Alma mater

It can’t be claimed that Irene Frude’s memorial has a very pretty setting.

Off the south side of Little Clarendon St, just north of the centre of Oxford, is a covered entrance serving 25 Wellington Square. This building has graduate flats on the upper storeys and shops on the ground floor. The covered space is used for parking and for the rubbish bins.

On the eastern wall of this unappealing space, very easily missed, is a small cast-iron plaque, 27” x 7”, with the following text:

HOC IN LOCO IRENE FRVDE
COLLEGII KEBLENSIS ALVMNORVM BENIGNISSIMA ALTRIX
INGENTISSIMA IENTACVLA
XXXV FERME PER ANNOS COTIDIE SVPPEDITAVIT
CVIVS REI BENE MEMORES EIDEM ALVMNI
HOC MONVMENTVM FACIENDVM CVRAVERVNT.
A.D. IV KAL. NOV. MCMLXXVI

IN THIS PLACE IRENE FRUDE,
MOST KINDLY FOSTER-MOTHER OF THE STUDENTS OF KEBLE COLLEGE
PROVIDED HUGE BREAKFASTS FOR ALMOST 35 YEARS
IN FOND MEMORY OF WHICH THE SAME STUDENTS
HAD THIS MEMORIAL MADE
OCTOBER 29 A.D. 1976

A bin fire “around 2008” has caused the plaque to buckle slightly, and one side is discoloured. Vehicles are constantly parked close against the wall to which it’s attached, and it’s consequently very hard to find it when you’re first looking for it, and to get a decent photo when you do.

I’m indebted to Antigone Magazine for drawing my attention to something that I’ve ridden past unknowingly countless times. I am also more grateful than words can express to the Oxford University Archives, especially Anna Petre, for information (ongoing…) both about the inscription and the circumstances of its installation. It is described in R. H. Adams, Latin inscriptions in Oxford, a useful book vitiated by occasionally dodgy Latin, and on this excellent page which I nevertheless think gets a bit confused about Bedford House School and the site of Mrs Frude’s lodging house.

Let’s clear that up first.

Mrs Frude’s lodging house, which she ran from 1936 until 1969 and which was an example of a licensed lodging house for students, a phenomenon now long since extinct, was at 130 Walton St., just around the corner from Little Clarendon St. Some years before, 130 Walton St had briefly accommodated Bedford House School, run by John H Thorogood, before he had a purpose-built school built a little way up Walton St at 122, where it still stands.

While running the school at 122, Thorogood lived at 135 Walton St (he was there with his family in the 1881 and 1891 censuses, and his wife was still there in 1901; he died in 1902). He called 135 Walton St. Bedford House (the name is over the front door), and that is the house pictured on the webpage about Mrs Frude that I mentioned earlier. In the 1881 census it is clearly a “school house” for boarders: lots of “scholars”, schoolboys, are listed as living there alongside the family. But Thorogood no longer had anything to do with 130 Walton St., and there can be no glimpse of it on Google Maps because 130 Walton St. no longer exists.

Behind Little Clarendon St. and Walton St. lies Wellington Square, where the offices of Oxford University stand, and which was previously the location of the city workhouse. The University bought the site in 1865 (information gleaned from this interesting document), and it was developed on 99-year leases which fell in around the mid-1960s, at which point the University commissioned the architect Leslie Martin to replan the entire area. In the event, the University Offices and the graduate accommodation in 25 Wellington Sq. were all that was realised of Martin’s plan, but the latter building did for 130 Walton St.

Before the new buildings Walton St. (itself in this stretch the product of those 99-year leases) began south of Little Clarendon St. at No. 128, and 128-31 inclusive, four houses, were demolished to make room for the west end of 25 Wellington Sq. (and another space for bins and parking). A detail below of an aerial photo that predates the demolition, from the Oxfordshire County Council image collection, shows the corner of Walton St. and Little Clarendon St. The last four houses on the left are no longer there (compare with the image above), and third from the end of the row is 130.

The construction of 25 Wellington Sq. was supposed to run from the spring of 1973 to the middle of 1975, but there were the inevitable delays, and it was only finally completed in July 1976, receiving its first residents the following month. This last information is from Anna Petre in the University Archive, and she also found letters indicating that Mrs Frude moved out of 130 Walton St. and “into alternative accommodation … provided by the University” on November 8 1972, in advance of the demolition of the building in January 1973. (There are great anxieties in the 1970s about the threat of squatters occupying the empty house; today I think the anxiety is about rough sleepers.) Tantalisingly, another letter in 1974 from someone at Keble (more information may or may not be forthcoming…) to the Buildings Committee indicates an interest in installing a plaque in honour of Irene Frude, and it was clearly at the earliest possible opportunity after the opening of the new building, October 1976, that it was inaugurated. It sits some little distance from the site of her house, it’s fair to say: the satellite image above marks 130 with a blue arrow and the plaque with a red. A location for it near the entrance to the flats at their west end would have expressed hoc in loco more faithfully, but it was perhaps placed where it was so as to be seen by anyone entering the flat complex from Little Clarendon St–and it might be so seen if there weren’t vehicles constantly parked up against it.

It deserves to be noticed, as it is as lovely as it is currently unloved, in content if not, after the fire, in physical appearance.

I like its Roman date, literally “four days before the Kalends of November”, with a wry A.D. just in case we’re misled. I like the play on the word alumnus, meaning a pupil as well as an old member of the college (this last a US usage but familiar enough in the 1970s). It hovers between these two senses in its two appearances, but also, in its basic sense of nursling, connects with altrix for Irene, a nurse and her foster-children—as Armand D’Angour suggests, the root in alo, “feed, nourish”, brings in the food dimension: she feeds, altrix, and they get fed, alumni. Meanwhile ingentissima ientacula is just superb, so funny yet so full of affection. A shabby old memorial in a shabby location, but such warmth.

Irene Frude died in April 1977 at the age of 78. I hope that gave her time to learn how much her alumni loved her.

Spot the memorial

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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