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An 1890’s Univ football team

Earlier this year, the College Archives acquired an exciting new addition. This is a group photo of the Univ Football XI for the 1894–5 season. Nothing, sadly, is known of its earlier provenance. This photograph is special because, although the Boat Club’s photograph albums go back to the 1860s, our main sequence of sports group photos only starts in 1904, and we have very few such images before that date. Better still, the photograph identifies the sitters.

Here, then, is the photograph (ref. UC:P422/P1/1), with its mount:

(Click for larger image)

It looks as if the team is sitting somewhere in Radcliffe Quadrangle. You can see that the group in the middle are sitting on a sofa, which must have been hauled out from a nearby room. Many Edwardian group photographs likewise show their sitters grouped around a sofa like this. You can also see that there is not much consistency in the team’s soccer kit: the shirts are not the same, and R. A. Greig, in the middle, sports a rather stylish pair of socks. M. Y. Barlow also stands out because he is wearing a blazer on which the College coat of arms is just visible. The one thing which is consistent is the cap which several members of the team are wearing.

But who are the members of the team? None of them became “great” Old Members, but perhaps that makes them all the more interesting to us, in that, by studying their backgrounds and what we know of their later lives, we can assemble a cross-section of the undergraduates who were up at Univ 130 years ago.

The information on our team has come together from various sources. There are several records within the College, including our Admissions Register, early Tutorial Lists, and a card index of Old Members which was begun in the mid-1920s. Outside our archives, there is Joseph Foster, Oxford Men and their Colleges, 1880–1892, a useful biographical register for most team members, and much has been gathered from census returns. Several members of the team also played cricket, and I have therefore benefitted from extensive on-line research which has been carried out into former cricketers. I am also grateful to Mr. Sandy Rich of Tregeagle Fine Art, the dealer who found the photograph, for supplying some information, not least on the sporting careers of some of our sitters.

Below we meet each in turn…

Kenneth Alexander Woodward

Donald Currie

Stephen Leonard Pettitt

George Rupert Lees Mellor

Ronald Alister Greig

Frederick George Clayton

Micah Yates Barlow

Charles Wilfred Pollock Hodsoll

Ernest Walter Freeborn

Arthur James Brewster

Robert Bennet Wynne Davies

One striking thing about this group is their relationship with the First World War. Out of the eleven of them, only Woodward is known to have seen active service, whilst Freeborn was much involved with the Officer Training Corps at Harrow. Perhaps this group were just old enough to escape being called up. On the other hand, they will all undoubtedly have lost friends and family in the war, and those members who became teachers, like Freeborn, Pettitt, or Woodward, will have lost several former pupils.

This group of eleven members of Univ of the 1890s form a surprisingly diverse group. Geographically, they come all over the UK, from Ayr down to Kent. The professions of their fathers range from prosperous bankers, like Clayton’s father, by way of clerics, like Brewster and Davies’ fathers, to Freeborn’s father, an Oxford butcher. Three of them (Barlow, Clayton and Woodward) came from Harrow; but five more (Brewster, Currie, Greig, Mellor and Pettitt) came from more modern public schools, and three (Davies, Freeborn and Hodsoll) came from grammar schools. We see all eleven of them in the same photo, all playing football together side by side. It would be interesting to know just how easily they all socialised together after a game – whether the Harrovians (who, of course, had all known each other since schooldays) found it easier to bond together than to try to talk to the boys from grammar schools. Short of a memoir by one of the team coming to light, we will never know. Sport, however, was a great social leveller in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, and perhaps a shared enjoyment of and skill at playing football might have broken barriers.

Different as the backgrounds of the team were, their later lives, where we know about them, show much greater consistency. Almost all of them went into sturdy middle-class professions, like banking, business, the church, the law or teaching. Indeed, arguably the humblest born of the team, Ernest Freeborn, was the greatest achiever, reaching a senior position in a major public school. It is very easy to assume that 1890s Oxford was still something of a bastion of privilege; yet the eleven members of the Univ Football XI of 1894/5 suggest a picture that is much more nuanced, and perhaps invites us to dig a little more deeply into the world of the 1890s College.

Further Reading

Joseph Foster, Oxford Men and their Colleges, 1880–1892 (Oxford and London, 1893).

Christopher Tyerman, A History of Harrow School 1324–1991 (Oxford, 2000), pp. 445 and 463.

Further selected Univ Treasures are detailed below or explore the whole collection on our News and Features Treasures pages.

Published: 25 August 2023

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