Michael Cross

Alumnus Michael Cross remembers his time as a Geography student in the 1950s

Some Background

I count myself fortunate that I was born and grew up in Oxford. Unusually perhaps for those times, I was encouraged by my grammar school (the City of Oxford School, then in George Street) to think not only in terms of a university education but also of one at Oxford. This is the more remarkable when one considers my background: my parents having left school at 13 with both sides of my family being of humble origins. I took all this for granted in the same way that I took for granted the numerous cultural opportunities available in Oxford and, especially, the bookshops where I, as a sixth former, would while away wet days in the school holidays.

My parents were born in Oxford in 1903. My mother came from a stable working-class home. But my father was 'illegitimate' and I have no idea who his father was. Society viewed illegitimacy as disgraceful in those days, well before the modern acceptance of "one-parent families". What is more, his mother died in the 1918 flu pandemic. My paternal great grandfather apparently died in the former Headington workhouse only 22 years before I was born; and some 19th century ancestors on my mother's side lived in squalor in a court off George Street. I was lucky to be born at just the right time, as the fortunes of the family improved through the 1930s.

The City of Oxford School

Added to my luck was the opportunity offered by the (now often controversial) 'Eleven-plus' examination, a product of the 'Butler' Education Act of 1944. I was just old enough to qualify for the second cohort of children to be selected for a free grammar school place. as a result of the 'Scholarship (i.e. 11+) Examination in 1946, I loved my time at the City of Oxford School although, upon mature reflection later, there were many faults with what I was taught and the way I was taught. Progress into the Sixth Form was smooth. I was in the 'express' stream and joined the Sixth a year early - and thus a year more immature. Remarkably, if we sons of, for the most part, the aspirant working classes, showed any academic ability, were encouraged by the school to think of going up to Oxford.

University Ignorance

In those days only a very small percentage of state grammar school leavers (even the clever ones) considered university. ('It's not for the likes of us.') There were also many fewer universities than exist today. We COS boys fancied we knew the 'pecking order' not only of English universities but also of the Oxford colleges. Such conceit! I don't know how we arrogant youngsters came to these conclusions about the supposed "quality" of individual colleges of this world-famous University. (The 'Norrington Table' had not then been devised.)

As for universities, first there was Oxford closely followed, we grudgingly admitted, by Cambridge. These, of course, were succeeded in 'third place' by London. For Oxbridge entry it was essential that you first got your School Certificate 'Credit' or the newly introduced O-level 'pass' in GCE (General Certificate of Education) in Latin or Greek. This was in addition to other basic subjects like Mathematics, English language, a foreign language, a science subject and History or Geography.) If you couldn't pass Latin or Greek then, hard luck old chap, but London was a fairly acceptable second best for you as Latin or Greek were not obligatory for all degree subjects there. One or two contemporaries showed sufficient independence to choose Cambridge while others went to places like Birmingham to read medicine or dentistry.

Spoilt for Choice

The Oxford University Gazette circulated amongst us in the Sixth Form. The Gazette gave the bare details of university and college examinations and awards but little else. Apart from that there was no information available or offered on the nature of the Oxford Geography degree course - what it entailed and what would be expected of those who took the course. We didn't even think to ask. Geography was, er... um…, well… Geography! Similarly, there was no opportunity to meet undergraduates or to be shown round colleges, the School of Geography or, indeed, other faculties and significant non-collegiate parts of the University. Oxford was Oxford, and that was it. Take it or leave it. It was tough luck for those who had never before visited Oxford - or any university city.

So, of all these colleges, to which should I offer myself? In those days one applied to take the entrance examinations of individual colleges, usually in the third year (or scholarship) sixth after taking A-levels. These college entrance exams were normally held by some colleges at the beginning of the Christmas vacation, by others early in the New Year, yet more were held at the beginning of the Easter vacation. To the outsider there did not seem to be any co-ordination between colleges.

I asked Freddie Rowland, my Geography teacher, for advice on which colleges to apply for. He suggested Keble (his old college), one or two others and St. John's. Keble told me that, because I was not C of E, they would not even consider me, so I looked forward to St John's examinations in early December 1952. I say 'looked forward' because I did not fear the sort of papers I would take. My parents and I decided that I should stay in college for the three days of the examination period because, if I were rejected, I could at least say I had stayed in an Oxford college.

So, in December 1952, we candidates for admission at St John's turned up for three days of interviews and written examinations. There were three 3-hour papers: Physical Geography, Human Geography and a 'General' paper. This last was to prove that you were more than an academic swot but a 'well-rounded man' (never a woman!) with wide interests. After all, we were brought up to believe the purpose of an Oxford education in those days was to produce well-rounded men who had done something other with their university years than become qualified in their chosen subject. In addition, we rook two 90-minute papers, one on Latin (or Greek) and another on a modern language. I looked forward to the General paper and wrote at length on the Romantic poets as well as other unrelated topics. Latin was a struggle but French was not a problem as I had studied A-level French. In any case French was needed to read French geography texts.

There were interviews, too. The first by the Senior Dean who was interested less in my choice of subject and more on why I had chosen St John's. (He had, after all, been at the College since his undergraduate days and went on, after my time there, to become President.) His question nearly 'floored' me but fortunately my answer satisfied him. That evening I was interviewed by A F (Freddie) Martin who was to become my tutor. That went smoothly. The final hurdle, after the questions in the examinations had been marked and the unsuccessful 'weeded out', was to appear before the President of St John's and a group of senior dons on the final morning. That was quite an ordeal!

The day after these examinations, the 14th December 1952, coinciding fortuitously with my father's birthday, there was a letter from St John's offering me a commoner's place for 1955. I was too immature to realise what a truly wonderful present it was for him and my mother - and what a life-changing happening it was to be for me. 

Michaelmas Term 1955

There were no Freshers' weeks or similar in those days and so, after two or three days of pre-term interviews and briefings both at college and the School of Geography (then located in Mansfield Road) work began in reasonable earnest. I would say that there were in all about 70 of us, with a preponderance of men and just a handful of women. Most Oxford undergraduates were ex-public school or from fee-paying grammar schools - unlike me. I was told that one of the women was the ex-head girl of Roedean - not that she would have been interested in me! Almost all of the men were in their early 20s because in those days two years National Service were obligatory and most had opted for deferred entry. (I had been classed as unfit for National Service and had worked as a labourer for two years before going up at 21.)

Ahead of us all lay two terms leading to 'Prelims' (Preliminary Examinations) which we were told we would take in our stride'. (Moderations in geography were a later introduction.) It all seemed very 'laid back' - although failure to pass all parts of these Preliminary Examinations by the end of Trinity Term meant rustication. I do not recall any of us geographers being rusticated. I might be wrong but there was then, I sensed, a feeling in the University that Geography was something to read if you weren't quite up to reading the 'elite' academic subjects. During my time, I came across one or two who had abandoned subjects like classics and opted for an 'easy' subject like geography - even though they had no background in it.

Amongst the topics we had to cover for Prelims was the history of geography as an academic discipline. (Perhaps, I felt, better called a course in 'geographical apologetics'- so that we could convince sceptics of the value of the subject!). De Martonne's question Qu'est que c'est la geographie? aptly summarises what it was all about. Another paper was on the history of discovery and exploration - much of it to do with Europeans doing the exploration and discovering 'strange' lands! So, we acquainted ourselves with the travels of the likes of Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Livingstone et al. (I reflect now that the gap between Stanley and Livingstone's meeting in 1871 and my matriculating in 1955 is the same number of years as my age now!) The distinguished Fellow of Jesus, Dr J N L Baker's comprehensive book on exploration and discovery was essential reading. Another Prelims paper offered a choice between ethnography and modern history. As I hadn't studied it since my School Certificate, I was advised to make history my choice.

Perhaps the most useful subject, for me at least, was an introduction to Geology. This was very well organised and taught at the School of Geology, as it was then called. It involved two terms of Monday and Tuesday morning lectures and lab work, with duplicated summary notes provided. Over the years to follow, this course was probably of the most long-term value to me.

Although enhanced by the then novelty of projections of 35mm colour slides, I have to say that some of the lectures at the School of Geography were not that inspiring. Many lecturers swept in, lectured and swept out with no chance for any sort of 'follow up'. I do not recall being given any hand-outs of summary notes as was the case with the School of Geology. Sadly, for Dr Mary Marshall, her lectures on the History of Geography were abandoned midway through that Michaelmas term because of dwindling attendance, the result, frankly, of their uninspiring nature.

Some Books for Prelims

I remember being given a lengthy reading list in the form of a printed booklet. As I recall, it was just a list of titles and authors under various headings. I feel it would have been improved with a little more guidance. Out of this lengthy list of books, I can recall only a few of them.

I still have a copy of "Les Etapes de Geographie" by Rene Clozier in the French paperback "que sais-je?" series. Effectively, it outlined what we needed to know on the history of Geography and the exploration and discovery papers. (Perhaps I have kept it out of sentimental value!)

(For those with German instead of French, works by Ritter and Ratzell were, I believe, considered suitable replacements.)

An elementary book I remember using was "Geology and Scenery in England and Wales" in the Pelican series. Written by A E (later Sir Arthur) Trueman, first published in pre-War days (and last published, I believe in the 1970s) and aimed largely at the general reader, it was a useful introduction. I still have my copy. Of greater academic significance was Arkell's seminal 1945 work, The Geology of Oxford. It still has a place on my bookshelf as does his later volume, of more general interest, Oxford Stone. I have often referred to them over the years.

Of great academic value to us (and highly thought of for many years) was the "Principles of Physical Geology" by Arthur Holmes first published in 1944 and which I had been given as a prize at school. Its final chapter was on the disputed matter of "continental drift" - as Holmes then put it: "one of the fundamental problems of geology". It seems remarkable today, with the principles of plate tectonics now widely understood, that there was so much controversy. One serious argument against 'continental drift' that I heard was that the forces required to effect it would be so strong that they would stop the earth's rotation! Interestingly, too, in the five or six pages in that edition which Holmes devotes to glaciation and its causes, the word 'periglaciation' does not appear

After Prelims

Other than college Collections at the start of term, there were no other forms of examination until Finals - and there was not a lot of external academic pressure on us. Instead, we all dutifully produced our one weekly essay - except that occasionally some (male) undergraduates with other more 'pressing concerns', would 'improvise' from a page of notes hastily scribbled a short time before the tutorial! There were no student seminars which I consider might well have been helpful, although my tutor, A. F. (Freddie) Martin (St. John's) did arrange a few map-reading classes. I reflect that most of what we were taught seems now not to have been particularly challenging. Geography seemed very stable and I wonder whether this was due to the fact that as an academic discipline, it had only been accepted in the world of Oxford academia relatively recently and, so to speak, was 'consolidating itself'. In those far off days, in so many ways we did not consider the future or the subject's integral dynamism.

Thus, for 1950s Oxford geography students, there continued to be a great emphasis on Regional Geography much of it based essentially on the work of 19th Century French geographers like De Martonne. His work on France, as I recall, seemed to emphasise the 'natural' regions of France - based on its traditional pays. Unfortunately, again because of the Second World War, our data were all pre-1939. Geographical thinking at Oxford was still much influenced by the early 20th Century work of Herbertson on 'natural' regions.

I remember using another French series: La Geographie Universelle dating, I think, from the 1920s which included a volume La Geographie de la France. Another source, this time in English, was Hilda Ormsby's France - giving us 1938 statistics and out of date descriptions. It was thus more of a historical document than a geographical text! (One of the effects of WW2 was that we were not required to be more up to date than 1938 - twenty years behind - in spite of the massive changes brought about by the War.)

There were also, I remember, the Admiralty Handbooks. These were written by geographers in both Oxford and Cambridge during the War years to inform the military of the history, geography and culture of countries in the sphere of war.

We were all well aware of the Davisian cycle of erosion and it seemed almost to be geomorphologically 'fashionable' to look for erosion surfaces - they seemed to play such a major part in the interpretation of landscapes. Wooldridge and Morgan's Geomorphology along with Wooldridge and Linton's Structure, Surface and Drainage in South East England were necessary 'reads'. We were also made aware of a new (to most of us) hypothesis challenging Davis's, one formulated by Penck - summarised by "wearing back as opposed to wearing down". Little were we to realise that over the decades to follow another half dozen or so hypotheses would be suggested by competing geomorphologists. (I have often thought that it would be true to say that wherever two geomorphologists are gathered together, they will disagree!)

For climatology, we used Kendrew's book of the same name and also became familiar with the climatic regions of Koppen. We worked on tephigrams and Griffith Taylor's climographs - all very new to us. Some Griffith Taylor's views on climate and its effects on race were, I recall, somewhat deterministic. I remember a suggestion that Queensland's ('Eastralian') climate illustrated his belief that such a climate, like most tropical ones, was not suitable for the physical and mental development of pubescent white girls and thus they should not be encouraged to stay in such areas during their adolescent years! (My Queensland-born daughter in law and her sister seem not to have suffered any ill effects!)

Research on frontal systems had only properly got underway in the inter-War period. Air masses were new to us. The then latest edition of Austin Miller's Climatology had what appeared to be an added chapter, Air Masses, and we were advised to buy this edition and avoid older second-hand copies without it. I find it remarkable that today it is routine for TV weather forecasters to refer to air masses in their forecasts. Similarly, most had not heard of the jet stream. I believe some empirical knowledge of jet streams was gained by fighter pilots over Japan in WW2 but it only 'filtered through' to the general public with the growth of high-level airline flights in the 1960s and beyond. During my three years I cannot recall any mention being made, detailed or otherwise, of the jet stream.

C G (Gordon) Smith of Keble was genial and likeable. He was also Director of the Radcliffe Meteorological Observatory (a post he was to hold for a third of a century) We were not to realise what an internationally famous climatologist and meteorologist he was to become. Under his supervision we all had to take weather recordings twice a day for a week in the grounds of the School of Geography. There was a useful book called British Rainfall which contained statistics published on an annual basis for numerous recording stations. Needless to say, there was no thought of climate change in our lifetimes. The climates of the world seemed settled and unchanging - as did so many things.

Again, all measurements and statistics were imperial and not metric, we dealt in Fahrenheit and inches. Thus, as far as Ordnance Survey maps were concerned, we used the old "One Inch" and "Two-and- a- Half Inch" - although they did have the metric grid for grid references. The French equivalent of OS maps were mostly out of date except for eastern France where the threat of invasion in two World Wars had prompted the authorities to concentrate on keeping them revised.

Urban geography seems to me now to have been in its infancy. I had briefly come across some examples of Christaller's work while at school, but do not recall, for example, using terms such as 'central business district'. Professor E W Gilbert's course of lectures on urban geography, as I remember, consisted of six on Oxford, and one each on Reading and Brighton! Other references to urban geography seemed to be largely Europocentric with frequent references to site characteristics: gap towns (Dorking and the Mole Gap), defensive sites (Shrewsbury, bastide towns of France) and so on. There seemed to be little on urban function although, under the direction of Dr J(im) Houston (of St Cath's Society - then not a College), I took part in a survey of shopping on the Cowley Road (vastly different in character than today). Our results, gleaned from reluctant shopkeepers, were recorded on cards perforated for some card index system in the days when computers were unheard of.

Jean Brunhes 'classic' text La Geographie Humaine, although nearly forty years old, was recommended reading, as was The British Isles by Dudley (later Sir Dudley) Stamp - aka 'Deadly Dudley'! There were other American economic geography texts, the names of which I cannot now recall. These dealt, in great detail, more with individual items of economic significance rather than topics such as industrial location. In any case, much of what we learned about the location of industry became outmoded in the years to follow as world economic circumstances changed. No one dreamt that within a decade or so Japan would become a major automobile exporter - to be followed by other parts of the Far East. Similarly, our careful studies on, for example, the locations of coal mining, iron and steel, and cotton textiles in the UK and in other major, industrial nations would change much over the ensuing years.

I recall taking a paper on the economic geography of Eastern Canada. Apart from learning about the mineral resources, forestry and the all-important rail routes, we had to consider the potential changes that the opening of the 'new' St Lawrence Seaway (then under construction) would bring to the Great Lakes area. For the United States, O E Baker's division of that country's agriculture into 'regions' gave us such terms as 'Cotton Belt' and 'Corn Belt' to understand. (It is perhaps worth noting that 'corn' - maize - was not widely grown in the UK until the early 1960s - and then only in the south.)

Some other Influential Books and their Authors

In 1954, the annual meeting of the British Association was held in Oxford and thus the accompanying volume The Oxford Region was an up to date source. Edited by my tutor A F Martin and by R W Steel, other familiar names are listed on the Contents page (Dr Steel left midway through my time at Oxford and went on to become Professor of Geography at Liverpool.)

Dr Sandford, whom I well remember from the Geology Department, wrote on rivers and superficial deposits and Dr Beckinsale on geomorphology. Dr Beckinsale, author of another useful and utilitarian student text was, I believe, of Cotswold origin. I think he had been a schoolmaster and certainly was very friendly and approachable - not a bit aloof. The chapter on climate is attributed to C G Smith, and the aforementioned J N L Baker wrote on the historical geography of the 17th to 19th centuries. Not surprisingly perhaps, Professor Gilbert contributed a chapter on The Growth of the City of Oxford. 

Another contributor, soon to join the Department was W G Hoskins whose seminal 1955 book The Making of the English Landscape had a great influence on me. Unfortunately, Hoskins was not as inspiring as a lecturer as he was an author. His tenure at Oxford was not a long one as he went on to a professorship at, I think, Exeter.

The United Nations Statistical Yearbook was then, as perhaps now, a useful source, although I suspect it can be consulted in digital form today. In the absence of hand-held calculators, electronic devices, the internet and access to even rudimentary photocopiers we were reliant on the printed word. (I have to say that the library at the School of Geography seemed to be well-stocked for undergraduate use and well-used.)


In the first few weeks of Michaelmas, the School of Geology laid on a few half day field excursions to local sites of geological interest. On the first one, we drove along the Cowley Road - a road I had traversed almost every day of my life, having lived just off it - and as we climbed the slight hill towards Jeune Street it was pointed out that we were rising up on to the Summertown-Radley Terrace. This was a thrilling moment for me, a geographical epiphany, convincing me that I had chosen the right subject.

Later, in Trinity, the School of Geography laid on weekly Friday field trips and so we visited a variety of locations around Oxford ranging from the Goring Gap on the Thames to Haw Bridge on the Severn; from White Horse Hill to the ironstone area north of Banbury - then a small market town. Essentially, these field excursions were 'lectures in the field' and we were not called upon to take measurements, record stream flows etc, or even make field sketches. It was the type of fieldwork that I later nicknamed "Cook's Tour" fieldwork! But, nevertheless, it was to have a profound influence on my life as a teacher of the subject.

In Easter vacations, there were residential field excursions to what were for most of us 'far away places'. It must be remembered that the forms of inexpensive air travel that are common today were not available. Few had cars, motorways did not exist (even Oxford's ring road system was incomplete) and for most, long distance travel meant the train. The School had, it seemed, mostly made a point of field excursions to France. However, in my second year, the destination was Scotland where I had never been.

I went by train overnight to the rendezvous at Stirling from where we travelled by a small coach to spend some days in the Tay valley, climbing Ben Lawers on one of them. Then we moved on to Assynt to stay at the Inchnadamph Hotel for the rest of our time. Here, we did attempt work of a more practical nature, comparing physical features of the Lewisian Gneiss with what was shown on Ordnance Survey Six Inch Maps, unrevised since the 19th Century - and not very accurate. I also recall standing on the coast on an exposure of the Torridonian Sandstone with a local geologist addressing us and suggesting that, with similar exposures of the sandstone across the other side of the Atlantic, perhaps 'continental drift' was not an idea to be easily dismissed!

We also got as far north as the exposure of the Durness Limestone which was fitting, as we were accompanied by Dr Marjorie Sweeting, the world-renowned expert on karst landforms. She, of St Hugh's was a charming and helpful woman, the daughter of an eminent geologist, living, fittingly, near Malham. On this trip, my tutor Freddie Martin was with us and, I think, Gordon Smith. On our long trip back to Stirling, I recall them at the front of the coach making sandwiches to feed us as we drove along. The whole trip, including two extra nights I spent in an hotel in Edinburgh cost less than £25! 

Incidentally, as part of some research Dr Sweeting was engaged on, some of us volunteered to cycle out on a regular basis to measure the depth of water in wells in the gardens of some villages along the Corallian scarp south west of Oxford. I never knew the outcome of her research!

Dissertation - Regional Description

I have no idea what current practice is but the equivalent of two papers in Schools were replaced by what was called our 'Regional Description'. (I still have mine - it's so dated!) We had to select an area of approximately 150 square miles and write a geographical account of it. It was expected that this account would follow the then 'traditional' Oxford approach to regional geography. Accordingly, my chapters began with Geology and Geomorphology and ended with Urban Geography. It was illustrated with black and white photos that I had taken with a cheap camera, and with laboriously made tracings from Ordnance Survey maps. Every word of the text - including tables of statistics - was typed on a clumsy manual typewriter I bought, second-hand, for £3. My future wife was the typist!

Most chose a 'region' based on their home area. I was advised not to choose anywhere near Oxford because too much would be known about it by my potential examiners which could put me at a disadvantage. I therefore chose 150 square miles in north east Lancashire centred upon Burnley and extending north across Pendle Hill to the Ribble valley and south to Rossendale - hardly a 'region' and certainly not meriting the French term pays! My choice of area was largely governed by the fact that I could stay with my aunt and uncle in Clitheroe and not by any 'feel' for a region!

Social Life

Apart from attendance at regular Herbertson Society meetings, I do not recall any social events organised for or by we geographers. That was not because we were by inclination unsociable. More likely it was because we were a small, essentially male group scattered amongst a limited number of colleges which then, as now, did not all offer the subject. Furthermore, the School's Mansfield Road location was a bit out of the way. However, Professor Gilbert did invite us on one summer to a social evening in the garden of his home in the village of Appleton. Of course, we cycled there and back.

Our Futures

We were all confident that after three years at Oxford, there would be no problem in getting started on our chosen careers - even with a geography degree! I remember an Old Etonian remarking that it would be 'nice' to get a degree but not essential as he intended to go on the Stock Exchange! A few went on to other post graduate qualifications beyond the likes of a Dip. Ed. One of my friends considered taking some sort of diploma in colonial administration so that he could travel and become a District Officer in one of the colonies. That must have been a short-term career! In the end it was felt that Geographers could, after all, always teach which was what I wanted to do - and did!

And in Conclusion …

Obviously, much academic research had been suspended during WW2 and its aftermath: there had been far more important matters to deal with. Although some went on to take post-graduate degrees, there was not the pressure on them to do so (as had also been the case in pre-War days). A 'good' First seemed quite sufficient. Freddie Martin had, I believe, read PPE at Oriel and then went on to take the new Oxford Geography degree. He published only one academic paper, The Necessity for Determinism. Sadly, it has been said of 1950s and 60s Oxford geography that it was 'not exactly world-renowned for its dynamic and research-orientated views'. It was, I feel, only from the 1960s that what I call the 'knowledge explosion' took effect - some years after I went down. Hypothesis testing, models and quantitative methods were in the future. Regional geography became passé.

It is easy with hindsight to be critical and to make judgements shaped by later experiences, but I value my three frankly undistinguished years in the School of Geography which, in great measure, shaped my life. Embarking on my professional career (now long over) I soon found that I had a lot more Geography to learn - and un-learn, too. However, it is true to say that my Oxford background enabled me to achieve successes that I had never dreamt of as an undergraduate would-be geographer - for which I can only offer belated thanks.