The Spike or Victoria College Review, June 1908
Undergraduate Life. — A Day At Oxford
A Day At Oxford.
A knock on the door and a voice "Half past seven, sir." It is the scout in his morning round, and the undergraduate knows that another day has arrived. The scout enters, switches on the electric light, if it is winter, or pulls up the blind if there is daylight outside. He then fills the bath—a huge tin saucer—from a stoneware pitcher holding about two or three gallons of water. After enquiring what the drowsy undergraduate will take for breakfast he departs to go through the same process with the next man on his staircase.
There is no man more indispensable to Oxford life than the "scout." He has it in his power to make material comfort or discomfort for the undergraduates to whom he is appointed. He is sometimes an ex—butler or a gentleman's gentleman, sometimes he has been officer's orderly, but more often he has learned his business as an apprentice or scout's boy, Under his care are the rooms of about a dozen undergraduates and it is his duty to see that everything goes as smoothly as possible in all things material. As a rule he does his work well, but some scouts are a perfect pest. They have a fine taste in spirituous liquors and sample everything that comes under their notice. Hence the necessity of lock and key for such commodities. A good scout is a treasure and experienced undergraduates make enquiries as to habits before taking rooms.
At ten to eight the chapel bell begins to toll and the student wakes from a doze to a realization that he must attend, if the term is to count. To keep terms in most Colleges means thirty attendances at chapel during the eight weeks. Unless these are recorded the term does not count at all and an important examination may have to be deferred for another year. So with praiseworthy expedition the undergraduate jumps from bed to bath, and thence into his clothes, races down the stairs and across the quadrangle to the chapel where he arrives just on the last stroke of eight. The doors are then shut and nobody else can get in at that service.
After chapel comes breakfast, usually a heavy meal, one of the functions of the day. Sometimes there are as many as four courses, especially if guests are present. It is at breakfasts page 26 of this kind that the freshman usually makes his first acquaintances among his fellows. It is the custom for men of the second year to invite the newcomers to breakfast in the first term. It is only the hard exercise of rowing or football that enables a man to survive a course of such breakfasts without serious internal derangement.
After "brekker" (as the slang has it) there is usually an interval of an hour or so before gardens are the favorite places for passing the time, but when the weather is bad the junior common room is the rendezvous of the disengaged student. To lectures, as to all official functions, he goes in cap and gown. Scholars wear a long flowing gown, commoners a sort of jacket with streamers from the shoulders. The more tattered the gown and battered the cap, the greater the glory thereof.
Lectures as a rule begin at ten o'clock and continue till one. Sometimes they are in College sometimes they are out. Quill pens and paper are provided and there is a terrible scratching if the lecture is regarded as worth a note. In the first year invariably, and often throughout the whole of the four years of a University career, lectures are a very secondary consideration. A certain number of attendances is required by statute as a qualification for University examinations. At many lectures lady students from Lady Margaret's Hall and Somerville College are present, but they are always in the minority.
Lunch is usually a light meal at Oxford. Many men confine themselves to commons of bread and cheese and a mug of ale, for which some of the College are justly famous. The afternoon is perfectly free for the undergraduate to spend as he likes. In most cases it is devoted to sport. The river is easily first in popular estimation, A rowing man ranks above a footballer or a cricketer. Its position in the river usually settles the status of a College whatever its record in football or cricket may be. Hence College endeavour to attract men from rowing schools such as Eton and Radley. Rugby football is of more account than Association. None of the College have playing fields in close proximity, so early after noon crowds of undergraduates in the garb of their respective games or sports pass up and down the streets to the playing fields or the river. After the games are over there is usually an hour or two left for study before dinner. This is usually the time when the undergraduate pays his official visit to his tutor.
The hour for dinner is seven o'clock and the place the College Hall, usually an ancient building with solid oaken tables page 27 and benches, with a raised dais at the upper end where the fellows and the President dine. A Latin grace is read by one of the scholars of the College, who take this duty in rotation. All the undergraduates wear their gowns. The scholars sit at separate tables close to the walls, which are covered with pictures of benefactors and other famous men of the College history. Scouts wait at the tables and undergraduates are usually served in something like an order of seniority.
Each College has its peculiar table customs, but there is one that seems to be common to all. It is that of "sconcing." If an undergraduate make a pun, quotes from the Bible, or in any way infringes a certain strict unwritten law, he is "sconce" by the head of the table—that is to say he is bound to "shout," in Colonial parlance, the table a tankard of ale. This is brought by the scout in a huge old silver loving—cup with a lid. Some of these pieces of plate are more than two hundred years old. The cup, which holds two quarts, is passed round the table, each diner drinking. The person "sconce," however, has the first taste, and if he can, without taking a breath, quaff the whole two quarts of ale, he is entitled to "sconce" the rest of the table in a similar quantity. "Sconces" are rarely performed.
After dinner, adjournment is made to the junior common room, where there is a fine collection of the best periodical literature. Debates are held at regular intervals in the michaelmas and Hilary terms, and many statesmen, now famous, made here their first public speeches. The Union is, of course, the great University institutions, known as the nursery of orators. It was here that Gladstone gave earnest of his future pre—eminence.
But the best of Oxford life if to be found in the social intercourse seen at its perfection in the gatherings round the fireside in the cosy old rooms of an evening. Here over coffee and tobacco are made the friendships of a lifetime, and created memories that never die. The curriculum may be, and really is, antiquated and useless for all practical purposes. A man when he "goes down" for the last time is four years older than when he first "came up" as a "fresher;" in scientific equipment he often is not a whit the better for it, whether he be a Bachelor or a Master of Arts. But he has gained something. It may not be changeable in the market-place of the world for current coin; it may not even be apperent at on the surface, but it is there all the same at heart. It is enshrined in golden memories of the happiest days of a lifetime.