– 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.

antechapel display – HT 2016

The new mini-display of enlarged prints of archive images in the antechapel on the Broad Street site is

‘Leaves from a College Album – Francis Fortescue Urquhart’s photos, Winter 1915-1916’

Urquhart’s long series of photo albums is an invaluable resource that I return to over and over again, finding illustrations for different themes or topics each time. They offer a rare personal glimpse into college life, and the surrounding town and countryside, of the 1890s-1930s. In this selection I simply looked at photos dated more or less a century ago. Given what was going on in the world in 1916, this was guaranteed to be a source of stories… but aside from the obvious intrusions of war, many features of architecture and landscape were more or less unchanged, and remain recognisable now.


Urquhart and his camera were ‘always about in the Quad’, and here, as the First World War enters its second winter, Aldous Huxley (Balliol 1913) has begun his third and final year of study (in English Literature) at Balliol. This is a rare glimpse of the ‘former normal’, of civilian undergraduate students in the quad, and note Huxley’s indoor shoes. Soon after this photo was taken, Huxley would volunteer for active service, but would be rejected because of the damage to his eyes caused by a neglected illness during his school days.


Beside the picture of Aldous Huxley, which betrays no hint of wartime, is this one, of James Saumarez Mann (Balliol 1912). At this point Mann was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal West Kent Regiment, recovering at the 3rd Southern General Hospital, housed at Somerville College, from wounds sustained at Ploegsteert on 10 August 1915. He would return to France on active duty, and later to Balliol, but was eventually killed in the Mesopotamian uprising at Kufa on 22 July 1920. You can read more about Somerville College and its members during the First World War here. A short biography by his father, and JS Mann’s posthumously published letters, An Administrator in the Making, are here.


Turning the page to ‘Lent Term 1916′ (January – March), we find an informal photo of a kind very common in Urquhart’s albums – here, Charles Compton Bracebridge (1883-1924, Balliol 1902),  in the Fellows’ Garden. Bracebridge had been seriously injured in a road accident in 1914 and was found unfit for active service; instead, he joined the (Royal) Army Service Corps (‘ASC’ above)  and so he may have been back at his old college as an Army trainer. However, he had been in another accident in France in December 1915, so he may also have been recuperating, perhaps while getting back to work, in Oxford in early 1916. This piece of sculpture, known entirely fallaciously as ‘Dervorguilla’s Tomb’, probably comes from the former front gate of the College. It is still in the same position in the Fellows’ Garden shown above, a little more worn – and sitting on it is no longer allowed. In the background is a glasshouse, where the Master’s Garden now is. Compton-Bracebridge survived the war, but died, aged 41, in 1924.


A slightly different angle in the same direction as the direction of Compton-Bracebridge shows more, smaller glasshouses or coldframes in the background. Philip Nichols is sitting on the low wall which still forms the east-west boundary between the Fellows’ Garden and the Garden Quad, but it is now in the middle of flowerbeds on both sides. Philip Bouverie Bowyer Nichols (Balliol 1913) had signed up with the 7th Suffolks in August 1914 and by the time of this photo was already a Captain. He is evidently on leave here, in civvies, up at his old college, probably to visit Urquhart, his former tutor. Less than 6 months after this photo was taken he would be awarded the Military Cross. He returned to Balliol in 1919, entered the Diplomatic Service and was eventually knighted. The National Portrait Gallery holds photographs of him with members of the Bloomsbury Group, taken 10 years after this one.


Denys Cooke (several different spellings are used) came up to Keble College in 1910, taking his BA in the spring of 1914. He appears in other photos in Urquhart’s albums, from the summer term of 1912. Here he is shown in Oxford between tours in France and Belgium in 1914-15 and 1916-18 – is the walking stick ceremonial or functional? Perhaps he was also recovering from wounds or illness. He was eventually killed in action at Givenchy on 18 April 1918. [sources: Oxford University Calendar 1916 (print only) and Oxford University Roll of Service p.559, online here.]


This page of photos from the winter of 1915-16 also chronicles Urquhart’s ‘walk to Bablock Hythe with RM Baldwin,’ taking in Cumnor’s Norman church along the way – Cumnor is about 4 miles west of the city centre, and Bablock Hythe only a mile or two further across the fields from there. These two photos show the 1916 version of Bablock Hythe, upstream from Oxford, and its Ferry, mentioned 60 years earlier in Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘The Scholar Gypsy’. Robert Maurice Baldwin was in his first year at Balliol; by September 1916 he was on active service with the Royal Engineers in France. He returned to Balliol after the war and completed a degree in History as one of Urquhart’s students before becoming a Master at Harrow School.


Bablock Hythe is commemorated in another, eponymous, poem, by Laurence Binyon, published in 1909, and in RC Lehmann’s ‘Singing Water’. Victoria Bentata in Oxford Today (2012) traces the places in Arnold’s poem, here. This website provides a wealth of information about the history of the Thames and its navigation, including the ferry at Bablock Hythe.


What has changed at St Michael’s church at Cumnor, and its surroundings, over the century?


Urquhart must have explored the River Ray on another day, as Islip lies northeast of Oxford, in the opposite direction from Cumnor and Bablock. Compare with a 21st century picture. It’s still winter – the trees are bare and there seems to be some ice on the river.


There is certainly ice in Oxford on the day in early 1916 seen above. This is Magdalen’s New Building (1730s) seen from Addison’s Walk across the flooded and partially frozen Water Meadow, living up to its name on this day. Urquhart must have been visiting (Algernon) Peter Warren, who was in his first year as a Demy (Scholar) in History (Urquhart’s subject) at Magdalen. Warren appears in several more of Urquhart’s photos; he was soon to join the RAF (then still the RFC), in the Summer Term of 1916, and would become a prisoner of war in France in the spring of 1918 – here is an account of the circumstances, as told by a family member of Warren’s pilot on that day. [sources: Oxford University Calendar 1917, print only, and Oxford University Roll of Service p. 288, online here.]

Most of the biographical information in this post is drawn from the Balliol College Register (2nd ed, 1933) – online here.

A picture is worth a thousand words – here are only a few, but they point to so many local and family stories, mostly still to be told.

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