Student Experience in the 60s (the 1860s)

Occasionally, the longevity of our universities can fool people into thinking they have been doing the same thing for hundreds of years.   My focus is on the history of curriculum structures, and as I have been going along I have picked up stories of how students’ studies have differed in the past.    Some of these help us to understand just how much our universities have changed.


Henry Chaplin, aged 18

As an example, here’s a section from a memoir of Henry Chaplin written by his daughter Edith.   Chaplin was a landowner and MP who became a cabinet minster under Lord Salisbury, but who had a relaxed attitude to what he wanted to get out of his time at Oxford.  He’s been summoned to see the Dean via a blue slip of paper…

‘My dear Mr Chaplin” he [Dean Liddell] began austerely, “as far as I can gather you seem to regard Christ Church as a hunting box. You are hardly ever in college, and I must request you, unless you change your habits, to vacate your rooms and make may for some one who will benefits from his studies at the University”. The reply was remarkable even to one so familiar with the vagaries of youth as Dean Liddell. “But, Mr Dean, what you do expect me to do?” “Do,” replied the Dean, “you must go in for an examination”. “My dear Mr Dean” – and the undergraduate’s answer this time in spite if its suavity, was not unmixed with mild reproof – “if only you had told me before, I should have taken the necessary steps; but when is there one?” “In three weeks,” was the curt reply.

The ingenuousness of Harry Chaplin’s attitude may be partially explained by the fact that he was what was known in those days as a gentleman commoner, living out of college. In the ‘sixties it was not the custom at Christ Church, as it is today, to allot every freshman immediately he comes up to a tutor, who will arrange his scheme of work for him for the first year, and instruct him as to what examinations he is expected to take. Harry Chaplin, entirely occupied with matters which seemed to him of greater moment, was genuinely ignorant and had taken no pains to inform himself of what was academically expected of him. But throughout his life it was his habit to do with all his might whatever his hand found to do, provided it were a sufficiently reasonable or pleasurable occupation. So, on this occasion, being impressed by the Dean’s arguments, he lost no time in securing the services of a coach whom he described as “an old bottle-nosed man”, but with whom, his abilities diverted into this fresh channel being no less effective than his energy, he worked so well that he passed Mods. with distinction.

In was not long before another blue slip reached him at the breakfast table. This time the Dean addressed him with an entirely cordial, if dignified approbation. “Mr Chaplin, I must congratulate you on your excellent performance. But now I must earnestly entreat you to go in for the Honours Schools. You have shown us your abilities, and you will become a credit, not only to this house, but to the University if, and I confidently expect, you are successful.”

But the Dean was once more to meet with the unexpected from this apparently amenable undergraduate. The taking of a degree had been no part of Harry Chaplin’s programme at the University. … “Mr Dean” he replied politely, “if only you had told me before, I would have done so, but after my last interview with you, in which you intimated that I should have to vacate my rooms, I am very sorry to inform you that I have arranged to go for a trip to the Rocky Mountains.

Henry Chaplin might have confounded any Victorian attempt to link degree outcomes to earnings, he was a wealthy and successful man – but any advantage came not from his three weeks of private coaching for his moderations exam, but from the contacts cemented there.  Universities must be wary of over-claiming the causes of their graduates’ success – no doubt all the current Oxonians in the cabinet worked much harder than Henry Chaplin to both get into Oxford and then at their studies, but clearly not all of their success comes down to their courses.

Reference: Stewart E, 1926, Henry Chaplin A Memoir, London, Macmillan pp22-23


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