Image Description: Merton Street
In modern times, the ‘Blue Plaque’ has become a staple of British culture. Since its launch in London in 1866, it is almost impossible to go to any larger settlement and not see one. Their purpose is simple and clear; to commemorate a location and its link to a notable person or event. It is perhaps unsurprising therefore, that Oxford is richly endowed with over 70 such plaques. They are a physical link to the past, allowing the history of a building to be maintained and acknowledged, and are almost unavoidable when walking around Oxford. I believe that many are not understood properly, and I want to engage with these plaques in a way which will further my own interests and the reader’s; highlighting the intriguing lives of the people commemorated and their contributions to the city that Oxford is today.
Whenever people come to visit during term, I always take them to Merton Street. The cobbled road, strikingly old buildings and Merton’s sizeable chapel give a classically ‘Oxford’ impression. Just opposite Merton’s entrance there is an ancient mediaeval cottage with mullioned windows, known as the Postmaster’s Hall. It was here that Anthony à Wood (1632-1695) was born, lived and died, with his Blue Plaque commemorating him on the wall just to the right of the cottage. He was educated at New College School and Lord William’s grammar school in Thame, where his education was halted by a minor inconvenience known as the English Civil War. Nevertheless, he went on to matriculate at Merton in 1647. Interestingly, he was not considered a talented student, and it took him until 1652 to graduate (I dare say Merton would not be impressed with his lack of Norrington Table contributions). But he soon immersed himself in what he was to become best known for; antiquarian studies (studying the past with the use of evidence such as archaeology, manuscripts or, in Wood’s case, archives).
“Whenever people come to visit during term, I always take them to Merton Street.”
He began by trawling through the registers of Christ Church until Dr John Wallis allowed him access to the University’s archives in 1660, as he was their Keeper. It was here that he discovered William Burton’s The Description of Leicestershire (1622) and Sir William Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656). These works had an enormous influence on Wood, so much so that he was determined to pen a similar great work about Oxfordshire. He drew on another project by an earlier antiquary, Brian Twyne, and systematically searched through the legal documents of all the colleges. It’s a shame Wood didn’t have SOLO to use, but as we all know from last minute searches, the college library doesn’t have everything. In the year 1667 he made his first visit to London, meeting with more people who were able to provide him with even more libraries. After consulting more parish and city archives than one could ever imagine, his writings were finally ready to be published. In 1669 Dr Fell, the Dean of Christ Church and an influential figure in the university press, offered to publish Wood’s work. From this Wood would earn £100 (Just over £23,000 today), on one condition; it had to be published in Latin. Wood duly consented, and in 1674 The History and Antiquities of the University of Oxford appeared in two volumes. The first detailed a general history, the second that of specific individuals and colleges. Wood’s book was successful, and established his reputation as an antiquary.
Dr Fell suggested another project which Wood undertook enthusiastically. Alongside John Aubrey, he compiled another great tome of Oxford history. It took them both the rest of the 1670s and the entire 1680s to finish, but in 1691 the first volume of Athenae Oxonienses was published. It detailed all of the many writers and bishops who had been educated at Oxford since the year 1500. Unfortunately, the book was met with mixed reviews, and in 1693 Wood was even sued by Henry, the Earl of Clarendon, for the portrayal of his late father. One could only assume that accusing someone’s father of corruption was quite bad. Anthony Wood (the à was his own later addition) fell out with Aubrey, blaming him for the book’s questionable reception. He died in 1695 and was buried in Merton’s chapel, where he had once been that supposedly mediocre undergraduate.
What struck me when researching this first plaque, was his sheer determination to finish his projects and the legacy which he left behind. Aside from his works, he bequeathed 127 manuscripts and 970 books to the Ashmolean Museum, which are now housed in the Bodleian. From these papers his autobiography, The Life and Times of Anthony Wood, was compiled from 1891-1900 by Andrew Clark. It is written in the third person and is an excellent collection of the most minute details of his life. Wood had a reputation for being a rude and disagreeable person. But it is difficult to look at the Postmaster’s Hall on Merton Street and not imagine Wood toiling away long hours within. The fact that his two main works took up so many years of his life is a testament of his commitment to knowledge, and something which a Blue Plaque could never fully convey. When I next return to Merton Street, I will remember that this plaque is not just notifying the viewer of someone interesting, but of a man whose obsessive research led to perhaps two of the most thorough academic works to come out of this city.
Image Credit: Flickr