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Remembering an earlier College anniversary

old traditional survivors’ photograph of univ students


Historically, Oxford Colleges appeared to show little interest in celebrating anniversaries. There is no mention of any such events at Univ until the “Millenary Dinner” of June 1872, which celebrated the mythical 1000th anniversary of our foundation by King Alfred – and, to judge from some of the speeches given that night, the celebrations were somewhat tongue-in-cheek. By 1899, William of Durham’s claim to be our true Founder was generally accepted, but our predecessors did not see fit to mark the 650th anniversary of William’s benefaction in that year.

The first major anniversary celebrations held at Univ, therefore, did not take place until 1949, to mark our 700th anniversary. This anniversary is well documented, and one of our best sources for it is a scrapbook kept by our new Assistant Secretary Gwynne Ovenstone (ref. UC:CO6/X1/1). Gwynne, of course, would become College Secretary in 1950, and remain in post as a mainstay of the College until her retirement in 1987. She continued to work at Univ in various capacities for almost two decades afterwards.

The scrapbook was intended to be special, as can be seen from its title page:

The elegant lettering throughout the book was done by Paul Harvey (1947). The book opened with a copy of a circular from John Wild, our then Master, giving Old Members details of the plans for the 700th anniversary:

Wild highlighted three important events: a Ball on 20 June, a lunch and garden party on 1 July, and a weekend on 1-3 October. In her scrapbook, Gwynne chose to start with the lunch on 1 July. Such an anniversary attracted considerable press attention: in her scrapbook are substantial articles from The Times and The Manchester Guardian, both from 1 July, about the history of the College. Two Fellows wrote these pieces: the former was by David Cox (F. 1939-80) and the latter by Peter Bayley (F. 1949-72). A more surprising appearance in the scrapbook, however, is this unattributed article from the Weltpresse of Vienna, from 8 July:

Here is the menu for the lunch held that day:

1 July Menu

The menu might seem somewhat basic for such a major occasion, but then in 1949 Britain was still in the age of post-war austerity and food rationing. Of the speakers, the Lord Chancellor was there to represent the Crown, our Visitor, and Lord Llewellin was an Old Member who had recently served in Government (as John Llewellin, he was also part of our 1914 First Eight which went Head of the River). Univ.’s most prominent Old Member of the day, the Prime Minister Clement Attlee (matr. 1901), was unfortunately unable to attend, and Llewellin stepped in as a last-minute replacement.

The event was again widely reported in the press, even with some photographs. One cutting preserved by Gwynne, from the Oxford Mail, included this unexpected anecdote from Lord Llewellin: “He and Mr. Attlee, with other people, shared an air-raid shelter in London during the war. While all the others complained of his snoring, he explained, the leader of the Labour Party never did.”

Although the Prime Minister was unable to attend the anniversary lunch, he had, however been able to attend the anniversary Ball held a few days earlier on 20 June. This was clearly the event in which Gywnne took most interest, because she preserved several pieces of ephemera and photographs relating to it. Here is the invitation to the event:

She also kept a copy of the programme. Here is the cover:

Ball Programme cover

The introduction to the Ball, seen on the left hand side of this opening, showed that old beliefs about the College’s foundation died hard:

Ball note

Nowadays we have learned to accept that the “ancient warrant” for this older foundation date is now a mere myth. The programme also gave details of the music to be performed. Unlike today’s balls, when there would be several activities taking place at once, in 1949 there was just one dance band, Geoffrey Howard and his Orchestra, and here is what they offered the dancers:

Dance programme

The dances provided might seem quite formal to today’s audiences, but this photograph of a reel in the marquee set up in the Main Quad shows the dancers clearly having a good time:

Reel in Main Quad

The weather was kind on that June night, and a second dance floor was set up in the Fellows’ Garden (although we don’t know who provided the music there). Here are some dancers enjoying the warm night air:

Fellows Garden

The anonymous photographer engaged for the evening made sure to photograph Clement Attlee and his wife, seen here with a rather grumpy-looking Giles Alington (F. 1944-56):


We might ponder the fact that, in 1949, no one thought it incongruous for perhaps Britain’s most left-wing Prime Minister to be happy to be photographed wearing white tie and tails at a ball held at his old Oxford College. On the other hand, careful examination of the photographs in this scrapbook have failed to reveal any glimpses of the Attlees dancing the night away together. At the centre of the event a grand cake was revealed, topped by a model of our High Street façade:


The cake was duly cut by Clement Attlee and Master Wild. Here is John Wild about to stick the knife in:

Cake and Wild

At the end of the night, of course, a traditional survivors’ photograph was taken:


Giles Alington can be seen in the front row. The Attlees are not there; probably they had (wisely) decided to turn in rather earlier. Gwynne’s scrapbook ends with an account of the events written by John Wild. For the Ball, he remembered that supper was served in the Hall and the Library, and that about 600 attended. The account sometimes sheds revealing light on the customs of the period. For the lunch on 1 July, he noted that:

“Mrs. Wild entertained to luncheon in the Lodgings the wives of some of the guests, together with the wives of some of the Fellows and some of the Heads of Houses.” Indeed, the seating plan for that lunch shows that no women were present in the Hall, not even any of the heads of the Women’s Colleges:

Seating Plan

Even as late as 1949, it seems, it was thought slightly improper for men and women to eat together at such formal occasions. The views of the wives on this segregation are unrecorded. Gwynne left no record in her scrapbook of what happened in October 1949, but the University College Record for that year records that an Old Members Meeting was held then, attended by 96 Old members, who had come up between 1884 and 1925. No material about that event, however, is preserved in the archives. There will now be few people left who will remember the 700th anniversary celebrations of 75 years ago, but at least, thanks to Gwynne Ovenstone, we can recover some memories and images of those events, and compare them with how we have commemorated the College on later occasions.


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