An exploration into how elitism is built into the bricks of Oxford
Elitism at Oxford is nothing new; a nearly 1000-year-old institution that produced 30 prime ministers, as well as some of the most prolific imperialists of the 19th century. The perennially controversial Rhodes statue seems to epitomise the university’s dark colonial past. Campaigners have called for the statue to be removed because of its commemoration of Oriel alumni and arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, one of the most recognisable figures of the British Empire. The statue is considered symbolic of imperialism and of institutional racism. However, a closer look at the architecture reveals how the very bricks are impacted by this legacy.
The Rhodes statue is merely the front piece of what was originally the Rhodes Building, now home to the JCR and teaching centre of Oriel. It was built in 1911 and funded by the £40,000 left to the college by Cecil Rhodes, explicitly for this purpose. Not only was the building funded by imperialism, but its construction necessitated the demolition of 95-101 High Street, and the forcible eviction of its tenants. The construction of Rhodes Building was a physical reminder of who was welcome in the university, and who wasn’t.
The University of Oxford is famously picturesque, and certainly the stunning colleges and churches form part of the appeal of those who chose to come and study here. However, a closer inspection of these ‘dreaming spires’ reveals how the very architecture itself cements age-old ideas of who belongs at this university.
Not only was the building funded by imperialism, but its construction necessitated the demolition of 95-101 High Street, and the forcible eviction of its tenants.
Professor of architectural history William Whyte points out, “buildings have agency; they do not merely reflect ideas but are designed to enforce them.” It is the grandiose beauty of the colleges themselves that reinforced elitist ideas of belonging. That elite private schools such as Eton and Westminster bear such striking similarities to colleges are not coincidental; they are a lasting reminder of the pipeline of elite, male students who have been historically bred for Oxford. Some of the architectural parallels are obvious and deliberately overt; Eton was created as a feeder school for King’s College, Cambridge and so was built to mirror the college. The same applies to Westminster school and New College. The boys who followed these paths from feeder school to Oxbridge college spent the majority of their lives in the same grand and recognisable buildings.
Even when the link between elite private school and Oxford was not as formally established as this, the architecture of the colleges fed into the exclusivity that the university maintained. Basil Champneys, for example, who designed buildings for Winchester, Harrow and King Edward VII’s school was also the architect behind New Old Hall (LMH), Somerville Library, St Alban Hall (Merton) and the infamous Rhodes building. Thomas Garner, who designed Marlborough College was responsible for work in Christchurch, Magdalen and University College.
“buildings have agency; they do not merely reflect ideas but are designed to enforce them.”
To those outside of the established elite, the buildings of Oxford are unfamiliar and intimidating. Whyte explained, it “looks like a place built to keep you out.”
This was certainly the case for Paddy Coulter, who came to Queen’s in 1964 from a rural town in Northern Ireland and recalled being shocked that his college was “like a monastery”. Not only have these buildings been dramatically unrecognisable to those outside this private school circle, but they have also even been unlocatable. Being told by his school to “knock of a wooden door” on High Street, Coulter knocked on “half-a-dozen doors”, including St Mary’s Church and All Souls College, before finding Queen’s. He points to this lack of college signposting, which have not changed since his days here over 60 years ago, as a parallel to the private clubs of London; only available to those supposed to know. Coulter argues that this “hangover” from Oxford’s history is deeply symbolic of the exclusivity that has continued to permeate the buildings of the university. Some people were “brought up to stroll in” and this sense of entitlement was aided by the familiarity of the colleges and “18 baths in a single bathroom.”
He points to this lack of college signposting, which have not changed since his days here over 60 years ago, as a parallel to the private clubs of London; only available to those supposed to know.
The architecture of Oxford is especially interesting when we consider how women were accommodated. Until the late 19th century, no women were allowed even on the property of the Oxford colleges. An exception was stipulated by St John’s in 1379 for the washerwoman, who was deemed “of such age and general appearance no sexual misdemeanour was likely to arise”. The Reformation posed the first architectural challenge to the all-male environment of the University, as it allowed the Presidents of colleges to marry for the first time. The discomfort with this presence of women is clear; the chapel of St John’s adapted by creating a closed box in which to enclose the President’s wife, allowing her to attend the chapel services without intruding on the wholly masculine space of the church.
Over 350 years later, the construction of LMH continued to reflect discomfort towards women in Oxford. After the success of its first 9 pupils in 1878, the hall attempted to expand into the neighbouring property to accommodate for a larger intake. The landlord who owned the land and the house allowed this but insisted that the link made both be and look temporary, so that the buildings could be sold easily when what many viewed as an “adventurous experiment” inevitably failed. This landlord being, perhaps unsurprisingly, St. John’s. This “very draughty little walk between the houses” remained a physical reminder of this reluctance and scepticism towards women’s education.
Efforts were made by most women’s colleges to differentiate themselves from the masculine architecture of Oxford, and therefore from men’s education. Quads, for example, were deemed unfit for women’s colleges as they were “problematic” to “community life”. Another change included the transition from staircases to hallways. In men’s colleges, communal bathrooms were separate from the rooms on the staircase which meant a “run through the rain” to get to them, which was deemed improper for women who may be wearing only dressing gowns. The emphasis on domesticity in women’s colleges further underlined the gendered beliefs that perforated the architecture. Building designs for Somerville even specified that windows of the cottage-like rooms should have flower-balconies.
Quads, for example, were deemed unfit for women’s colleges as they were “problematic” to “community life”.
The colleges being reminiscent of either domestic architecture or women’s boarding schools (like LMH and St Hugh’s) reflects the late 19th century anxieties that higher education would render women incapable of being mothers and wives. An American doctor Edward Hammond Clarke suggested that the mental energy exerted by women in higher education would render them infertile, as the blood would be redirected away from their womb to their brain. An article in 1911 on ‘Women’s Education in Oxford’ echoed these fears, stating that “quite a large number return to their homes [to] make excellent wives and mothers”. This proved that higher education “does not unfit women for their natural duties”. These architectural choices were not simply a matter of aesthetic but reflected the deep concerns and barriers that confronted women in this period.
Interestingly, Girton college Cambridge took the complete opposite approach: designed to emulate a men’s college in its entirety, and to present a picture of women’s education being equal to that of men’s. However, what all of these women colleges have in common is their location. Women’s colleges were physically separate from the men’s colleges, and away from the masculine city centre. This spatial distance further enforced a hierarchy between Oxford and women’s education that limited female students to its outskirts. One student from LMH in 1928 recalled that they were allowed to walk in the country, but if they went into the city, “somebody was nearly sure to report such a thing and the student would receive a reprimand.”
The architecture of Oxford- the buildings, the libraries, the colleges- are not simply brick and stone. They are an ever-present reminder of where the university has come from, and where it has to go. Coulter, who is now a fellow of Green Templeton, points to the college as an example of how architecture can do the opposite of what Oxford has done for so many centuries, to include rather than exclude, to welcome rather than hide.
The college is centred around the famous Radcliffe Observatory, whose neoclassical structure remains a symbol of the greatness of Oxford architecture. But Green Templeton is much more egalitarian and open; there is not a chapel, but a space where people of faith can pray. Moreover, in the dining hall there is no high table; staff, faculty and students eat together. And most importantly to Coulter, Green Templeton has a sign.
That the University of Oxford is rooted in ideas of racism, sexism and classism will not have come as a surprise. That the architecture itself is drenched in this history may have done. Buildings do have agency and they can uphold outdated ideas and beliefs long after they have been exposed and challenged. However, we should remain hopeful for Oxford’s future; we have the capacity to resist this agency and push the university to exist beyond its uncomfortable history. Buildings can just be buildings again.
With thanks to Paddy Coulter, Oliver Mahony and William Whyte for their conversations and contributions to this piece.
LMH Archives Sources:
‘Women’s Education in Oxford’, Hearth and Home (30 November 1911)
Yorkshire Post (18 February 1928)
The Brown Book: LMH Chronicle (December 1928)
LMH: A Short History (1923)
Image credit: Robert Cutts at commons.wikimedia.org
Image description: The Rhodes Building, Oriel College, Oxford