An Oxford Institution

By E. W. Swanton

There is, I suppose, no institution which personifies the ideal of Mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind in a healthy body – to such effect as Vincent’s Club, Oxford.

The Greeks had a word for it long before the Romans, but it was in Victorian England that the philosophy for which Vincent’s stands found its most vigorous expression. The 1860’s was a decade unparalleled for the founding of schools and the formation of games organisations of every kind and it was then that Vincent’s was established.

Why, by the way, ‘Vincent’s’? Who was he? The facts have that element of chance upon which so much history depends. The original spirits were still debating the proposal of the founder, an oarsman from Brasenose called W B Woodgate, to call the club ‘The Century’ when the clock of the University Clock began to strike midnight and all had to repair rapidly to their colleges. Someone said ‘Vincent’s pro tem.’ And thus it is still.

Vincent was the publisher and stationer in the High Street who hired out the rooms above his shop, so the club got its name much as did Lord’s, which was simply the field rented out to the Marylebone Cricket Club by Thomas of that ilk.

In this case surely there is much in a name. The idea of the founders was to gather an all-round elite of a hundred, but one wonders if they would have succeeded nearly as well if they had settled on the self-conscious ‘Century’ rather than the amiable atmosphere of Vincent’s. The ethos, if you like, has changed little over the last third of its span. Part of the reason probably lies in the fact that though the emphasis has always been on gamesminded people there has never been a sporting qualification for membership. Though many of those who represent the University are members, it does not at all follow that membership accompanies a Blue. A few precocious young gentlemen have had to wait a long time – or even for ever! Nor are most of the members Blues.

Vincent’s, in fact, is not a Bluetocracy. Until recently no undergraduate could be elected until his second year, a provision that made for a slightly more mature outlook, and there have always been members who have had no special playing distinction.

The numbers are still restricted, not to 100, but to 150 undergraduate members, so to that extent Vincent’s is exclusive still. The subscriptions difference is not without significance. In 1863 it was 30s. a term: now it is comparatively cheaper at £25. But there is no longer free beer. Nor are there any more ‘Johns’.

Traditionally, successive waiters were christened John after the original who served the Club for more than half a century and did not retire until the Club got on its feet again after World War 1. But that admirable race has given place to waitresses, and members must now fetch their own drinks from the bar, watched over by Henry Dean, the current club Steward who doubles as coach of the University Boxing Club.

As to colours, the old Vincent’s was unusual – unique even – in having none. When, after the first war, the club decided on a tie they broke unfamiliar ground. The dark blue tie with silver crowns – perhaps, along with that of The Hawks of Cambridge, the most famous of all sporting ties – is a prototype of all the myriad of others that feature crests and emblems.

It cannot be necessary to emphasise the influence of Vincent’s on Oxford sport, but the club’s raison d’être has been reflected in a far wider field. Cecil Rhodes was a member, and the qualifications for the Rhodes Scholarships1 that bring men to Oxford from over half the world are, as expressed in his will, very similar to those of Woodgate, the founder, who ordained that members should be ‘selected for all-round qualities; social, physical, and intellectual.’

The Vincent’s membership lists over the years are so studded with future archbishops, headmasters, Cabinet Ministers, judges, and alumni of all kinds that one can scarcely make selection. The presidential roll includes such illustrious names as Sir Robin Butler, J O Newton-Thompson, Sir Roger Bannister, D B Carr, and M J K Smith. The Duke of Windsor was a member – the rules were waived to admit him as a freshman, while the present Crown Prince of Japan, Naruhito, carries on the royal connection with Vincent’s today.

1 Rhodes Scholarships have been extended to women since 1977.