10 Little-Known Oxford Alumni and Why They’re So Interesting

Image shows the central quad at Christ Church, the University of Oxford.

Oxford University has no shortage of interesting characters among its alumni, if you want to call them that.

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Some argue that the correct Oxonian term for those who’ve passed through Oxford’s hallowed cloisters is in fact “Old Members”, but doesn’t that make it sound as though the person is a) aged and b) formerly part of some sort of sports or special interest club rather than a prestigious university? So we’ll stick with the more American term “alumni” to avoid confusion. Oxford University has among its alumni hundreds – nay, thousands – of incredibly famous individuals, including 25 British prime ministers and 47 Nobel Laureates. Countless celebrated actors, journalists, composers, authors, explorers and scientists can put “Oxon” after their name to signify their Oxford education, but it’s not just the really famous Oxford alumni who are worthy of one’s attention. In this article, we look at the lives of some of Oxford’s former students of whom you might not previously have been aware.

1. Sir Richard Burton

Image shows a colourised version of a photo of Sir Richard Burton.
Burton’s language skills were so exceptional that he made a pilgrimage to Mecca without anyone realising he was English.

It’s difficult for a summary to do justice to the life and career of the Victorian explorer, translator and orientalist Captain Sir Richard Burton, who achieved more in his life than one would have imagined possible. He went to Trinity College, Oxford, in 1840, but from all accounts didn’t have a very good time there despite his academic intelligence, deliberately flouting the college rules in an effort to get himself “rusticated” (Oxford speak for a temporary suspension). Sadly for Burton he was permanently “sent down” (expelled) and the story goes that he destroyed the college flower beds with his horse as a final act of provocation on his way out. This unpromising start to his career didn’t hold him back, though. Burton made his name with a journey to Mecca, disguised as a Muslim. He went on to become a legendary explorer and was admired for his incredible knowledge of languages – reportedly speaking as many as 29 of them. He was one of the first Europeans to travel to Africa to find the source of the Nile and was the first European to lay eyes on Lake Tanganyika in Africa, as well as authoring many books and papers – known for their extensive and extraordinarily detailed footnotes – on a range of subjects, from human behaviour to falconry.

2. George Butterworth

Image shows soldiers going 'over the top' - i.e. rushing out of a trench to attack - during the Battle of the Somme.
Butterworth was one of the hundreds of thousands of men killed in the Battle of the Somme.

He’s less well-known as classical composers go, but George Butterworth wrote some much-loved pieces of music during his short life prior to his tragically early death in the First World War. During his time at Trinity College, Oxford, he developed his musical ability and became president of the university music society. He mingled with the likes of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp, both avid collectors of folk songs, of which Butterworth would go on to collect 450 on trips into the countryside, sometimes taking a phonograph with which to record them. Butterworth himself was a keen Morris dancer, even doing it professionally for a while. With this background in mind, it’s little wonder that his music – notably The Banks of Green Willow and his musical settings of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad – speaks of the idyllic English countryside and immortalises some of the folk music he knew and loved. During the First World War, he was one of hundreds of thousands to lose his life in the Battle of the Somme, after which The Banks of Green Willow came to be adopted, unofficially, as a piece representing the Unknown Soldier and the sacrifice of an entire generation of young men.

3. The McWhirter Twins

Image shows a series of Guinness World Record books on a garden bench.
The Guinness Book of World Records was a best-seller from the very first year it was printed.

You’d be forgiven for not having heard of the McWhirter brothers, but we’d be surprised if you hadn’t heard of their famous creation. The twins Norris and Ross McWhirter founded the Guinness Book of Records in 1955 after both being educated at Trinity College, Oxford. Norris, impressively, somehow managed to complete his law degree in two years rather than three, before both brothers served three years in the Royal Navy. After that they founded an agency whose purpose was to supply facts and figures to newspapers, and they also both became sports journalists. The story goes that when the managing director of Guinness Breweries was unable to find a book that proved that the golden plover – at which he had missed a shot – was the fastest bird in Europe, he called upon the McWhirter twins to compile a book designed to provide a definitive answer to debates about world records. And so the Guinness Book of Records was born, and the twins continued to be its editors for many years. Sadly, Norris had to continue editing it on his own after Ross’s assassination by the IRA in 1975.

4. Samuel West

Actor Samuel West is the son of actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales (the latter best known for her role as Sybil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers). After studying English Literature at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, during which he was the president of the Experimental Theatre Club, Sam West became a hugely successful actor on stage, television, film and radio, his most notable role being Leonard Bast in Howards End, in which his mother also appeared. Interestingly, he’s often appeared with his father, with the father and son combination either playing a fictional father and son, or playing older and younger versions of the same character. As well as his acting, Sam West is a published writer of articles, also judging poetry competitions and chairing the National Campaign for the Arts. Having acting running in his blood must have been a big influence for him, but that English Literature degree from Oxford clearly stood him in good stead.

5. Vera Brittain

Image shows Somerville College, Oxford.
Somerville College, where Vera Brittain studied.

Vera Brittain started out at Oxford studying English Literature, at Somerville College, which was at that time a women’s college (there are now no women-only colleges at Oxford). However, the First World War meant that she only studied for a year before delaying her education to serve as a nurse. She returned – disillusioned by the horror and suffering that she’d witnessed – after the war, but to study History instead. Her writings on her experiences during the First World War – and her subsequent support of pacifist ideologies – are what have led to her becoming well-known. She lost her fiancé, brother and two close male friends in the war, publishing her letters with each of them in a poignant volume called Letters from a Lost Generation. But it is her Testament of Youth, the first instalment of her memoir, for which she is best known. The book details the colossal impact of the war on a generation, dealing particularly with middle-class women. She became a noted pacifist during the Second World War – to the point that the Nazis had her name on a list of people to be arrested immediately in the event of a German invasion of Britain – going on to speak out passionately in support of nuclear disarmament and against apartheid.

6. Wendy Beckett

Image shows Carmelite nuns in brown habits.
Wendy Beckett is a member of the Carmelite Order.

Better known as Sister Wendy, Wendy Beckett studied English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford, after becoming a member of a congregation of religious women known as The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who dedicate themselves to teaching. She gained a teaching diploma after achieving a First at Oxford, and spent many years teaching English and Latin at a school in her native South Africa. By 1970 she was suffering from health problems that led her to give up teaching and request permission from the Pope to leave her congregation, settling as a hermit at a monastery in Norfolk. Now aged 84, she devotes her life to solitary prayer, though spends two hours a day earning a living. She started out this new life by living in a caravan, though this has since been replaced by a mobile home; her only contact with the outside world is with the prioress of the monastery and with a nun who brings her food and other essentials. She is, however, known to the outside world on account of a BBC documentary series she presented in the 1990s, on the history of art.

7. Philip Larkin

Image shows a detail from a statue of Larkin in Hull.
Larkin is commemorated by this statute in the Hull Paragon Interchange station.

Melancholy poet Philip Larkin went to St John’s College, Oxford, where he struck up a friendship with fellow writer Kingsley Amis. After achieving a First in English Language and Literature, despite neglecting his studies in favour of his own writing, Larkin went on to pen some of the most memorable lines of 20th century poetry alongside a day job as a librarian at Hull University. Famous for his glum and pessimistic outlook on life, Larkin once commented that “deprivation for him was what daffodils were for Wordsworth”. In the 1970s he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of his alma mater, St John’s, as well as receiving honorary degrees from Warwick, Sussex and St Andrews Universities and the offer of taking over the reins as Poet Laureate after the death of John Betjeman (he declined the offer).

8. Howard Goodall

Image shows Howard Goodall surrounded by coloured blocks of different sizes.
Howard Goodall, explaining how music works.

You may not have heard of the composer Howard Goodall, but you’ll almost certainly be familiar with some of his compositions. He wrote the theme tune to the Blackadder comedy series, and The Vicar of Dibley, and QI, and many more. He studied music at Christ Church, Oxford, and that’s how he came to meet the screenwriter Richard Curtis and actor Rowan Atkinson, with whom he would collaborate in the future (proof that going to Oxford is great for forming a network of useful contacts!). He doesn’t just write television theme tunes, though; he has many compositions for choirs and musical theatre to his name, not to mention a host of successful television documentaries of which he was the presenter. To top off his many accolades, he’s also been awarded a CBE for his services to music.

9. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Much-loved television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall read philosophy and psychology at St Peter’s College, Oxford, two fields of academia that don’t appear to bear much relation to the career that has made him famous. His television programmes champion self-sufficiency, centred on River Cottage. The riverside home in which the wild-haired chef lived a self-sufficient lifestyle for his first River Cottage programme has since been transformed into a thriving business with a deli and canteen at two different locations, which runs cookery classes and holidays. Hugh has made headlines in recent years with his televised campaigning for various causes, including better treatment for battery hens and sustainable fishing. Those with a good memory and an interest in archaeology may also remember Hugh’s early appearances on the hit archaeology series Time Team, on which he was occasionally called upon to recreate dishes from the past.

10. Gertrude Bell

Image shows a group of Bell's workers in Turkey.
Bell’s workers at an excavation of the Byzantine settlement of Madenşehir, Binbirkilise, Turkey, in 1907.

Gertrude Bell was an interesting character whose illustrious career began at the age of 17, when she went to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and achieved a First in history in just two years. Her various subsequent occupations included being a writer, spy, traveller, archaeologist and political officer, and she became an important figure thanks to her knowledge and contacts gained through travelling in and mapping the Middle East. Among her colleagues was another Oxford graduate, T.E. Lawrence, best known by his epithet “Lawrence of Arabia”. Such was Bell’s influence that she was the only woman involved in making British imperial policy in the Middle East (it was unusual for women to hold political influence at that time), and she was closely involved in creating and administering modern Iraq following the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire.
There were many, many more interesting and important Oxford graduates we could have mentioned in this article; these ten are simply a random selection from a huge choice of fascinating characters whose Oxford education was only the beginning of a colourful and extraordinary life. They’re all testament not merely to the quality of an Oxford education, but to the individuality fostered by this illustrious establishment. We’re sure you’ll understand Oxford’s remarkable environment a little better if you come to stay with us on an Oxford Royale Summer Schools course some day…

Image credits: banner; Burton; the Somme; World Record BooksSomerville; Carmelite; Larkin; GoodallBell’s workers