flowers for Convent Thoughts in the garden of the University Press in Jericho, where the Combes lived.
The Pre-Raphaelite ‘Brotherhood’ in Oxford expanded to include Holman Hunt, Rossetti, Morris, and Burne-Jones. They attempted, without proper preparation, to paint murals of Arthurian legends in the Union Society’s library. The daughters of Mrs Lipscombe, landlady of the Trout Inn, Godstow, were noted ‘stunners’. Rossetti persuaded Morris to journey to Godstow to ask one to model for Isoude. He met with a heated refusal, and returned crestfallen to Oxford.
Charles Dodgson was also in the Combes’ circle. His photographs are particularly valuable because he carefully identified and dated them: for example Holman Hunt and Thomas Combe in 1860, Millais in 1865, and Rossetti in 1863.
St Frideswide’s well at Binsey, which would probably have been known to the Pre-Raphaelites from sketching and walking over Port Meadow, was the inspiration for the treacle well in Alice. And the ‘Drawling-master’ is said to be based on John Ruskin. He and others, especially the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner, advised Dodgson not to use his own drawings, which led to him engaging Tenniel as his illustrator.
Martha Combe inherited Thomas’s collection, and bequeathed much important Pre-Raphaelite art to the Ashmolean Museum. Search for ashmolean.org to look at it online, and check about visiting.
September 2020: The Wilts & Berks Canal: Past, Present, and Future – Martin Buckland
On 21 September, appearing via Zoom and resplendent in a luxuriant pandemic beard, Club member Martin Buckland related the history, and hoped-for future, of the Wilts & Berks Canal.
That, including the ampersand, was always its official name, starting with its enabling Act of Parliament of 1795. Canals were then prospering, because for bulky or fragile cargoes they were better than the rough – and often impassibly muddy – roads. The Wilts & Berks opened in 1810, offering a new 52-mile route from Semington (on the existing Kennet and Avon Canal) to Abingdon. This route was (and one day could again be) much shorter than via Newbury, Reading, and the Thames. The Wilts & Berks had branches to Chippenham, Calne, and Wantage; and later a link to the upper Thames at Cricklade.
The Oxford Canal had brought the price of coal (from Coventry) in Oxford down to £1.60 a ton, undercutting sea coal from Newcastle at £2.60 a ton, brought via London and the Thames. The Wilts & Berks hoped for lucrative traffic from the Somerset coal fields. It also carried grain for the Abingdon breweries. But there was little return traffic from Abingdon to the west.
The route passed through what were, in 1810, fields near the small market town of Swindon. From 1840, the canal briefly prospered, carrying materials for the building of Brunel’s Great Western Railway and the new Swindon railway works and town. But the canal thus brought on its own decline, because the railway captured much of its traffic. The canal bore increasingly unsustainable losses. Traffic had largely ceased by 1901, and the canal was formally abandoned by Act of Parliament in 1914. Its land was transferred to the adjacent landowners, although the local authorities retained responsibility for the bridges. Many stretches were built on or filled with rubbish, and some lock structures were used for demolition practice by the army.
In 1971 Jack Dalby’s pioneering book ‘The Wilts and [sic] Berks Canal’ was published, and awakened enthusiasts’ interest in restoring the canal to navigation. This is now being energetically taken forward by the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust, in cooperation with the local authorities and the national Canal & River Trust. Several short stretches are open to navigation, and there are credible plans for new routes past Swindon and through Melksham.
2006 saw the triumphant opening of the first stretch of a completely new section of canal leaving the Thames nearly opposite the Culham Cut, and planned to replace the original route from Abingdon through Caldecott. That is now irretrievably built over: only a pretty bridge at the mouth of the Ock remains as a memento of the Canal’s wharf there. A free downloadable leaflet is available to guide you on a fascinating walk around the old and new routes from Abingdon.