– 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.

Unlocking Archives – Boys’ Club talk (2014)

Lunchtime talk: Unlocking Archives

a seminar series about research in Balliol College’s special collections

‘The Balliol Boys’ Club: Town and Gown in the First World War’

Anna Sander, Archivist & Curator of Manuscripts, Balliol College, Oxford

Transcript/tidied up notes of a talk given on Friday 7 November 2014, 1-2pm, at Balliol Historic Collections Centre, St Cross Church, Manor Road, Oxford OX1 3UH. Photos of the accompanying exhibition, with brief captions, can be viewed at https://balliolarchivist.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/ww1-boys-club-exhibition/

The Balliol Boys’ Club was formed in early 1907 as a result of changing attitudes in the college – started decades earlier by Benjamin Jowett but driven especially by AL Smith, by 1907 a Fellow and soon to become Master – towards social responsibility and widening access to education. The aim was to provide healthy, vigorous activity for working boys of early teen-age from underprivileged areas of Oxford.

Balliol’s club was based in 9 Littlegate Street, St Ebbe’s (down the hill behind Pembroke College) and offered boxing, football and other sports, in some cases using college facilities. On the other hand, singing and amateur dramatics were also popular, and other semi-educational activities developed, presumably depending on the interests and abilities of the student organisers, such as debating, French and chess. But by far the most memorable and universally enjoyed activity seems to have been the annual summer camps, not all held in the same place but ranging from Fawley, Beaulieu and Lymington to Wytham and Radcot. A number of colleges and public schools ran similar enterprises, both in Oxford and in London; such clubs fitted with emerging ideas of the time about social action and youth activities, exemplified most famously by Robert Baden-Powell’s exactly contemporaneous Scouting movement, and preceded by the Boys’ Brigade and several church-based movements. Balliol’s was the first of the college clubs and the first boys’ club in Oxford.

As it was run by college undergraduates for local boys, the club brought town and gown together, and a strong and lasting esprit de corps emerged early.  By the time The Club at War began circulating, the first several intakes of boys would have been well into the adult working world, but as we will see, many still felt that the club played an important and continuing part in their lives, and that it continued to do so during their wartime experience. The club flourished again after the war, and its future was assured by the gift of a new clubhouse and funds in memory of one of its leading lights from the college, Keith Rae (Balliol 1907), who was killed in 1915.

The Club was wound up when the St Ebbe’s area was redeveloped c.1970, but there is still an active old members’ association. The club’s own records survive fairly well right from the early days, and the exhibition  includes: minutes of meetings; log books recording attendance and activities, featuring daily notes from summer camps; newspaper cuttings; photographs; accounts; and numbers of the club magazine, among them its own trench magazine, The Club at War, which circulated from 1916 to 1919. Central to the exhibition is the Boys’ Club War Memorial board, listing the club members who fell, Oxford boys and Balliol men together.

Balliol College’s holdings of the Club’s administrative records are good but not entirely complete, and even if all minutes, accounts and activity logbooks survived, they would not tell the whole story – we can only present one, incomplete, point of view from this source. To tell a more rounded story of the Club or, especially, of any of its former members, a researcher would need to consult not only its own administrative records but numerous other primary and secondary sources, e.g. Oxford city council archival records, contemporary and later newspaper articles, school and perhaps work records for boys, personal and/or private collections of papers, records of charitable and educational organisations, the 1901 and 1911 censuses (and, eventually, later ones as they become available), and individuals’ war records at the National Archives, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, or regimental archives. This exhibition presents a snapshot of Balliol’s holdings about the Club and some of its College members, specifically to do with the period from its founding to the end of the First World War, with the intention of encouraging further research using this collection and related material elsewhere.

We start with a few  pre-war Club documents, to give an idea of the atmosphere, attitudes and activities of the early years.

– Pre-war ‘general knowledge’ spoof quiz sheet about the Club, which I think you should try.

– Undated letter from JJ Baldwin, the first boy to sign up for the Club.

– Original agreement re rent and maintenance of Club premises, 1907.

– Club Committee (College based, Fellows) minutes from 1908 about inviting speakers regarding Boys’ Employment – working age was a topic then currently under discussion with the Labour Commission, local Councils etc.

[Pages are shown from the regular Log Books of Club activities August 1914 and November 1918.] We note the mass meeting & encouragement of enlistment/boys volunteering for emergency-messenger work for the Relief Committee in August 1914, and rowdy behaviour – possibly related to Armistice ebullience, possibly just ordinary – in November 1918. Extract: ‘22 Nov 1918 Very rowdy night indeed. Behaviour at prayers disgraceful. Much shouting and singing during them.’ (Some officious person notes below, ‘please put date and give names of officers.’)

Despite misgivings about disruption and lack of Balliol men to staff clubhouse openings, regular Club activities continued through the War, though not daily as had been the usual practice. Summer camps in particular carried on, and their importance is reflected in the numerous mentions of happy memories of past camps in The Club at War magazine from soldiers writing home. Former Balliol student members are noted as having returned to visit the Club on leave, and having led or at least visited summer camps during the war, which meant a considerable investment of leave time.

[Pages are displayed from the Camp Logbooks – student leaders’ accounts of summer camps during WW1.]

We have out several printed books, letters, diaries and recollections of Balliol men who died in the war, published by friends and family during and after. All four examples here (there are more) are useful sources of Club history – they are about individual Balliol pillars of the pre-War club, and mention its foundation and activities in detail, and with personal reflections, not found elsewhere. They are also a rare source of Club photos, especially from summer camps.

– Adela Adam. Arthur Innes Adam, 1894-1916. A record founded on his letters . By his mother. Displayed with

– James Saumarez Mann. An administrator in the making, James Saumarez Mann, 1893-1920. By his father.

– Arthur Graeme West (1891–1917), The Diary of a Dead Officer (1918). Edited by C. Joad. Displayed with

– EB Poulton, The Life of Ronald Poulton. Written by his father.

Now we come to the central document of the exhibition:

The Club at War – Balliol Boys’ Club alumni trench magazine 1916-1919

The club already had an alumni magazine, and once quite a number of old members had been mobilised, it naturally evolved into a trench magazine. Its bulk is made up of brief letters from old members, so the effect of each issue will have been a kind of round-robin. Recipients were evidently keen to hear news of each other and of the present Club as long as it was able to continue and as soon as it started up again. The tone of the magazine is generally cheerful and matter-of-fact. In many cases, particularly those of the former youth members, these are likely to be the only surviving words written by these men.

Let’s look a bit further into The Club at War[The magazine has been photographed in full, and images of all numbers are online at https://www.flickr.com/photos/balliolarchivist/sets/72157637160461386/]

It’s clear that those writing from the home front understand that those away need to know that the Club is continuing and still vital. Old members were evidently pleased to hear news updates, and made a point of using precious leave time in Oxford to drop by and say hello to the current members. Generally, those reporting say little about how things are going, owing at least in part to heavy censorship of letters, and share any news they have about what has happened to old Club members they have met or heard from. The light tone reads like Christmas round-robins or neighbourhood gossip over the back fences, but these are men in their twenties – or younger – writing from billets, trenches, hospitals, ships and training camps about men their own age, old friends indeed and in some cases cousins and brothers, who are wounded, ill, missing or dead.

The last couple of numbers of The Club at War, which continues into the spring of 1919, are particularly valuable for their notes from recently demobbed servicemen and those waiting to get out. A number of them give quite a lot of detail about what they have been doing during this period of upheaval, and again, this information is not likely to survive elsewhere.

Of course a roll of service and a roll of honour are kept throughout the magazine’s issues, and the 10th number gives the final count – though it turns out there was at least one more casualty (JS Mann) still to come.  Let’s move round to compare that list with the Club War Memorial plaque – listing both Balliol students and Oxford boys who were members of the Club and died during WW1, in (almost) alphabetical order, without any differentiation between the two categories – you can’t tell, from the list alone, who was town and who was gown. The plaque was probably made when the new clubhouse opened (Keith Rae House) in 1922, and there are several discrepancies between it and the list of fallen Club members in No.10 of The Club at War – and not only JS Mann, who died in the Iraqi uprising in 1920.

Though the list of names doesn’t differentiate, nonetheless this is where the town and gown divide shows itself most clearly – although we know the names of the Oxford boys and Balliol students from the Club who fell in the War, we don’t have lists of all participants in Club activities for either side. There is no full register of the boys who attended, and no further information about those for whom we do have names, except incidental mentions in administrative records such as minutes or camp log books.

The one notable exception is the few personal file sheets about individual boys ca.WW1 on display– these records, kept by student Club leaders, are the only examples of personal information held at Balliol about boy members of the Club. I don’t know why these ones survive in particular, or why we have only these few, or from only this period.

By contrast, there are photographs of all the Balliol men who were Club members and died in the war. A number of them are the subjects of posthumous publications by family and friends, in the forms of edited collections of their wartime letters or diaries and reminiscences by those who knew them. All the Balliol casualties, including a number of men who were admitted to Balliol but were killed before they ever came into residence, and several College servants who fell, are commemorated in the college’s 2 volume War Memorial Book. This was compiled in the years immediately following the war by Balliol Fellow and classicist, eventually Professor Sir, Arthur Wallace Pickard-Cambridge, and his wife Hilda, who were both early supporters of the Club and made a point of coming to the annual Parents’ Evenings! Two scrapbooks of their collected notes and research material were ‘found in the Bodleian Library in 1974’: two scrap-book volumes: volume IV of a series entitled ‘Oxford during the war’, 1917-18; and volume II of a series containing letters and printed material relating to Balliol men killed in action. Don’t I wish we had these scrapbooks here! I haven’t seen them – it was Aoife O’Gorman, who during her tenure as Balliol-Bodley scholar came across them while working with Mike Webb on the just-closed Bodleian exhibition. Just recently Llewelyn Morgan, a Classics tutor at Brasenose, has been finding out – and blogging about – his predecessor in that post, Druce Robert ‘Bob’ Brandt, of whom there are several photos up there.

As well as printed material about their lives and wartime experiences, we have war poetry by several of the Balliol men involved with the Club. Without wishing to give too many spoilers for a future exhibition about Balliol war poets, it’s worth mentioning that just the three poems on display, all by Balliol contemporaries, all young Army officers, all killed in France in 1916-17, portray three very different voices and attitudes toward the war.

David Westcott Brown’s ‘Two Voices’, which is included in a couple of war poetry anthologies, shows the paradoxical contrasts between the ugly realities of war-torn France and the everyman junior officer  speaker’s resolute and apparently incorrigible hope in the resilience and renewal of the natural world, and faith in God. This attitude, while hardly jingoistic, certainly comes in for violent criticism in the next poem by Arthur Graeme West, which starts, ‘God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men,

Whose pious poetry blossoms on your graves
As soon as you are in them, nurtured up
By the salt of your corruption, and the tears
Of mothers, local vicars, college deans,
And flanked by prefaces and photographs
From all your minor poet friends—the fools—
Who paint their sentimental elegies…

Well, we do of course have examples right here of precisely the kinds of memorials he so reviles… but from his other writings one can gather that in fact West’s was not this single-faceted a view of the war, and it has been alleged that CM Joad, who ensured publication of West’s Diary of a Dead Officer, which includes this and other poems, after West’s death, edited judiciously and manipulated or at the very least used West’s writing for his own anti-war ends.  And Stephen Hewett’s poem ‘In France, 1916’ goes in another direction altogether: it is unabashedly escapist in showing his use of memories of a happier time to deliberately separate himself, in a Wordsworthian way, for a little while from the grim reality.

Stephen Hewett’s poems in particular have escaped critical notice so far, as they were privately printed and hardly any copies survive – there isn’t one at Balliol and I must thank the archivist at Downside Abbey for sending me scans of theirs– but he was a prizewinning Classicist and his poems in English are certainly worth another look. There is several talks’ worth of material here on the literary critical angle of war poetry alone, but that’s for another day. In the meantime I encourage anyone who isn’t already familiar with it to explore the Oxford War Poetry Archive.

Several Balliol students who had been key to the founding and early successes of the Balliol Boys’ Club became casualties of the war, as did a number of early boy members. I’ve been able to find photos for all but one of the Balliol members of the Club, and they are on the display boards in the Chancel. By contrast the few pre-Second World War photos we have from the Club are undated and without identifications. So we may well have pictures of some of the Oxford boys on the memorial plaque, but we don’t know who they are. Some of the summer camp photos here are certainly post-WW1, but I’ve included them to give an idea, as we have so few from any period.

Other things on display: Balliol biographies & autobiographies section of the printed collections – featured are the College War Memorial Book and contemporary numbers of Punch. Early numbers of the College Record are also out, and along with several memoirs and biographies of Balliol men not directly connected to the Club, of whom more another year!

Further deposits of Club administrative records, and, I hope, photographs, will be forthcoming, and I hope improved online finding aids and collection descriptions will lead to more research in the collection. To list just a few of the areas where the collection has research relevance:

  • attitudes of men and officers to practical and ideological aspects of the War
  • Oxford local history, not least of St Ebbe’s parish, much of which no longer exists physically as it was then, and the ongoing interactions between town and gown
  • history and influence of the Boys’ Brigade, Scouting & other early C20 social action, particularly educational and youth movements
  • changing attitudes toward children and teenagers and young people’s education, school leaving age, changes in regulations for working age and conditions
  • Balliol College’s own history and the histories of its members.

– Anna Sander, 2014 rev. 2016.

Sources and further reading:

Oxford, Balliol College Archives, Boys’ Club subfonds. More information about this archive at https://balliolarchivist.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/faq-balliol-boys-club/

Adam, Adela. Arthur Innes Adam, 1894-1916. A record founded on his letters . Privately printed, 1920.

Bailey, C. A Short History of the Balliol Boys’ Club, 1907-1950. Oxford: OUP, 1950.

Bailey, C., & J Roughley,  A History of the Balliol Boys’ Club 1907-1971. Oxford: Martin Slade, 1995.

Chipperfield, J. ‘Sixty Years of Balliol Boys’ Club.’ Oxford Mail, 9 December 2013. Online: http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/community/memorylane/10863390.Sixty_years_of_Balliol_Boys__Club/

Corsan, J. For Poulton and England : the life and times of an Edwardian Rugby hero. Leicester : Matador, 2009.

Curtis, P. A hawk among sparrows : a biography of Austin Farrer. London : SPCK, 1985.

Jones, JH. Balliol College: A History. 2nd ed. rev. Oxford: OUP, 2005.

Mann, JS (1851-1921). An administrator in the making, James Saumarez Mann, 1893-1920. London, New York: Longmans, Green, 1921.

Poulton, E.B. The life of Ronald Poulton. London : Sedgwick & Jackson, 1919.

Powley, T. ‘An education: Oxford’s role in creating London Boys’ Clubs.’ Oxford Today, 2 January 2016. – article about similar clubs founded in London by Oxford colleges and public schools. Online: http://www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk/features/education-oxfords-role-creating-london-boys-clubs

Smith, M. K. (2004) ‘Waldo McGillicuddy Eagar and the making of boys’ clubs’, the encyclopedia of informal education. [http://infed.org/mobi/waldo-mcgillicuddy-eagar-and-the-making-of-boys/. Retrieved: 10 March 2016. Smith provides a useful short bibliography on the history of youth clubs in Britain – Hubert Secretan, co-author with Eagar of the 1925 study Unemployment Among Boys, was a Balliol man (1911) and instrumental in the early years of the Balliol Boys’ Club.

West, AG. The diary of a dead officer : being the posthumous papers of Arthur Graeme West. Ed. C. Joad. London : George Allen & Unwin, 1918.




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