A Catalogue of the contents in & about St. Peter’s College. Radley, Oxford. Taken August 1st 1856 and Inventory of effects, c.1857
When William Sewell founded Radley in 1847, he wanted to create a school that appeared to have existed for 300 years. To that end, he set about buying within one year the antique furniture, wood panelling and carvings, and plate (both solid silver and plated) which would have taken the Oxford colleges he was trying to emulate several centuries to accumulate. The earliest finances of the school were a morass of confusion, subterfuge and incompetence. From 1847-1857, the money from fees and gifts was held privately by William Sewell. He squandered large sums on furniture, treasures and festivities at times when the Fellows and servitors did not receive their wages. Sewell’s attitude to the College finances fluctuated between describing the school as a great gift to God and treating the income as his own private fortune. The extravagant expenditure on antiques, coupled with the inability to forward plan, led to arguments between Singleton as Warden and Sewell as Founder, exacerbated by the discontent of the severely underpaid Fellows. There is no detailed record of Sewell’s expenditure: no accounts, no bills, except for items listed in Singleton’s diary, which represent a fraction of the whole. It is clear from that, that not all the items bought were immediately distributed around the school. There were attics crammed with items and an old coach house was described by the boys as ‘the Warden’s repository’.
In August 1856 the Bursar, Robert Sewell, the Warden’s brother, draw up an itemised catalogue of the school’s possessions, with valuations and the location of each item. In November 1856, he consulted Mr J.G. Hubbard of the Bank of England, whose son had been at Radley for two terms. Hubbard asked for a statement of the annual revenue and expenditure and of all liabilities: they amounted to over £35,000. In February 1857, at a time when the servitors were still having trouble getting their wages, Hubbard undertook to advance the sums most urgently needed.
The Inventory of effects was probably copied in 1857 on Hubbard’s behalf, from the earlier Catalogue. It is a list of all the school’s property, arranged under standard household effects headings: bedsteads, books, cabinets, carpets, kitchen utensils etc. There is no indication in the 1857 inventory of the location or value of particular items despite these being already recorded in Robert Sewell’s copy. The largest section is ‘Books’ which lists 3,000 volumes but does not discriminate between textbooks for the school, the library and books used in chapel services.
In 1860, Hubbard discovered that Robert Sewell had systematically disguised the true gravity of the school’s financial situation: the debts were certified at £49,880, as against liquid assets of £3,123. Despite this, William Sewell embarked upon his most extravagant Gaudy ever, including hiring the band of the Coldstream Guards (‘free on the bill’ according to the Bursar), and built the Gymnasium, now the Old Gym, to ‘save the inconvenience and waste of time caused by boys going into MacLaren’s Gym in Oxford.’ The Trustees, Hubbard and Robert Moorsom, another parent, realised that any tradesman, no matter how small a creditor, could end the school at any time. In 1862, Sewell was finally removed from office. He moved to Europe to escape his debts. Hubbard and Moorsom set about rescuing what they could.
The Inventory of effects was revisited in 1862 and was now annotated with the locations and condition of the individual items: ‘4 old brass altar candlesticks – worn out’, ‘a bronze candlestick – broken’, ‘carpet in still room – worn out’. Most telling of all is the list of plate with many items now marked as ‘sold.’
Hubbard starting selling items he regarded as superfluous sometime before March 1863. He was not alone in this assessment. Singleton had expressed concern over the Reredos in 1847, fearing that it gave too Catholic and garish an appearance to the Chapel and ensuring that the original polychrome paint was removed and replaced with more restrained gilding. Some of the Fellows, including William Wood who became Warden in 1866, had been deeply concerned over the extravagant lifestyle and accompanying furnishings of Sewell and his set. Rev. W. Tuckwell recalled, ‘Cases of decorative treasures, including Agra marbles at a guinea a foot, lay still unpacked in outhouses’, and in 1874 Singleton recorded regret at appearing to sanction the purchase of ‘a thousand articles such as pictures, carvings, old furniture, half worn-out carpets etc.’
The Inventory was revisited again in 1870, when a note makes clear that all the contents of the school were still seen as effectively the property of Mr Hubbard:
Memo Dec. 20th 1870. 10am
The late Warden, Dr Wood, has just mentioned to me that he is desirous of taking away an old-fashioned and rather dilapidated mirror for old association’s sake; he mentioned to Mr Hubbard lately that he should like to take that and some one or two articles and was told that provided he put something in its place of equal or greater value, he could take away. Accordingly he takes the mirror and puts another in lieu. Note. Square mirror about 2 feet with imitation tortoiseshell frame & curious tapestry worked figures.
[Note added later in George Wharton’s hand] A very ordinary square mirror supplied by Baker of Oxford in its place – Feb. 1871
The original mirror is listed as one of five looking-glasses in the original inventory of 1857. In 1862 it hung in the guestroom.
The Inventory was kept in the Bursary until A.K.Boyd started to assemble the School Archives in the 1930s.