Category Archives: Talks

The History of Oxford University

On Thursday 8th February we were treated to a very interesting and entertaining talk on the History of Oxford University, by Alistair Lack. The story began in a small house on Merton Street, which was used to house students in the 13th century. The owner of the house was
able to teach them, but not much teaching, or learning, appears to have been done. But in the 1200s the Papal Legate described Oxford as a seat of learning, and the first college – University College – was founded. Thus Oxford became the first English University by date. The Sorbonne in Paris, and Bologna University are the only two older universities in Europe.

Oxford has a number of advantages as a centre of learning. It is surrounded by water, it is very close to the centre of England, it is on the river Thames – a very good route to London and the Continent, and it is close to Woodstock, where there was a royal hunting lodge, so the King was often close by. University College was founded in 1249 by William of Durham, Bishop of Rouen, to satisfy the need for a Civil Service to run the rapidly expanding English State that extended from the border with Scotland to South West France.

Balliol College was the next to be founded – by John Balliol. This college rapidly became a well-known academic centre and has remained so to this day, with many famous graduates, including Lord Curzon Viceroy of India (“a very superior person”), and Harold Macmillan.

New College was founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham Bishop of Winchester (the richest diocese in the world). The College was rich enough to create a large site on which it could accommodate students. The Bishop also founded Winchester College in Winchester, which became a source of supply of students for New College.

Lincoln College, founded in 1427 by the Bishop of Lincoln, was set up as a centre of religious orthodoxy, to counter the influence of the Lollards, a revolutionary movement looking to reform the Church. In the late 16th century under Thomas Bodley the Bodleian Library
was begun, building on the smaller Duke Humfrey’s Library. In 1610 Bodley persuaded the King to decree that a copy of every book printed in England should be sent to his library – a requirement that continues to this day.

All Souls College is a unique establishment. There are no undergraduates, and all members are automatically Fellows. The fine buildings were designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. A famous ritual connected with the College is the Mallard Dinner, where Fellows wine and dine before setting off round the College to “Hunt the Mallard”. It is not a very frequent occurrence – once every 100 years.

Another more famous ritual occurs every May Day, when the college choristers sing Latin Hymns from the tower of Magdalen College. Mr Lack’s grandson is a member of the Choir and has sung at this event (and his younger grandson says he would also like to).

The Bear Pub is the oldest in Oxford, founded in the 1400s. Christchurch Dining Hall was used as the Hogwarts Hall in the Harry Potter films, though after the first film a mockup was used instead. Queen Victoria loved Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, whose portrait hangs in the Dining Hall. Victoria apparently asked Lewis Carroll if he would send her his next book after “Alice in Wonderland”, and he agreed, sending her his “Principles of Euclidian Geometry”.

John Radcliffe was a noted and important benefactor in Oxford. On his death he bequeathed money to build the Radcliffe Camera, which became the first Science Library in Oxford.
The Sheldonian Theatre was designed by the young Christopher Wren and financed by Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury. In front there is a series of busts on pillars which are the “Terms” – gods protectors of boundaries.

The Clarendon Building, built by Hawksmoor, once housed the printing presses of the Oxford University Press (OUP). The OUP moved in the 1820s to Walton Street, and became the largest
publishing house in the world.

The Natural History Museum was built in the 1840s, and was the venue for the famous debate on “Evolution” – between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce (Soapy Sam). It is also the home for many Swifts who each year, after migrating back to Oxford make their nest in the museum tower.

In about 1680 Elias Ashmole donated his Cabinet of Curiosities to the new museum in Broad Street, which soon migrated to the present building in Beaumont Street and became the Ashmolean Museum – the first public museum in the world.

Oxford has fostered 50 Nobel Prize winners. It also has more religious buildings than anywhere else in England. Oxford was the venue for the breaking of the 4-minute mile in 1954 by Roger Banister, assisted by Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher. The first women’s college, Somerville College, was founded in 1879. Famous women graduates include Dorothy Hodgkin, Nobel Prize
winner in Chemistry, and Margaret Thatcher. The first female head of a former male Oxford College was Marilyn Butler. Women were allowed to take an Oxford degree after World
War 1. The present Vice-Chancellor, number 223, is, for the first time, a woman, Louise Richardson.

The Prehistory of the Upper Thames

This talk was given to the Society by Andrew Sargent.

Mr Sargent began by telling us that the period he would cover spanned about 500,000 years. This was a time when Britain was attached to the European mainland, the climate was similar to the Mediterranean climate today , and the fauna and flora were very different from the present. The Thames followed a very different course then, taking a channel to the north of the present one.

The earliest remains of ancestors of modern man (hominids) in Britain were found in Boxgrove in Sussex, and have been dated to 500,000 years old. Similar (though later) finds were made in Swanscombe in Kent and Kents Cavern in Devon. Later evidence of hominids in Britain is rather slight for a long period, until the appearance of Neanderthal man some 60,000 years ago. Only a few Neanderthal remains have been found in the Thames Valley.

The first humans appeared on the scene about 40,000 years ago, although again there is very little evidence of their presence in this area. Then about 16,000 years ago the climate worsened and the Neanderthals disappeared. From now on there is more evidence of human activity. Flint axes and tools have been found in many places, including Burford and Goring, and this shows that groups were passing along the Thames, probably in pursuit of game.

Between 9,500 and 6,000 years ago, the Mesolithic (Middle Stone) Age, objects with a ritual significance were produced, and around 6,000 BC, at the beginning of the Neolithic Age, the first pottery and stone tools have been found, for example on the confluence of the Ock and the Thames, and in Tubney woods. Around this time was the start of mixed farming. The communities were still mobile, and there is only evidence of a little cereal farming. The main activity seems to have been the clearing of ground for grazing livestock. There have been many finds in Stanton Harcourt, and in Benson from this period.

Some of the most significant monuments in the Upper Thames area from the Neolithic period were Waylands Smithy on the Downs (a Long Barrow), the Devils Quoits at Stanton Harcourt, structures at Dorchester on Thames and Barrows in Barrow Hills in Radley. By the second millennium BC barrows were no longer used. With the onset of the Bronze Age we see the rise of a class of leaders, and evidence of conflict and the development of metal weapons. Trade, too, became more important, and there is evidence that Wallingford became an entrepôt for traders using the Thames to carry goods to the London area. Further down river, Runnymede became an even larger entrepôt.

At this time people were often buried with weapons and rich objects, and many swords were cast into the river, probably as a ritual action. In the Iron Age, between 800 BC and the Roman invasion, there is more evidence that a stable social order was developing. Small settlements
were developing on a permanent basis, with fields and permanent dwellings. In Stanton Harcourt, and nearby at Gravelly Guy there was evidence of about 30 round houses. Another example was Mingies Ditch, on the Windrush, a farmstead with rough grazing for livestock.
At about the same time, hill forts were developing, for example at Wittenham Clumps. Similar settlements were built in lowland areas too. Many of them survived the Roman invasion and have become known as Oppidums (Oppida). A good example of that is Silchester, in Hampshire.
Abingdon, too, may have been an Oppidum. It was occupied through the whole of the Iron Age, and it has claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited town in the country.

The main ‘Roman’ towns in this area were Abingdon, Cirencester, Dorchester, Oxford and Wallingford. The Roman occupation led to a more peaceful existence for the native people who often began to think of themselves as Romans, and villas appeared in many places. These were usually farmsteads, and not necessarily luxurious places, as they might have been in Italy. The
Romans themselves were rather dismissive of the natives, often referring to them as “Britunculi” (titchy Britons), but there is little evidence in this area of poor relations between occupiers and occupied.

Steam and Steel in the Vale of the White Horse

On Thursday 9th November the History Society heard a lively and informative talk by Tony Hadland on “Steam and Steel in the Vale of the White Horse”.

Mr Hadland described in detail the history of two enterprises, beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution, that at first manufactured farm equipment, but then went on to diversify into other spheres. He also described the history of the Wantage Tramway, that emerged later.

Tony Hadland’s first enterprise was Wantage Engineering, started by John Austin, that made small-scale farm equipment. Its development was affected by the Swing Riots in 1830, that started in Hungerford but spread to Wantage, and the foundry was attacked and damaged by the rioters. Arrests were made, and the prisoners sent to Abingdon Gaol, but later set free. The foundry recovered, and continued making farm machinery, including Ploughs, Threshers, Winnowing and Dressing machines, and also traction engines. By 1858 60 men were employed
there, and in 1860 they had developed a steam engine that could connect in the fields with Threshers. They were now exporting to many countries in Europe, including Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. By the end of the century, they were exporting to places like Argentina, Australia and Malaya.

In 1900 the Company was bought by Lord Wantage, who had been MP for Berkshire for 20 years, and Lord Lieutenant for 15. He had been one of the Founders of the British Red Cross Society, and a major contributor to the Wantage Tramway Company. This helped the
Company to continue, and production was greatly increased. At this time they developed a mobile electricity generator, which was very advanced for its time. When Lord Wantage died, the Company continued to be assisted by his Widow, Lady Wantage. They developed
further during WW1 when they were converted to munitions, and on to WW2, when they contributed to the manufacture of the Bouncing Bomb. After the War the firm continued with high precision milling, and work for the nuclear industry. Traction engines continued to attract the public’s interest, and one such engine, named “Constance”, used to be seen frequently at rallies around the country.

The second Company described by Tony Hadland was Nalder & Nalder. Based in East Challow, this company was founded by the Nalder Brothers, making use of the Wilts & Berks canal to transport goods and machinery. They began in about 1857 in a ramshackle building behind a
bpub, the Goodlake Arms. Like the previous company they specialised at first in manufacture of farm machinery, in particular in dressing and grading grain, but also in threshing machines and traction engines. But by dint of clever advertising and strong local support their growth was
rapid. By 1903 they employed 150 men, and were exporting widely. Many medals were won over the years. By the 20th century they had also diversified into food and drink production, especially into cocoa and coffee products. The company enjoyed the support of many local people, and built a housing estate for their employees.

They were also instrumental in helping to fund the third enterprise dealt with by Tony Harland, the Wantage Tramway. This was formed in 1873 to link Wantage with its railway station. It was part of a plan to cover Berkshire with a network of trams. It opened in 1875, and at first it was
horse-drawn, but quickly converted to steam. It was popular, but very slow, and could not compete with the motor car which was fast developing in the later years. It closed to public use in 1925, then to freight in 1945. The most famous locomotive, called ‘Jane’, or ‘Shannon’, still exists, and can now be found in Didcot Railway Museum.