A Happy Breed of Men

An extract from Oxford Today

Walter Bradford Woodgate was larger than life. He once went straight out of a London pub and walked non-stop to Oxford for a bet. The leading oarsman of his age, he won eleven Henley titles in the 1860’s, including three in two days in 1862, when he narrowly missed a fourth victory after dead-heating the final of the Diamonds. In a cause celebre, he introduced the coxless IV to this country, when he got his Brasenose cox to jump overboard at the Henley start in 1868. While the unwanted cox narrowly escaped strangulation by the water lilies, Woodgate and his home-made steering device triumphed by 100 yards and were promptly disqualified. At Oxford the Reverend Woodgate’s son earned pocket money by writing sermons. As a fresh-faced Brasenose freshman, he appeared as Lady Barbara in the College play, partook liberally of the wine and four kinds of punch at dinner afterwards, woke in his petticoats, and attended chapel with the rouge still on his cheeks. And two years later he founded Vincent’s Club.

Woodgate created Vincent’s very much in his own image. He wanted an elite social club of ‘the picked hundred of the University, selected for all round qualities; social, physical and intellectual’. He loathed the Union, which he felt made only a pretence at selectivity, and finally he gathered forty of his friends and rented rooms at 90, High Street, above Vincent’s, the printers and publisher’s shop. If you were invited to subscribe, your 30 shillings per term included free beer, coffee and tea, none of which could be had at the Union, even for payment; and free postage on letters. Smoking was also allowed, again in contrast to the Union, and dogs were admitted to the clubroom, presumably to accommodate Woodgate’s fox terrier, Jenny, a notorious shredder of trouser legs.

The first selection was a fiasco. The very first candidate, a Magdalen man, was blackballed. Woodgate’s four Magdalen friends were furious and retaliated by blackballing everyone else. So exclusive a club created a sensation, and when the members reconvened a week later, the list of candidates had lengthened considerably. The Magdalen candidate still failed to get in, and his four champions resigned in disgust. Nevertheless, it was not long before Magdalen men relented, and even presided over the Club: one Magdalen President, Guy Nickalls, became to rowing in the 1890’s what Woodgate was to the 1860’s.

Non members of Vincent’s often think it is a sportsmen’s club, or even a Blues’ club, like the Hawkes in Cambridge. That is certainly the impression given by the Club rooms, now above outfitters Shepherd and Woodward and entered from King Edward Street. A full-length oil painting of the 1912 Olympic 1500m champion, Lieut-Colonel Arnold Strode-Jackson, commands the stairwell, rescued and patched up after ignominious years in a Brasenose cellar. The bar is crowded with action photographs of Bannister, Cowdrey, Prince Obelensky, the Russian emigre turned England rugby threequarter, Bradley, the American basketball hero, Chataway and All Black Captain David Kirk – all of them members.

Even the carpets are dark blue. A glass cabinet displays the Varsity rugby and hockey trophies, a painted rugby ball commemorating Oxford’s 8-0 defeat of Cambridge in 1901, Guy Nickalls’ silver cigar lighter, and several batons inscribed with generations of Varsity relay winners, including Harold Abrahams of Cambridge in 1921. Pride of place in the clubroom goes to a stuffed springbok’s head (unfortunately bearing a few taxidermic stitches since it was stolen and abused a few years ago). It was given by the touring South Africans, probably the strongest rugby team in the world, after their 6-3 defeat by OURFC in 1969.

Yet despite this pageant of sporting history, sporting credentials are not vital for election to Vincent’s. Nor are they enough: some very distinguished Blues have been turned down. ‘We elect primarily on character,’ says the 1992 President, Stephen Sparrow. ‘We value the relaxed atmosphere up here; we feel that members should be able to welcome and talk to any old member who may drop in.’ Older members often return, some of them regularly, like Bishop Burrough of Matabeleland (to 1981, who now lives at Bampton) and his ex-colonial friends, who meet at Vincent’s every Tuesday. ‘But obviously sportsmen are particularly likely to enjoy the Club and the company it offers.’

The one inviolable qualification is that you have to be a man. The Club rules still refer to junior members of the University as ‘men’, as they all were in Woodgate’s day. Women, or rather ‘ladies’, are allowed in as guests, but not at weekday lunchtimes. In recent years, the Club has often debated female membership, but some women themselves support the status quo, predicting that change would spoil the atmosphere of the Club. ‘It’s a very gracious and genteel place,’ says Stephen Sparrow. ‘Ladies are treated as ladies. I think the atmosphere compares very favourably with a college bar.’ Meanwhile, offers such as that of a visit from Ospreys, an all-female sports club in Cambridge, are accepted with alacrity by the Committee.

In fact, there is one woman on the premises at lunchtimes. Pauline Rudman, who with her husband Geoff, the Club Steward, lives in a flat on the top floor, laughs and says ‘Oh, I’m not a woman to them! I’m just “Pauline who does the food”.’ She is vital, for the food is excellent traditional fare, copious and very cheap. As it was in 1900, when the Caterer’s Gazette reported, ‘One of [Vincent’s] pleasantest features is a house dinner, consisting of soup, fish, two entrees, joint, two sweets, savoury and cheese, which is provided at 2s. 6d. a head. How it is done is a mystery.’ Then it was done by the Steward himself, traditionally known as ‘John’, though his real name was Henry Browne Jnr. He took over from his father, Henry Snr, in 1871, and served for over fifty years, keeping Vincent’s going through World War One for the benefit of enlisted Members on leave. The Club has not always been as lucky in its ‘Johns’: the one after Henry Browne Jnr lasted only a year and numerous invoices received after his departure had to be referred to the Club solicitors.

Geoff Rudman appears to be known by his real name rather than ‘John’, but he maintains other traditions. In a box under the bar is a collection of ‘the most appalling kipper ties I can find’ for those who come in without a tie after 6 pm. The ultra-correct neckwear is a dark blue number with silver crowns, of which Vincent’s is very proud. It was adopted in 1926, and the repeated emblem was a new departure in tie design, swiftly copied the world over. Belatedly, the Committee has woken up to its merchandising potential. Those attending the 1991 Vincent’s dinner in London were offered Vincent’s boxer shorts (200 pairs printed, 100 embroided) just in time for Christmas.

The dinner is the largest gathering of Oxonians outside Oxford, and there are now established versions in the US, Kenya and Australia, whose Premier, Bob Hawke, is a member. He reputedly holds the Vincent’s yard-of-ale record. There are now around 4,500 members worldwide, and Woodgate’s original elite 100 has gone up to 200 resident members as the University has expanded. The termly 30 shilling subscription has crept up to £30 pounds, well below the rate of inflation, but free refreshments and postage are no longer part of the deal. Dogs have recently been barred from entry, and there is now a Vincent’s chaplain, a monk who leads a retreat at Ampleforth once or twice a year. Yet the general feeling among members seems to be ‘plus ca change’.

As in the colleges, tradition is so strong that it moulds the new to its own purposes. I suspect that Vincent’s ethos might even survive ‘lady members’. Though heaven knows what would follow the boxer shorts.