Category Archives: Meeting report

December 2020 meeting: Einstein and the refugee 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.

Reports of earlier meetings

November 2020 meeting: Oxfordshire in the Second World War

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.

Reports of earlier meetings

October 2020 meeting: 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.

Reports of earlier meetings

September 2020 meeting: The Wilts & Berks Canal: Past, Present, and Future

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.

Reports of earlier meetings

Reports of Club meetings in 2019-2020 published online

After each speaker meeting a short report is produced for submission to the local parish magazine, Radley News, and to circulate to members in the monthly Club newsletter. The reports for September 2019 to March 2020 have now been published on the Club website. Unfortunately the COVID-19 crisis has meant that the meetings planned for April to July 2020 had to be cancelled.

Read the reports