Monday 9 November 2015

Life of a nineteenth century student

Autumn sees students returning to Chester after a long summer break and graduation ceremonies begin to start taking place in the city. One of our volunteers, James, is a student at Chester University. In his latest blog post James takes a look at some correspondence of John Upton Gaskell writing home to his parents as a student at Oxford University in 1804 and compares it to modern student life. 

John Upton Gaskell, born 11th August 1804, was an undergraduate studying at Oxford. This collection of letters (DDX 462/1-13) was sent to his parents throughout his course at Oxford detailing a variety of day to day goings on back in the early 1800s.Throughout the entirety of the collection, references to living costs are frequent. The numbers that were stated in the letters, for example:
 “A gentleman an old school fellow at Dr Davies’s school called upon me this morning to have a walk with him, we went a walking he has been at college 2 years or upwards therefore he knows all about it, I took the liberty of asking him how much a young man could live upon at Oxford, he said first the same as Frank Newbold said that a man could not live respectable as a gentleman under £300 a year”
Today this seems like a foreign number to university students such as myself; we now pay roughly £14000 per year to live at university, admittedly when inflation and a change in currency is taken into account, that £300 now would likely be yet another huge sum of money, I still find it quite interesting to compare the numbers of then to now.

In the letter (dated November 17th 1824) John makes mention of a dinner party arranged by his principal and he states
“it was a select party of the men of this Hall we were 13 of us with Mr James and a very good dinner we had.” 
In modern universities, the likelihood of being invited to a dinner party by a lecturer or dean of the university is extraordinarily slim; apart from the subject balls and one on one time with lecturers, a student will spend relatively little time with them, let alone go for walks with them like John seems to have done on numerous occasions.
One event that I found rather interesting was John’s travels to Brussels over his summer break. It seems then as now; students were still enthused at the idea of travelling and seeing the continent,
“For it will be a very great disappointment to me if I do not go on the Continent, this summer, after having long promised myself that pleasure”. 
Though on this trip the significance of visiting the battlefield at Waterloo seemed to be the main focal point of his trip, whereas now I highly doubt many students, even those that are historians, would go and visit the site at Waterloo.
Part way through the collection (October 15th 1827), there is an interesting insight into the lives of a young man in the 19th Century. John speaks of how he wishes his father to convey Hockerley estate to him; at this point in time John would be about 23 years old, yet the amount of responsibility he is asking of himself by having an estate given to him, is for me, inconceivable with the amount of work that is required by a degree level course.

Overall, there seems to be many differences when it came to day to day life of a student in the 19th Century compared to those of a 21st Century student. The pass times of the student’s, when not at university, seem to have remained relatively similar as has the final goal to get the best degree you can possibly attain with the possibility of doing a masters after graduation; it is merely the fundamentals of society that seem to have changed the most, very rarely now would students concern themselves with the matter of grand estates or interacting with the landed elites of society “hunting him with the Duke of Beaufort’s fox hounds”.

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