– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

Life in Balliol during World War One

Guest post 2/3 by Sophie Lealan, one of our OUIP interns:

Oxford, Balliol College Archives, FF Urquhart Album 7.11F

Oxford, Balliol College Archives, FF Urquhart Album 7.11F

Urquhart’s photograph album of 1914-1918 narrates, in hundreds of small, sepia images, the transformation of Balliol College from a site of parties and fancy dress to one of officer training and uniforms. However, amidst these dramatic developments many of the traditions and rituals of college life proved resilient.

Oxford, Balliol College Archives, FF Urquhart Album 7.12A

Oxford, Balliol College Archives, FF Urquhart Album 7.12A

The summer of 1914 has often been described as a ‘Golden Summer’, and Urquhart’s photographs appear to testify to this. Students are shown punting and picnicking around Oxford, dressed in black tie for ‘Eric Lubbock’s “Twentyfirster”’, or having tea in the college gardens while dressed in kimonos. Of course, these were only the occasions to which Urquhart was invited, or of which he had a photograph, but they illustrate the light-hearted atmosphere of the summer. [FFU07-11-F] [FFU07-12-A]

Oxford, Balliol College Archives, FF Urquhart Album 7.21F

Oxford, Balliol College Archives, FF Urquhart Album 7.21F

As the album progresses to Michaelmas 1914 students still smile and appear relaxed for Urquhart’s camera, only now they are dressed in army uniforms. Meyrick Carré is just one of the dozens of Balliol students Urquhart photographed in their new military outfits. In his portrait we can see a pile of dirty dishes on the ground, just within the entrance to staircase eighteen. [FFU07-21-F]

Like its students, the college took on new roles during the war. Balliol became a base for officer training programmes, and many of the resident cadets were captured by Urquhart’s camera. In one image we see a queue of men in uniform, each holding a mug as they line up the stairs for hall. Another photograph shows a distant view of a soldier standing beside a blackboard, addressing a group of soldiers who are gathered around him in a semi-circle on the college grounds. Balliol was not the only college to become a form of army barracks and several others became hospitals for wounded soldiers. Indeed, the war affected the whole of Oxford, as Urquhart documented in a view of soldiers standing in formation across Christ Church Meadow. [FFU07-20-C] [FFU07-55-C] [FFU07-21-H]

Of course, the buildings of Balliol College stayed the same, and much of its architecture remained a constant feature of Urquhart’s photographs. Subjects frequently sit on the walls of the Fellows’ Gardens, first as students and then as soldiers. Such images indicate a sense of continuity; whatever events might be happening in the world, the ritual of Urquhart taking one’s photograph in this spot was constant. Signs of college life continuing amidst the upheavals of war are also evident in details such as the rowing crest chalked on the wall behind two students (Eric Lubbock and Ernest Besly) in uniform. [FFU07-52-F] [FFU07-43-D]

The ways in which students spent their free time was also affected by the war. With fewer students, sports continued at a greatly reduced level. Images of young men playing tennis and cricket or rowing in Torpids open the album but, after war breaks out, such images almost disappear. However, the cadets at Balliol also became involved in sports, as can be seen in several of Urquhart’s photographs. One image shows Officer Cadet Battalions playing a game of rugby, whilst another image appears to show a tug of war between trainee officers. [FFU07-1-H] [FFU07-65-A]

Although visits to Urquhart’s chalet in the French Alps were suspended, other aspects of college life continued in various forms. Punting reappears frequently throughout the album, but one can imagine that such activities took on quite different meanings for students returning from the trenches. Tea in the college gardens is also a common subject throughout the war years, including one image in which a uniformed student appears with his arm in a sling. Urquhart also photographed several students wearing graduation robes and hoods over their army uniform, one of the aspects of Oxford life that was modified but not ended by the war. [FFU07-27-G] [FFU07-26-F] [FFU07-63-C]

Sophie’s posts about FF Urquhart’s WW1-era photo album:

Post 1

Post 2

Post 3

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