– 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.

Posts tagged “student life

reading closely

tcd1An interesting enquiry from last year, demonstrating that the internet is a brilliant research tool, but that like any source it needs careful interpretation, and that not all immediately available information is correct or complete.

The enquirer requests information on William Hussey 1867-1939, son of Thomas Hussey of Kensington, stating that the images sent with the enquiry, of a Ladies’ Challenge Cup medal,  clearly show that WH rowed for Balliol when they won that particular race in 1891.

The enquirer has probably searched for something like ‘ladies challenge cup 1891’ and found the Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladies’_Challenge_Plate for the Henley Regatta’s Ladies’ Challenge Plate race, won by a Balliol crew in 1891, and concluded that Hussey must have been part of this crew.

In fact the medal shows nothing of the kind, and a closer look reveals quite a different story.

First I checked whether William Hussey had indeed been a member of Balliol – the college registers are not 100% infallible, but they are pretty good. No result, so back to the medal for other clues. A little more scratching around online revealed several things that didn’t add up to support the Henley & Balliol assumption:

  • Date: Henley is always held over the first weekend in July, but 1 July 1891 was a Wednesday. (thanks Time and Date!)tcd2
  • Race name: the Ladies’ Challenge Plate race at Henley has never been known as the Ladies’ Challenge Cup – it is the only Henley trophy that isn’t the Something Cup.
  • Winner name: the LCP is an Eights race, not an individual one, so even if each member of the winning Eight had a commemorative medal, it would not be inscribed ‘won by [any single name]’. Cf. Henley commemorative medals at http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/18783/lot/59/, a particularly nice find after searching for images of the LCP medals for visual comparison.
  • Double-checking with another source – even supposing everything else was somehow wrong, we have a photograph of the Balliol Eight that did win the LCP in 1891; the rowers were: Rofe, Rawstone, Darbishire, Mountmorres, Fielding, T Rogers, Farmer, F Rogers, cox Craig-Sellar. Not surprisingly, no Hussey.

So if it was not at all connected with the Henley Royal Regatta or Balliol’s win there in 1891, what is this medal? Balliol-based evidence stops here, but ‘we have no further information about this’ seemed a bit abrupt when most of what I had already found out was from non-Balliol sources anyway. Besides, by this time I wanted an answer to the puzzle, if I could find one!

Look at it again – the intertwined letters on the medal look like T C D, in a distinctively Irish style, and Trinity College Dublin’s Regatta does include a Ladies’ Challenge Cup race. But to check up further, one might try looking at the club’s own site: http://www.tcdlife.ie/clubs/boat/archive.php. The answer is probably in Raymond Blake’s book, In Black and White: A History of Rowing at Trinity
College Dublin
. My research ends here; I can’t spend any more time on this enquiry, and the answer won’t add to knowledge of the Balliol archives.

And there are still questions: why should the medal read TCD when TCD’s boat club has been known as the Dublin University Boat Club since 1847? Is the DUBC (TCD) Ladies’ Challenge Cup race rowed by singles or eights? Is there any evidence at all that this is a rowing medal?

It’s rare that answers to archival enquiries are either complete or absolute – often, the best we can hope for is to add another interesting piece to the puzzle, or point in another direction.

Q&A – university and colleges at Oxford

Q: I’m confused about the relationship between Oxford University and the colleges.
A: The relationship between the colleges and the University of Oxford is not obvious to anyone who has not experienced it. There is a very short summary on the Oxford website here.

Colleges are the basis of undergraduate life. Students live, eat and do their laundry in their colleges. Undergraduates use their college libraries, not the Bodleian (central University library). There are of course exceptions – department libraries, and the Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian Library, which is the undergraduate reading room. They play sports for their college against other colleges, drink in the college bar and may worship (or attend concerts) in their college chapel. Their academic and personal tutors will be Fellows of their college, and much of their learning will take place within the college walls, though lectures and seminars may take place in university departments or lecture rooms in other colleges. Academic supervision is college-based and there are periodic college exams. Historically, the college has been a place for students to live and prepare for University examinations. The University is the degree-granting body (strictly speaking, nobody ‘graduates from’ a college) and sets the exams required to obtain a degree. It also has faculties and departments much as any other university does. Most non-academic staff in a college will be employed only by that college; academic staff may hold joint college-university posts, or be employed only by a college (lecturers) or by the University (many science research staff, Professors etc. ) Just to muddy the waters, Professors and some other university-employed academics are given membership of a college, or at least of its Senior Common Room (SCR) to provide them with a friendly social ‘home’ in Oxford. This does not make them full voting members of Governing Body… The college systems in Oxford and Cambridge are somewhat different, but they are much more similar to each other than they are to any other university.

Don’t be surprised (or discouraged) if you are still confused. There’s always wikipedia. For more information about University admissions and choosing a college, see the University’s Admissions pages, as well as the Admissions page on any college’s website.


On the last Friday of Michaelmas Term, one of Balliol’s particularly pleasant traditions occurs: Nepotists’ Carols. The Arnold and Brackenbury Society invites Balliol to mulled wine and carol singing in Hall. It is a ticketed event, but all Balliol people are invited to sign up for tickets. But why Nepotists?

Here is the explanation, with many thanks to Dr. Maurice Keen and Prof. Jasper Griffin, in non-alphabetical order, Socii Emeriti of Balliol College, former Nepotists and past Presidents of the Arnold & Brackenbury Society:

At some point in the ?1940s, an undergraduate member of Balliol became disgruntled with the established system of having to be elected by the members to join any college club or society such as the Devorguilla, Arnold, Brackenbury, etc, or rather, with his own failure to have been elected to any of them. The solution he devised was to set up his own society, called the Nepotists, for the purpose of hosting invited guests to sing carols and partake of mulled wine and other seasonal refreshments at the festive end of Michaelmas term.  (Hardly a subversion of the undemocratic process!) Attendance was by invitation only, but there were a great many invitations issued. The singsong was not held in Hall, but either in members’ rooms or in the Massey Room. One year John Prest offered II.5 (a commodious first-floor set); the piano-movers narrowly escaped terrible injury, in which they were more fortunate than the absent host’s painting of a horse, which, thanks to the scornful attentions of a certain person who was not then Master, had to be taken to the Ashmolean’s conservation department and repaired at the Nepotists’ expense.

Eventually, the originator having departed and the expense to the society (who paid for and mulled the wine) becoming somewhat onerous, the Nepotists accepted an offer from the Arnold and Brackenbury to contribute to the event. The two did coexist for a time, with overlapping membership, but I suspect it was not long before the single-function Nepotists was subsumed into the general proceedings of the A&B.

I would not be surprised if the current system of free ticketing has something to do with fire marshals’ regulations about numbers of people in Hall as well as being a vestige of the invitations-only event.

A postscript, both to the post and to the event – the Gordouli, which shall be explained elsewhere, is now sung at the end of Nepotists’ Carols; when the final carol and ‘Jerusalem’ have been rendered, somebody in the crowd starts a loud, tuneless and sustained  ‘GOOOORRRRR’, which is taken up by the others. Everybody departs to the Trinity wall part of the garden quad, there to sing, or roar, the Gordouli in contemporary form; the words and lack of tune vary, but the essence is that Balliolenses are pleased not to be Trinity men. (The Balliol-Trinity feud is all contrived as well, which shall also be explained elsewhere.) My informants wish to emphasise that while the Gordouli was performed after more college events when they were undergraduates than it is now, it was sung by a small minority of persons and was generally not highly thought of.  It did not form part of the Nepotists’ event.

More details – not least the identity of the Nepotists’ originator – and precise chronology remain to be ironed out, but that’s the gist!

early college education

A useful note about the early development of colleges in Oxford:

‘Before these Colleges were erected, the scholars who were educated in the Halls or Inns subsisted there at their own expence, or that of opulent Prelates or Noblemen ; but many of the youth of the kingdom, and perhaps the greater part, were educated in St. Frideswide’s Priory, Oseney Abbey, and other religious houses in Oxford and its vicinity. As the Colleges, however, increased in the number and value of their endowments, the scholars and dependents on religious houses began to decrease.

‘In Colleges, at first, none were educated but those who were admitted upon the foundation ; but when learning, and the love of learning, began to be more extensively diffused, those establishments were resorted to by independent members, under the names of Commoners, and Gentlemen Commoners.’

– Alexander Chalmers, A history of the colleges, halls, and public buildings attached to the University of Oxford, including the lives of the founders, ill. by a series of engravings (1810)
(2 vols)
available online at http://www.archive.org/details/historyofcollege02chaluoft

Another useful book or two

Rogers, James E. Thorold. Education in Oxford, its method, its aids, and its rewards (1861)

Pantin, WA. Oxford Life in Oxford Archives. 1972.

Oxford and Oxford Life, ed. J Wells (2nd ed, 1899).

Helpful chronicle of the important changes in University and College admission and examination procedures in the late 19th century.