Unlike most college histories this study concentrates as much upon the lives of undergraduates as it does upon the careers of successive generations of dons. Again, unlike many histories, the emphasis here is not on the origins of the college but on its period of greatest reputation: between the mid-eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth century. [2]

It is the duty of a college historian to explain the way in which these external events interact with the internal circumstances of college life. Hence the emphasis on context. I have tried to relate the college to the University, and the University to the wider world of politics. And I have tried to let the participants speak for themselves. The result is a plain story, unencumbered by theory. But its scope is ambitious. It treats college living as more than an insulated experience. Rightly or wrongly, I have gone for the bigger picture. Biography is never easy; collective biography is almost impossible. But here at least the rewards of narrative are fairly evenly distributed. The Whigs are the winners; the Tories have most of the fun. [3]

Crook's fascinating history of Brasenose provides many insights into the history and evolution of the University of Oxford, many parts of which began as halls rather than full-fledged colleges. “Brasenose,” he explains, “was a hall before it was a college, and a lodging before it was a hall. But it has always occupied the same site, halfway between the Bodleian Library and St Mary's Church, a site at the very heart of Oxford” (2-3). In 1315 Oxford had more than 120 halls, 70 remained a hundred and twenty years later, and by the mid-sixteenth century only eight were left. These halls did not so much disappear as coalesce into colleges or become absorbed by existing ones; Brasenose itself absorbed at least ten. John Legh and William Sutton, early principals credited with founding Brasenose along with Samuel Radcliffe, took in six halls. “By the early sixteenth century, Brasenose had absorbed no fewer than ten contiguous halls. The roll-call of expansion runs as follows: Brasenose Hall, Litde University Hall, St Thomas's Hall, Shield Hall, Ivy Hall, St Mary's Entry, Salissury Hall, Little St Edmund Hall, Haberdasher Hall, and Broadgates Hall.” Mid-Tudor Brasenose “was northern, it was conservative, its roots were in the yeomanry—parish rather than county gentry—and it was comparatively under-endowed.” At least the college fulfilled the wishes of the founders and those who had left significant bequests to allow poor students to attend Oxford. During the seventeenth century more than 40% of those who became fellows “had matriculated as plebeians or paupers” (46) and two-thirds came from outside the gentry. Until well into the Victorian era a large percentage of its students came from Lancashire, the best of them often from Manchester Grammar School.

The college chose many fellows — that is, those who taught undergraduates — on the basis of relationships to various benefactors with often grotesque results, such as the appointment of one James Smith of Chester in 1819 over the objections of the Principal Frodsham Hodson on the grounds that he was both the “twelfth cousin four times removed of the daughters and co-heiresses of John Port II” as well as their fifth cousin eleven times removed (169). Such appointments, which continued as late as 1846, occasionally produced good scholars.

Not until the 1760s did BNC, a “college on the periphery of power” that eventually became one of the richest and most fashionable, obtain much in the way of wealth and prestige. What was life like for fellows and students?

First and foremost—like any college at this date—it was a religious foundation. The rhythms of its existence followed the diurnal pattern of traditional religious observance. Daily mass at dawn; weekly sermons in St Mary's Church; Latin grace before and after every meal, with Latin spoken in hall; a meagre breakfast followed by private study and lectures until dinner at 11 a.m.; then reading and tuition until supper and more prayers at 5 p.m.; and after that disputations or further lessons, then sleep at last at 10 p.m. To these exercises we must add, year by year, the multitudinous obligations of the ecclesiastical calendar. Clothing was strictly regulated: no fur, silk, or velvet; no padded hose; no lace of gold or silver; no 'dublet of any light colour, as white, green, yellow etc.' Food was plain, heating negligible, and sanitation primitive, damp, cold, and undernourished, the poorer scholars might even be reduced—with authority—to begging. [79]

By the 1760s Brasenose expanded its numbers and rose in the social scale as members of “county families” (108) matriculated as gentleman-commoners. Crook explains the various categories of students — gentleman commoner, commoner, scholar, batteler, and servitor — and the duties and privileges of each. Gentleman commoners, for example, could receive a degree in three years rather than four, lived in comparatively luxurious accommodations, and wore special forms of dress that included

silken gowns and flaxen tie-wigs; with their cocked hats, white stockings, ruffled shirts, and thin Spanish leather shoes, each must have cut a striking figure as they strolled about the Old Quad. . . . Differentiated dress was certainly the rule until the 1770s noblemen in gold lace, gentlemen in silk and velvet, commoners in bombazine, servitors in stuff. And dressing for dinner, in white waistcoat and stockings, sombre coat, and black pumps, continued throughout the century. Even so, from mid-century onwards, the social balance of the college was changing: battelers and servitors both belonged to dying species; commoners were getting richer, and gentlemen commoners were becoming very rich indeed. [99, 105]

As the college expanded and became peopled by wealthier and more prestigious students, the standards for academic achievement declined, and, as the fifth chapter, “1853-1886, The Age of Athletic Prizemen,” explains, throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries BNC became known for its athletic rather than academic exploits.

Like many histories of Oxford colleges, this one relates the accomplishments, eccentricities, and quarrels of the dons, along the way creating portraits of some truly dreadful charaters, the worst of whom is certainly Robert Shippen (1775-1745), a conniving academic politician of no scholarly accomplishments who rose to be Principal of BNC and Vice Chancellor of the university, a man who “might almost stand as an archetype of unreformed Oxford,” a man who had a “career notorious even by the standards of early eighteenth-century Oxford” (123).

In his introduction, Crook, explains that, unlike many such histories, his will also show us the undergraduates and their activities. He delivers on his promise, and his approach produces some gems in his portraits of notable characters, such as Cormell Price, “the first open scholar at BNC” and a little-known part of the aesthetic Pre-Raphaelitism:

'Crom' Price is forgotten now; but he has his own niche in history. He was once the boon companion of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones; he could claim to be one of the godfathers of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement; he was the mentor of Rudyard Kipling. Price's garret rooms (VI, 6) were next door to those of William Berkly, a future Fellow of Trinity. Price remembered him as 'one of the most winning characters and one of the deepest thinkers I ever met with'. In effect Price, Berkly, and another freshman, F. L. Latham, formed a 'set': artistic rather then sporty, bourgeois rather than gentry. . . .

Price came from Birmingham, and his closest allies were two more Birmingham boys, Edward Burne Jones of Exeter and C. J. Faulkner of Pembroke. But it was William Morris, also of Exeter College, who emerged as this group's leading light. Price might play a hard game of fives, or enjoy gymnastics at Maclaren's in Oriel Street; but most of his time was spent talking late into the night, either at Exeter with Burne-Jones and Morris, or at Pembroke with Faulkner, William Fulford, and R.W. Dixon, or else in his own rooms overlooking Radcliffe Square. Here Price would declaim Shakespeare, and Morris would recite Malory or Chaucer. Here the 'Brotherhood' would gather 'to settle once for all how people should think'. Medievalism was their credo. But only Burne-Jones was especially high church; the Pembroke set were evangelical. Yet whatever their churchmanship, they shared in particular Morris' rejection of capitalist ethics. Topsy [Morris] has got the real grit in him', noted Price; 'but we shall all go to Heaven.' Price could be relied on to serve punch and tobacco. [257]

Much of the latter part of the book is devoted to those lost in the first and second world wars, and the losses were heavy, indeed. As Crook explains, “BNC s losses in the second World War were crushing, in all, 123 men did not return. . . . That figure represents—most unusually—a higher total than the list of those who fell in the First World War. The reason is cruelly simple. The ethos of Brasenose—athletic, loyal, light-hearted, physically courageous—matched only too well the ethos of the Royal Air Force. As pilot officers, flight lieutenants, and squadron leaders, Sonners' men held the fort against Nazism in 1940, and they paid a heavy price” (370). To provide some sense of those lost, Crook provides one-paragraph summaries of the war dead. I found the following portrait one of the most moving:

Dick Holdsworth . . . raised the concept of 'all-rounder' to astonishing heights. He was the son of the great legal historian Sir William Holdsworth. But his nickname, 'the Prof.', was something he earned for himself. Three times he was in the Brasenose eight: it was head of the river in 1931.Three times he rowed for Oxford, and twice he rowed as stroke: 1955 will always be known as 'Holdsworth's Race'. He was secretary of the Phoenix, President of the Ellesmere, President of the JCR, President of the Vampires; he achieved a First in law in 1955, and he was elected to a Fellowship at Univ. in 1956. From Lincoln's Inn to All Souls, he was a man whose presence could light up a room. Today he has his own fragment of immortality as one of the brave young pilots in Richard Hillary's The Last Enemy (1942). But his loss in April 1942 was a Brasenose tragedy. 'Some eight years ago', noted Stallybrass, 'it was a common topic of speculative discussion... whether Dick [Holdsworth] or Michael Peacock or Leslie Scarman would go furthest at the Bar or on the Bench. Now thanks to the ravages of war Squadron Leader Scarman remains alone.' Scarman went on to be a Lord of Appeal. Peacock and Holdsworth are now just names on a tablet in Brasenose cloister. [375]

Crooks takes us through the the academic golden age of the college in the last decades of the twentieth century to the present: “We enter the twenty-first century larger and poorer, exercising only an illusory independence; secularized, bureaucratized, state regulated; but with an integrated intake—male and female, undergraduate and postgraduate, national and international—and a syllabus diversified beyond the dreams of our predecessors. Many of these changes have been the result of wider economic shifts.” Appropriately much of the last chapter, “1948 Onwards: All Change: Towards a Global Elite,” concerns the economic underpinnings of the radical change affecting BNC and the rest of the University. Brasenose, the first Oxford college to change its statutes to admit women, has seen many changes and is better for many of them.

Crooks's beautifully written, well documented, and nicely illustrated book boasts both an index of names and an invaluable epitome, an index of topics related to the college arranged in categories and sub-categories. Brasenose. Its intended audience would seem to be those who attended Brasenose or other Oxford colleges, for some terms, particularly those related to undergraduate sporting events, are not defined. Nonetheless, Brasenose provides an excellent way to learn about the college and the university of which it is a part.

Related Material


Crook, Joseph Mordaunt. Brasenose: The Biography of an Oxford College. Oxford University Press, 2008.

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Last modified 8 October 2012