The Georgian Guide to University Life


At the turn of the 19th century, England’s two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, faced a barrage of criticism, directed at everything from their supposedly lazy and dissipated students to their unduly lenient examination systems and curricula. narrow studies. Higher education reform was approaching, but in the meantime, students were enjoying all the fun of the college experience, with very few challenges.

If taking a step back in time to a less stressful student life sounds enviable, here’s what every Georgian undergraduate needed to know…


There’s no need to be bookish

Everyone followed the same curriculum at university, regardless of their future aspirations: if you were at Oxford, you would focus on classics and logic, while at Cambridge the emphasis was on mathematics. In both cases, serious studies were strictly optional.

Lectures were rare. Most of the learning was self-directed and supervision was extremely informal. Guardians reportedly had “no worries about [their] students” so that they were free to do as much or as little as they wanted – and in many cases it was the latter. “I had never seen [my tutor] but for a fortnight, when I got it into my head to learn trigonometry,” writes a former student, referring to university life in the 1760s.

The most privileged students were exempted from any teaching. Classified as either “nobles” or “gentlemen commoners” depending on whether they had a title, the sons of aristocrats were exempt from many of the rules governing the rest of the student body. Leaving with a degree was not high on their list of priorities; instead, their time in college was about learning how to live independently as a fashion man. It was their behavior that drew the most criticism from observers, who complained that “the higher the rank of a young man, the more he suffers from being idle and vicious in our universities”.


You can’t fail

You might imagine that a lack of study left students feeling underprepared for their exams, but that’s not the case, as failure was virtually unheard of. Most students knew it too, describing the exams as “meaningless” and “wacky.”

At Oxford, there were only four short oral exams. The subjects covered were highly predictable, and the cheat sheets (called “chains”) passed freely between undergraduates. These contained arguments that students could memorize and then parrot for examiners, “often without the slightest knowledge of what it means” according to the The Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1780. Another observer writing in 1782 even went so far as to say that “the greatest dunce” generally passed with “as much ease and credit as the finest genius”. The students reported that their classmates had escaped with a bachelor’s degree in hand, although they had never consulted a Latin or Greek textbook since their arrival. And the nobles didn’t even need to cheat to some extent; as long as they had lived in the university for a certain number of terms and paid their (higher) fees, they had graduated.

However, signs of reform had begun to appear by the end of the 18th century. Cambridge University had already introduced its Senate Examination: a much more in-depth test of ability, success was rewarded with an honors degree – but there was no obligation to take it. If you were content with an ordinary BA (as most were), the exams were no more rigorous than at Oxford.


This is who you know, not what you know

Forming valuable friendships was considered far more useful in Georgian times than poring over a book for hours. Future clergymen made up about 60% of Oxford’s student population at the end of the 18th century and about 50% of all Cambridge graduates. All needed to find a living parish, many of which were in the gift of aristocracy. Befriending a privileged classmate could therefore pay off.

However, many took the pursuit too far, becoming little better than hangers. The wry observers had a name for their concerted “networking”: “tuft hunting.” It was a nod to the golden tassels found on the caps of the most senior (and therefore useful) students. Since the toga and mortarboard were compulsory garments for students, both in college and in town, their tassels made them easily identifiable prey.


You won’t have to tidy up your accommodation

Most students had a “scout” or “bedder” who woke them up in the morning, fetched their breakfast, and cleaned their clothes. They would literally make their bed too and generally keep their room clean and tidy.


Don’t be afraid to break the rules…

Each college had strict curfews; the doors were usually locked at 10 p.m. and those who had to “hit” the doorman after that time could expect punishment. There were also many other prohibitions: undergraduates could not have private dinners in their rooms or ride horses; they could not visit an inn or a racecourse; and they were supposed to appear at the chapel every day.

Supervisors enforced the rules. They could be found prowling around Oxford and Cambridge after hours of “gating”, dragging delirious undergraduates out of taverns or disreputable houses, and generally frustrating any drunken exploit. Stray students were punished with fines or “rustication” (a period of suspension), but both were ineffective deterrents. In an amusing parody written by Jane Austen’s eldest brother, James, in 1789, a “modern Oxford man” recounts a “celebrated party until eleven o’clock, when the overseers came and told us to go home. House “. He notes, “went directly in the opposite direction.” Like all the best satires, it wasn’t far from the truth, as confirmed by another tongue-in-cheek guidebook from 1783. they certainly did.

Horse riding, hunting, gambling and drinking – all prohibited – filled the students’ (ample) free time. Even the respectable ‘country priest’ James Woodforde regularly abused as an Oxford student in the 1760s, vowing to ‘never get drunk again’ after ‘I fell dead and cut my head off’. [head] really really bad”.

…But try not to be fooled

If the punishments from the proctors didn’t bother an undergrad, the “reminder” by the traders certainly did. Owing money to creditors was normal, especially if you did not have the privileges of rank and title, because then your guardian controlled your allowance. He wouldn’t allow it to be wasted on a round of beer, a bottle or two of burgundy, or a flutter on the errands (a situation that caused deep resentment among the student body), so most students at undergraduates ended up taking goods and services ‘on tick’ – credit readily offered by local innkeepers and shopkeepers. When they couldn’t pay, students were forced to hole up in their rooms, or sneak into town a circuitous route, in order to dodge the shopkeepers waiting to claim their money.

But accumulating debt has not always been a sign of profligacy; university life was just as expensive as it is today. By the end of the 18th century, even a relatively frugal student would need at least £100 a year; roughly the same annual income as a moderately successful trader. To embrace the whole college experience, £200 or £300 a year was more realistic. For this reason, families with more modest incomes would prefer professions that did not require a long period of study, such as the army or the navy.

Felicity Day is a freelance writer specializing in Georgian-era history.


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