From the early decades of the nineteenth century through the postwar era, men who worked in domestic service at Oxford colleges enjoyed a variety of sports, including rowing, cricket, bowls, tennis, athletics and football. Unlike other traditional paternalistic employers, college servants’ club sports were partly subsidized by the colleges but were primarily self-organized. The academic calendar left servants largely unsupervised to enjoy access to the river and sports fields in the summer months, unencumbered by the heavy workloads associated with the academic terms, as fellows and undergraduates left the city during the long vacations. The history of these clubs offers important insights into experiences of class and masculinity, and how these changed over time.
Workers formed college club teams to compete locally, and from these, created university teams to compete further afield. From 1850, regular contests were arranged with college servants from Cambridge, culminating in a popular Oxford and Cambridge servants’ boat race and cricket match, which celebrated its centenary in 1950. In Oxford, the annual college servants’ sports weekend in April was the typically most widely attended spectator event each year. Of these sports, college servants’ rowing leaves perhaps the best collection of archival sources, and provides considerable insight into the history of working-class rowing, a sport that was uniquely affected by rigid class boundaries and social hierarchies.
Kathryne Crossley is an early career researcher in labour history, having recently completed a DPhil in Economic and Social History at the University of Oxford. Her thesis examines the lives of the men, women and children who worked as domestic servants in Oxford colleges in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
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