Radical Objects

The first students at Ruskin College, Oxford

I found this photograph in the archives of Ruskin College, while researching the life of my grandfather, Fred Cutcliffe, who worked as sub-editor on the college magazineYoung Oxford from early 1900 until its demise in 1903.

The photograph is one of many in the Ruskin archives, showing students in late Victorian or Edwardian clothing grouped around one or more staff members seated in the centre of the picture. What distinguishes it from the other photos of the period is that almost everyone in the picture has signed their name underneath their image.

Ruskin first students
Back row, from the left: (unsigned), Edward Traynor, Robert Search, Robert Carruthers, Leonard Cotton, (unsigned), (unsigned), Bertram Wilson, E W Light. Centre row: Levi Simms, A C Fairweather, Patrick B Stark, Dennis Hird, Frank Merry, (unsigned), Joseph Heywood. Front row: E Bruce Forrest, T Wallace, Jas Gorman, A R Perriman. (Photo: Ruskin College)

At about the same time, I found another object, which acted as a key to the photo.

General Assembly Minutes Book, Ruskin College, Oxford
General Assembly Minutes Book, Ruskin College, Oxford (Photo: Ruskin College)

The second object is a battered exercise book, labelled General Assembly Minutes Book, which had been used as the minutes book for the students’ house meetings from February 1899 to September 1900. At the back of this book, someone had started to keep a record of all the students entering the college, giving their names and dates of joining and leaving. It begins with the first eighteen students who joined the college on 22 February 1899, and carries on till 9 January 1900 when the 55th student, George Melhuish, joined the college.

There are nineteen students in the photo, plus the Warden (principal) Dennis Hird, and only four have failed to sign. The students who signed their names all come from the first eighteen students on the list, and they include a student called Levi Simms who left the college, on 28 March 1899. So the photo must have been taken before that date.

The college, which at that time was known as Ruskin Hall, had been founded in 1899 by three visiting Americans (Walter and Amne Vrooman and Charles Beard), who had conceived of it as a co-operative community and labour college. Other influences on the college included academics at Oxford University who were interested in extending university education beyond the upper-class boys who were its usual customers; and many in the labour movement who saw education as a key to gaining political power.

The different political currents of the period were reflected in debates about and within the college. By 1909, differences about college governance and the syllabus (especially the teaching of the theory of evolution and of Marxism), as well as increasingly poisonous relations among the college staff, led to the sacking of Dennis Hird, a student strike, and the setting up of the Central Labour College by the striking students, with Hird as its first principal.

The 1899 photograph already contains the seeds of the later dispute among its ranks. Several of these students were mentioned inYoung Oxford and elsewhere, and I have been able to create brief biographies for about half of them (some of which I have already placed on the web, on the New Ruskin Archives). As the following notes show, they were a mixed bunch, including several radicals and socialists alongside working and lower-middle class boys anxious to extend their education. The ‘working’ students had been offered a place at the college in return for work in the house or offices (a system that was replaced by a scholarship scheme within two or three years).

Edward (Teddy) Traynor A south Yorkshire miner, who had lost a leg (presumably in a mining accident) before arriving at the college. He had a reputation among his peers as a poet and orator, and published two articles in Young Oxford. When he left the college in November 1900 he became active as a speaker in the Ruskin Hall movement (a network based on classes of corresponding students). He was an early supporter of the Plebs League, which was constituted by the striking students during the 1908-9 dispute.

Robert Search After leaving the college, he was appointed sub-warden at the Birkenhead Ruskin Hall early in 1900, until accused of fomenting ‘democratic fits’ among the students (letter from Charles Beard to Dennis Hird, 30 October 1900, Ruskin College archives). The ‘democratic fits’ probably refer to a dispute between the students and Dennis Hird, which resulted in the recognition of limited self-governance for the students in the domestic running of the college.

Robert Carruthers A brief profile was published in Young Oxford in February 1900 (one of the first of many student profiles that became a feature of the magazine). He was born in 1873, started work at 15 as a railway booking clerk, at 18 enrolled in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and finally joined the Reserves. In January 1900, he was called back into the army as a result of the Boer War, although he was not sent to South Africa.

Leonard Cotton This is slightly speculative, but Horace J Hawkins (see below) talks of a ‘working’ student who was ‘a prominent advocate in Social Democracy in Oxford and neighbourhood’, who was given notice from the Hall in July 1899.  Cotton left the Hall on 1 August 1899, which would fit. And there was indeed a Leonard Cotton who was Secretary of the Oxford branch of the SDF (Social Democratic Federation) during this period. He was later a founding member of the Socialist Labour Party.

Bertram Wilson He is the first student to have later gained a place on the college faculty. As Secretary of the Hanley Labour Church, working as a cashier in the potteries, he had been responsible for a pioneering exposé of the effects of lead poisoning (see Young Oxford October 1900-January 1901). He joined the college as ‘working’ student in the caretaking post of sub-warden. He was promoted to the college faculty in about May 1900, with mainly administrative responsibilities, but did some lecturing. He became one of the main protagonists in the bitter internal dispute of 1908-9, accusing Hird of failure to keep discipline. He left the college in 1910 to become manager of the new Birmingham Labour Exchange.

Frank Merry He was well enough known in the labour movement for his entry to Ruskin Hall to be mentioned in a gossip column in Labour Leader, the paper of the ILP (Independent Labour Party). He was a member of the Brotherhood Church. He was a ‘working’ student at Ruskin, mainly as secretary to the founder Walter Vrooman.

Joseph Heywood The information here is from his obituary, published in Young Oxford in October 1900. He was an apprentice journalist on the Manchester Guardian, who came to Ruskin ‘to improve his education and advance his prospects in journalistic life’. He joined the St John’s Ambulance Brigade and volunteered for ambulance work during the Boer War in South Africa, where he died from an abscess on the brain.

E Bruce Forrest He has told his own story of being a student at Ruskin in an article in the Independent Review of 1906. From a middle-class family, he had been working in an office in Manchester when he read a story about Ruskin Hall in the Manchester Guardian and applied to join. The founder Walter Vrooman had wanted him to become a sub-warden at one of the provincial Ruskin Halls, but Forrest eventually turned that down. In 1901 he enrolled as a student at Oxford University.

James Gorman and Albert R Perriman I suspect these are the two youngest students described by Bruce Forrest. One of the pair had a father who had mistaken Ruskin for a ‘commercial academy’, but he was on his way to Persia and ‘thought the boy might very well be left for a while’. The other was a farmer’s son, known to his fellow-students as Go’lumme, from his favourite phrase.

Horace J Hawkins Nineteenth on the list of student arrivals (on 21 March), he may well be in the photograph as one of those who has not signed his name. Hawkins was expelled from the college in November 1899. According to the minutes both of the students’ house meeting and of the faculty meeting, this was because of his refusal to do the housework assigned to him. According to Hawkins, it was because he had challenged the dismissal of some of the ‘working’ students. Hawkins then became a vocal critic of the college, mostly through the pages of Justice, the paper of the SDF, of which he was a member. This did not prevent other SDF members joining the college.

With thanks to Ruskin College for permission to publish the photographs. And especial thanks to the college librarians, Raymond King and Kate Beeby, for their assistance in navigating the archives.


  1. Janet:

    This is very valuable information from my point of view. Especially the information about Len Cotton, because my understanding is that in 1908-09 he was the national secretary of the SLP (being still based in Oxford).

    If you haven’t seen our 2009 pamphlet Plebs: The Lost Legacy of Independent Working-Class Education, and/or would like to be in touch with our IWCE Network, please let me know on cwaugh1@btinternet.com

    1. Hi Colin

      Many thanks for your comment. Re Len Cotton – have you ever seen other photos of him? That could clinch the identification, although I do think it is likely that he is the SDF/SLP Cotton.

  2. Janet:

    I don’t think I’ve seen a picture where Len Cotton is named.

    Part of my interest in him is to do with what role he may have played in causing George Harvey to join the SLP (from the ILP) in 1908.


  3. Thank you so much for this Janet, it’s a big contribution to the re-claiming of knowledge and history of Ruskin college. I recognised the group photo you found in Ruskin. A slightly cropped version of it was reproduced in an article I have by Frederick Dolman called ‘The Poor Man’s College At Oxford – A Visit To Ruskin Hall’ published in The Sketch on November 1st 1899. That though only identifies Dennis Herd ‘with students’, so to have their names and potted biographies is really useful, thanks!

  4. Thank you for this information. My Great Uncle on my mothers side Henry Guy Lilly Mills is 10th on the list and I knew from a newspaper article that he was among the first entrants. He was born in 1857 in Rock Worcestershire into a farming family so was aged 42 !! He hasn’t signed his name but I am 100% sure that he is 6th from the right in the back row. He eventually stood as an Independent Labour candidate against Stanley Baldwin in the 1921 Bewdley Bye Election where he was soundly beaten. He was ‘a fervent admirer of Soviet Russia and his car displayed the red flag of the Bolshevists which was doused with petrol and burned. His tyres were slashed and his protests were drowned by the singing of the National Anthem by the Unionists outside the Shire Hall in Worcester after the result was announced. He stood four times in the Nottingham South Division against Lord Henry Bentinck M.P and was once blinded with soot. On another occasion he approached Lloyd George and said to him ‘Hands off Russia’ To which Lloyd George replied ‘Mind Your Own Business’ again he said ‘Please Raise the Blockade’. The police then threw him out into the road. I am 84 so am pleased to see the photo and the admission information.

    1. Hi Donald, thanks so much for sending this. It’s nice to put another name to a face, and what an interesting and vivid brief biography! I don’t suppose, by any chance, you know what his occupation was before he went to Ruskin?

  5. Hi Janet. I don’t know what his (Henry G.L Mills) occupation was before going to Ruskin. The 1881 Census states that he was a Butler in the employ of a family in Kensington London . The 1901 Census says he is ‘living on his own means’. He died in 1925 in Oxshott Surrey.

  6. Hi Janet.
    Correction . In my reply dated Dec.19th 2016 my Great Uncle Henry G. L Mills is 6th from the left in the back row not as I said from the right. Regards Donald Green

  7. Janet

    I’m just revising for publication a book I wrote on Oxford labour movement in 1976-1980. Copies have been in Oxford Local History, Bodleian and Ruskin library since 1980 – Radicalism, Socialism and Labourism in Oxford 1830-1980. Leonard Cotton features prominently in the narrative. I had however not seen the photo before and I had not been aware that Cotton was briefly at Ruskin. I would like to use the photo if possible.
    Book should be published sometime next year but happy to email you current working draft.

    Duncan Bowie

  8. Levi Simms, the third student to attend Ruskin Hall, was my grandfather and I have a copy of the photograph shown here. His own father had been a Cheshire canal boatman and he himself worked in horticulture, where his final job was Head Gardener for Ladbroke Square, London where he raised his family in the Gardener’s Cottage.
    Levi had four children, all of whom gained First’s at Oxford University, an amazing achievement for a man who recalled in his journals, accompanying his grandmother, a homeless widow, as she picked stones from fields for money. His youngest son, Eric Simms became a well-known ornithologist.
    I have a copy of Levi’s recollections which were collated by his eldest son Tom, who had been a lecturer in education at Homerton College, Cambridge. This details Levi’s six month’s course at Ruskin. I would welcome suggestions as to how best to post these on the website. They amount to a thousand words. He talks of the first two students Wentworth and Cotton, the philosophy of the institution and describes in detail the living conditions.

    1. Hi Penny

      I have followed up the reference you gave me (via email) to Levi’s article, ‘The Third Student Remembers’, in the Ruskin College Magazine, ‘The New Epoch’ for 1951 (18-19). I am adding a few details from the article, as it may be of interest to others who have found their way to this post. He includes memories of Walter Wentworth (and you told me that Levi’s own copy of the photograph identifies Wentworth as the first on the left, back row) and Leonard Cotton.

      I find it particularly interesting that each of the three illustrates a different variant of what broadly counted as ‘socialist’ at the time.

      Walter Wentworth had been a ‘seaman, shepherd, and solicitor’s clerk’; he was a theosophist and vegetarian, and he left Ruskin Hall to join a Tolstoyan community (Whiteways in Gloucestershire) after hearing a lecture by Arnold Eiloart.

      Leonard Cotton was an under-gardener at the Oxford Botanical Gardens, an ‘enthusiastic socialist’ and ‘the principal speaker at Sunday evening socialist meetings at the Martyrs’ Memorial’. There he faced hostile crowds of undergraduates, was charged with obstruction, and served a month’s hard labour. As a result, he lost his job and so had to leave the Hall. While at the Hall he had kept his room-mates awake, burning the gaslight till the early hours of the morning, ‘trying to read Das Kapital in German’. This is all strong circumstantial evidence that this was the same Len Cotton who was later associated with the SDF and SLP.

      Levi Simms himself worked as a foreman at Gee’s horticultural nursery in the Banbury Road (and continued to work at Gee’s during his time at Ruskin Hall). He had been converted to socialism by Robert Blatchford’s Merrie England. He was also a Methodist local preacher at the Methodist Free Church in St Michael’s Road, which is where he met the Vroomans and Charles Beard who all attended the church.

      Best wishes, and look forward to your story about Levi,

  9. Hello. I have been trying yo find out a little bit more about my grandad. His name was Thomas Edward Reader born 24.12.1901. I have always been told that he studied politics at Ruskin College. However, it looks like the college shut in 1915. I am a bit confused!! I know he was involved in the Labour Party and, i believe, was friends with Clement Atlee. Any information would be greatly appreciated Thank you

  10. Good afternoon Janet,

    Forgive my posting this comment so long after you created the article but I came across it by chance while looking for a picture of MY grandfather, Levi Simms, to show my grandson. Although Levi died before I was born (late 1950s) I have many pictures of him in later life and in Ladbroke Square Garden. He married quite late in life and had 4 children, the youngest of which was the naturalist, author and broadcaster, Eric Simms, my father. My father always said that his love for nature and wildlife was started by growing up in the Garden and having so many distinguished scientists, including the Huxleys, as neighbours who would use the Garden daily and encourage a young boy’s interest.

    I hope this little snippet is of interest to you and thank you for providing the photograph of Levi.


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