Eccentrics of Oxford

In the single-minded pursuit of their subjects, some academics become detached from the ordinary things of life. Fewer do so now, perhaps because more are married and their wives won't have it.

A side-effect of dons' detachment was uninterest in modern facilities. When, in the 1950s, Pembroke undergraduates complained of the lack of washbasins and baths, the Master was reputed to have said "What do they want baths for? They're only here for eight weeks."

Jowett was a great educationalist, who nevertheless tended to intimidate those he attempted to help. AJC Hare recalled: "Walking with this kind and silent friend was ... a terrible ordeal ... He scarcely ever spoke, and if, in my shyness, I said something at one milestone, he would make no response until the next, when he would say abruptly, 'Your last observation was singularly commonplace'." Jowett was responsible for that invaluable piece of advice: "Never retreat. Never explain." He also maintained for many years a passionate correspondence with Florence Nightingale. When asked what she was like, he replied: "Violent, very violent."

Spooner, who was Warden of New College from 1903 to 1924, was an albino. He inspired great affection among his students who delighted in immortalising his occasional slips in speech. One of his most famous utterances (possibly apocryphal) runs as follows: "You have tasted a whole worm. You have hissed my mystery lectures. You will leave by the town drain." It was Spooner who caused a memorial to be erected in New College Chapel to those members of college who died fighting on the enemy side in World War I: "In memory of the men of this college who coming from a foreign land entered into the inheritance of this place and returning fought and died for their country in the war 1914-1919".

"Mr Acton always attracts attention by sheer distinction of manner while eschewing the eccentricities by which lesser men seek to make themselves conspicuous" (Isis). He is, however, said to have painted his rooms at Christ Church bright yellow. He also helped to make Oxford bags popular in the 1920s. These were floppy grey trousers which became wider and wider until they reached the ankle, and were introduced by Hall's the tailor in the High. It is said that the original idea was to wear them over one's hunting breeches, so as to be able to get out onto the field straight from a tutorial.

A pupil of W.E. Pantin recounts that on one occasion he was reading out his essay when Pantin stopped him over a point it was necessary to verify in one of his many books. The student was directed to the third stack in the fifth row – seventh book down. Sure enough the relevant passage was there – marked by a bacon sandwich. On another occasion, during the World War II blackout, a guest asked Dr Pantin if he might use a torch to find his way across the quad. The answer was negative, but nicely put: "Dominus illuminatio mea." (God is my light; the University motto.) Pantin's subject was History. If ever a gap was discovered in his knowledge, he would mutter, "Not my period." If pressed, he would declare his period to be English Church History from 1350-1375.

go back to index of Potter Pouri...