Graduates of the University of Oxford include both politicians and rogues. Guide Rob Walters tells Marc Zakian about some of the city’s famous and infamous students
As we stand in the shadows of Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’, Rob Walters reels off an extraordinary set of statistics: “Britain has had 53 prime ministers, 26 of them went to university here, and of the 650 MPs in our current House of Commons, 114 are Oxford graduates.”
“Behind us is Balliol. It’s just one of Oxford’s 38 colleges, yet it has produced three Prime Ministers: Herbert Asquith, Harold Macmillan – more of him later – and Edward Heath.
And the college rogues? “Well, in this case” says Rob, “it’s not a politician – though many people maintain they are all rogues – but the writer Graham Greene. While at university he got up to the traditional student pranks such as stealing road signs; but after he married a young girl from the local bookshop he indulged in visits to a long list of prostitutes – and it was literally a list with nicknames and comments. Greene was a serial adulterer; his novel The End of the Affair is based on one of the writer’s extra-marital relationships.
“Howard Marks was another Balliol bad boy. The Welsh author gained notoriety as an international cannabis smuggler. While at Oxford he fiddled his physics degree by cheating in the practical exams. He blames his downfall on the loose bars on his ground floor window. It became the after-hours entrance to the college, exposing him to the influence of party-goers and miscreants.
Marks moved out of college to a student house. “When the Welshman vacated the building 1969, an American moved in: Bill Clinton. The future president was a Rhodes Scholar at University College. He left before completing his degree, but while at Oxford he learned to ride a bike, developed an interest in rugby union and protested against the Vietnam War.
“Most infamously it was while in Oxford that he tried but ‘did not inhale’ marijuana. Many years later a Mail on Sunday journalist tracked down Howard Marks and insisted he had known Clinton at Oxford. Marks retorted that ‘He never met anyone who smoked joints without inhaling.’
“Another University College rogue was the 19th century poet Percy Shelley. Legend has it that Shelley attended only one lecture while at Oxford, but frequently read for sixteen hours a day. His room overlooked the high street shops where mothers would leave their babies outside in baskets. Shelley would switch infants around and watch the horrified reactions of returning mothers.
“Shelley was a serial eloper, a proponent of free love and an egalitarian radical. But it was the poet’s atheist views that so enraged the college’s Anglican fellows that in 1811 they expelled him. When he later drowned in an Italian boating accident, one newspaper wrote: ‘Shelley has been drowned, now he knows whether there is a God or not’.
“University College made its peace with the poet in 1893 when it took possession of a fine statue of Shelley, but it had to be placed behind railings to stop students from painting its fingernails red.
“The university’s Bullingdon Club was founded in 1780. This exclusive society is noted for its grand banquets and boisterous rituals – such as ‘trashing’ of restaurants and college rooms. It’s where many future rulers’ unruly youth has been played out.”
Past members include John Profumo, whose involvement with prostitute Christine Keeler in 1963 helped topple Harold Macmillan’s government. The Bullingdon Club’s class of 1987 includes current Prime Minister David Cameron and Mayor of London Boris Johnson – who once admitted to ‘dark deeds involving plastic cones and letterboxes’.
Boris was upholding a long tradition of student mischief: in 1927 Bullingdon members smashed the lights, windows and doors in the Peckwater Quad of Christ Church.
That college still bears the scars of one particular piece of ‘vandalism’. The 19th century Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel was a Christ Church old boy. Initially he opposed Catholic emancipation (earning him the nickname ‘Orange Peel’), but he changed his mind, and supported the Emancipation Bill when it passed in parliament. Christ Church’s furious fellows hammered ‘No Peel’ in nails on the door at the bottom of the hall stairs.
“The protest is still visible today. Christchurch continues to be at the heart of British politics, having produced 13 Prime Ministers – more than 20% of this nation’s leaders.”
The last part of our tour takes us to north Oxford. “It’s a part of the city that rarely features on tourist visits,” Rob explains, “but it is immensely important because it tells the story of women at the university. Five of the (formerly) allfemale colleges were founded here when women were admitted to the university in the 1870s.
“My latest book is about the relationship between two groundbreaking Oxford women. Dorothy Hodgkin was a chemist credited with the development of protein crystallography. In 1945 she was a Fellow at Somerville College and one of her students was Margaret Roberts – better known to us by her married name: Thatcher.
“Hodgkin was an approachable, liberal and tolerant woman. Thatcher was a remote, conservative and icy figure. But they remained friendly for life.
They were both female firsts: Thatcher as Prime Minister and Hodgkin as the only British woman to win a Nobel Prize for science. She was neither a politician nor a rogue, and deserves to be better known today.” If Rob has anything to do with it, she soon will.
Rob’s books include: Oxford Rogues: Their City, Their Lives and Margaret Thatcher and Dorothy Hodgkin: Political Chemistry
See our guided tours of Oxford.