'A shadow of its real self': Brasenose during the World Wars

On 5th August 1914, the day after war was declared, the hospital services ‘demanded all our available beds and bedding in fulfilment of a promise dreamily made by the College many years ago'. A fortnight later 14 bedsteads were despatched, together with 265 assorted pieces of bedding, although ‘the spirit in which we responded was not affected by a subsequent divergence of taste between the War Office and the College as to suitable types of bedstead'.

That dreamy promise is typical of the rather haphazard way in which World War I was conducted in Oxford. Such undergraduates as there were remained in Brasenose, side by side with the military personnel. Although there was no long term military billeting until 1916, the College was made available to several military authorities, the Bursar negotiating separate agreements with each.

The County of Oxford Territorial Force Association was the first to take advantage of the facilities; on 14th September two officers, a sergeant, and forty men of the 4th Reserve Battalion of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry arrived. The College provided food and bedding for their nineteen days, and the Junior Common Room was ‘furnished with newspapers and placed at the disposal of the men for reading and writing'. Subsequently a letter with forty signatures testified to the ‘appreciation of the great kindness and forethought shown to us by the College Staff during our brief stay at Brasenose'. The men were sure that ‘the memory of "our military education" at Brasenose College will always be a very pleasant one'. A similar arrangement was agreed for 100 OTCs from Manchester University in March 1915, at a charge of 2/- a day.

The 135th Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery used IX.1 and X.1-2 as their headquarters towards the end of 1915, parading in New Quad twice a day. Lecture Room VII was used as a reading and writing room for soldiers, and a tea room for wounded soldiers was provided. The baths were used by officer cadets quartered at Wadham; Brasenose charged them for 50 days at 7/6 a day, but had to complain about their habit of leaving soiled bandages on the floor.

On 23rd August 1916 the Bursar wrote to Harrods to order 192 forks and 132 spoons ‘required for service officers housed in the College'. Cadets of the Royal Flying Corps (later the Royal Air Force) were in residence, and batches of them were to be in the College until December 1918.

The College made its own agreements with the occupying forces. Accounts were rendered for share of water rates, curtains for darkening windows, Valuer's fees, taking up and putting away carpets, locking up bedrooms, window cleaning, repairs, wear and tear of utensils, electricity and gas. They were sent to the School of Military Aeronautics, to the Land Agent for the War Department and sometimes to individuals. For example, at first it was agreed that while damage to fenders and fire-irons was to be the responsibility of the Mess, coal and kindling for officers' rooms would be charged against the individual in question. However, this sort of charging demanded individual mess accounts and created a great deal of work for the College accountant until January 1917, when the individual accounts ceased and the accounts became a record of weekly charges to the senior officers.

At first the College was generous towards the visitors, but as time went by new contracts were negotiated more severely. In 1917 the military authorities suggested that electric light bulbs in shared areas should be free of charge to them, but the Bursar pointed out that ‘the military have the lion's share of use and should have it in responsibility'. He was also concerned when it was proposed that furniture should not be charged for, regarding this as ‘unjust and unreasonable in the last degree ... this new arrangement can only accentuate the previous loss, and the College cannot consent to make further payments out of their own funds for the housing of Cadets, which is what the War Office demands.' After the end of the war he was writing to the military authorities: ‘I shall be glad to know what is your authority for laying down the law that no claims are admissible except for wilful damage or negligence. The College claim, on the contrary, that they are entitled to be compensated for any loss suffered or expense incurred by reason of the military occupation ... if you are not prepared to entertain [the claim] it will have to go before the War Losses Commission.'

In World War II matters were much more centralized. The College's notice of requisitioning was dated just 10 days after the declaration of war, formal agreements were made with the Ministry and arrangements put in hand immediately for the accommodation of Brasenose students in Christ Church. Preparations for war had been in train for months. As early as March 1939 the College had welcomed the suggestion ‘that it should, if asked, house part of the Royal Courts of Justice in the event of a war'. This did not happen, but the proposal certainly got as far as a detailed list of room allocations for the College, down to the last clerk. The Hall, Lecture Rooms VII and XI, and the JCR were among the areas proposed to serve as Courts. During the first half of 1940 there was a great deal of calculation and negotiation about how the Colleges should be compensated for their losses. The Bursar of Brasenose was on the committee trying to decide about rents, floor space values, income lost and valuations of furniture. Formal agreements were entered into with the Ministry, and payment was either by charges to the War Office for services or by compensation under the Compensation (Defence) Act.

A Liaison Officers School occupied Brasenose between October 1940 and December 1941. This was followed by a Junior Staff School, until November 1942, and then a Senior Officers' School, until April 1944, the latter obtaining permission to erect a hut on the Deer Park. In June 1944 the Royal Army Medical Corps took over several staircases, and after this the exact occupants are difficult to ascertain from the records; a letter refers to ‘the varying units or bodies who occupy the College'. In August 1944 there were nursing staff attached the Examination Schools' Hospital, and a Matron was in residence in September 1944. In June 1945 there were thirty to forty nurses in residence or expected.

Throughout all these changes there remained a tiny Brasenose presence within the walls: the Bursar, two Professorial Fellows, retired Life Fellow W.N. Stocker, one or two other Fellows from time to time, and some domestic and administrative staff. A few undergraduates were in lodgings, and the rest housed at Christ Church. Structured recruiting through conscription, and the presence of service cadets matriculated for their short courses, meant that there were many more students than in World War I. During most of the earlier conflict there were fewer than twenty undergraduates up each term, but at least they were housed in the College. They included American Rhodes Scholars, until the United States entered the war, at which point The Brazen Nose described College life as ‘a very faint shadow of its real self'. There were also undergraduates from India, gratefully acknowledged when the war was over: ‘among those who have completed their Oxford course during these trying years we gratefully recognize two Indian friends ... To their friendly loyalty and their efforts to keep alive the social life of the College we are very greatly indebted'.

Refugees from Belgium and Serbia became temporary residents during World War I. In October 1914 the College ‘agreed that it was willing to provide hospitality to Belgian students during term'. One student arrived that term, and there were three resident during each of the following two terms. By Michaelmas Term 1915 there was just one Belgian, a man named Lockern, who was to live in Brasenose until the spring of 1918. Serbian refugees arrived in 1916, when the Principal reported their use of mattresses. Presumably something more permanent was provided for the Serbian student who ‘under the guidance of the Professor of Forestry in Oxford and the Forest of Dean is making good use of his days of exile'. His name was Michaelo Deretitch, and he remained until Christmas 1918. In May of that year there had also been Rumanians in the College, but these appear to have been with the military forces. The Bursar complained that ‘although I had no notice that the Rumanians were to be housed here, I learn that the Rumanian interpreter ... left instructions that the Rumanians would draw officers' rations and would be treated in all respects as officers'.

For the first academic year of World War I the Chapel provided the usual weekday morning service and two on Sundays. The following year the daily services ceased, but the obligation to attend remained and undergraduates worshipped at St. Mary's or Oriel College. But the Brasenose Sunday evening services continued throughout the war ‘as nearly as possible on their old traditions'. At one service in the summer of 1917 ‘the Principal read the King's Proclamation as to Economy in Food, and acted as Choragus to six Fellows and six undergraduates singing ‘with heart and voice' the first verse of God save the King'.

With no undergraduates within the walls during World War II there was no such community need. In October 1939 Chapel services were discontinued ‘until further notice'. The Cathedral was to be regarded as the College chapel, and the undergraduates were to keep Christ Church attendance regulations. Later in the war the military were permitted to use the Chapel on the third Sunday in each month, provided that they heated it themselves.

The Fellows continued to seek the consolations of the Senior Common Room and the Common Table, and in both wars these were shared with the dons of Lincoln College. At the end of World War I Lincoln presented a copy of one of their Charles II porringers as a memento, and the editor of The Brazen Nose was enthusiastic in his compliments: ‘We doubt whether any one would deny that during the last two years of the War the pleasantest and the most sociable (not to say the most enlightened) place in Oxford was the Brasenose Common Room ... The invasion from our Western neighbours brought with it every temptation to a life of unreflecting pleasure, and sometimes we almost succeeded in forgetting for a few moments the shadow ... We played bridge more often and more socially than ever before, and for two years the famous Lincoln betting-book records the errors of judgement and the inspirations of the Fellows of Brasenose as well as of those of Lincoln. Common Room was always gay and interesting and was never deserted until a late hour. We shared to some extent our pupils, freely our counsels and our cellars ... The two Colleges learnt much from each other; we taught them to dine in Common Room and dress for dinner, and learnt from them how to bet and keep late hours.'

War brought unique problems. In 1914 the College ‘decided not to insure the College property against bombs', but reversed this in 1915, the year in which the first air raids were carried out in England. There was no such hesitation in 1939. Cellars were being strengthened and equipped for emergency use two months before war was declared, and Principal Stallybrass photographed boarding of windows and sandbagging three weeks into hostilities. The comprehensive requisitioning of the premises in 1939 meant that the College had to find external storage for its furniture and other materials. One way of solving this problem was to supply other Colleges, and furniture and bedding went to Wadham, Exeter, Lady Margaret Hall, Somerville and Keble. In September 1939 a great deal of equipment was sent to Christ Church to supply the Brasenose men there, including 1,450 pieces of cutlery and 95 chamber pots.

Throughout World War I the College retained control of the Kitchen, but there were difficulties in obtaining foodstuffs, and the Bursar seems to have had to switch between civilian and military suppliers. Before national rationing was introduced references to ‘rations' appear in correspondence with the military; presumably this indicates goods from military sources. However, the Bursar was not happy with the provisions or the administrative systems supplying them. In January 1917 he complained that ‘the quality of the ration meat supplied continues to be very inferior. It is seldom or never fit for roasting and has to be made up in puddings &c, so that the by-products are a minimum'. Ten months later he states emphatically that ‘my College has not the slightest desire to draw rations for the Cadets ... I have a very lively recollection of the difficulty of estimating, of obtaining, and of checking the rations, of the conflict of accounts, and of the bad quality of the rations received.' Throughout 1917 the College was seeing the effects of the Government's attempts to control the supply of food. In 1917 The Brazen Nose reported that ‘last Term bread appeared only in the morning and at dinner; this Term bread has nearly disappeared at breakfast (as some one remarked, four ounces is not much), and has entirely disappeared at dinner. Last Term there were three meatless days a week in Hall.'

With the introduction of rationing throughout the country the College's butcher was ‘compelled to reduce his supply by 50% and no special consideration is given to the fact that the College are catering for Cadets in training'. The Bursar had to ask the Army Service Corps to make good the deficiency and soon the College transferred from civilian to army sources, first for the grocery ration and then for meat. The bread supplied to the cadets was limited to nine ounces daily per head.

When the Liaison Officers School arrived in 1940 the College's attempt to feed them lasted only six weeks. After this the Bursar suggested that the military should run the catering and service themselves, pointing out that ‘with the help of the A.T.S. and of soldier servants' a better service could be provided more cheaply. The College was running the service at a loss; the officers were entitled to army rations, but the charge had been based on civilian rations and does not appear to have taken soldiers' appetites into account: ‘the Officers being young, active and much in the open air require a scale of feeding which can only be provided at a dead loss to the College'. The Ministry agreed to relieve the College of responsibility for the visitors, and appropriate adjustments were made to the requisition agreements, the College keeping the accommodation required for housing the resident Fellows and for teaching undergraduates. The Ministry even agreed to fund the Fellows' baths because they were on the same hot water circuit as the requisitioned bathrooms.

Most of the College Servants had either been called up or had moved to Christ Church to help to look after the Brasenose men there. Consequently ‘the Bursar had to collect a number of elderly retired College servants. The Officers, from the necessities of their work, keep very irregular hours. Dinner is often very late and may be followed by a very early breakfast. It is obviously a very great hardship for elderly men to get to and fro in the black-out ... The result is that servants are already beginning to go sick and the officers are getting inadequate attention.'

Although conscription was not introduced until a much later stage in the previous war, the call to national service inevitably reduced the staff. In October 1915 a report of the Committee on College service concluded that ‘in consequence of the reduction in the numbers of the College the maintenance of the existing staff of servants is no longer justified at a time when the interests of the country demand both the strictest economy and the fullest possible employment of every citizen'. Recommendations included the reduction of the Lodge staff to three, the Head Porter, Under Porter and Messenger, and a proposal to redistribute duties so that when the cycle room servant left (he had enlisted) he would not need to be replaced. In due course the occupying military took over some of the duties of the College Servants. In the autumn of 1916 the Bursar was able to part with the two men ‘specially engaged' to clean the boots and batmen took over some of the waiting at table. Military orderlies undertook the cleaning of bathrooms in 1917. However, it seems that the College Servants were still overworked, especially in the Kitchen. In July 1917 the Bursar asked the military for a break in the occupation of the College: ‘the kitchen staff and other servants have now been cooking seven days a week since last August, and it is absolutely necessary that they should have a holiday.' When the Assistant Commandant of the School of Aeronautics asked for a list of essential Servants in July 1918, with a view to helping the College to obtain their exemption from military service, a certain amount of resentment breaks through in the Bursar's reply. Two of the names are accompanied by the statement that ‘the Fellows of the College have been turned out of the Hall and not only the Hall but the Hall servants have been taken by the Military. Brasenose has to provide also for the Fellows of Lincoln. These two men are absolutely necessary for the Common Room service substituted for Hall'.

There were many possible reasons for the resentment, as the military had not been trouble-free tenants and the Bursar had no authority over the officers and cadets. The first problem occurred within a month of their arrival, when ‘nine or ten officers demanded breakfast in their rooms ... Such a proceeding is to say the very least very unfair to the College, who are doing their best for the officers quartered within their walls.' The ordering of meals at the wrong time or in the wrong place was a recurring difficulty, along with the habit bringing guests in to dine without declaring them. Other problems included the installation of an electric radiator too powerful for the supply, batmen using the rainwater drains for emptying slops, officers taking carpets and furniture out of their locked storage, inadequate cleaning and insufficient ventilation of rooms, the latter blamed by the Bursar for sickness among the officers and servants in December 1916.

As the war proceeded the need to conserve natural resources was urged by the Government. In 1917 the City water authorities were trying to deal with controls on coal and urged economy to save on pumping costs. The Bursar pointed out that the cadets were ‘lavish' in their use of the showers and added: ‘I am told that in using the ordinary washing basin a Cadet will sometimes refill it two or three times, and such a use is clearly unnecessary and extravagant.' He wrote further letters about this, but matters did not improve. On the very day that the Armistice was signed he requested that the baths should be closed entirely on Sundays and on three afternoons in the week, saying: ‘I venture to think that the cadets should bear their fair share in the enforced shortage, and that the members of the College should not be the only sufferers.'

There were financial difficulties as well. On several occasions the military failed to pay bills until the College had presented them several times. At the end of the war the College was kept waiting so long for dilapidations to be assessed that the Bursar, afraid of having no rooms available for returning students, threatened to bring in his own valuer. Inevitably he was disappointed by the final sum paid: ‘it was very far below our claim, but as the military refused to recognise its justice, and it was urgently necessary for the College to obtain immediate possession of the rooms, we were compelled to accept the terms offered while disagreeing both with the amount and with the principle of the award.' At least he could console himself with the letter of appreciation in which the Air Council expressed appreciation of ‘the help which was rendered by the College Authorities in all matters pertaining to carrying out the many duties which the lodging and feeding of the cadets involved'.

The more formal arrangements of World War II prevented quite so many problems, but there were still breakages and unauthorized removal of furniture, the illicit keeping of dogs, and soldiers walking on the grass of the Quads. When the Liaison Officers School had left, the Bursar wrote rather sadly to the Adjutant: ‘I enclose an account for the cutlery, crockery etc. which have not been returned, and have presumably been lost or broken. It presents a very sorry picture, and not what I expected when the College loaned the chattels.' On one occasion, however, he blamed the military for the disappearance of a table which he later discovered to have been removed by then Professorial Fellow Hugh Last. The Bursar told him that ‘I have eaten humble pie with the Adjutant, as I have been somewhat dictatorial in laying all our losses on the Military.' When the medical personnel arrived his objections were more outspoken. In December 1944 he complained to the Ministry of Works that ‘up to recently the College Authorities have received helpful co-operation from the various Military Units housed in the College ... I regret to say that in the case of the Units who have recently occupied the College buildings, no attempt at such co-operation has been forthcoming.'

There is no record that the medics were wined and dined by the College but, notwithstanding the occasional problem, relations with the earlier occupiers were generally amicable. The Junior and Senior Staff Schools both presented silver to Brasenose, and dinners were held to mark the presentations. In 1943 the College might have wished to entertain the Commandant and Adjutant of the Junior Staff School with something more lavish than a wartime menu of clear soup, chicken casserole and a savoury, but the tankard was filled with claret cup, and the company enjoyed sherry, champagne and 1912 port.

At least the cellars had not been requisitioned.


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