Janet Vaux

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.

JV pic 2Janet Vaux is writing a book about the life and intellectual/political times of her grandfather, Fred Cutcliffe, who worked as sub-editor on Young Oxford from 1900 until 1903 (when the magazine folded).


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