[The opportunity to discuss the reform of Oxford] came with Lord John Russell's Commission of Inquiry in May 1850. The Commissioners set about their work by first defining the collegiate ideal, and then drawing attention to its current deficiencies.

Colleges... may be defined as Charitable Foundations for the support of poor Scholars, with perpetual succession, devoting themselves to study and prayer, administering their own affairs, under the presidency of a Head within, and the control of a Visitor without, according to Statutes which were to be neither altered nor modified, and which were sanctioned by solemn oaths. 226-27

In practice, Oxford fell short of that ideal in almost every respect. Under- graduate numbers had fallen catastrophically since the seventeenth century. By the end of the 184os, there were only half as many residents as there had been in 1612; and they were mostly young men of independent means. In a number of colleges, provision for the poor had wholly vanished. . . . Non-residence was rife among the Fellows, and religious observance was frequently tokenistic. Tuition had in effect been privatized, through delega- tion to independent coaches. Professorial seminars on Germanic lines were still a very long way off. Only 22 out of 542 Fellowships were open: 12 at Oriel, 10 at Balliol. All the rest were hedged about with restrictions dating back centuries: that is, restrictions relating to locality or birth, patronage or education. There were even insufficient First-class graduates to fill the 5 5 or so closed Fellowships which fell vacant every year: the annual average number of Firsts was only 15. Nothing [complained the Revd Frederick Temple] could possibly be further from the founders' intentions than the present system. They meant the fellows to be resident. A large proportion hardly ever come near the place. They meant the fellows to live a strict and severe life. The comfortable common-rooms and ^200 a year do not represent that. They meant the fellows to be bona fide students. Nothing could be more absurd than to call the present body such... In fact, it could hardly be possible to imagine a greater contrast than that between the ideal present to the Founders' minds of a poor hard-working student of theology, copying manuscripts, disputing in the Schools, living a life of monastic severity, and the fellow as he at present exists, with his comfortable rooms, liberty to roam over the world, and ^,2.00 a year with nothing to do for it... In short, a literal interpretation of the Founders' wills has become a mere superstition... [ Reform] is not an interference with private property, for the property is not private; it is not the betrayal of a trust, for the trust was essentially conditional; it is not a departure from the intentions of the foun- ders ... [namely] the advancement of learning and religion... [ Finally] it is demanded by common justice, for the colleges are now injuring the University, under whose shelter they were meant to live.118 =========== It is worth reminding ourselves, at this point, just what was required—or not required—of a mid-Victorian Pass man. In 1867 the Dean of Christ Church defined the requisite range of study as follows: 'a not very great acquaintance with classics, a very insufficient acquaintance with mathematics, and none [at all] with physical science'. The maths in fact amounted to no more than 'the first two books of Euclid and a certain quantity of arithmetic5; and even this might be replaced by elementary logic if preferred.51 A Pass man reading law and history could get away with Blackstone's Real Property and Lingard's [301/301] History of England. His Honours counterpart was a little busier: for history he had to read Lingard, Hallam, Gibbon, Milman, Clarendon, and Ranke; for law it was Blackstone, Wheaton, and Justinian. And both class and Pass men might extend their programme of work—or leisure—over a period as long as four to six years.52 Much of the time might in fact be spent—or misspent—in passing Responsions. From 1865 onwards, when the Honorary Fourth for Pass men was abolished, there was no inducement for a Pass man to distinguish himself. As Montagu Burrows put it, 'the pass [had been] knocked down to the very lowest limit, in order to let men through'.53 With the demise ofCradock, the number of Pass men noticeably declined. In Haig's year (1880) there had been as many as 29 out of 56; in Grundy's year (1888) there were only 18 from exactly the same number. Even so, that figure remained well above the University average. In 1881 only one-third of Oxford degree candidates were Pass men; in 1900 only one-quarter. The number at BNC remained well above those levels. Brasenose was still defined by its sportsmen. It was they who shaped the image of the college. In the forty years preceding the First World War, Brasenose won the inter-college billiards competition more frequently than any other college.


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

Last modified 20 August 2012