Dr Toby Barnard: From Halls to Hall
Toby Barnard FBA was Fellow and Tutor in History at Hertford College from 1976 until his retirement in 2012. He is a specialist in the political, social and cultural histories of Ireland and England, c. 1600-1800.
I start, predictably, with an apology. The Director of Development, the impresario behind this event, and others here may be expecting a Boys’ Own story. I realise now that what I have to say is more accurately entitled Men Only. It begins in the murk of the 13th century and ends with the Principalship of Sir Robert Hall that is in 1967. Inevitably then it is concerned with an exclusively male institution and cannot consider one of the sources of the recent successes of Hertford College: its early and enthusiastic adoption of co-residence with the admission of female undergraduates in 1974 and then the election of women to fellowships. I am the more conscious of this omission standing here in the chapel in which Leanne Roberts, the College Chaplain, properly presides. Perhaps wisely she has begun a retreat today.
So what I have to offer is a series of personal and disconnected reflections on certain themes that emerge from time to time in the history of this institution, and then go underground to re-emerge. To try to identify the themes at the beginning, they will be: the tension between formal structures, represented for example in law and statutes, and informal activity, sometimes in defiance of the laws; this leads naturally enough to a related theme of the tensions between tradition and innovation; it is also a story of heroic and not so heroic individuals, of opportunism, chicanery and even dirty tricks; finally, there is the extent to which this local history reflects that of intellectual, political and social life both inside the larger university of Oxford and beyond.
As many of you will know, Hertford College in its present form is the legatee of two earlier foundations. The first, Hart Hall, occupied this site. The second, Magdalen Hall, as its name suggests, was situated in the shadow of Magdalen College. Halls abounded in the medieval period; colleges were as yet relatively few. Hart Hall had among its near neighbours, Black Hall, Hammer Hall, Cat Hall and Arthur Hall—those Halls sound like a not very good band of brothers from the mid-west—all traces of which have now vanished. The future favoured colleges, since they possessed crucial legal advantages. Halls were in essence lodging houses for those studying for Oxford degrees, and maintained by masters of arts who instructed, boarded and so made money from the inmates. The fundamental weakness of the halls was their lack of legal status as perpetual corporations. This deficiency prevented them from building up substantial endowments. The absence of such financial support made them vulnerable to collapse when a dynamic lodging-house keeper died or when opportunists eyed the property with a view to taking it over.
Hart Hall owed its creation at the end of the thirteenth century to the shadowy Elias de Hertford, probably a government official. For him the enterprise was chiefly an investment rather than an expression of disinterested zeal for enlarging educational opportunities. In this essentially mercenary spirit, Elias bequeathed the property to a son, but soon it passed from the family’s possession. The Hall, thanks to its central location, was a piece of real estate in which neighbouring foundations took a far from altruistic interest. Chief among the predators were two of the recently established colleges, New College and Exeter. In this Oxford jungle, each was keen to gobble up its weaker neighbour. In the event, Exeter acquired a legal hold over Hart Hall, treating it essentially as a hall of residence and exercising the right to choose the Principal.
The uneasy dependency survived the upheavals of the sixteenth century, and resulted in a succession of Principals whose characteristics ranged from effective management through naked careerism to sloth. The HHhhhhhall’s fortunes fluctuated, sometimes in response to external factors—outbreaks of plague, civil war and religious controversies—and sometimes more obviously in reaction to the outlook and connections of the Principal of the day. Yet, for all the vicissitudes, the establishment survived and—at times—thrived. It was a period when the demand for university education expanded largely to staff the expanding apparatus of the secular state, but also in response to changing ideas about what constituted gentility and civility. The universities—there were still only two in England—continued to train potential clergymen. Now, from the mid-sixteenth century, the state church was Protestant not Catholic, and so the requirements were altered. Yet, and this is what makes Hart Hall particularly interesting in the later sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, the Hall had a reputation for harbouring old-fashioned, even proscribed religious sympathies, hostile to the prevalent Calvinism and indulgent still towards Catholicism. That this was the case may owe much to the fact that, in common with most halls, there was no chapel, so the intrusive authorities could neither dictate what forms of worship should be followed nor discipline those who failed to attend the required services. However, the constitutional situation was not the sole or even the main cause of the conservative colouration. It has to be allowed that the particular orientation of a hall in any generation reflected the dominant personalities among the resident dons: in the case of one, Alexander Briant (1556–1581), he suffered martyrdom for his faith and is celebrated (so far) as Hertford’s sole saint.
The reputation for religious recusancy did not persist long into the seventeenth century and had been eradicated by the time that the civil war brought Oxford, during the 1640s the headquarters of Charles I’s court, under unwelcome official scrutiny. Even before that, the career of John Donne (1572–1631) may indicate that the defiance of Hart Hall was short-lived. Donne as well as emerging as the most notable poet of the time rose within the established Protestant Church of England to become Dean of St Paul’s cathedral: an example of conformity and careerism alongside literary brilliance? Any residual defiance of what Church and State required was ended in the 1640s. Victory for Parliament in the civil wars, during which Charles I had used Oxford (Christ Church) as his base, brought a thorough-going purge across all colleges and halls. It delivered into the Principalship here Philip Stephens, an obedient servant of the usurping Cromwellian regime. Principal Stephens took his willingness to support the government that had put him into office at Hart Hall to striking lengths. In 1655 he rode towards Salisbury, armed with pistols, to help suppress a royalist insurrection. Some of his successors may have been tempted to act with similar decisiveness to quell unruliness closer to home. So far as I know none did, although Sir Walter Bodmer is known as a keen and accomplished horseman. From his stable it would be equally easy to ride into Oxford or to Salisbury.
At this point, I want to introduce the second hall—Magdalen Hall. Its foundation and earlier history, remote from this site and very much under the tutelage of Magdalen College, need not concern us. But, by the seventeenth century, it offers a contrast with Hart Hall that is instructive. In religion, Hart Hall for a while held fast to increasingly unpopular and dangerous traditions; Magdalen Hall readily embraced the new Calvinism, and acquired a reputation for Puritan sympathies which in turn made it popular as a destination for the sons of ultra-Protestant parents. Much of this popularity can be traced to the ardour of two successive Principals, both called Henry Wilkinson. The second of the Henry Wilkinsons flourished under the congenial revolutionary regime of the 1650s, but was ejected from the Principalship soon after the monarch and established church were restored in 1660. Conformity to the official order in Church and State was required and, at least outwardly, achieved.
The one tangible legacy of Wilkinson that remains with Hertford as the successor to Magdalen Hall are many of the books that he encouraged members on graduating to give to the library. The gifts and other surviving volumes from the Magdalen Hall library are unusually rich in scientific and geographical works, at a time when these were not subjects within the official curriculum. This intellectual precociousness connects with a striking feature of the alumni of both Magdalen and Hart Hall in the seventeenth century. John Donne has been mentioned in passing. But the illustrious roll is a longer one: Charles I’s most astute constitutional adviser and Charles II’s chief minister, Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon; Sir Henry Vane, the younger, prominent as theorist and politician in opposition to Charles I; John Selden, thought by many to have been the most learned legal antiquarian of his age; Matthew Hale, a legal theorist and judge of towering reputation; William Sydenham, another innovator in theory and practice, in his case in medicine; Robert Plot, at the forefront of the new experimental and observational approaches to the natural world; John Wilkins, again heavily involved in the speculative and empirical activities that resulted in the foundation of the Royal Society. This early involvement as Fellows in the Royal Society has happily continued, thanks to the allocation of Dr Lee’s Professorship of Anatomy to Hertford, bringing the College most recently its first female professor and FRS, Kay Davies. The strong link is embodied in two recent Principals, Christopher Zeeman and Walter Bodmer, and in Tiny Powell, Lazlo Solymar and our former Tutorial Fellow, Keith McLauchlan, all FRSs.
Returning to the seventeenth century, among the alumni of the two halls, one surpasses all in the power of his intellect and the lasting impact of his writings—Thomas Hobbes from Malmesbury. How much Hobbes derived from his time at Magdalen Hall is still being pondered. His efforts to give politics, both in theory and practice, scientific precision continue to resonate. How much his pessimistic view of life in the state of nature as nasty, brutish and short derived from observation of the workings of the Hall and how much from life at Chatsworth or observation of the wars in Britain and Europe again can be debated. Observers of later events whether in Oxford or in the wider world believe that Hobbes’s gloomy analysis of humans as ruthlessly competitive unless restrained is essentially accurate.
In this seventeenth-century efflorescence of fresh ideas about society, politics, religion, the human body, the natural world and indeed the universe, Hart Hall and Magdalen Hall seem disproportionately represented. Why this should be so is hard to answer categorically. One crucial point is that we should not be deceived by the hide-bound and antiquated curriculum into supposing that only the stale and anachronistic were taught. Much happened outside the formal syllabus and outside the hierarchical structures of Principal, Fellows, tutors and undergraduates. Intellectual discussions, experiments and friendships easily transcended or escaped from these rigid boundaries of status and age. Across the university—in All Souls and Wadham, for example—this was also happening. But returning to the specifics of Hart and Magdalen Halls, it is evident that the second Principal Wilkinson acted as a magnet, as did other Principals. However, and unfortunately, we know far less about the qualities and attractive powers of the Fellows and tutors, although they must have been vital in the particular intellectual colouration and formation of successive generations.
But the conditions favouring dynamism, whether they were remarkable personalities within the halls or impersonal attributes like cost, accommodation and diet, fluctuated. Vitality might rapidly give way to torpor or stagnation. Such was the situation found by Richard Newton when he was appointed in 1710 (by Exeter College) as Principal of Hart Hall. Newton as an educational reformer and entrepreneur resembles better-known later figures, such as Benjamin Jowett of Balliol, Maurice Bowra at Wadham or Alan Bullock at St Catherine’s. Integral to Newton’s vision of Hart Hall as a dynamo in a reinvigorated Oxford was its conversion from its precarious and subservient status as a Hall into a College. By this time, most halls had indeed been cannibalised by greedy colleges, with Worcester’s assimilation of Gloucester Hall an almost contemporary parallel. A major obstruction to Newton’s plan was Exeter College, reluctant to relinquish its legal grip. Newton combined two attributes that ensured eventual success: obsessional persistence and friends in high places. It was not until thirty years after his arrival as Principal that Hertford College became a legal entity. Having been the tutor to the brother of a leading politician, soon to be prime minister, undoubtedly helped. Newton’s vision was perhaps inevitably self-centred. His statutes ensured that power was concentrated in himself as Principal. His successors were to be in his own image, in that, as he himself had, they should have served as canons of Christ Church. He drew up statutes that descended into excessive minutiae. No matter, it seemed, was too trivial to command his attention: even to the extent of going each morning to the market to select the viands to be cooked that day. Although the present Principal commends the bacon to be had from Mr Feller in the Covered Market, neither he nor other Principals since Newton have followed that statutory command. Newton through his choice of tutors ensured that some of his ideals and ideas lived on. But inevitably with the passage of the years, his vision faded. Moreover, in one essential, he had failed to put down secure foundations: the endowment. The consequence was predictable: as the novelty and popularity of the educational experience offered by Hertford College weakened, so the number of undergraduates declined, worsening the already frail financial condition. The Principal from 1775 to 1805—Bernard Hodgson—combined the office with incumbency of Tolpuddle in Dorset. The statutes were also regularly ignored in the qualifications of those appointed to the Principalship. By the early nineteenth century, the only resident Fellow was deranged, and rooms in the Principal’s Lodgings and elsewhere in the College were colonised by eccentrics and worse. Decline turned to decay.
At this point—1818—the second hall comes into the story. Magdalen Hall, like Hart Hall, had a long lineage but, also like Hart Hall, one of subordination. A long-standing campaign by Magdalen College to repossess the property in which Magdalen Hall operated was revived intermittently. Now it could be resolved by conferring the property of the defunct Hertford College on Magdalen Hall and allowing that still vigorous institution to migrate to this site. And this indeed was what happened, bringing—somewhat adventitiously—its host of distinguished alumni and (more materially) its library. Yet this bold move soon succumbed to what seemed an inevitable cycle of decline. Efforts to rejuvenate the ailing Magdalen Hall were overtaken and subsumed into two other initiatives. The first was the wave of internally and externally generated university reform, in which the precarious position of the surviving halls was further undermined. The second was the willingness of Sir Thomas Baring, a member of the eponymous banking dynasty and a Tory MP, to establish a new college. Baring intended his foundation to be confessionally exclusive—confined to members of the Church of England—as a counterblast to the liberalisation being imposed by a Liberal government. One college—BNC—refused Baring’s largesse because of the restrictions. Those struggling to find a new identity and extra funds for Magdalen Hall seized gratefully on the benefaction. If there was at first a Tory and Anglican ethos to the re-founded Hertford College, with Baring nominating a group of the first fellows, it was gradually moderated. One, Godley, had been secretary to Gladstone, the Liberal Prime Minister. Furthermore, the man appointed Principal in 1877, who would hold the office until his death after the First World War, thanks to his ecclesiastical benefice in the east end of London, had an awareness of worlds other than those of Anglican and Tory privilege. The Revd Henry Boyd, in many ways seeming a conventional even reactionary figure, certainly had unconventional streaks. These may have imprinted Hertford early with a less than conventional stamp. Its architecture, entrusted to Thomas Jackson, trumpeted the college alignment with reform not reaction: it rejected the churchy Gothic style in favour of a domesticated classicism. Moreover, as a new and not yet smart college, Hertford had to cast its net wide to draw in enough pupils to balance the books. Alongside the customary ballast of young men from minor and some major public schools, overseas, usually commonwealth matriculands may have been proportionally more numerous than in older established and better endowed colleges. Despite the Baring funding, supplemented by the Drapers’ Company, the First World War and the recession of the 1920s and 1930s severely constrained the college, keeping the fellowship small until the late 1950s. In 1959, there were nine fellows as compared with the twenty in 1880. After Walter Buchanan-Riddell, successor to Boyd in 1922, Principals were recruited from within this small fellowship: first Cruttwell, reviled by Evelyn Waugh but not forgotten as a fine historian of the First World War which had left him physically and psychologically damaged. Cruttwell was followed by Murphy, remembered now as the subject of a memorable portrait by Stanley Spencer and for his filing system (with which today I alone have sympathy) of allowing important letters to slip under the carpet. The College was not torpid, but it was something of a backwater, and, depending on taste, enjoyable or frustrating.
And so we come to Hall – Sir Robert Hall. In 1959, a long-serving Fellow, Ferrar, was appointed Principal at the age of sixty-six for what was inevitably to be a short term. Bill Ferrar set in train changes, including new appointments, which helped to ensure that his successor (in 1964), Sir Robert Hall, was an outsider. Hall, although he had had a long stint as a Fellow of Trinity just across the way, had served in effect as economic adviser to the Treasury throughout the 1950s. In addition he was Australian. Here, then, is a combination which helped the distinctive ethos of the revived and present-day Hertford: the perspectives of the outsider; the familiarity with the corridors of power; contacts with business and industry; an understanding of money; quiet but shrewd judgement. Hall’s tenure was brief: ended by a scrupulous, perhaps over-scrupulous, resignation in 1967. Yet Hall’s centrality and reputation are indicated by his membership of the Franks commission, which mapped out much of the course followed by the university since then. However, another attribute of Hall, I suggest, makes him a figure emblematic of the attitudes characteristic of Hertford and perhaps the wider university from his time onwards. As well as his astuteness of judgment and contacts, Sir Robert Hall was a keen allotment gardener. Indeed, he won prizes for his produce—sweetcorn especially (no mean achievement in the Oxford climate). I would like to believe that those conversations with fellow allotment holders, not any leisurely lunches in the Athenaeum or Oxford and Cambridge Club, were when plans for the regeneration of Hertford and of Oxford developed. At the risk of mixing a metaphor, allotments were then and still are great levellers. Dons and or their partners learnt wisdom from railway and Cowley motor workers, retired scouts and (in the case of this college) from the then senior common room butler. Here, as much as anywhere, the egalitarian and democratic habits of Hertford were reinforced, and the quest for excellence took on fresh urgency: the first prize for a vegetable marrow temporarily displacing the quest for a higher ranking in the Norrington Table. But both came from the same philosophy: at once cooperative and competitive.
Ending with Hall, I am conscious that this has been a talk focussed on Principals and an intermittent lack of principles. It has said little about the fellowship. Whatever of earlier centuries, in which information about most fellows is sparse if not non-existent, for much of the twentieth century, distinction and dynamism came from the fellows. Principal Murphy, fine as his likeness is, remains a less arresting figure in college fact and legend than, say, Peter Ganz, Neil Tanner, John Torrance and Roger van Noorden. But the fellowship must wait for another lecture, either the second John Donne or the first Thomas Hobbes.