The undergraduate Evelyn Waugh

By Lucy Rutherford, Archivist

Evelyn Waugh is one of Hertford College’s most famous — and occasionally infamous — alumni. Waugh had originally hoped to go to New College in Oxford, but was offered a place as a History Scholar at Hertford College, where he matriculated in January 1922.

Hertford College in the early 20th Century

Waugh arrived prepared to love Oxford and was full of good intentions, but by his own later admission did very little academic work whilst at Hertford and took only a casual interest in college activities. Sadly for biographers and Waugh enthusiasts this means that the college archives contain only glimpses of Waugh during his time as an undergraduate at Oxford.

College life

Waugh arrived partway through the academic year. In A Little Learning he describes Hertford as ‘a respectable but rather dreary little college’; and it was certainly still recovering from the ravages of the First World War. Student numbers were small, buildings dilipidated and accommodation cramped.

Page from a college Buttery Book recording Waugh’s weekly expenses for the Summer term of 1922 ©Hertford College Archives
Page from Hertford College Register of Room Allocations 1915–1929, recording the rooms allocated to Waugh in Michaelmas Term 1923 ©Hertford College Archives

Dinners were less elaborate and breakfast was served in hall as a common meal — in 1921 the college magazine noted with sadness that it was ‘no longer customary to entertain to three-course breakfasts’, although lunch was still ‘consumed decently in private’. Hertford had the advantage of cheaper living costs than many of the Oxford colleges and for his first two terms at Hertford Waugh occupied relatively inexpensive ground floor rooms (Staircase III room 30) in the Old Buildings Quad.

Waugh’s ground floor room at the front of the Old Quad, possibly the inspiration for Charles Ryder’s rooms as portrayed in ‘Brideshead Revisited’ ©Hertford College Archives

In the autumn term of 1922, however, he moved to a rather grander and more expensive set of rooms in Staircase II (now the Bursary Staircase) of the Old Buildings Quad. He was to occupy these rooms for the following four terms.The other sets in Staircase II were occupied by a fellow student, Anthony Disney, and three Fellows (Denniston, Murphy & Campbell). Perhaps for reasons of economy, Waugh moved for his final two terms in 1924 to a less grand set of rooms in Staircase V of the Old Buildings Quad, known as ‘The Cottage’.

Waugh appears in only two official photographs in Hertford College Archives. He arrived too late to be included in the Freshmen photograph for 1922 but a Gilman & Soame college group photograph taken in 1923 shows a youthful Evelyn on the front row, rather too close for comfort to his history tutor and arch enemy, CRMF Cruttwell. Close by we can tentatively identify his friends Terence Greenidge and Anthony Bushell. 

Evelyn Waugh is seated on the front row, 5th from the right; in the detail he appears on the bottom right. From the left of the bottom row detail is possibly Anthony Bushell & Terence Greenidge. Behind them in the middle of the second row Cruttwell is clearly visible in academic dress, with a dark suit, white tie & gown. ©Hertford College Archives.

Waugh in the centre of the front row of this undated photograph (c. 1923), possibly of members of the Junior Common Dining Club; from a Junior Common Room photograph album ©Hertford College Archives.

Waugh seems to have taken very little part in college activities as he quickly became involved in the Oxford Union and outside societies such as the Hypocrites’ Club. He was, however, a member of the college’s idiosyncratic Fox Society, for which he became the Secretary shortly after matriculating. Waugh and his friends obviously took great pleasure in debating, as these extracts from a Fox Society Minute Book demonstrate.

In November 1923 the Society held a joint debate with Trinity College, the motion being ‘This House wishes It was still at School’.

“Mr Waugh (Hertf.) complained of the self-righteousness of the House: the first speaker had stood for Freedom, the second for Faith, and the third for Virtue. He himself stood for a reasonable standard of personal comfort. At this point several visitors had to depart as their efforts to secure this ideal had involved them with the Proctors.”

Report from the Fox Society in the Hertford College Magazine for 1923 ©Hertford College Archives

Waugh & Principal Cruttwell

Portrait of Principal Cruttwell, reproduced from the Hertford College Magazine 1931 ©Hertford College Archives

C R M F Cruttwell was a distinguished historian and Lecturer in History at Hertford College from 1912. Although he eventually became Principal of Hertford he had never really recovered from wounds and shell shock sustained in the First World War and this may account for reports of his idiosyncratic behaviour. Waugh came to Hertford as a History Scholar and was therefore tutored by Cruttwell, but Waugh’s lack of interest in the subject meant that their relationship quickly deteriorated. Waugh wrote numerous unflattering depictions of Cruttwell in University publications and his own subsequent novels and memoirs — a persistent feud which he maintained until Cruttwell’s early death in 1941.

Records in Hertford College Archives point to a different interpretation of the relationship between Waugh and Cruttwell. Felix Markham, who succeeded Cruttwell as Modern History Tutor in 1931, considered Waugh’s descriptions of Cruttwell to be a caricature and travesty of the truth and that Cruttwell had rightly considered Waugh to be a thoroughly lazy and often drunken undergraduate. The actor and theatre director Frith Banbury matriculated at Hertford eight years after Waugh in 1930, and he later wrote a brief memoir for the archives of his time at the college. In it he notes: ‘Incidentally I do not have a vivid memory of ‘Crutters’, which leads me to the conclusion that Evelyn Waugh’s demonisation of him had more to do with Waugh than with Cruttwell’.

After Hertford

News of alumni in the Hertford College Magazine ©Hertford College Archives

Waugh sat his Schools exams in the summer of 1924 and achieved only a third class. As he had arrived part way through the academic year in 1922, he had intended to complete a further terms residence in order fulfil the requirements for his degree to be awarded. However his lack of academic progress meant that his father was unwilling to allow him to stay on, and this led to him leaving without having completed his terms, and so with no degree awarded. 

Minutes of the 610th Meeting of the Tyndale Society held in 1948, recording details of a talk given by Waugh ©Hertford College Archives

From Hertford Waugh spent a short time studying at art school in London, and then took up a teaching post at a school in Wales. Recorded here as ‘Denbigh School’, it was in fact Arnold House in North Wales, which became the inspiration for his first novel Decline and Fall.

In later life Waugh was not a particularly devoted alumnus, but he did make occasional returns to Hertford, mainly to speak at meetings of the Tyndale Society. The Minutes Book of the Tyndale Debating Society from May 1948 record the text of a paper given by Waugh entitled ‘Monsignor Ronald Knox as a Man of Letters’; and he returned in 1954 to give a talk on the wines of Burgundy, ‘with five sample bottles which he distributed among members’. In a letter written in 1952 to the Bursar W L Ferrar, however, he declined an invitation to a college dinner, on the grounds that as the journey from Somerset to Oxford was more laborious than travelling to the Amazon.

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