These ethereal images of Victorian Oxford show how bitterly cold Michaelmas terms were once upon a time.

By Olivia Williams

These days students and staff are kept cosy in their colleges where they can enjoy Oxford's winter beauty in comfort. However, one should spare a thought for those who lived at the University in the nineteenth century and earlier. They did not find it an altogether pleasant place in the colder months.

Even a building as important as the Bodleian Library was not kept warm enough to be in full use for much of the Michaelmas term. Until 1845 it offered nothing in the way of heating, and no artificial lighting for the short winter days until 1929. As a result in 1831 it served an average of only 3 or 4 readers a day, and only opened from 10am–3pm in the winter.

Some recollections of Michaelmas terms past:
Colds become verie frequent in Oxon; many sick and keep up colds without coffing or running at the nose, onlie a languidness and faintness. Certainly Oxford is no good aire.
Anthony a Wood's Life and Times  (1678)

St Edmund Hall
The church of St Peter in the East, part of St Edmund Hall

The month of November was marked by increasing energy among our young men in what they denominate 'Athletic Sports'. Not only has foot-ball been borrowed from Tom Browns at Rugby by Tom Browns at Oxford, but in addition to foot-races, hurdle-leaping, and the like, the absurd exhibition of men (and gentlemen) jumping in sacks sewed up to the shoulders, forty yards out and forty yards in, round a flag! In comparison with this, which of course convulsed the spectators with laughter, the wheel-barrow race and the donkey-races were quite legitimate and classical. 
C.V. Cox's Recollections of Oxford (1870)

A lonely figure in Christ Church Meadow, 1895
A lonely figure walking in Christ Church Meadow, 1895

Christmas appearing, there were fires of charcole made in the common Hall on Allsaints eve, Allsaints day and night, on the holydayes and their nights, and on Candlemas eve, Candlemas day and night. At all these fires every night, which began to be made a little after five of the clock, the senior under-graduates would bring into the hall the juniors or freshmen between that time and six of the clock, and there make them sit downe on a forme in the middle of the hall, joyning to the declaiming desk: which done, every one in order was to speake some pretty apothegeme or make a jest or bull, or speake some eloquent nonsense, to make the company laugh.
Anthony a Wood's Life and Times  (1678)

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All images © Oxford University Images

Comments

By Alan James
on

It was not so different well into the twentieth century. In my first year at Balliol, my bedroom (in a 'set' on the ground floor of the Victorian staircase XIX, long since replaced) had no heating, and a concrete floor with only a small mat. At the beginning of Hilary Term, in the bitter winter of 1963, I stepped out of bed to find ice on the floor!

By Bill Sharrod (K...
on

Also in January in 1963, most of Oxford City buses broke down in the cold, so those of us living in North Oxford never knew what was going to turn up...a museum piece double decker from Reading. or the latest chrome laden coach. We actually got more work done...the library at the old School of Geography was one of the warmest places, and a lot of time was spent at the fish and chip shop on Walton Street.

By Juliet Taylor
on

In December 1962, staying overnight in St Hilda's for an entrance interview, I was so cold I took the rug off the floor and put it on the bed. One of my first actions, on hearing I had been offered a place, was to buy a mohair blanket.

By Tim Jones
on

Can't compete with Alan James. But: when I went up in 68, I had the luxury of 2 rooms in the Jesus Ship Street annexe. The sitting room had a (coin-driven) electric fire, but the bedroom no heat whatsoever. That was a cold winter. I used to find my beard frozen. When I stayed in the annexe this year it was en-suite and toasty warm.

By Colin Yarnley
on

My lodgings in 1969 contained one tiny gas fire which heated a semicirclular area with a diameter of eighteen inches from its centre. Elsewhere in the room ice stuck to the inside of the window. The Victorians did not have a monopoly on cold weather

By guyrowston
on

1963 was bitter. Spectacular ice sculptures from medieval gutters. You could have walked to Birmingham on the canal. Rowing races were cancelled. Areas of the city had no water with water carts coming round fillling whatever vessels people had. I was out of college that term and was in the last house to get running water back in the Cowley Plain area. I suspect no-one risked taking a bath in the cellars of Exeter for several weeks if indeed there was water!

By Charles Griffin
on

I skated across the Isis in front of the OUBC boat house once, in the winter of '62/'63, to the accompaniment of ominous cracking noises: rash youth!

By Ivor Blight
on

In the winter of 1967/8 I was living in St John Street in a room on the top floor. I came back from London one night to find that my landlady Mrs Puttick had put her electric blanket on my bed. I think she was well in her 80s; her husband, a soldier, had died during the Boer War.

By Desmond Ryan
on

January 1963 was the one to beat. I came up to take the Scholarship exam at Queen's in the vac and was lodged in the back quad. The snow was piled up in four piles on the lawns, allowing one to cross the quad to the bathroom facilities on the other side via the icy paths. Needless to say, I did not get to interview!

By Judith Finch
on

The winter of 1981-2 was pretty impressive. In my cold, high-ceiling'd room in Holywell Street the ice on the inside of my windows would melt during the day and drip into my bed. By evening it had frozen the sheets together. I used to chip pieces of milk off my frozen pint for tea. Eventuially the porters took pity on me and lent me an electric fire.

By Peter Fernie
on

In 1964 my ground floor bedroom in the medieval Drawda Hall annexe of Queens' was frigid with no heating, ice on the inside of the windows, a lino floor and no running water. I was awakened by my Scout delivering a lukewarm ewer of water. By the time I got up it was as cold as the room so I had to tramp through labyrinthine corridors to the nearest bathroom to find it engaged .......again.
Supposed to be character forming ..........or so they say.

By James
on

Yes, but toast and jam in front of a gas fire was wonderful. I spent many a cosy afternoon with good company in such a way. But the warm libraries did encourage work (or sleep). Exeter 1955-1958,

By Nick Vanston
on

One night in January 1963, some snow blew through the half-open window in my Holywell Manor bedroom. I swept it under the bed, and it stayed there for two weeks.

By Dick Morris
on

Is it false memory, or did someone drive an Austin 7 (the pre-war sort) down the river as far as Abingdon in that celebrated winter of 62-63?
Having had the foresight to find a room in Balliol that was directly over the hot water boiler was certainly a wise move.

By Muttaqi Armaan Malik
on

In 2009 I was living in University's couples accommodation in North Oxford. During the winter break and on Christmas eve when everything was close we lost the heater in our flat the water heater also broke down and there was no help available. I sill remember those freezing nights in the flat with no double glazed windows. But those were memorable days with my wife. Love Oxford as i got my education and daughter in the same city.

By Liz
on

I came back to LMH in early January '82 after a run around the Parks, which looked beautiful with a thick hoar frost covering everything in sight. I wondered why everyone was staring at me, until I realised that my eyebrows and eyelashes were also heavily frosted!

By David Cooper
on

I remember crossing the then new Donnington Road bridge and looking upstream, there was a fabric bodied car on the ice, that was in 1963-1964 winter. 1947 was more memorable for the Cowley St.Christopher Schools being closed as there was no coke for the boilers. We had walked through the snow about three quarter of a mile and then had to walk back. The floods which followed were even more spectacular. Well worth an article next year!!

By Hugh Blaza
on

I remember an undergraduate in Univ whose room was so cold that he left his two-bar electric fire on all day and all night. When he received his astronomical battels, he told the domestic bursar that there must have been a mistake and that he'd have to have had his fire on all day and all night to have racked up a bill of that size... He was let off...

By Jenny Rowley-Wi...
on

Like Juliet Taylor, I too was at St Hilda's for interview in December 1962, and like her I. was frozen in my room. There was an electric fire that I left on all night. I can't now remember if there was a rug on the floor. I had travelled in my Harris Tweed coat coat, so I spread that over the bed .The thing that strikes me as extraordinary now, is that as an 18 year old girl I wore a wore a Harris Tweed coat coat! I was never quite so cold at St Hilda's again.

By Robert Tack
on

Whilst I too suffered an unheated bedroom in my first winter at Wadham in '66-'67 and viewed your pics of Oxford in 63, it seemed mild stuff to me. Raised on the Pennines, I remember the '63 winter as walking one evening in the fields as the road - in a 5 metre deep gully - was so full of snow that it was difficult to discern. After many snowy winters up North, I found Oxford winters wonderfully mild.

By Mike Sommer
on

I came up to my freezing digs in Newton Road in January 1963 and switched on the two bars of the electric heater in my bedroom. They remained on throughout the term, by the end of which there was still ice on the inside of the window panes.

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