These rare black and white images of Oxford in the 1880s show how tranquil the University was once upon a time - a place that Oscar Wilde believed to be 'the most beautiful thing in England'

By Olivia Williams (St Edmund Hall, 2006)

Some recollections of term time from the 1880s:
On beauty
In spite of the roaring of the young lions at the Union, and the screaming of the rabbits in the home of the vivisector; in spite of Keble College, and the tramways, and the sporting prints, Oxford still remains the most beautiful thing in England, and nowhere else are life and art so exquisitely blended, so perfectly made into one. Indeed, in most other towns art has often to present herself in the form of a reaction against the sordid ugliness of modern lives, but at Oxford she comes to us as an exquisite flower, born of the beauty of life and expressive of life's joy. 
Oscar Wilde

On lively discourse
With all its faults of idleness and littleness there is a charm about Oxford which tells on one, a certain freshness and independence, and besides a certain geniality of life such as one doesn't find elsewhere... And with all its oddities Oxford seems to give a wide toleration and charity to the social intercourse of thinkers; Comtist and Romaniser laugh together over High Table, and are driven by the logic of fact from the shallow device of avoiding one another as 'fools' or 'madmen'.
Letters of JRGreen View of Godstow Bridge over the River Thames near the remains of Godstow Abbey, 1885
View of Godstow Bridge near the remains of Godstow Abbey, 1885 

On gentlemanly dressing
Thirty years ago no man was ever seen in the streets of Oxford after lunch without being dressed as he would have been in Pall Mall. Tail coats were sometimes worn in those days in the morning, and the fast men still wore cutaways. But the correct thing for the quite gentlemanly undergraduate was black frock-coat, and tall hat, with the neatest of gloves and boots, and in this costume he went out for his country walk, the admired of all beholders, as he passed through Hinksey or Headington. In the same dress he usually went into hall, and appeared at wine-parties.  Now, I believe, shooting-jackets of all patterns...have taken the place of this decorous garb in which every one looked well.
T.E. Kebbel, the National Review of June 1887

St Aldates, 1888-98
St Aldates, looking down to Christ Church1888-98 

On the aestheticism backlash
There was no aestheticism in my day at Oxford. One class of men used to read: the other to shoot, hunt, or row. Much later there was a disturbance caused by the ingress of the aesthetic taste to which the papers gave a somewhat wide currency. A young aesthetic had his rooms wrecked. His furniture and his china, his peacock feathers, ands other tomfooleries had been reduced to ruin. It is urged on the other hand that he had so far forgotten himself as to speak disrespectfully of the college boat, and that his punishment was justly deserved...
James Pycroft, Oxford Memories

On bump suppers
Extraordinary proceedings at University College - The undergraduate members, about sixty in number, of University College, were summarily sent down on Wednesday evening in consequence of an outrage committed by some of their body on the Rev A.S. Chavasse, Fellow and Tutor, the Senior Proctor of the University, and other members of University College. It appears that after the 'bump supper' a few of the festive spirits took it into their heads to 'screw in' the Senior Proctor and other senior members of the college and bar their doors.
Oxford Chronicle, May 1880 

An university sports club, 1880-99
An unidentified university club, 1880-99 

On tutors
In less than a week I was entirely disillusioned as to what I was to learn in an Oxford lecture-room. Copleston was a veritable dunce, who could teach you nothing. He was the butt of the college, and we used to wonder how he ever became Fellow of Oriel. 
Mark Pattison, Memoirs

Compared to other undergraduates 
I asked him [Mark Pattison] once about the relative merits of the candidates as belonging to different Universities. He said that the Oxford man, in shirt front, finger nails, costume generally, was a thing of beauty - and knew nothing: the Cantab, slightly dingy - and knew something; the Caledonian knew little about moral philosophy, much about the Scotch-men who handled it; the Dublin man was boor in the externals, but knew everything.
Rev W. Tuckwell, Reminiscences of Oxford

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All images © Oxford University Images


By J. P. C. Toalster

What is a "Comist" (Letters of J.R.Green, above)? Is this a misprint for "Comtist", follower of Auguste Comte?
"The only time that Comte
Is reported to have romped,
Was when the multitude cried "Vive
La philosophie positive!" (E.C.Bentley)

Is it that one?

By Damien Hall

Wonderful. Can prints of these pictures be bought? I think one would 'look well' in my gallery of places I've lived.

By olivia.williams

You're right about 'Comtist' - thank you. 

By Tony Pinkney

Not so sleepy and tranquil as all that, actually. William Morris was in these years trying to ginger the place up both architecturally and politically. See my 'William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-1895' (Illuminati Books, 2007)

By olivia.williams

Hello Damien, Please email the OT editorial assistant for prints:

By James Riley

To Damien Hall.

You could use your mouse (right click) and download the picture and print them yourself.