Of great importance in the Oxford Group story was the place – Oxford. It was, in Farrell’s (2001) term, a ‘magnet place’, an important explanatory factor in the Oxford Group’s development and direction. Put simply, access to a major seat of learning – particularly one which had such a reputation in the field of philosophy and which was at the forefront of the development of the new field of applied ethics – and the stunning rural and urban environments that the Oxford Group members were exposed to, played an important part in sustaining and furthering their goals. The importance of the ‘magnet place’ is a central claim of psychogeography, a discipline that can be described as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’ (Guy Debord quoted in Coverley, 2018: 14).
This blog explores some of the key locations in Oxfordshire of most importance to members of the Oxford Group.
1. To start with, three of the Oxford Group members (Harris, David Wood and Mike Peters) lived on Pullens Lane, a narrow leafy road in Headington a suburb of Oxford. They occupied the top floor flat of a big old house called Fairfield. This was a key venue for members of the Group to meet. By the time they moved in, they were the only tenants and they had free-rein of a huge garden with its own vegetable plot and a lawn.
Originally known as the Pullens, the house was built by William Markby – the senior Bursar of Balliol College – in 1879 and marked the development of Pullens Lane as a residential area. After Markby’s death, his widow renamed the house Fairfield. She died in 1928 and, after changing hands a number of times, the house was divided into three flats. Harris, Wood and Peters were the last tenants. After they had departed in the early 1970s, the house fell into disrepair and was demolished. The site is now occupied by the EF Language School, a private international educational company that specialises in language training.
2. Two important locations relate to Richard Ryder, another member of the Group. He was different from the others in that he was not connected to the University, or married to someone who was. Instead, he arrived in Oxford to take up a post as a clinical psychologist at the Warneford psychiatric hospital also in Headington. Whilst working there, Ryder met the other members of the group and continued to engage in animal rights activism, often using Warneford Hospital-headed notepaper to write to MPs.
The second location of importance was the house Ryder lived in at the time. This was an early seventeenth century house in Sunningwell – a village near Boars Hill, about 4 miles from Oxford – called the Old Manor. The Old Manor was built by Benedictine monks. It is said that Elizabeth I frequently stayed there when collecting monies from her Treasurer, who lived in the neighbourhood. A former owner, Una Duval, was a companion of Emmeline Pankhurst.
It was sitting in the bath at the Old Manor that Ryder had his eureka moment, thinking of the label ‘speciesism’ to describe the illegitimate favouring of human interests over those of non-human animals merely because of species membership and not because of any morally relevant characteristics. It was at the Old Manor too, that Peter Singer had regular conversations with Ryder over the concept which played a central role in his subsequent work, and not least his book Animal Liberation.
4. Another home, this time occupied by Richard and Mary Keshen, played an important role in the Oxford Group. From April 1970, the Keshens rented a small cottage in Old Boars Hill, a rural area four miles South West of Oxford. Tinkerbell Cottage was an agricultural servant’s cottage dating back to the eighteenth century which the Keshens rented for the princely sum of £8 per-week. This was the location of numerous dinner parties the Keshens had with the Singers and the Godlovitchs as guests. Intense philosophical discussion about vegetarianism and animal rights, and how to persuade others of the validity of the cause, was a big part of these dinner parties.
5. The Oxford Town Hall was the location for an annual fair of animal welfare societies in Oxford. Organised by the Oxford Federation of Animal Welfare Societies, this event was attended, during their time in Oxford, by Wood, Harris and the Godlovitchs. Their participation in the Oxford animal movement brought them into contact with others, most notably Margery Jones and the young Andrew Linzey the latter going on to become the leading theologian of animal rights and, subsequently, the Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.
The Oxford Town Hall, built in the late nineteenth century, is an imposing, now Grade II listed, Jacobethan-style building on St. Aldate’s Street in the centre of the city.
6. The Oxford Group also did some of their own campaigning. On a number of occasions they sought to highlight the plight of factory-farmed animals by mounting demonstrations next to the stone tower of St. Michael’s Church in Cornmarket, Oxford’s busiest shopping street. The first of these was held on Saturday 25th April 1971. Armed with a stuffed felt veal calf and papier-mache hens in real battery cages as props, Richard Keshen, Wood, Harris, Mike Peters and Peter Singer stood all afternoon trying to persuade the passing public to, at the very least, boycott meat produced in factory farms.
6. The final location significant in the Oxford magnet place takes us right to the centre of the city and the University. It takes the form of a video clip showing the walk, of about five minutes, between New College to Balliol College. The walk takes us from New College on Holywell Street to the East of the city westward along Broad Street, with the Sheldonian Theatre on the left and the Blackwell Bookshop on the right, to the entrance of Balliol College on the right near the junction to Cornmarket and St. Giles.
This walk has great significance in the Oxford Group story for it marked the beginning of Peter Singer’s exposure to vegetarianism and animal rights. Keshen had already met the Godlovitchs and he, and Mary, had converted to vegetarianism. He then met Singer towards the end of 1970 when both attended a lecture given by the moral philosopher Jonathan Glover at New College. The two got talking as they left and Richard invited Peter to his college, Balliol, for lunch. Waiting in line perusing the menu, Keshen asked the catering staff if the spaghetti sauce on the menu contained meat and, being told that it did, he chose a salad instead. Singer was curious and asked Keshen why he had made the choice. The rest, as they say, is history!
Coverley, M. (2018) Psychogeography, Harpenden, Herts: Oldcastle Books.
Farrell, M. (2001) Collaborative Circles, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
The book ‘The Oxford Group and the Emergence of Animal Rights: An Intellectual History’ by Robert Garner and Yewande Okuleye will be published by Oxford University Press in 2020.