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Bill Thayer

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[image ALT: a blank space] This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Handy Guide to Oxford

by C. R. L. Fletcher

published by Oxford University Press
London & Humphrey Milford 1926

The text is in the public domain.

This text has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2

 p7  Chapter I
An Excursion to Magdalen College

Most of you, I suppose, entered Oxford from the railway station in the western suburbs, and a guidebook ought, therefore, to begin with a description of the things you will see coming up Park End Street, New Road, Queen Street, and High Street, which, if you go the other way, form the beginning of the great roads to the west and south-west of England. But I gather that you were usually so much occupied in abusing the uneven surface of these streets, while you were being jolted to your Hospital, that you had little chance of admiring the County Jail, the Assize Court, or the Canal Wharf, which were the main things you would see before reaching the top of the High Street at Carfax, which means 'Four Ways'. If you then took a look out to the east you caught a glimpse of one of the finest streets in Europe. But you must not be too hard on the City of Oxford for your jolting; we cannot afford to repair our roads in war-time, and most of the men who normally repair them have gone to fight.

The top part of the High Street is indeed somewhat commercial, but over the shops are some fine old houses; and, as you come to the great curve at St. Mary's Church (left), you see the New Buildings of Oriel College on your right, All Souls College (left), University College (right), Queen's College (left), and are then deposited at the doors of your  p8 Hospital, lately the Examination Schools of the University, which building was finished about 1883 on the site of the once famous Angel Inn. Before the war, in those rooms in which the nurses give you such tender care, young men were writing for their lives, six hours a day, and grave dons were walking through the rooms in black gowns with scarlet hoods over their shoulders to see that everything was in order. Most of those young men are now either in the trenches in Flanders, France, or Turkey, or drilling recruits of the New Armies preparatory to going; and many of them have already fallen asleep upon the Bed of Honour.

On the first day on which you are allowed out beyond the garden you should make the first and easiest excursion to Magdalen College. Cross the street from the Hospital door and go a few yards eastward and you will see the grand curve of the High Street, from Magdalen on the east to All Souls on the west. Lord Macaulay, in his History of England, picked out the High Street of Oxford and the Close at Salisbury as the two places in Britain through which no Briton would like to see foreign soldiers marching; which was, I suppose, another way of saying that they were the two most beautiful things in Britain. It is all historic ground. That tall tower to the east, with its graceful pinnacles, was called by King James I (no bad judge of buildings) the 'most absolute building in Oxford': the wall below it was the wall against which his foolish grandson, James II, ran his head, when in 1687 he tried to turn out the Magdalen Dons because they wouldn't elect a royal favourite to be President of the College; he ended by turning himself out of his kingdom. A little  p9 higher up the street, nearly opposite Queen's, 103 years ago,​a the Allied Sovereigns were received by the authorities of the University and of the City after the first (1814) defeat of Napoleon, a year before Waterloo. The Allied Sovereigns then were our Prince Regent (afterwards George IV), Alexander I, Emperor of Russia, and Frederick William III, King of Prussia; Arthur, Duke of Wellington, was with them, and good old Blücher, the Prussian marshal, and the Cossack leader, Hetman Platoff. Nearly all the great people, except the royalties, were then lodged in the Angel Inn. Let us hope we may live to see some more Allied Sovereigns received in Oxford. I fancy, however, that the present King of Prussia will be conspicuously absent. Can you hear the cheers that will be given for King Albert of Belgium and the President of the French Republic?

But it is time to go to Magdalen College: it is perhaps worth while, before entering the narrow gateway, to walk on the south side of the street, thus leaving the Botanic Garden on our right, past the whole street front of the college and out on to the bridge over the River Cherwell. The Cherwell comes down from Northamptonshire and joins the Thames about half a mile south of Magdalen Bridge; you see, looking north, that it makes an island of the meadow lying on the eastern side of the college. In looking at the buildings notice how perfectly the new work of 1885, the western end, harmonizes with that of four hundred years ago. Magdalen is a rich college; but of course it is not true that the Dons burned the bills, when that new work was finished, so that no one should ever know what a fabulous sum it had cost. Through the narrow gateway you  p10 enter the first, or St. John's, Quad.​1 High up on your right you will see a little open-air pulpit in the wall. On June 24 a sermon is preached from it, and the congregation sits below in the open. It often rains on June 24. Facing us is the (new) President's House and the (old) lovely little grey turret building called the Grammar Hall; this now contains a few sets of undergraduates' rooms. To our left is the 'New Buildings', so called to distinguish them from the 'Old New-Buildings' of the eighteenth century, which we shall see presently. Go under the archway to the left and you are in St. Swithun's Quad. When the young men first 'come up' (i.e. come from their schools to the University, at about 18 or 19) they are usually allotted rooms in this quad, and as there is only one Don living there to keep them in order they have a merry time; and it is sometimes called

St. Swithun's where the children play.

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St. John's Quad, Magdalen

The ordinary number of undergraduates at Magdalen is about 150, and of these I am told that 82 per cent have joined the army. I doubt if there are two, or even one, left there who are physically able to go to fight. The badges carved on the front of these buildings and on other parts of the college tell the date of its foundation, the troublous times of the Wars of the Roses. There are the Sun of York, the chained hart of Henry VI, the roses, red and white, and the portcullis of Henry Tudor in whose reign the original buildings were completed.

In the Chaplain's rooms, near the open-air pulpit are traces of lancet windows belonging to the thirteenth-century  p11 Hospital of St. John which was granted by Henry VI to William Waynflete as a site for the foundation of his college.

Now turn half-right and enter the Cloisters, and go in by the big dark door on your right to the Antechapel and the Chapel which leads from it. No one would call the detail in the stone or woodwork of the Chapel very beautiful, for it was restored at a bad period of architecture (about 1832). The stone figures at the east end are poor, and the stained glass inside the Chapel is really bad; the carved stalls are tame. But, surely, the shape and elevation of the whole church is fine. Notice in particular the two noble shafts which bear the roof of the Ante-chapel, and also the perfect proportions of the roof of the inner Chapel. There is a fine, if rather grim, window at the west end; it dates from the latter half of the seventeenth century, when angels were drawn to resemble comfortable clergymen rather than spiritual beings. One detail of the building is very successful, and that is the organ-screen. An organ, however, lovely to hear, is always ugly to see, but ours is partly supported and partly hidden by its really beautiful stone screen. To hear it, if you are fortunate enough to attend the chapel service at 10 A.M. or 6 P.M. (and wounded soldiers are freely admitted any week-day), is one of the greatest musical treats in the world.

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Founder's Tower, Magdalen

As we leave the Chapel we turn right and then left into the main cloister, which runs round a perfect grass plot. This is 'Cloister Quad', the centre of the college; on the west is the 'Founder's Tower' and the Royal Rooms; these are connected with the President's House and are not shown to the public.  p12 Kings stay there when they pay visits; King Edward IV, not wholly of pious memory, was, I believe, the first who did so. On the north and east side of the quad are undergraduates' rooms; on the south, the east end of the Chapel joins the west end of the Dining Hall. Soldiers and sailors may walk out on to the grass in the middle; the public may not. On the south side is the famous College Pump, still occasionally used by the young men for acts of salutary discipline on any member of the college who seriously misbehaves himself. There used to be, when I was young, two tortoises here, believed to be of fabulous age, but at the date of the General Election of 1880 the Liberals painted one of them red, and the Conservatives painted the other blue, and the paint got into the poor creatures' systems and they died. Almost opposite the pump is a large door in the cloister leading to the Dons' Common Room, a beautiful low square room, in which are one or two curious pictures, and two extremely precious pieces of inlaid porcelain, part of the loot of the Summer Palace of Peking in 1860. In this room the Dons have their lunch and read the newspapers; it is what the ante-room to the 'Officers' Mess' would be in a regiment. Passing a little open archway we come to another big door on the right which opens the Dons' Smoking-Room, with some more very interesting pictures and drawings; over the mantlepiece is a curious collection of old pistols, including two real 'blunderbusses'. These strange weapons were used by the Bursar​2 when he rode round the  p13 college estates to collect rents, for the roads down to 1800 were often infested by highway robbers. There is also the college weighing machine; the 'record' weight for any Don is, I believe, 20 st. 10 lb.

In the south-east corner of the cloister we come to the steps leading up to the Dining Hall. This is as fine a room for symmetry as you will see in Oxford. The roof is new and was the gift of a late Fellow (i.e. Don) of the college. The fireplace and east window are also new. But the beautiful screen at the east end, which supports the gallery, is of the seventeenth century, and the curious little panels let into the woodwork at the west end are of Henry VIII's reign. They represent scenes in the life of St. Mary Magdalen, our​b patron saint. Bluff King Hal's portrait looks rather out of place among them, and I don't think he really had black hair. At the high table, on the slightly-raised platform at the west end, the Dons eat their dinner, and the undergraduates eat theirs at the long tables down the hall. Notice the beautiful painted glass in the north window at the west end; it contains portraits of Charles I and his queen. There are also painted portraits of Prince Rupert, of Cardinal Wolsey, and other famous members of the college; one is of Henry, Prince of Wales, son of James I. Edward, Prince of Wales, is a member of the college, and we must have a portrait of him up after the war. He was a famous long-distance runner and football player when he was in residence. On the south wall you will see the portrait of Martin Routh, President from 1791 till 1854, the  p14 last man in England who wore a wig. He did not quite finish his 100th year of age, and a rather unkind Latin epitaph was written on him which may be thus translated:

Routh scored a hundred; but the Fates denied

His wish to score two hundred, so he died.

Leave the Hall, and cross to the little door opposite, the Buttery, where is kept the college bread and beer and that most important person the College Cat. We used to believe that he was 'on the Foundation', and that the statutes provided a penny a day for his maintenance. Few college cats have lived within their income. He is a pleasant companion, but not equal in size or majesty to his predecessor 'Doctor Jim' (of whom you may see a photograph over the buttery mantlepiece), still less to the occupant of the throne of my own youthful days, 'Buttery Dick', who weighed 18 lb. when he was two, grew till he was four, and died at twenty.

We will now descend the hall steps and turn — right — left, and push open the heavy door of the Kitchen. Notice the fine charred beams above your head, dating to a time when the fire was in the middle and the smoke escaped through a hole in the roof. The cook will explain the curious working of the great jack and the spits which can roast many joints at once, and are turned by the draught of the chimney. It is not kind to take up too much of the cook's time, but at least let him show you his wonderful machine for peeling lemons. As we leave the kitchen we can proceed northwards outside the Cloister Quad, with the flower-bed over the river on our right. At the end of the cloister-building we  p15 come to the Garden, or 'New-Buildings' Quad, and the stately line of the Old New-Buildings faces us, the deer park on the left, the river and meadow on the right. In the New-Buildings live most of the Dons; you can see for yourself that the block is of eighteenth-century work, of the 'age of comfort'. Even we must not ask to see the inside of a Don's room, though we may peep into any undergraduate's room that is still open. There is a pretty herd of fallow deer, sometimes in the park, sometimes in the meadow, and some very stately elm trees, though the largest (believed to be the largest in England) fell a few years ago; the life of an elm is rarely 250 years, and most of ours were planted in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. Cross the garden again eastwards and look over the little river-bridge at the two black swans; they have never yet bred, but we always hope that they will do so. Round the meadow beyond us runs a pleasant walk, just about a mile in extent; here you might have seen, in an ordinary year, the College Boat's Crew taking its morning run (when in training for the boat-races) before breakfast. In the meadow blooms, in April, that rare flower the fritillary, but you must not trespass on the grass (indeed you cannot, so cunning are the new railings which the Bursar has put up) to gather it. In the same meadow take place college bonfires, on those occasions of festivity when the college football team or boat's crew has greatly distinguished itself in matches or races with other colleges. I do not remember bonfires taking place in honour of distinguished success in examinations. In Germany, if bonfires were allowed at all, they would, no doubt,  p16 take place for this reason. Of course it is not on the wriggly little Cherwell that boat-racing takes place, but on the Thames (which alone we call 'The River'); on the Cherwell, however, in the summer the 'children play' in their punts or canoes; they take books with them and pretend to be reading for their examinations. We must now go back by the way by which we came, i.e. by the Cloisters, and before we go up the Tower I must show you one more room and tell you one more story. Go straight towards the Hall steps, and just before you get to them go up the last steep flight on your left and you will enter the undergraduates' Common Room. This is full of rowing and football trophies, and of photographs of bygone college teams and crews. In one corner is a cabinet made of the wood of one of the racing boats; and there is a fine head of a wapiti presented by a college sportsman. As you leave the Cloisters you will hardly imagine hunting of any kind taking place in them; but not very long ago there was quite a new form of hunt here. A young pig was bought and smuggled into the college, off the roof of a hansom cab, through a window. It was painted with luminous paint, and its legs, tail, and ears were greased. All the lights were then turned out (where were the Dons?), and the young men had an exciting hour. Next morning the pig was found peacefully asleep in the deer-park.

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Magdalen Tower

The crowning glory of the college being the famous Tower (date about 1500), a visit is not complete until we have ascended it. To do this we can either go out of the Cloisters by the narrow archway on the southern side, or into St. John's Quad, and then  p17 walk under another arch just beneath the open-air pulpit. Either way will bring us into 'Chaplains' Quad', so called because the clergymen who sing the service in chapel used to have rooms there. The stair up the tower is both narrow and steep, and the ascent is not to be recommended to any one whose wounds are not quite healed. The view of the city and the surrounding country on a fine day in June is not a thing to be forgotten; but how infinitely more beautiful it must have been when there were no ugly red-brick suburbs. Old men now living can remember when the green fields came right up to the grey city and seemed to mingle with her gardens. On the 1st of May the Magdalen choristers sing a hymn on the top of this tower at 5 A.M. A few privileged people are admitted to hear it, and they say it sometimes takes three-quarters of an hour to get up; if one lady sticks on the way she blocks the whole crowd. Crowds also assemble in the street below and blow little horns. Then the bells clash out and the tower rocks (you can feel it rock) and the patients in your hospital are all waked up by the noise.

This ends our excursion to Magdalen, and perhaps when you go back to hospital some of you will be asking yourselves strange questions — What is a college? How did colleges grow? What is the connexion between the colleges and the University? How old is the city? and why did a city grow up here? So my next chapter must be something in the nature of a history, in which I will try to answer these questions as shortly as I can.

The Author's Notes:

1 I shall use the ordinary abbreviation 'quad' for quadrangle; it is not really slang. All colleges grow in quads; at Cambridge they call them 'courts'.

2 The bursar of a college corresponds in some ways to the paymaster of a regiment; only he is more occupied in making you pay money than in paying you. He keeps the college accounts.

Thayer's Notes:

a Sic; but the Handy Guide to Oxford was first published in 1915, and the second edition in 1926.

b The author was a Magdalen man, as he tells us on p39.

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