“Strangers without Gowns”: Academic Refugees, Evacuees, and Civil Servants in Oxford and Cambridge during the Second World War

University dons with British and American servicemen at Balliol College, Oxford.
Credit: Imperial War Museum, TR 1623

The “London Moment” was not just about London, it also had ripple effects on the much smaller university towns of Oxford and Cambridge. Both in close proximity to London and only a short train ride away, their geographic location enabled government employees, academic tutors, émigré scholars and politicians to move back and forth. While student numbers were drastically decimated due to conscription and war service, Oxford or Cambridge were populated by new inhabitants for the duration of the war: Academics from Europe found refuge in colleges, and Allied service members were stationed close to Oxford or Cambridge. Members of evacuated research institutions and libraries, of think tanks or government agencies came to populate colleges, hotels, and private homes. Finally, evacuees from East London which can only be called another socio-economic universe, were billeted in private homes in Oxford and Cambridge, namely. Thus, the war properly shook up the social and academic order, which had an impact far beyond 1945.

Evacuees at Oxford Station, Sept. 1939. Credit: Oxfordshire County Council

This was most apparent in the densely populated streets of Oxford, as observed by historian and poet A. L. Rowse:

“The life of the streets, even in the old centre of the town, has ceased to be dominated by the University. So many thousands of evacuees and refugees have flooded into the area, mainly from London: it is said that the population has gone up by some twenty per cent, perhaps twenty thousand people. Then there are all the men in uniform, who crowd into this convenient centre by all the bus routes from round about. (…) Pavements are incessantly crowded; shopping has become a nightmare (not that that much concerns dons and undergraduates); theatres are packed with unknown faces—as the war wears on it becomes rarer and rarer to recognise a friend.”[1]

One can discern his aversion to the crowded atmosphere, the unfamiliar faces, men and women who were differently clothed, behave differently, maybe even spoke a foreign language – who disturbed the quiet idyll of an “ancient seat of learning”, with its centuries-old social conventions and practised customs. It does not surprise, then, that the initial response at Oxford to the invasion of foreigners was lukewarm, to say the least. When the British government, following the fall of France and the Low Countries, undertook the internment of all “enemy aliens”, i.e. nationals of Germany, Austria and Italy, in the summer of 1940 – including those “friendly enemy aliens”  who had been previously classified as exempt from internment –, Oxford’s and Cambridge’s refugees were no exception. At that date, around 1,000 newcomers were in Oxford, of which 477 classified as enemy aliens, 200 of them men.[2] Most of them were interned on the Isle of Men, where academics were quick to set up a “Camp university”, a lively forum for the exchange of knowledge.[3]

The fear of an impending German invasion not only triggered the internment of “enemy aliens”. The course of war also caused a flurry of activity in His Majesty’s Government that deeply impacted Cambridge and Oxford. Every activity was subordinated to the need to prevent a German invasion and reorganize the British economy and everyday life so as to serve the overarching goal of winning the war. Air-raid precautions, nightly black-outs, steadily increasing shortages, ration cards for food and other necessities of life were as much a reality in London as it was beyond. However, Oxford and Cambridge were rarely bombed, and many Government departments were relocated there.[4] From 1940 onward, ministries and intelligence services scurried to recruit the leading experts in their respective fields to make use of their knowledge for war efforts, effectively decimating the number of the teaching staff.[5] At the same time, university courses were gradually shortened, after which war service in various forms began. Student life was affected by air raid duties and other services like the city’s fire-brigade.[6]

ARP drill at Emmanuel, 1939 or 1940. Emmanuel House (left) and the Hostel were both occupied by the RAF throughout the war. Credit: Emmanuel College

Had it not been for the arrival of students from the University of London colleges, Cambridge would have been rather devoid of its usual bustle.[7] Already in 1939, London colleges had been asked to prepare for possible evacuation to free up buildings for government use.[8] Just after the beginning of the Second World War on 1 September 1939, LSE students started studying in Cambridge. In 1939/40, 620 full-time students registered, which were taught by only 46 teachers – half of the staff in the preceding year.[9] With most graduate students called to service, “Cambridge LSE” became an undergraduate college, and a women’s college at that. To an extent, teaching of LSE and Cambridge became intertwined: Law students heard the international lawyer Hersch Lauterpacht, while Cambridge students enjoyed sociology lectures by Morris Ginsberg.[10] The town itself also changed with the arrival of “those strangers without gowns and with a lively interest in politics as well as the other sex.”[11] For these strangers, Cambridge was a “student Utopia”: “Here was a kind of island community of like minds surrounded by the warm and pleasant sea of an ancient university; the distant thunder of world events came only slowly closer and actually never reached the idyll.”[12] Altogether, some 2,000 students from London would remain in Cambridge until 1945.[13]

This description stands in stark contrast to the realities of life for academic refugees. At the time of internments, around 50 academic refugees were either employed with the University of Oxford or carved out an existence based on subsistence grants by colleges or other benefactors.[14] As there was no unified response by the university to the expulsion of Jewish academics from German universities, the help extended towards the refugees largely rested on private initiative in the colleges and by the Academic Assistance Council/Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. While some colleges made use of their endowments to offer grants to displaced scholars, others did not contribute at all, which can partly be explained by “a residual anti-Semitism that Oxford shared with large parts of British society in the 1930s.”[15] The selection of refugees who were “deserving” of help in the eyes of the committee also served to find candidates that were not likely to stay. As Brockliss put it: “The charity cases were to be birds of passage.”[16]

Most of them had to make due with around 200 to 300 pound per year, or less, although the common understanding was that “a married man can[not] get on with less than £300 in these days.”[17] Thus, Beatrix Walsh, married to a philosophy tutor at Merton College, remembered in 1992 that “Most of them had to continue on their subsistence grants until the end of the war. Professors and their wives, who had lived in solid German comfort, with two staff at least, just as dons did in North Oxford, had no choice but to set up home in petit bourgeois Summertown, where the rent of a house was £1 a week.”[18]

Under these circumstances, being interned in 1940 by the very same country that had just promised a modicum of financial security and a new livelihood came as a shock to refugees. Their host universities turned over their previous restraint and showed a sense of commitment, working towards the release of academic refugees. Still, even many of those who had advocates acting on their behalf were interned from July to October 1940.[19]

Sociologist Morris Ginsberg and LSE Students at Grove Lodge,
Cambridge, June 1940. Credit: LSE Library

The wartime experiences of Oxford and Cambridge were extremely diverse. While it was a “student Utopia” for some and a temporary working place for others, evacuated children from the East End and destitute academic refugees must have felt out of place amidst gowns, high tables, and punting on the Cam. And while most scholars failed to gain a permanent foothold at one of the colleges and had to move elsewhere after the war,[20] they permanently changed the self-perception of Oxford and Cambridge as academic islands and as part of an international scientific community. While Oxford had been a “singularly insular institution” without much influence from outside until 1938, it hosted more refugee scholars than any other university in Great Britain.[21] New networks were built, new ideas were tested, new disciplines introduced, in no small part thanks to these “strangers without gowns.”

Recommended Literature

Addison, Paul. ‘Oxford and the Second World War’. In The History of the University of Oxford, Volume 8: The Twentieth Century, edited by Trevor H. Aston and J. I. Catto. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994, DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198229742.003.0007.

Brockliss, Laurence. ‘Welcoming and Supporting Refugee Scholars: The Role of Oxford’s Colleges’. In Ark of Civilization: Refugee Scholars and Oxford University, 1930-1945, edited by Sally Crawford, Katharina Ulmschneider, and Jaś Elsner, 62–76. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Brockliss, Laurence W. B. The University of Oxford: A History. Oxford: University Press, 2016.

Brooke, Christopher N.L. A History of the University of Cambridge: 1870–1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Cesarani, David, und Tony Kushner. The Internment of Aliens in Twentieth Century Britain. London: Frank Cass, 1993.

Dahrendorf, Ralf. LSE: A History of the London School of Economics and Political Science, 1895-1995. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.


[1] Alfred Leslie Rowse, ‘Oxford in War-Time’, in The Spirit of English History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945), 261.

[2] Cf. ‘1,000 Aliens In Oxford’, in The Times, 15 May 1940, 3.

[3] Cf. Harald Mytum, „Networks of Association: The Social and Intellectual Lives of Academics in Manx Internment Camps during the Second World War“, in Ark of Civilization: Refugee Scholars and Oxford University, 1930-1945, hg. von Sally Crawford, Katharina Ulmschneider, und Jaś Elsner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 100–103.

[4] Paul Addison, ‘Oxford and the Second World War’, in The History of the University of Oxford, Volume 8: The Twentieth Century, ed. Trevor H. Aston and J. I. Catto (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 170.

[5] Addison, Oxford, 170.

[6] Cf. Addison, Oxford, 174–75.

[7] Cf. ‘The University of Cambridge: Epilogue (1939-56)’, in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, ed. J P C Roach (London: Victoria County History, 1959), 307–312. British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol3/pp307-312 (accessed December 1, 2020).

[8] Sue Donnelly, ‘Leaving London – the road to Cambridge’, September 26th, 2019, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsehistory/2019/09/26/leaving-london-the-road-to-cambridge/ (accessed December 1, 2020).

[9] Ralf Dahrendorf, LSE: A History of the London School of Economics and Political Science, 1895–1995 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 343 and 353.

[10] Dahrendorf, LSE, 345.

[11] Dahrendorf, LSE, 347.

[12] Dahrendorf, LSE, 349f.

[13] The University of Cambridge, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol3/pp307-312.

[14] Laurence W. B. Brockliss, The University of Oxford: A History (Oxford: University Press, 2016), 525.

[15] Laurence Brockliss, ‘Welcoming and Supporting Refugee Scholars: The Role of Oxford’s Colleges’, in Ark of Civilization, 64. Also see Anthony Grenville, ‘Academic Refugees in Wartime Oxford: An Overview’, in ibid., 51f.

[16] Brokliss, Oxford’s Colleges, 68.

[17] OUP Archives, CG 62, Kenneth Sisam to Bell, March 2, 1943.

[18] Beatrix Walsh (1992). ‘From outer darkness: Oxford and her refugees’. The Oxford Magazine, Eighth Week, Michaelmas Term, 9.

[19] Paul Weindling, „The Impact of German Medical Scientists on British Medicine: A Case Study of Oxford, 1933-45“, in Forced Migration and Scientific Change: Emigré German-Speaking Scientists, hg. von Mitchell G. Ash und Alfons Söllner (Washin: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 109: Table 4.3 Interned Oxford academics.

[20] Brockliss, University of Oxford, 526.

[21] Sally Crawford, Katharina Ulmschneider, and Jaś Elsner, ‘Oxford’s Ark: World War II Refugees in the Arts and Humanities’, in Ark of Civilization: Refugee Scholars and Oxford University, 1930-1945, ed. id. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 1.




Cite this blog post
Sara Weydner (2020, December 9). “Strangers without Gowns”: Academic Refugees, Evacuees, and Civil Servants in Oxford and Cambridge during the Second World War. The London Moment. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from https://exilegov.hypotheses.org/2399

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