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Rowlandson's Oxford

118 pages
Library of Alexandria
How few of us there are to-day who ever devote even the slack hour between tea and “hotters” and Hall to finding out something at least about the Undergraduates who had our rooms two centuries ago. Yet to every man the word Oxford conjures up vast vague shadows from the past which make him as a freshman tread softly and with reverence through the quads and gardens, High Streets and by-streets of the City of Spires. Great names rise up into our minds and fill us with wonder, but the scout knocks at our door with half-cold food and our dreams dissolve into irritated reality. There may come a moment, perhaps, when, with feet at rest upon the mantel-shelf and a straight-grained pipe bubbling in quiet response between our teeth, we are deafening our ears to the call of bed, the slow-flowing conversation drifts by chance to a casual query as to what our predecessors did at the same hour two hundred years ago. Beyond a few more or less unimaginative surmises we remain in ignorance, blissful and uncaring, believing them to be strange-clothed beings of stilted language and curious habits, and at once the talk turns to present and more pleasant topics. We little think that to all intents and purposes we are almost exactly the same as our old-time-brethren. To-day we row, play cricket, football, tennis, golf; we cut our lectures when we safely can and “binge” at every opportunity. Schools do occupy us, it is true, but as a mere secondary item in the university scheme of things—and rightly so. A degree, however good, does not, by itself, make men of us and teach us how to live. It is the social life of the university which is the real education and which sends us out into the world ready to face anything and everything. By developing our bodies we develop our minds, and in this programme of athletics and sociability we are a replica of our eighteenth-century brethren. They rose about nine, breakfasted at ten, and dallied away the morning with a flute or the latest French comedy. By way of strenuous exercise, necessitated by a climate which was just as evil then as now, they walked, rode, rowed, or skated, and in the evening figured at the Mitre or Tuns where they made merry into the small hours with beer, claret, or punch. To them schools were much less a source of worry than they are to us, for, beyond attending occasional disputations and an odd lecture or so, when a Don could be persuaded to give one, they obtained their degree by the simple but expensive process of drinking the examiner—usually a hardened toper—under the table overnight. He was then led, in the morning, while still pleasantly fuddled, to the schools, and there, in consideration of a respectable douceur, he signed away the necessary papers with a beaming and self-satisfied smile. They knew nothing of the humours of white ties, dark suits, and a week’s terrible strain to get a First in Honour Mods—before the Finals are even thought of. The shivering crowds waiting in the Hall to be led to the slaughter did not exist in those days.