Hidden Oxford

  13 November 2012

Zoah Hedges-Stocks shows that Oxford can be quirky and interesting too. No, really, they can.

This week, I’m going to do something very unorthodox in Hidden Cambridge… I’m going to talk about the Other Place.

We may have put a car on the roof of Senate House, and suspended another one from the Bridge Of Sighs, but Oxonians have had their moments of mischievous brilliance too. In 1868, the entire undergraduate body of University College was sent down after sealing an unpopular don in his room for a whole day. After two weeks the culprit owned up, and the rest of the college were reinstated. This seems like even more of an overreaction when you consider the paltry punishment that Richard Burton was given for trying to murder a fellow student on his second day at Exeter College.

Not the actor Richard Burton, (who, despite being the kind of handsome, stylish and hard-drinking charmer that we usually produce here, went to Oxford) but his nineteenth century namesake, Sir Richard Burton. He guaranteed himself notoriety on his very first day at Oxford. Another student insulted Burton’s moustache and, displaying the kind of poise and maturity one would expect from the other R Burton, he promptly challenged him to a duel.

At dawn, he went out to exact retribution, but his tormentor, wisely, didn’t turn up. The college authorities did, though, and Burton tried to bluff that he’d just been hoping to apologise for his overreaction, and buy the other chap a conciliatory breakfast. Unfortunately, his excuse didn’t explain the presence of a loaded pistol under his coat, and he was duly punished – with two weeks of rustication.

He was eventually sent down in 1844 when the railway came to Oxford. A condition of the train-station being built was that it wouldn’t go to any towns with a racecourse. (Although Cambridge couldn’t feasibly demand such a condition, being so close to Newmarket, the University had enough influence to ensure that our station was built on the edge of town, in the hopes of limiting travel by undergraduates). Being an enterprising chap, Burton saw a business opportunity in the University’s curmudgeonliness, and began running a stagecoach to Ascot. Burton was sent down, but went on to become a gentleman explorer and publish the first English translation of the Kama Sutra, something which chiropractors have been thanking him for ever since.

However, before I start to give the false impression that Oxford is anywhere near as sexy and exciting as Cambridge, it’s worth pointing out that there, as here, the other colleges tend to take the piss out of John’s. It seems that in Oxford’s case, though, the derision is deserved. Rather than being stereotyped as wankers, Oxford’s St John’s is known for being stuffy, uptight, and boring. Supporting this analysis is the fact that John’s Fellows were forbidden to get married until 1904. Really. Until the twentieth century, their dons were meant to be celibate. However, they weren’t free to do as they pleased when the ban was lifted; Fellows still had to endure a vote as to the suitability of their fiancée until 1960 – just one year before Enoch Powell announced that the contraceptive pill would be available on the NHS. Yes, whilst the rest of the country was teetering on the brink of a sexual revolution, one quiet corner of Oxford was still controlling who their Fellows could shag.