Town v. Gown? Attempting to lock down early eighteenth-century Oxford

Today we’re heading back to Oxfordshire and this month’s local history focus. In our latest blog, Dr Robin Eagles, editor of the Lords 1715-1790 project, looks into the political leanings of the inhabitants of 18th century Oxford...

At the time of George I’s accession, Oxford had a clear reputation as a hive of Toryism. The city’s perceived loyalty to the Stuarts had been one of the reasons for Charles II opting to hold two parliaments there. The corporation was Tory, the university was perceived to be a thorough bulwark of Toryism and both MPs returned in January 1715 were Tory. One, Sir John Walter, a former member of Queen’s College, had held the seat since 1706 and retained it until his death; the other, Thomas Rowney, who had attended St John’s College, had represented Oxford since 1695. Both voted against the administration at every turn.

Thomas Malton, High Street, Oxford, 1798/99
Yale Center for British Art

In appearance, Georgian Oxford was undergoing considerable alterations, carrying on the high-profile building projects started in the second half of the previous century and continued under Queen Anne. A brand new college, Worcester, had been founded in 1714 on the site of the defunct Gloucester Hall, while mediaeval Queen’s College was being reborn in fashionable classical guise. In May 1715 the resident Jacobite Tory antiquarian Thomas Hearne noted the completion of the new hall at Queen’s, and how it had been used for the first time, at which

old Smooth-Boots exerted himself according to his usual pride.

An attempt to do the same to Magdalen in the 1720s and 30s stalled and a scheme to tear down the 15th-century cloisters (now Grade 1 listed) was prevented. All that was completed of the grand vision for a shiny new classical college was the New Buildings range.

If some colleges were busy rebuilding and reimaging themselves, in other respects the city was faced with occasional moments of violent altercation.

Within months of George I coming to the throne Oxford had become a problem for the new regime. There were riots in the city in the summer of 1715. George I’s birthday was marked by some, though the extremely partial Hearne was disparaging about the attempt:

some of the bells were jambled in Oxford, by the care of some of the Whiggish fanatical crew

He believed few else paid any attention, except to ridicule the celebration. So concerned were the authorities at the time of the Jacobite rising that year that in October a regiment of dragoons (described by Hearne as ‘a parcel of pitiful, tired raw fellows’) marched into the city under the command of Colonel Pepper in search of 13 wanted individuals. According to one newsletter they were successful in rounding up a dozen of them, but the 13th, a recently cashiered guards officer called Colonel Owen, who had been lodging at the Greyhound Inn, managed to evade capture by fleeing over Magdalen’s wall. There was an unfortunate incident before the troops sloped off when one of them, indulging in a pint outside Christ Church, shot two children when his gun went off by accident.

Oxford’s reputation as pro-Stuart meant there were often troops on the ground to help keep order. Even so, problems continued into the following year when there was further rioting around the time of the king’s birthday in May 1716, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the presence of Colonel Handasyde’s regiment, which made a show of strength marching around the town. One of those to suffer was Thomas Rowney, who had a house on St Giles next door to his old college, whose windows were broken by the troops.

The following year, in April 1717, yet another riot coinciding with another royal birthday celebration became a subject of enquiry in Parliament. In the Lords, there was lively disagreement about exactly who should be censured for the latest disturbances. Some were for censuring the soldiers quartered there, under the command of Major Franks, while others believed the respective heads of the colleges were the ones who should be upbraided. Lord Coningsby made it clear that he did not believe the soldiers were to blame but the ‘citizens and scholars’.

Scholars at a Lecture, William Hogarth 1736/7

The situation was complicated because the university was able to argue that royal celebrations in favour of the Prince and Princess of Wales implied loyalty, while others suspected that it was really a demonstration of precisely the opposite, citing previous examples when William III was on the throne and the university had been noisy in support of the heir presumptive, Princess Anne. The Lords ultimately came to the resolution that the heads of houses and the mayor had neglected their duty by not arranging public rejoicing, and that when some fellows and students, along with the officers, gathered for their own celebrations they were set on by the rabble, breaking windows and sparking the ensuing rioting.

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford. Built 1737-49.

Oxford continued to be a problem for future administrations, eager to check the university’s apparent disloyalty. There were even serious proposals to bring the institution under royal control. In spite of all that the administration could do, though, the office of Chancellor of the University remained firmly identified with the Tories; some of the holders were firmly Jacobite. One of the most prominent of these, the 4th duke of Beaufort, who succeeded his brother in the title in 1745 shortly before the outbreak of the latest Jacobite rebellion, lavished gifts on the university. In April 1749 he took a prominent role as one of the trustees for the new Radcliffe Camera, when it was opened formally amid general celebration.

Oxford retained its Tory reputation well into the century. In spite of this, it is striking that of those peers who received a university education, many continued to prefer Oxford over Cambridge. Of these, the vast majority flocked to the largest of the colleges, Christ Church, with other popular options being Magdalen, Trinity, University and New College. [Cannon, Aristocratic Century, 48-50]

Popular perceptions of Oxford may have been of town versus gown, but quite as often the fault-lines were blurred. There were famous rivalries between some colleges, notably Balliol and Trinity, and it was noticeable that whereas both the 3rd and 4th dukes of Beaufort were students at University College, they opted to shower prizes on Oriel College, instead, which was presumably more to their political inclinations. As had been apparent at the time of the 1716 investigations, both the heads of houses and the mayor were jointly upbraided, while some members of colleges, fellows and students alike, along with soldiers and, presumably townspeople, made a point of demonstrating their good Whig credentials in the face of hostility from their Tory counterparts. Early Georgian Oxford was not, thus, always a case of Town v. Gown, but not infrequently a lively expression of partisan politics that cut across the social (and educational) divide.


Further Reading:

John Cannon, Aristocratic Century (Cambridge, 1984)

Remarks and Collections of Thomas Hearne, eds. Doble, Rannie and Salter (Oxford Historical Society, 1885-1921)

Click here for more local history blogs. Keep up to date with the research of our Lords 1715-1790 project through the Georgian Lords section of our blog and by following @GeorgianLords on twitter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s