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Portrait of a College Founder

[Arms of Linacre College, Oxford] — Today’s edition of The Independent carries a sketch of the life of John Bamborough, the founding principal of Linacre College at Oxford University, who died earlier this year. The author is Prof. Paul Slack, the college’s current principal.

Linacre is one of Oxford’s graduate colleges, with about 300 student members and 50 fellows. Unlike the residential college systems in the United States, the collegiate systems of Oxford and Cambridge, along with many of their cousins in Great Britain, Canada, and New Zealand, consider the welfare of graduate students to be just as important as the welfare of undergraduates.

John Bamborough: Creator of Linacre College, Oxford

John Bamborough had the rare distinction of creating a new Oxford College. A formidable figure in the University in the 1960s, he was influential in improving the University’s provision for graduate students and graduate studies, and he was appointed the first Principal of Linacre House (later Linacre College) in 1962. It was the first of three new interdisciplinary colleges designed to cater for the University’s growing number of graduates, and it became a model of an international and egalitarian community very different from many of the ancient colleges.

John Bernard Bamborough – always known as “Bam” – was by training a scholar of English literature. Born in 1921, the son of a political journalist, he won a scholarship to Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hampstead, where he acquired a lifelong literary interest in the work of Robert Burton. He went to Oxford as a scholar of New College, and after war service in the Royal Navy, became a Fellow and Tutor of Wadham College, where Maurice Bowra was Warden, in 1947. There he built a thriving undergraduate English school, several of his pupils later having prominent careers in the arts and media, as well as in other universities.

He was also showing his skills as an administrator. He was in succession Dean, Domestic Bursar and Senior Tutor of Wadham, and a year as Junior Proctor introduced him to University committees. He was a member of Hebdomadal Council from 1961 to 1979, and Vice-Chairman of the General Board of Faculties from 1964 to 1967, an influential position at a time when, as he testified to the Franks Commission in 1965, ideas for new initiatives were “darting about all over the machine” and he felt himself “sitting on the lid of a boiling kettle.” His support for modest reform kept the lid more or less stable.

His chief loyalty, however, was to his College, which he ruled with a firm hand for a quarter of century. A man of energy and decision, and of considerable (if dry) wit, he set up a powerful management team, all dedicated to creating a new kind of college. He was greatly helped by his wife, Anne, née Indrehus, whom he married in 1947. A Norwegian, she brought her openness, sensitivity, warmth and infallible memory to the task of making the whole college, Fellows and students alike, feel members of a distinctive community. They were a famously hospitable and effective Oxford partnership, and made lifelong friendships which extended across the world.

In 1986, two years before he retired as Principal, Bamborough had the satisfaction of seeing Linacre gain its charter and its institutional independence. He could then return full-time to his scholarly interests. He had already published books on Renaissance literature, especially on Ben Jonson, and been a formative editor of the Review of English Studies from 1964 to 1978. He completed his work on Burton, writing the introduction and most of the commentary to the great Clarendon edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy in six volumes (1989–2000). He drew attention to Burton’s recipe for avoiding melancholy, which Dr Johnson had recommended to Boswell: “Be not solitary; be not idle.” It was a comment on Bam’s whole career.

He was an Honorary Fellow of New College, Wadham and Linacre, and was made Cavalieri Ufficiale, of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, in 1990, a recognition of the close links he fostered between Linacre and several Italian universities.

John Bernard Bamborough, English scholar: born London 3 January 1921; Junior Lecturer, New College, Oxford 1946; Fellow and Tutor, Wadham College, Oxford, 1947–62, Dean 1947–54, Domestic Bursar 1954–56, Senior Tutor 1957–61; University Lecturer in English, 1951–62; Editor ‘Review of English Studies’ 1964–78; married 1947 Anne Indrehus (one son, one daughter); died Oxford 13 February 2009.

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