n the letter that Tom Brown writes to a friend still at Rugby shortly after his arrival at Oxford, he describes his college as "an awfully idle place" in which little work is assigned and less is done. Furthermore, although students attend chapel because it is compulsory, Tom is surprised and annoyed by the way the minister officiating at services races through them while many of the undergraduates surrepitiously do assigned readings for their tutorials or attend wearing riding clothes. These slackers, who set the tone of the college, are a special class of students who pay double tuition. St. Ambrose, we are told, has "some seventy or eighty undergraduates in residence," of whom a very large proportion were "the gentleman-commoners . . . the largest and leading set in the college" (10) who "gave the tone to the college" (11):
The chief characteristic of this set was the most reckless extravagance of every kind. London wine merchants furnished them with liqueurs at a guinea a bottle, and wine at five guineas a dozen; Oxford and London tailors vied with one another in providing them with unheard-of quantities of the most gorgeous clothing. They drove tandems in all directions, scattering their ample allowances, which they treated as pocket money, about roadside inns and Oxford taverns with open hand, and "going tick" for everything which could by possibility be booked. Their cigars cost two guineas a pound; their furniture was the best that could be bought; pine-apples, forced fruit, and the most rare preserves figured at their wine parties; they hunted, rode steeplechases by day, played billiards until the gates closed, and then were ready for vingt-et-une, unlimited loo, and hot drink in their own rooms, as long as any one could be got to sit up and play.
St. Ambrose had once been a college distinguished by academic and athletic accomplishments, so much so that "head-masters had struggled" to get their best pupils admitted, and "every one who had a son, ward, or pupil, whom he wanted to push forward in the world — who was meant to cut a figure, and take the lead among men, left no stone unturned to get him into St. Ambrose's" (11) Although the fellows (the teaching staff) maintained these standards in their own work and were "as distinguished for learning, morality and respectability as any in the University" (11), the "shrewd men of the world; men of business" in charge of the college, recognizing how in demand St. Ambrose had become, asked themselves, "why should we not make the public pay for the great benefits we confer on them?" and began to admit increasing numbers of gentleman-commoners who paid double fees but who also, because they paid more, felt themselves less bound by the rules of the college.
Gentlemen-commoners increased and multiplied; in fact, the eldest sons of baronets, even squires, were scarcely admitted on any other footing. As these young gentlemen paid double fees to the college, and had great expectations of all sorts, it could not be expected that they should be subject to quite the same discipline as the common run of men, who would have to make their own way in the world. So the rules as to attendance at chapel and lectures, though nominally the same for them as for commoners, were in practice relaxed in their favour; and, that they might find all things suitable to persons in their position, the kitchen and buttery were worked up to a high state of perfection, and St. Ambrose, from having been one of the most reasonable, had come to be about the most expensive college in the university. These changes worked as their promoters probably desired that they should work, and the college was full of rich men, and commanded in the university the sort of respect which riches bring with them. 
Although St. Ambrose still had a fine reputation outside the university — such reputations take years to rise and years to fall — the reality was very different: "Fewer and fewer of the St. Ambrose men appeared in the class lists [as top students], or amongst the prize-men. They no longer led the debates at the Union; the boat lost place after place on the river; the eleven got beaten in all their matches" (12). The gentlemen-commoners and their clique were too busy drinking, partying, hunting, and gambling. And providing temptations for Tom Brown.
- Tom Describes St. Ambrose, Oxford
- An awfully idle place" — Thomas Hughes on Oxford in the 1840s
- Social and economic stratification in pre-Victorian Oxford — the example of Brasenose College
- Education in Georgian and Early-Victorian Oxford
Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown at Oxford  . New York: John W. Lovell Company, n.d.
Last modified 6 July 2006