Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Life of an Undergraduate at Oxford

I am a new fan of The Edwardian Promenade.  In the post for September 11th, an article on an American's observations of Undergraduate Life at Oxford was presented.  I include an excerpt from it below, as it provides a snapshot of what life was like at Oxford in the 1890s.  Enjoy!

The day of an Oxford man is somewhat different from that of an American student. He rises at eight, and goes to chapel, and from chapel to breakfast in his own room, where he gets a most substantial breakfast—I never saw such substantial breakfasts anywhere else — or, what is more likely, he breakfasts with some one else in some one else’s rooms. This is a most excellent and hospitable habit, and prevails generally. So far as I could see, no one ever lunched or dined or breakfasted alone. He either was engaged somewhere else or was giving a party of his own. And it frequently happened that after we were all seated our host would remember that he should be lunching with another man, and we would all march over to the other man’s rooms and be received as a matter of course. It was as if they dreaded being left alone with their thoughts. It struck me as a university for the cultivation of hospitality before anything else.

After breakfast the undergraduate “reads” a bit, and then lunches with another man, and reads a little more, and then goes out on the river or to the cricket-field until dinner. The weather permits this out-of-door life all the year round, which is a blessing the Oxford man enjoys and which his snow-bound American cousin does not. His dinner is at seven, and if in hall it is a very picturesque meal. The big hall is rich with stained glass and full-length portraits of celebrated men whose names the students never by any possible chance know, and there are wooden carved wainscotings and heavy rafters. There is a platform at one end on which sit the dons, and below at deal tables are the undergraduates in their gowns—worn decorously on both shoulders now, and not swinging from only one—and at one corner by themselves the men who are training for the races. The twilight is so late that the place needs only candles, and there is a great rattle of silver mugs that bear the college arms, and clatter of tongues, and you have your choice of the college ale or the toast and water of which you used to read and at which you probably wondered in Tom Brown at Oxford. The dons are the first to leave, and file out in a solemn procession. If you dine with the dons and sit above your fellow-men you are given the same excellent and solid dinner and wine in place of beer, and your friends of the morning make faces at you for deserting them and because of your higher estate.

My first dinner with the dons was somewhat confusing. After a most excellent service somebody rose, and I started with the rest down the steps towards the door, when my host stopped me and said, “You have forgotten to bring your napkin.” What solemn rite this foretold I could not guess. I had enjoyed my dinner, and I wanted to smoke, and why I needed a napkin, unless as a souvenir, I could not see; and I continued wondering as we marched in some certain order of precedence up and down stone stairways and through gloomy passages to another room in an entirely different part of the college, where we found another long table spread as carefully as the one in the hall below with many different wines and fruits and sweets. And we all sat down at this table as before, and sipped port and passed things around and talked learnedly, as dons should, for half an hour, when we rose, and I again bade my host good-night, but he again stopped me with a deprecatory smile, and again we formed a procession and marched solemnly through passages and over stone floors to another room, where a third table was spread, with more bottles, coffee, and things to smoke. It struck me that an Oxford don mixes some high living with his high thinking. I did not wait to see if there were any more tables hidden around the building, but I suppose there were.

After dinner the undergraduate reads with his tutor out of college or in his own rooms. He cannot leave the college after a certain early hour, and if he should stay out all night the consequences would be awful. This is, of course, quite as incomprehensible to an American as are the jagged iron spikes and broken glass which top the college walls. It seems a sorry way to treat the sons of gentlemen, and more fitted to the wants of a reformatory. There is one gate at Trinity which is only open for royalty, and which was considered to be insurmountable by even the most venturesome undergraduate, until one youth scaled it successfully, only to be caught out of bounds. The college authorities had no choice in the matter but to send him down, as they call suspending a man in Oxford; but so great was their curiosity and belief in the virtue of the gate that they agreed to limit his term of punishment if he would show them how he scaled it. To this, of course, he naturally agreed, and the undergraduates were edified by the sight of one of their number performing a gymnastic feat of rare daring on the top of the sacred .iron gate, while the college dignitaries stood gazing at him in breathless admiration from below.


  1. Very good. Are you an Oxford man?

    1. Not a bit, I'm afraid. I live in Kansas, U.S.A.