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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 2
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 4

 p39  Chapter III
Merton, Corpus, and the River

Our first excursion from your Hospital door was to the east, to Magdalen only; our next shall be to the south. I am afraid you must not expect from me such a detailed description of all the colleges as I could give you of Magdalen, for it is only when one has been a member of a college that one can be perfectly familiar with all its buildings and all its traditions. There may be pumps, and there may have been pig-hunts, in other colleges, but I cannot tell you of them because I don't know.

Let us then to‑day begin by making three successive right-turns from the Hospital, and we shall find ourselves in one of the quaintest and least spoiled  p40 streets of the city, Merton Street. It is not wholly unspoiled, for there is one hideous little red-brick house in which, nevertheless, you may get an excellent Turkish bath (I suppose, by the way, now that the Turks are our enemies, we must call it a Russian bath). There is also a tennis court, a building which I fear could never be made beautiful; but inside it, if Oxford life were going on, you might have seen played one of the finest and most ancient games in Europe, 'real' tennis (called the King of Games and the Game of Kings'), from which the bastard variety, played on lawns by young ladies, is derived. Nor can I wholly commend the new house of the warden of Merton on the same north side of the street; I cannot tell why, but it remains me of the entrance to an Indian temple, and I always expect to see an elephant walking up the front steps. But a little further on there is a lovely old house called Beam Hall; then the pretty new-buildings of Corpus; and finally the grey creeper-clad walls of Oriel College. The south side of the street is wholly occupied by Merton College, save at the west end where Corpus Christi stands on land that its founder Bishop Fox purchased at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

The eastern building of Merton was, till a few years ago, one of the small 'Halls' which did not quite succeed in growing into a college, St. Alban's Hall, vulgarly called 'Stubbins'. They brewed fine beer at Stubbins forty years ago. Now its ancient front to the street remains, though the tall building called the 'Dove-cot' has gone; its interior has been most beautifully rebuilt in this twentieth  p41 century, and is now the eastern quad of Merton. But we must enter the college by the front gate a little further west. Over the doorway, which dates to 1418, is a much earlier piece of sculpture, possibly as early as the foundation of the college, with strange allegorical figures of saints, beasts, and trees. In the irregularly-shaped front quad you have the Hall to the south of you, the Chapel to the west, and the entrance to St. Alban's quad to the east. The Hall has been almost entirely rebuilt more than once, but has some good stained glass and two very interesting portraits: William Harvey the great physician, whom Charles I made Warden when the Puritan warden, Brent, fled to London, having taken the part of the Parliament in 1642; and Sir Thomas Bodley, Fellow at the end of Elizabeth's reign and founder of the great Bodleian Library which we shall visit on another day. From St. Alban's Quad we can look through the tall and beautiful iron railings on to the Fellows' Garden. This was the fashionable promenade of the well-to‑do citizens and members of the University in the early eighteenth century until it was closed to the public in 1720. From the passage at the west end of the Hall we enter one of the most picturesque quads in Oxford, called (no one knows why) 'Mob Quad'. On the south and west of it runs on the upper floor the glorious Library, built about 1377; the other two sides of the quad are believed to be about sixty years earlier.​a As you enter 'Mob' on the right you can see (but not visit) one of the oldest buildings in Oxford, the 'Treasury', where the most valuable college documents are kept; it is a stone room up a narrow stone staircase, and is believed to be the  p42 actual house of 'Jacob the Jew' — perhaps one of the earliest stone houses in England. It has a wonderful high pitched roof, also of stone. Next we have to the east the much larger 'Fellows' Quad' which is of the early days of James I, with a somewhat later gateway on the south side. The south fronts of these two quads, as we shall presently see them from the meadows, are one of the most satisfactory things in Oxford; along and below them runs the old grey city walk, here called 'Dead Man's Wall', or Walk, and the raised terrace walk in the Fellows' Garden is laid along the top of this wall. The prospect of the whole college from the south is spoiled only by one thing, the very ugly pile of new buildings erected on the site of the 'Grove' in 1864 by that same Butterfield who filled up the cup of his iniquity seven years later by perpetrating Keble College. If, however, there is one distinctive thing in Merton it is the Library, in which you may actually see the old desks and the staples to which the books were chained. The high dormer windows and the roof are somewhat later, but substantially the room is of the end of Edward III's reign, and is perhaps the finest example of a mediaeval library now to be found in Europe. Some of the books remained chained to the desks till 1792! There are also two very curious globes, of the earth and the heavens, of sixteenth-century manufacture. The Chapel is also a very fine building, and its tower is only second in beauty to that of Magdalen. Until a few years ago it was also used as the Parish Church of a now vanished parish, St. John's. The choir is the earliest part, and was built within twenty years of the foundation of the college; the transepts date  p44 to 1425 and the tower to 1450. There is some very beautiful and very early stained glass in the choir, and a little in the north transept.

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Mob Quad, Merton College

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The Chapel, Merton College (c. 1297)

Merton, as the oldest college in Oxford, was no doubt in many ways a pattern for other colleges. Thus it was probably the first college to admit 'commoners', i.e. members not on the foundation, who came to Oxford to study without receiving any portion of the Founder's bounty to maintain them while studying; we hear of commoners at Merton before the end of the fifteenth century. Now, in all colleges, the number of commoners far outweighs the number of 'scholars' or 'exhibitioners', who alone are endowed. A commoner wears a short and rather ridiculous little gown without sleeves, a gown he could almost put into his pocket; a scholar wears an elegant flowing gown with wide sleeves. Merton was also the first college to provide its members with a 'common-room', and this is situated on the second floor in the Fellows' Quad, a fine room of Charles II's time. It was also the first college to be distinguished for the study of Natural Science and Medicine; several of its Wardens and Fellows were leading scientific men in their day. Another distinction it possesses is that one of its most learned Fellows, who was Professor of Greek in the University, was actually hanged in 1601. During the Civil War Queen Henrietta Maria (whom we then called Queen Mary) kept her court in Merton, and had a private passage made for her to pass into Christ Church to visit her husband Charles I. The room over the arch into Fellows' Quad is still called 'Queen's Chamber'. During the Great Plague of London in 1665 Charles II's Queen, Katharine, occupied these rooms.

 p46  When we leave Merton again by the front gate and turn left we shall come to the delightful little college of Corpus Christi, commonly called Corpus, which has lately blossomed out into quite a pretty block of New Buildings situated on the north shore of Merton Street at the corner of Grove Street, and, so, unconnected with its main buildings. Corpus is, as it were, squeezed in between Merton and Christ Church, and was in fact built on a small plot of land purchased both from the former and from the Priory of St. Frideswide which then occupied the site of Christ Church (1515). Very little seems to be known about the dates of the buildings, but the front quad is obviously of the founder's own time, i.e. 1515‑20. The Chapel in its present condition dates from 1675; the Hall, no larger than many a private gentleman's dining-room, from 1700, and the old New-Buildings, called Fellows' Buildings, to the south, looking over the meadow, to 1706‑12. Between them and the meadow is jammed in one of the smallest yet most satisfactory of college gardens, and the south front of the Library is covered with magnificent creepers. There is a picture of the 'Adoration of the Shepherds', believed to be by the great Flemish artist Rubens, over the altar in the Chapel. Bishop Fox, or Foxe, the founder of Corpus, was a statesman of Henry VII and of the early years of his son Henry VIII, and a champion of the 'New Learning', i.e. of Greek and of classical Latin, as opposed to the dull old monkish Latin learning hitherto the staple subject taught in Oxford. So within his college Fox founded also the first public professor­ship of Greek; and the result was that when Queen Mary began to persecute the new  p47 religion, which had grown up out of the new learning, Corpus needed a lot of 'purgation'. One of the pleasant stories of those days was that a scholar of Corpus called Anne, having written twenty-four Latin verses against the Roman Catholics, was publicly flogged in the College Hall with one stripe for every verse. Richard Hooker, the most highly gifted writer of the Church of England in the late sixteenth century, was a scholar and Fellow of Corpus; and Dr. Reynolds, one of the chief translators of our present Authorized Version of the Bible, was President; indeed it was in his lodgings at Corpus that the translators used to meet weekly during their work. The delightfully quaint pillar with the sun-dial, surmounted by the emblematic pelican, was the work of another Fellow, Turnbull, late in Elizabeth's reign; the pelican is the sacred bird of this college, as is the mallard of All Souls; and the flag on the college barge on the river has a red pelican on a blue ground. While almost all the colleges sent their plate to help poor King Charles to coin money at the outbreak of the Civil War, the name of Corpus does not appear on the list; and it is true that it still possesses some very valuable plate of an earlier date than that. So the story is told that a faithful college butler seized all the most precious pieces and was burying them when the earth fell in on him and them; and that his skeleton was afterwards dug up with the hands still grasping the beloved silver flagons. But I will not vouch for the truth of the tale.

Let us now leave Corpus, and go a few yards back towards Merton and then turn sharp right through the passage to the meadows which divides the two  p48 colleges. When we have got into the elm-bordered 'Broad Walk' we shall get a glorious view; the back of Christ Church to the west, the grey front of Merton to the north, and the stately tower of Magdalen to the east. A walk of a few hundred yards southwards will now bring us to the Thames; do not let any misguided person tell you that the river is here called the 'Isis'; it is the Thames from Source to Sea. You will be disappointed to see what a narrow shallow stream it is, especially if you have ever seen it below Reading, where its greatest tributary, the Kennet, joins it. First you will notice the long row of house-boats, called 'Barges', moored on the northern bank. Each college has its barge, and from its flag-staff, on boat-racing days, in ordinary years, flies a flag with the college colours or emblem on it. At each barge is a raft from which the crew embark for their races. There is no finer sport than boat-racing, and, if I spend a few lines in telling you about it, rather than about our cricket and our football, it is because the latter sports can be seen anywhere, but boat-racing at its best is peculiar to Oxford and Cambridge, and to one or two great schools like Eton, Shrewsbury, Radley, and Bedford. Great credit is due to the two Universities for the perfection to which they have brought this sport on their narrow and winding rivers, on both of which it is impossible for two boats to race fairly abreast.

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Eight and Barges

[Photo. Hills and Saunders]

The racing season begins with 'Fours' in November; only the best rowing colleges enter for these. The Four rows without a coxswain, one member of the crew moving the rudder with his foot, thrust into an open shoe, to which the rudder lines are fixed.  p50 The boats start a mile and a furlong below the top barge, eighty yards apart, and only two boats can row in each heat; there are therefore two winning posts, the same distance apart, opposite the barges; on each of them a semaphore like a railway signal is fixed, and this is let down by a judge when the boat's nose has passed it. In a close race it is often extremely difficult to say which boat has won, and I have seen both semaphores drop at the same instant, making a 'dead heat'. Directly after the Fours begins the practice for the University 'Trial Eights', out of which will ultimately be selected the crew which is to row against Cambridge at Putney in the following spring. Each College is entitled to send up two of its members to be tested for the Trial Eights. The race takes place early in December, and is rowed at Moulsford, about 23 miles below Oxford, where is a two-mile course along which the boats can row abreast. Early in January the Oxford Eight itself begins to take shape; the race against Cambridge is usually rowed eight days before Easter, and the crew goes into strict training for six weeks. It is a fine sight to see the dark blue oars of the 'Varsity Boat' flashing down our little racing course in its practice, and scattering the lesser crews and small boats as a hawk scatters pigeons — for you are fined five pounds if you get in the way of those great men. Meanwhile, at the end of February, take place the 'Torpid' races for college eight-oared boats; these are a sort of rehearsal for the real Summer 'Eights', and are rowed in rather heavy boats with fixed, instead of sliding, seats. No one may row in a Torpid who has rowed in his 'College Eight' in the previous  p51 summer. Practically every college sends in a Torpid, and the larger send in two, or sometimes three.

Now, if forty boats are to race, it is obvious that, even rowing behind each other, they must be somehow broken up. So there are three 'Divisions', with about 13 boats in each. The boats start 160 feet apart (measuring from nose to nose); and each has to try to catch, or 'bump', the one in front of it; the slightest touch of nose or oar on the wood of the other boat constitutes a 'bump', and the coxswain of the boat which is bumped is thereupon bound to hold up his hand, and both bumped and bumper must draw into the bank or clear out at once from the course, so as not to impede the other boats which are coming on behind. The boats are started by gunfire; one gun five minutes before, one a minute before the start, and finally one for 'go'. Then ensues such a yelling and shouting, from the men on the towpath who run alongside their boat, as you never heard. Pistols are fired and rattles are sprung to encourage the crews; 'Well rowed, Corpus!' 'Come along, Exeter!' 'You are within a length! — half a length!! — quarter length!!! — Yah! you're overlapping them! oh, well rowed. Whirroo, Hullaballoo', and a general fusillade of pistols if the bump is made.

All this three times an afternoon for six days running; for the lowest Division rows first, and the boat which is at the top of the lowest rows also at the bottom of the Second Division, so as to form a link; and again the top boat of Division II rows bottom of Division I, which, though rowing last in time, is the top in order. The connecting boats are  p52 called 'sandwich boats', and if a very good boat may make thus six bumps in one year, it may also, if it happens on any day to be a 'sandwich', make seven; for it may make two bumps on the same afternoon. Each year the boats start in the order in which they left off in the year before. When a boat has made many bumps there is always a festivity of some kind in the college to which it belongs, usually something of the nature of fireworks and bonfires.

The method of racing in the real 'Eights', for which practice begins at the beginning of the summer term (end of April), is almost the same as in the Torpids; but the boats are real racing boats, built of thin streaks of cedar, and the men row on sliding seats. The rowing is of course much better, and the excitement over victory much greater. These Eights take place at the end of May, and attract a great crowd of visitors; the barges are gay with pretty ladies. Very few colleges put on a 'second Eight', and I don't think the practice of doing so is to be commended, nor does it favour good rowing. When the Eights are over a certain slackness comes over the rowing world. One or two of the best crews will be practising for Henley Regatta (held at the beginning of July) and a few energetic people, who perhaps have been rowing in Fours, Trials, Varsity-Boat, and Eights, will go in for the Pair-Oared Race and the Sculls; but these are not as much patronized as they might be, which is, I think, a pity, for there is no finer exhibition of the waterman's craft than pair-oar rowing.

If you go inside one of the college barges you will see photographs and lists of old crews, and rather elaborate arrangements for washing after races; some  p53 barges even have shower-baths. In the University Boathouse, the brick building on the towpath, opposite the mouth of the Cherwell, you will see a great curiosity, the actual eight-oared boat in which an Oxford crew in 1842 beat at Henley a (not the) Cambridge crew, though Oxford rowed seven oars. The Oxford stroke was taken ill on the day of the race, and the rules of the Regatta did not then permit a substitute. The boat is totally unlike any racing craft of our days, and would take half as long again to pull over our course as a modern 'Eight'. We may perhaps walk a little way down the towing-path to see something of the shape of the course, but must then retrace our steps, and we may vary the walk home by being ferried over the river at the Magdalen barge and strolling up the path which borders the Cherwell and enters High Street opposite Magdalen College.

Thayer's Note:

a The minutes of a Merton College faculty meeting of the year 1339 are still preserved, and make interesting reading.

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Page updated: 27 Aug 09