Post-war Wadham

1st June 2017

News, Alumni news

Some seventy years after graduating from Wadham College, alumnus Basil Hone (Law, 1945) looks back on highlights from his time at Oxford shortly after World War II.

  • Basil Hone (Law, 1945)

  • College members in 1946 with Warden, Maurice Bowra, in the second row, centre

    College members in 1946 with Warden, Maurice Bowra, in the second row, centre

“Following demobilization from the Royal Air Force in October 1945, while stationed in my home country, Southern Rhodesia, my ex-serviceman friend, David Barbour, and I travelled to Southampton from Cape Town aboard a troopship, returning some 3000 soldiers from the Far East to their home base. Upon arrival in England in January 1946, David headed to London to attend the London School of Economics and I headed to Oxford to take up residence at Wadham College at the start of the Hilary term.

“My recollection is that there were about 150 students at the College, of whom approximately half were in residence. Some 80% or more of the students at the University – and at Wadham - were ex-servicemen. Wadham was then a male only College. Female students were limited to the four Colleges for women, so they were a small minority of the University student body.

“The Warden, Dr Maurice Bowra, was an ebullient personality, masking an influential English scholar. He recruited an impressive collection of tutors for the College at War’s end, including Donald Macdougall, an economic adviser to Winston Churchill, A.J. Ayers, one of the leading philosophers at that time and William Hart, a younger and more energetic version of many of the college and university legal dons (however his tenure was short, as he resigned to manage the development of a post war “new town” at Hemel Hempstead to replace bombed out areas of greater London).  

“Furthermore the Warden was not lacking in administrative skills. At the start of WWII, he anticipated there would be wartime shortages of fuel and acquired an enormous stockpile of coal, which was stacked against the Back Quad wall of the Library (now “the Old Library”). In 1946 most of that stockpile remained, so post war College students in the winter months enjoyed blazing fires in the fireplaces in their rooms from breakfast time until bedtime.

Most other Colleges did not allow fires in rooms until mid-afternoon and bathing was restricted for students to perhaps once or twice a week.

“The only building in the Back Quad, where the JCR is now situated, was a tall, single storey, barn containing nothing other than two or three very old enormous bathtubs and two or three showers with the volume and force of a heavy rainstorm. There was hot water for these facilities at all times. Most other Colleges did not allow fires in rooms until mid-afternoon and bathing was restricted for students to perhaps once or twice a week.

“The food was limited and lacked nourishment, with endless repetitions of items such as powdered eggs, Brussels sprouts and boiled cod, all cooked without benefit of garnishment. Each student was allowed one natural egg a week and an approximate 2 x 1 x 1inch block of margarine. The lot of David and myself was, however, not as dire as for most students since we received regular food parcels from our parents in Africa.

“Eventually the JCR held a meeting about the food and I was nominated to investigate why the fare fell short of what was permitted with ration books. If I remember correctly, these books covered periods of 10 to 12 weeks with a limited number of coupons for each rationed item and a few bonus points that could be “spent” as wished. At the start of each term students had to turn in their ration books to the Domestic Bursar. It turned out that some 75% of the books had all coupons for the current rationing period removed from the books before leaving home for the new term.

The food was limited and lacked nourishment, with endless repetitions of items such as powdered eggs, Brussels sprouts and boiled cod

“We shared rooms off the passageway from the Front to the Back Quads (now the SCR) and our scout was named Fred. He also served at the High Table in the Dining Hall.

There was a High Table Guest Night about once a month to which, mainly, Honorary Fellows of the College were invited. The Guest Nights were well attended as most of the fare on those occasions came from the College Farm, providing a variety of food not available under the rationing system. Fred would come to our rooms after the guests had departed with delicious left-overs from the dinner, such as pheasant, asparagus, ice cream etc. We arranged bridge games to coincide with the Guest Nights and never had difficulty making up a four.

To the best of my knowledge, the Kings Arms was raided only once one Saturday evening during the two and a half years I was at Wadham.

“The city was bleak at the time – there had been no sprucing up of the buildings during the War and the shops did not have much to offer (clothing was also rationed). Most of the traffic was public transportation, with private transportation severely restricted by petrol rationing, so there was a lot of Town and Gown walking the streets. Since most of the students were ex-servicemen, the University policing arm held back from raids on the pubs to apprehend University pub crawlers.

“To the best of my knowledge, the Kings Arms was raided only once one Saturday evening during the two and a half years I was at Wadham. There was ample forewarning that the Proctors and Bulldogs were coming, so the two pubs were evacuated and a heaving mass of humanity filled the upstairs bedrooms and passage way. The arm of the law did not venture upstairs. A favoured place for ex-servicemen was The Turf Tavern, in the shadow of New College. The owners did not discourage singing, so evenings were filled with mostly bawdy drinking songs of the Navy, Army and Air Force.

“David and I moved into digs in Beaumont Street for our last year, where we were joined by two South African friends. David found a girlfriend, a farmer’s daughter, who had a car with a virtually unlimited supply of petrol intended for the farming operations. The relationship was strongly encouraged by David’s three mates, since our pub horizons expanded from walking distance to driving distance. Despite best efforts, the three companions were unable to rekindle the dying embers of the affair, so eventually it was back to the Turf and the King’s Arms.

“The Wadham experience, together with a six month spell in London after graduation, was unique for me and provided special, always fresh, memories of the stoicism and sense of humour of the British people. They had endured severe deprivation during the War, very many of them surrounded by the devastation of unremitting bombing of their neighbourhoods over years. Yes, they complained vociferously, but most often with a humorous twist to end their story. It was a sobering exposure for someone, lucky enough to have lived in a balmy climate in Africa with almost nothing in the way of War shortages. It made me feel proud of my British heritage.”

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