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Monday 3 April 2023

How to Get into Oxford 1863 style


It’s surprising what you sometimes find inside old envelopes. Here the Reverend Dr W G Henderson, Headmaster of Leeds Grammar School from 1862 to 1884, writes to the father of a pupil. The school year has ended and Dr Henderson is already taking a break on the Kent coast at Walmer. But he is also sending out bills:

My dear Sir,

I send you your sons [the apostrophe does appear to be missing] accounts for the past half year. His general conduct is quite satisfactory, with the exception of the old want of energy. I did not hear whether he had made up his mind about going to Oxford. If he resolves to go I will write in August & get his name put down.

I beg my kind regards to Mrs. Barstow & am

My dear sir

Very faithfully yours

W G Henderson

Dr Henderson has a Wikipedia page as “William Henderson (Priest)” which tells me that he was - among other distinctions - a Fellow of Magdalen College Oxford and so his recommendation would count.

The charm of this letter is that if young Barstow decides he wants to go then Dr Henderson will “put his name down” and he will go and Barstow Senior will have got good value for the school fees he has paid. Whether even the formality of an admissions interview was required, I do not know.

But did Barstow go up to Oxford?

The Barstow name is not common in Oxford's records of its alumni(only three in the period 1715-1886) but a John Smithson Barstow, son of a John Barstow, [the envelope is addressed to a J Barstow] born in Yorkshire [Leeds is in Yorkshire] attended the Queen’s College, matriculating on 20 April 1866, aged 20. [I think that’s rather old for the period; maybe something to do with “want of energy”]. He obtained a B.A. and M.A. though at what seems a leisurely pace - the records just state “1873” and in 1876 Barstow junior became a vicar of the Church of England as Oxford's graduates often did and still do. It looks like his father put some money into the Lincolnshire parish where he was first appointed, but I guess that is another story for someone else to research.

 John Barstow senior is classified as a “Gent[leman]” in the Oxford records and a local Directory of the period identifies him as a farmer which is not incompatible. The Leeds Grammar School records connect a “John Smithson Barstow” to a “J Barstow Farmer”. Glancing through those records, it's clear that Leeds was a school which in the Victorian period regularly sent boys to Queen's College.

Well, after half an hour online, I conclude it likely that Dr Henderson did write his letter.


Postscript: The envelope no longer contains the tradesman's accounts rendered but their presence is indicated by the additional penny stamp added to the Penny Pink pre-stamped envelope and which was needed because the letter exceeded the half ounce weight limit for a penny letter; two pence was the next step up for letters under one ounce.