Message in an Old Pewter Tankard – Touching the Past

In a box of items that I bought at an auction in Oxfordshire was an old neglected pewter tankard. It was inscribed “Queen’s College Boat Club Front Quad: V Back 1861.” It then had the names of the winning crew and their positions: H.J. Gallon Bow; R.Wood 2; G.Godfrey 3; T.Harrison 4;  A.L.Foulkes 5; R.Oliver 6; J.R.Magrath 7; H.W.Barber Stroke;  E.S. Grindle Cox.

Now I hate to get rid of most things, let alone those that have sentimental value or tell a story, and was intrigued by this little grey piece of history. A little research soon brought this neglected item to life & enabled me to touch some of the lives that were marked on it. Intriguingly, I soon found connections with the Channel Islands.

Augustine Lempriere Foulkes (1844-1922) is recorded as a Bible Clerk at Queen’s College (i.e. he received a small stipend for reading the Bible in Chapel) and became the vicar of Steventon. As the name Lempriere implies, he had Jersey origins.

John Richard Magrath was born on 29 January 1839 at St Peter Port, Guernsey, & was the son of a naval surgeon. We know a lot about him & his story is captured in a wonderful article by Michael Riordan FSA, Archivist, St. John’s and The Queen’s Colleges, Oxford:

A year ago, in the College Newsletter, we published four photographs of Provost Magrath taken between 1912 and 1925. These seem to have caught the imagination of many Old Members, so some might be interested to know more of Magrath, a man of mythical status at Queen’s. He has earned this reputation not only through his large-bearded, imposing portrait in Hall and his scholarly, though rather turgid two volume history of the College, but because he served as Provost for fifty-two years. This length of service was twenty-one years longer than his nearest rival (Septimus Collinson, Provost 1796-1827) and only Martin Routh (who began his Oxford career as an undergraduate at Queen’s and ended it as President of Magdalan, 1791-1854) served longer as a head of house.

            John Richard Magrath was born 29 January 1839 at St Peter Port, Guernsey, the son of a naval surgeon. He was educated at Elizabeth College, Guernsey, before winning a classical scholarship to Oriel. He took a first in Lit Hum and a fourth in Mathematics in 1860, winning the Stanhope essay prize and a fellowship at Queen’s in the same year, being one of the first to be elected under the open competition introduced under the 1858 ordinances. Only then did he become President of the Oxford Union. He had begun reading theology as soon as he entered Queen’s and was ordained deacon in 1863 and priest the following year. In 1864 he became tutor (teaching Greats) and Dean. Over the course of the next decade he also took his turn as chaplain and bursar. To all intents and purposes, the Provost, William Jackson, left the administration of the college to Magrath. It was therefore no surprise that in 1877, while he was serving as Senior Proctor, that Magrath officially became Pro-Provost, and a year later he succeeded Jackson as Provost. Ten years later he married his daughter, Georgina.

            While Provost, Magrath served the University on virtually all its major boards: University Chest, Common University Fund, University Press (where he oversaw the establishment of the New York office), Hebdomadal Council, Sheldonian Theatre, University Museum. As well as being Vice-Chancellor, he was also the first don to sit on the city council.

But what was he like? By all accounts he was a good Greats tutor, though one who feared (quite rightly) that Classics was losing its pre-eminence in the University. In this he was conservative (though he was radical in supporting the right of women to take degrees), objecting to the abolition of an understanding of Greek as a stipulation for admission to the University. He was not a great author. Aside from his history of the college (which as his obituary in the Record noted was his magnus opus) he compiled just three volumes for the Oxford Historical Society of The Flemings in Oxford, an edition of the letters of Daniel Fleming and his family while at Queen’s which shed much light on the college and the university in the late seventeenth century. Magrath was not of a generation that published much and as his Record obituary stated he was of an age that considered the life of a head of house to be one of ‘dignity, leisure, and antiquarian research’.

As Dean, tradition has it that he was something of a disciplinarian. This was perhaps no bad thing given that this was the period of attacks by ‘hearties’ on ‘aesthetes’. On one occasion in 1877 an attempt was made to disrupt the first meeting of a new philosophical society being in the college. The room where it was to be held was noted and the chimney above it marked. During the meeting a number of large bath cans of water were transferred to the roof and the water poured through the chimney. Alas, a mistake had been made and the water was poured into Magrath’s own rooms. As EM Walker, Magrath’s successor as Provost, who was an undergraduate at the time, noted ‘The result may be guessed’. Yet Magrath was not a distant figure, at least in his years as Dean and the early years of his Provostship. He rowed in the College eight, before coaching it, and he served as a sergeant in the University Rifle Corps.

            In 1877, while Magrath was Pro-Provost, the Commissioners for the University discussed the fate of the remaining academic halls, including St Edmund Hall. Should it remain independent or should it, like so many of the others, be incorporated into a college? In the end, at Magrath’s suggestion, a compromise was reached. When the current principal, Edward Moore, resigned, a new system of ‘partial union’ with Queen’s would be established. It would be under the control of Queen’s but they would remain separate institutions, with Teddy Hall effectively the poor students’ annexe for Queen’s. It was not until 1903 that Moore resigned and then Queen’s, under Magrath’s lead, decided against the partial union and voted for a complete take-over of the hall. Moore was horrified and led the defence, persuading Congregation to vote against the scheme. Deadlock was held for the next eight years while Moore and Magrath fought for control of the hall, a particularly unpleasant fight as they were lifelong friends. Eventually, opposition within Queen’s collapsed and in 1911 the Hebdomadal Council granted Teddy Hall its impendence.

It is at this time that the legend of Magrath begins. Defeated and exhausted, he effectively gave up control of the college, though remaining Provost and continuing to live in the Lodgings where, after his wife’s death in 1899, he was looked after by his niece, Miss Eva Lefroy. In his place the college was run by Edward Armstrong as Pro-Provost. Because Magrath had been elected Provost three years before the ordinances of 1881 he did not need to retire at seventy. This did not apply to Armstrong who had to retire without ever being Provost. (Indeed, Magrath outlived Armstrong by two years.) Armstrong’s successor as Pro-Provost was EM Walker who eventually succeeded Magrath as Provost, though the ordinances that allowed Magrath to be Provost for fifty-two years forced Walker to retire after three. It is noteworthy that Walker was still an undergraduate when Magrath was elected Provost.

During his years of semi-retirement Magrath was little in evidence. One undergraduate of 1921-4 never saw him, and others believed in his existence only because his ‘minder’ drew batells for him. Another student of 1922-5 saw him only twice, once on the streets in his carriage and once when ‘without a noticeable blush’ he claimed his place as Provost in the college photograph of 1923. It was the last college photograph he appeared in. In 1928 a sensation was caused when Magrath appeared in the front quad in a wheelchair. None of the undergraduates had ever seen him before and all wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. The following year some undergraduates were even tipped off that Magrath would be walking in the Provost’s Garden and they were allowed to watch him walking a few yards from an upstairs window in the Lodgings. During this period rumours rapidly became myths. For example, the Provost’s electric hot water bottle became distorted into an electric mattress with a dazzling array of buttons which could keep any part of his body warm at a touch!

In 1930, at the age of ninety and having been Provost for fifty-two years, Magrath finally died. Eric Ratcliff, the chaplain at the time told students that ‘one day after lunch the Provost had the wind. He said to himself, ‘I’ve had the wind before and blown it off before and I shall blow it off again.’ But this time the wind blew him off’. The veracity of this story is unclear.

So, almost a century after Magrath began his nineteen years of office without power how does his reputation stand? It is probably true to say that he steered the college well as the Victorian age gave way to the twentieth century, a time of enormous change in the University and the colleges. Other colleges had a more traumatic time than Queen’s. In his prime in the last decades of the nineteenth century, Magrath was a man of immense energy who transformed the college. We should remember that he was an important Dean as well as Provost. However, in the twentieth century Magrath was very much a man from a different age, and this led to his great mistake over St Edmund Hall, where he failed to realize that feelings in the University had changed in the quarter century between 1877 and 1903. However, his real mistake was probably in living too long. Over twenty years he created the legend of the absent Provost which perhaps helped to create the atmosphere of inefficiency and sluggishness in inter-war Queen’s that undid much of his earlier energetic reforms.

In conclusion, however, Magrath probably stands in reality, and certainly in mythology, amongst the greatest of the fifty provosts of Queen’s.

Michael Riordan. “


Amazing that a grey neglected chance find can be a porthole to a world long gone. I suppose I just need to be careful that I don’t get too carried away if I find a ring with the inscription “Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.” Unfortunately, I don’t have the temperament of a hobbit, although my feet might be mistaken as belonging to one!