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Reform, Progress and Religious Debate

(History of Oxford VII)


During the 18th century the university was in decline and remained relatively untouched by the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment. Its main concern was to cater for the clergy of the Church of England.

Notable figures connected with Oxford in this period were John Wesley (1703-91), founder of Methodism, Edmund Halley (1656-1742), astronomer and mathematician who predicted the return of what is now known as Halley's Comet and Sir William Blackstone, English jurist noted for his Commentaries on the Laws of England, which had a lasting influence on jurisprudence in the United States. The University continued to encourage new building providing work for the local craftsmen and both University and city tended to coexist peacefully.

The last three decades of the eighteenth century were years of reform and modernisation in which the city was given a new face-lift. The year 1771 marked a radical reform of local government in Oxford and the initiative was of the University, revealing once again the close interaction between the two. The eleven parishes of the city were united and the administration of the city became the joint responsibility of representatives from the University and citizens of the city. In an attempt to make way for the increase in local traffic the north and east gates were demolished and Magdalen Bridge reconstructed. The church of St Clements was also demolished.

For a time Oxford became once again important for its geographical location when the Oxford canal was constructed (1790) placing the city at the centre of canal transportation from London to the Midlands and in1844 the city had its first railway line, which was further developed in 1851. The canal and railway not only increased the importance of the city but also provided work for its ever increasing population. During the nineteenth century the population had increased from just under 12,000 to just over 49,000. This necessitated an equally rapid growth in house construction.

The University also expanded; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries eight new colleges were founded. This also provided employment of the citizens of the city.

The economy of the city continued to flourish well into the twentieth century but was still largely dependent on the University. There was a significant lack of large-scale industrial concerns. However, to compensate for this, a new source of income gradually emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century: tourism.

The nineteenth century was also the time of radical new ideas in the field of religion. The most powerful expression of this in Oxford was, of course, the famous Oxford Movement linked to the figure of J. H. Newman later to become Cardinal Newman. This was essentially a movement within the established Church of England started by the Tractarians in 1833. It came about largely as a reaction to liberalising and rationalising tendencies and stressed Tradition (with a capital "T") and therefore continuity with patristic teachings. These ideas led many including Newman himself to convert to Roman Catholicism. The religious debates at Oxford at the time greatly influenced the works of prominent literati such as Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861), Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) all of whom had studied at Oxford.



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latest update: 9/3/03