When It Happens Panel Get involved: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting 'OXFORD NEWS' to 80360 or email
‘Once a member, always a member'
V incent’s has had a long and illustrious history, and still plays a useful and highly enjoyable role in the life of many Oxford students as pre-eminently a sporting club, and the natural home of many Blues.
And generations of Oxonians have Walter Bradford Woodgate to thank for founding the club in 1863.
Woodgate was no ordinary undergraduate at Brasenose College. A great oarsman, who was in the Oxford Blue boat, he won 11 Henley titles and is said to have introduced coxless fours to this country, when he got the Brasenose cox to jump overboard at the start at Henley — the cox apparently narrowly avoided being strangled by water lilies.
Woodgate and his crew, aided by a homemade steering device, won by over 100 yards and were immediately disqualified. The coxless fours, though, was a rowing idea whose time had come. A larger than life figure, Woodgate for a bet once went straight out of a London pub and walked to Oxford. Best of all was the time when he appeared as Lady Barbara in a Brasenose play, drank lots of wine and punch at the dinner afterwards, woke in petticoats and attended chapel with rouge still on his cheeks.
One day in Hilary term in 1863, Woodgate was on his college barge when two rowing friends from Merton hailed him from the riverbank to talk over some matter and suggested meeting at the Oxford Union.
Woodgate heartily disliked the Union. In his Reminiscences of an Old Sportsman, he replied: ‘Hang the Union, I wouldn’t be seen there at a dog fight’. Back came the answer: ‘Well then, when are you going to give us that select club of yours that you have talked so much about?’ My dander was up, I called back ‘This day week’.
Woodgate wanted an elite social club of what he called ‘the picked hundred of the university, selected for all round qualities; social, physical and intellectual’. But there’s little doubt that the sporting prowess of members predominated, as it has to this day.
Woodgate was not a man to break his word. He selected 40 original members — many from 19th century sporting colleges like University, Merton and Brasenose — and they met to draft rules.
One issue remained outstanding: the name of the club. Some wanted ‘The Century’ to denote 100 prestigious members, but just at that moment, twelve o’clock struck and all present had to return hurriedly to their colleges. So the club was named ‘Vincent’s’ pro tem, as the students ran for their college gates.
But who was Vincent? Vincent is one of those anonymous figures who live on in history. He was a publisher and stationer at 90 High Street who hired out the rooms above his shop. And so the club got its name in the same way that Lord’s was named after the man who rented his field out to the Marylebone Cricket Club — Thomas Lord. Woodgate wanted an elite social club of what he called ‘the picked hundred of the university, selected for all round qualities; social, physical and intellectual’. But there’s little doubt that the sporting prowess of members predominated, as it has to this day. If a student was invited to subscribe, 30 shillings a term included free beer, coffee and tea — none of which could be had at the Oxford Union, even for money — and free postage of letters.
And, unlike the Union, members could also smoke. No-one was eligible until his second year, the number of members was not to exceed 100 and ‘once a member, always a member’, a rule that has provided pleasure to many Oxonians after going down.
The original ballot for members was, as Woodgate wrote ‘somewhat inauspicious’. A more accurate phrase might be ‘utterly shambolic’. The first candidate was from Magdalen and he was blackballed. Woodgate’s Magdalen friends were furious and in turn blackballed many others. Result: no elections.
Meetings were held and strong words passed. Gradually tempers returned to normal and soon Woodgate was able to write that the exclusivity of Vincent’s ‘so far from deterring seemed only to stimulate candidates for so select an assembly’.
The formation of Vincent’s came at an opportune time, when the definition of sport was rapidly changing in Victorian England. Until the mid-19th century, sport meant hunting, shooting and fishing. With the codification of games such as cricket, football and rugby, and the birth of new ones such as lawn tennis, whole new areas opened up.
And Oxford University was in the vanguard, from rowing on the Isis to athletics, from cricket to indoor games such as squash, fives and racquets.
The Oxonians who played these newly codified games were central to the growth and prestige of Vincent’s, both the club and its members being seen to personify the Victorian ideal of ‘mens sana in corpore sana’ — a healthy mind in a healthy body .
Some 50 years after Woodgate founded Vincent’s in 1863, JC Masterman, a quintessential Oxford man and an undergraduate at Worcester, a don at Christ Church, a Provost of Worcester and much else, recalled the visits of Woodgate to the club, a large man in a great cloak with an even greater personality. In those days, members as a rule did not speak of Vincent’s but of ‘The Club’. Hubristic, of course, but no other Oxford club was seen to be so select or so prestigious. Vincent’s life was built around the steward, the son of the original steward who had held the post for more than 50 years.
His real name was Henry Browne, but Masterman writes that it would have been an unforgivable social gaffe to speak of him except as ‘John’. The food was plentiful and cheap: in 1900, a house dinner of soup, two entrees, a joint, two sweets, a savoury and cheese was 2s 6d a head. Masterman adds (and we can agree): ‘it pains me to think of this privilege’.
Over the years the roll call of Presidents and members has been distinguished and impressive. To pick out four presidents, almost at random — Guy Nickalls, from Magdalen (all original blackballing of that college presumably forgiven) became president in 1890, the year he was also president of the Oxford University Boat Club. He won a gold medal in the 1908 Olympics and became one of the great figures of British rowing, just as Woodgate had been 30 years before. Not for nothing was Nickalls known as ‘Luni’ at Eton for his daring and reckless nature. A few years later, ‘Shrimp’ Leveson-Gower (pronounced Loosen-Gore to the bewilderment of many) presided, followed by a cricketing career that saw him captain Oxford, Surrey and England, as well as become chairman of the Test selectors.
Pursuing the cricketing theme, in 1926 Lord Dunglass, late Sir Alec Douglas Home was president. A more than competent all-rounder, he played for Oxford, Middlesex and represented MCC against Argentina on a representative tour in 1926-7. But he never gained a Blue.
In later years, he would ruefully recall that his chances of representing Oxford in the Varsity match disappeared when Percy Perrin of Essex hit him for three sixes in one over.
Cyril Connolly famously recalled Dunglass at school as ‘ a votary of the esoteric Etonian religion, the kind of graceful, tolerant, sleepy boy who is showered with all the laurels, who is liked by all the masters and admired by the boys without any apparent exertion on his part. In the eighteenth century he would have been Prime Minister before he was thirty.’ The 20th century doing things differently, Douglas Home had to wait until he was over 60 before becoming Prime Minister.
Finally, Jack Lovelock, president in 1934 and a New Zealand Rhodes scholar at Exeter College (the college of another great athlete and president of Vincent’s, Sir Roger Bannister). Lovelock, having won memorable races at Oxford and elsewhere, triumphed in the 1500 metres at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, defeating the American Glenn Cunningham in a superb race. He in New York in 1949, when after one of his periodic dizzy spells, he fell under a subway train.
But Vincent’s has also elected others, more famous for their origins or later public fame. Edward VIII, while an undergraduate at Magdalen became a member (very unusually) in his first year, as did King Olaf of Norway, a descendant of Queen Victoria on his mother’s side, and two Japanese princes.
Harold Macmillan, not known best perhaps for his ability at games, was also a member, making the point that Vincent’s has never been about sporting excellence per se. And we must include in the roll call a Viceroy of India, several bishops, many judges and even the odd ‘honorary’ member who has not attended Oxford. So although the emphasis at Vincent’s has always been on games-minded people, importantly, there has never been a sporting qualification for membership, and over the years some distinguished Blues have not been invited to join the club while less talented sportsmen have. No doubt Woodgate would have supported the latter group for their perceived character and clubbability.
Vincent’s long ago moved from the High Street to round the corner at 1a King Edward Street, above the outfitters Shepherd and Woodward.
Today, the predominant colours ascending the stairs are naturally blue, though not the very dark blue of the Oxford rugger shirt. Housed on two floors, a sense of tradition and relaxation are immediately apparent: photos on the wall portray action photos of Roger Bannister recording the first four minute mile, Colin Cowdrey, Prince Obolensky( famous for his try against the All Blacks in the 1930s, still regarded by many as the finest at Twickenham), and the runner, Chris Chataway, along with many sporting momentoes.
Cecil Rhodes, the founder of the Rhodes scholars, was also a member of Vincent’s, in between amassing a fortune in the diamond mines of South Africa. And many of his scholars have been prominent at Vincent’s. In latter years, presidents such as David Kirk, captain of the All Blacks, the Australian Rod Ellington (a former Chairman of British Airways), Giles Ridley, a fine cricketer from then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and Fred Goldstein, an attacking opening bat from South Africa have continued the Commonwealth tradition at Vincent’s. Numerically in a minority, Americans such as Bill Bradley have also been members. Bradley read PPE at Worcester College in the mid-sixties, was a basketball star and a subsequent senator for New Jersey, although he failed in his attempt to become President.
Meanwhile his fellow American Rhodes scholar may have played only for the Oxford second basketball team, is not a member of Vincent’s but did make it to president — one Bill Clinton Today, the number of members is far above the original, sacred 100 but the food is still welcome, robust and cheap, with the rooms presided over by a steward — but no longer called ‘John’. The main room has deep armchairs and club sofas, daily papers, bound copies of Wisden and a fine view of the High Street. Next door, drinks such as pinkies (grapefruit and orange and gin) and perkies ( grapefruit, lemon and vodka) are dispensed at the bar, under innumerable photos of members and sporting legends. Vincent’s is still the place where Blues committees meet and where Oxford teams gather for post-match celebrations or commiserations. This sense of continuation includes the fact that there are no women members, though the club in recent years has sometimes debated the proposition.
Meanwhile sporting women Oxonians have a female equivalent of Vincent’s — the Atalanta Society.
All in all, Benjamin Woodgate would no doubt be pleased if he strode up the staircase of King Edward Street and burst into the club.
It may not have the name and prestige of old, but Vincent’s has proved its staying-power in an ever-changing world.