Author Archives: Bob Goodenough

PAGANS AND PURITANS (The Story of May Mornings in Oxford)

On Jan 10th Tim Healey gave us a fascinating and entertaining account of the customs associated with May Day celebrations.

First of all he reminded us that the First of May is not only a celebration of Spring, but also a political date, even with revolutionary undertones.

But May Day celebrations have their origins in the pagan rites associated with Flora the goddess of flowers, which began in Roman times and may have been connected to orgies. A painting by Tiepolo of 1745 depicted these rites.

In 1695 Anthony Wood described the celebrations as an invocation of Summer and at this time it was not considered of great significance. However in the period of the Commonwealth many Puritans found the practice abhorrent, and they did their best to suppress any celebration connected with May Day.

Singing from towers became a common custom in Medieval times and was known to take place in Oxford on New College Bell Tower. The urge to bring green things into the towns and indoors was also a feature of these rites and is depicted in a Book of Hours of 1500.  In the Thames Valley the Hawthorn and its blossom were very popular for garlands. It often (but not always) flowered at the appropriate time.

The Celtic Beltane feasts and Valpurgisnacht were also associated with May Day rites.

In 1250 the University banned all Maytime revels and this reflected the tension which developed between Authority and the revellers. But the Church attitude was often ambiguous, partly since the profits from the sale of Church Ale were used to fund church maintenance. The University colleges, too, sometimes hosted the Morris Dancing. In 1605 there was Morris Dancing in front of the King at Christchurch college.

In the 16th century we see the first mentions of Morris Dancing in relation to May Day celebrations, including depictions of men dressed as women (which had been forbidden in the Bible).

The Puritan backlash against Morris Dancing and other forms of popular entertainment originated with the English Church’s break with Rome in the 16th Century. The Bible was the supreme arbiter, and anything that was condemned there was abhorrent to the Puritans. Banbury was a hotbed of Puritanism, and the authorities there forbade all May celebrations. The Royalists considered these things to be harmless. In 1633 St Peter’s Church tried to stop a Garland from coming into the Church. The Maypole was often erected as a provocation to the Puritans.

At the Westminster Assembly in 1644 Maypoles were banned, but at the Restoration, and the return of Charles II, they reappeared.

By the 1740s the revelries around the Maypole had become more “polite” and in tune with the new Romantic sensibility. The dancers began to include women and girls, and small boys blowing horns (the whithorns) as they might have done in the fields while herding cattle and sheep. On Magdalen College Tower the Choir sang the Hymnus Eucharistus.

In the 19th Century, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, the popular image of the Countryside became more and more idealised, and writers and artists (including Tennyson, Holman Hunt and Ruskin) helped to create the image of May Day revels that we recognise today. The Maypole became an object with ribbons round which people danced, a Garland was brought in, the May Queen appeared (only occasionally with a May King), and songs were written and sung. But still there were more subversive elements, such as Jack in the Green, a man covered from head to foot with greenery, and often accompanied by chimney sweeps.

In the 20th and 21st Centuries the trend towards popular involvement increased, with events such as the Magdalen Bridge celebrations as the Choir sings from Magdalen Tower, followed by further revels up the High Street. This particular event attracts people in huge, sometimes frightening numbers. But on the other hand, May Day is still celebrated in small communities with dances round the May Pole, a Queen of the May, and garlands from the countryside.

Power and Personalities – Politics in Victorian and Edwardian Oxford

Speaker : Simon Wenham

Simon began by giving us an overview of the national and international politics at that time, It was a time of great change as a result of industrialisation and urbanisation which led eventually to reform and social change. The two main parties – Tories and Whigs – were led by MPs who needed to be wealthy as they were unpaid, and also property owners, Anglican in religion, and male. The shadow of the French Revolution still hung over politics early in the 19th century, but
protectionism gradually gave way to a more philanthropic and tolerant view of society.

The Irish Potato Famine led under Peel to reform of the Corn Laws, and Electoral reform
came in 1832. The Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819 caused outrage. Corruption
was rife in the voting procedure as a result of bribery and “rotten” and “pocket” boroughs.
Catholic emancipation was also an issue, as were the £10 property requirements. The Poor Law Reform Act of 1836 made provision for the setting up of workhouses, but these were regarded as a last resort for the most desperate. The workhouses in Oxford were built on the Cowley Road, and in Gladstone Road, Headington. The Chartist movement was inspired by Poor Law reform, and locally Minster Lovell became known as Charterville.

Simon Wenham then moved on to talk about Oxford in particular and the rivalry that
existed between Town and Gown. This had surfaced early on in 1355 with the St
Scholastica riots. This began with a student protest about poor ale at the Swindlestock
Tavern, and it escalated into full-scale riot in the town.

The population of the city rose significantly from around 12,000 at the beginning of the
19th century to around 49,000 by 1901. Flooding and the risk of Cholera was a constant issue and eventually improved drainage and lowering of the water level in the rivers alleviated the problem, although as we know flooding in Oxford still occurs rather too often.

The 1882 rule allowing Dons to marry resulted in increased philanthropy in the town, under the influence of wives and daughters. There were three attempts to bring the railway to Oxford. These were opposed by landowners and the University but eventually the first station was built on Western Road, although the workshop went to Swindon.

Parliamentary elections in Oxford were marred by corruption, and Oxford was at one point stripped of its franchise. But from the 1870s onwards the power of the town became more dominant, as did non-conformism. The town was led by several notable figures, including James Hughes, Walter Gray and Robert Buckle. All of them became mayors.

Oxford gained County Borough status in 1889, after adjusting the figures to reach the required number of 50,000 inhabitants. The Town Hall was built in 1897.

The Suffragette movement was also active in Oxford. A rally at the Martyrs’ Memorial ended in chaos. The most significant event in Oxford’s economic life came with the arrival of William
Morris. His car factory had a transformative effect, changing a rather sleepy city into a
major manufacturing centre.

Summer visit – Oxford Morse tour

On July 12th Alistair Lack led a group of members around various venues associated with the filming of the Morse series, and later the Lewis and Endeavour episodes.

He began by giving us some facts about the number of episodes involved, the scriptwriters, the composer Barrington Phelong and the relevant viewing figures. Kevin Whateley was by far the longest -serving actor, having been in all three series and for 30 years. An interesting addition to the information about personalities was that there was a close bond between Colin Dexter and John Thaw who played Morse. They enjoyed a mutual fondness for liquid refreshment in the Morse bar of the Randolph Hotel.

We began our tour outside St John’s College in St Giles, which was the fictional college attended by Morse. He failed to complete his degree course after an unhappy love affair. We stopped at St Michael’s Church at the Northgate which was associated with an incident when a victim was pushed from the top of the church tower. However we also learned that many scenes supposedly filmed in Oxford were actually filmed elsewhere, often on the outskirts of London. This was more convenient for the large numbers of crew involved, and kept costs down.

We were then taken into Exeter College grounds and the college chapel. This was the venue for Morse’s final scene when he heard his favourite piece of music, Fauré’s Requiem. He was then filmed collapsing outside having suffered a fatal heart attack.

We were also told that allowing filming was much more popular with some colleges than with others, although it was a welcome source of revenue. After a brief stop outside Walter’s in the Turl which features in one episode, we finished our tour outside the Sheldonian which played a part in the most watched Morse episode of all.