The Oxford Group

My current research is a two-year Leverhulme-funded research project which examines the contribution made to the emergence (or rather re-emergence) of the idea of animal rights made by a group of young people – mainly postgraduate philosophy students – who congregated in Oxford for a few short years – from the late 1960s until the early 1970s. The group – consisting of ten core members – talked, thought, and campaigned about animal rights. In 1971, three of their number – John Harris, and Roslind and Stanley Godlovitch – edited Animals, Men and Morals – the first serious book-length justification for animal rights – and one of their (subsequently most famous) members – Peter Singer – wrote Animal Liberation, probably the most important text in animal ethics.

The centrepiece of the research is a series of bespoke interviews with the surviving members of the Oxford Group. These were conducted by my research associate Dr. Yewande Okuleye. The archive for the project will be made available on the University of Leicester’s digital depository called figshare. A link will be provided in due course.

A book ‘The Oxford Group and the Emergence of Animal Rights’ by Robert Garner and Yewande Okuleye will be published by Oxford University Press next year.

As a start, read the two posts:

https://robert-garner.com/2019/12/09/the-psychogeography-of-the-oxford-group-2/#top

https://robert-garner.com/2019/12/09/the-origins-of-a-friendship-group/

See also this fascinating site put together by Brigid Brophy’s daughter Kate Levey in which the Oxford Group book is profiled.

https://www.brigidbrophy.com/campaigns

THE PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY OF THE OXFORD GROUP

This blog explores some of the key locations in Oxfordshire of most importance to members of the Oxford Group.

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 image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 9a46dc48-5009-40a0-b9e4-de117a950fa5.jpeg

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.

Fairfield
Fairfield on Pullens Lane

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 893b5ea6-ca3f-480a-949f-a7f80d1690aa.jpeg
The Warneford Hospital

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is f147193c-a1ee-4d77-b18a-cd968d1510a6.jpeg
Sunningwell Manor

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.

Mary Keshen in the kitchen of Tinkerbell Cottage circa 1972
Mary Keshen in the kitchen of Tinkerbell Cottage, circa 1972

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 6f638e3a-a99e-49bf-93ca-2c30a77607ee.jpeg
Oxford Town Hall

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 8ed05e90-2aba-45a4-81cf-cf431613eb00.jpeg
St. Michaels’ Church, Cornmarket

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.

The walk from New College to Balliol

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!

References

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.

The Origins of a Friendship Group

This blog details who the members of the Oxford Group were, where they came from and how they met. The ten core members consisted of three married couples – Roslind and Stanley Godlovitch, Peter and Renata Singer and Richard and Mary Keshen, three singletons who shared a house in Oxford – John Harris, David Wood and Michael Peters – and, finally, Richard Ryder who was older and not an Oxford student, or married to one.

Ros and Stan Godlovitch arrived in Oxford in 1968. Stan had worked out an animal rights position as an undergraduate in Montreal and he and Ros had therefore become vegetarians before arriving in Oxford. Stan enrolled to study for a DPhil in the philosophy of biology. Ros had not, at this stage, enrolled as a student, although did so, albeit briefly, later.

yewandewithsinger.jpg
Peter Singer with Yewande Okuleye

Peter Singer arrived in Oxford – with Renata, his wife – in October 1969 to undertake a graduate degree in philosophy. Born in 1946 in Melbourne, he was the son of Jewish Austrians who fled Vienna as soon as possible after the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany), their escape facilitated by the remarkable altruism of an Australian citizen who agreed, despite having only met Peter’s mother once, to act as a sponsor for Singer’s parents’ Australian visa application. His father was a coffee trader, and his mother was a doctor. His grandparents did not leave and were sent to concentration camps with only his maternal grandmother surviving.

Richard Keshen graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1969 from York University in Toronto. He then secured a four-year Canada Council scholarship to undertake postgraduate study. Just before setting off for Oxford in August 1969, he married Mary Robertson, an English graduate and qualified teacher, whom he had met in his second year of undergraduate study. Both were 22 year’s old.

Harris was born in London in 1946. After attending a Grammar School (his A levels were in science) in Fareham, Hampshire, Harris went up to Manchester originally to study Chemistry but after a year, transferring to study philosophy which interested him more. After obtaining a first-class degree, he went, in 1968, to Oxford to study, at Balliol, for an MPhil which was then upgraded to a DPhil. Harris met David Wood whilst studying philosophy as undergraduates at Manchester University so it was no surprise that they both gravitated to Oxford once they have graduated in 1968, the latter enrolling for an DPhil at New College. Mike Peters was Wood’s friend from Leeds who met Harris when arriving in Oxford to study for a DPhil in Sociology. Quiet and intense, Peters, unlike the others, was extremely left-wing, interested in revolutionary movements.

Dressed to Impress. Harris (bottom centre), Peters (bottom right), Godlovitch (top right) and Wood (top left).
Harris (bottom centre), Peters (bottom right), Godlovitch (top right) and Wood (top left). Dressed to impress!
Richard and Mary as they are now.
Richard and Mary as they are now
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fullsizeoutput_819.jpeg
Mary and Richard circa 1971

The final core member of the group was Richard Ryder. He was a bit older than the others (born in 1940) and in the late 1960s did not have a University affiliation, but was working as a clinical psychologist at the Warneford psychiatric hospital in Oxford. He grew up in Dorset. His father, ‘Jack’ Dudley Ryder, was a county squire, a landowner of a large estate near Corfe Castle. Both his mother and father were fond of animals and Ryder puts his subsequent concern for animals down, in particular, to his mother’s intense dislike of animal cruelty.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is unknown-2-1.jpeg
Richard Ryder

Three others who subsequently became well-known animal ethicists had links with Oxford at the time but were either more peripheral figures, or had no involvement at all, in the Oxford Group. In the latter camp was Stephen Clark who was a PPE undergraduate at Balliol, and, in 1968, became a Fellow at All Souls. However, he had no contact with the others at the time and puts his conversion to vegetarianism down to an event external to Oxford. Secondly, there is Tom Regan, an American philosopher later to be the author of the influential book The Case for Animal Rights. Regan did visit Oxford – in the summer of 1973 – but it was only a fleeting one of six weeks on a trip with a group of students. He did meet Singer and they met on a number of occasions, thus beginning an acquaintance that was to last for the rest of Regan’s life (he died in 2017).

Finally, mention should be made of Andrew Linzey who later became the leading theologian of animal rights. Linzey lived in Oxford at the time and had done since childhood. However, he was only 17 in the Autumn of 1969 and was not a student at the University.  He was, though, extremely active in local Oxford animal societies, particularly before 1970 when he left to go up to King’s College in London to read for a degree in theology and was certainly part of the wider social network to which the Oxford Group members belonged.

Stanley and Ros Godlovitch’s role as gatekeepers is very obvious. They brought the Group together. For example, Harris and Wood met Stan in a lecture before being introduced to Ros. Similarly, Richard Keshen’s involvement can be dated from meeting Stan, together with John Harris, in the early part of 1970, at a sparsely-attended lecture given by Brian Farrell (who held the Wilde Readership in Mental Philosophy between 1947-79). Subsequently, Stan invited Richard and Mary to dinner.

Richard Keshen, armed with the arguments gleaned from the Godlovitchs, then played a key role in Singer’s introduction to the group. The crucial meeting was by accident. After they had both attended a well-attended lecture given – at New College towards the end of the Autumn term in 1970 – by the moral philosopher Jonathan Glover (part of a series on free-will, determinism and moral responsibility), a few students, including Keshen and Singer, stayed behind to ask questions. The two got talking as they left, and Richard invited Peter to his college, Balliol, for lunch. Waiting in a line, they perused the menu and Singer was curious when Keshen asked if the spaghetti sauce contained meat and, being told that it did, chose a salad instead. Eventually, after discussing Glover’s lecture,Peter asked Richard about his dietary preferences. Richard then recounted the arguments gleaned from the Godlovitchs so, for Singer, beginning a discussion that was to change his life. Over the next two months, Peter and Renata Singer were introduced to Mary Keshen, and Ros and Stanley Godlovitch and, through them, the other members of the loose grouping of vegetarians.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 37de3e0e-6b9d-4b3c-ba80-48387b8ec339.jpeg

Richard Ryder was already a committed animal activist, although not a vegetarian, focusing on opposing animal experimentation and otter hunting. In the Spring of 1969, whilst waiting to see some late patients at the Warneford hospital, he wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph pointing out the similarities between humans and animals and the imperative to regard them more equally ethically. Following a sustained, albeit mixed, response from readers when it was published, he then wrote two additional letters. In terms of the Oxford Group the key intermediary was Brigid Brophy.

Brophy was a very well-regarded and well-known British novelist in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the founders of the enormously influential author’s collecting society, the Writers’ Action Group. She was also well ahead of her time in promoting animal causes. By the mid-1950s, she was a vegetarian and anti-vivisectionist.One of the key moments in the development of the modern animal protection movement was the publication in the Sunday Times on 10 October 1965 of Brophy’s article on animal rights. 

After seeing Ryder’s letters, Brophy – who lived in London with her husband the art historian Michael Levey who later (1973-87) became the Director of the British National Gallery – wrote to Ryder about a month later so beginning a working relationship that was to last until she was struck down by MS in the 1980s. More importantly, for our present concerns, Brophy, who already knew the Godlovitchs and Harris, put Ryder in touch with them and he met them for the first time, at the Godlovitch’s flat, about three weeks after Brophy’s initial contact.

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.

%d bloggers like this: