The oddballs of Oxford, 1710

Zacharias proves hard to please…

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I was greatly shocked by the hideous features and generally villainous appearance of this good and honest man. His wife, a filthy old hag, was with him, and although she may be the ugliest of her sex he is certainly the more repulsive of the two.

One of the clichés of academia is that scholars are often absent-minded, poorly dressed and eccentric.1 This week we discover that this view is certainly not a new one.

A few days ago my good friend Paul introduced me to the journals of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1683–1734), a German scholar and bookworm who wrote extensively about his visits to the museums and libraries of Cambridge, London and Oxford in 1710, accompanied by his brother Johann Friedrich.

Much of Uffenbach’s journal goes into great detail describing the collections of the archives he visited, and is fairly dry stuff (apart from his persistently snarky comments about how they are often not well kept compared to those in Germany), but his descriptions of people and other scenes he encounters are often very entertaining. As J.E.B. Mayor, translator of selections of these writings, wrote in 1911, “his diary is full of girdings and sniffings at the people and things he sees”.2 (He generously adds, “But though I suspect he was tiresome, I take him not to have been a disagreeable man on the whole.”)

So this week I give you a few of those ‘girdings and sniffings’ – some little vignettes of Oxford scholars of the era (he seems to have been less critical of those in Cambridge – I checked just in case).

On 18 August, Monday morning, our first care was to view the world-famed public library of this University, or the Bodleian, as it is commonly called, after its founder, and to make ourselves known to the Librarian. We asked him to let us have a pass; for unless this is in order, no book may be touched and one sees nothing except what the assistant librarians choose to show for an honorarimn, only too often all sorts of rubbish little likely to please anyone who is in search of something more profound. But as it costs about eight shillings and some trouble to gain an entrance, most strangers content themselves with a casual inspection. Every moment brings fresh spectators of this description and, surprisingly enough, amongst them peasants and womenfolk, who gaze at the library as a cow might gaze at a new gate with such a noise and trampling of feet that others are much disturbed. So that we might not proceed likewise, we begged the Proto-Bibliothecarius, Dr. Hudson, to procure us a pass, which he readily gave. We supposed that this happened out of courtesy, but learned later it was rather from cupidity and in anticipation of getting large donations out of us.

To get ourselves into the good graces of Master Crab [Joseph Crabb], the Sub-Librarian, a poor covetous man, and to take the opportunity of giving him his customary gratuity of a crown, we asked him to guide us round, principally to see the arrangement of the library in general…

[They return a few days later.]

We ran through the three corridors together without moving a single book, and the Sub-Librarian Crab (an arch-ignoramus who, were it not that this was his living, would have preferred sitting in a tavern to being in the Library) merely remarked that there were theological books here…

Mr. Crab then led us back along the cross corridor and opened the two cabinets which one finds in the first part of this cross-corridor at the outset where the contents – mostly playthings and likely to please the ignorant, are always shown… but Mr. Crab never even mentioned what they are and probably neither knows nor can read them. Of one however he did remark: “That book is very old – more than eight hundred years.” When I asked him how knew this, he could reply nothing but: “It is certain, Dr. Grabe told me so,” (i.e., the famous Joh. Ernst Grabius of Königsberg, with whom he considered himself great friends because they have similar sounding names). Thereupon he looked so desperately wise that one could not help laughing.

[Uffenbach is not much more complimentary about Dr Hudson…]

On the morning of 17 September we were in the library. The Librarian Dr. Hudson looked through with us the books which we had selected from the duplicates, and quoted the price, which was so high that my brother only kept a few mathematical books. I was not a little annoyed that he often asked ten shillings for a book which he afterwards parted with for five or six. I hear he is said to be very self-seeking and to have earned large sums with his book peddling: but he has made many enemies through his greed and is generally called the “Bookseller.” His erudition is not very much thought of nor did I detect much of it in my intercourse with him. To all appearance he is very affable, but he has a very disagreeable habit, when he is talking, of crying out every moment: “He! he! he!” just like the peasants, so that it can be heard through the whole library. He is not particularly industrious in the library and the two Sub-Librarians, Mr. Crab, but in particular Mr. Hearne, have made the new catalogue. This Hearne is a man of thirty, very inconspicuous, but a hard worker and of considerable learning.3

[Uffenbach’s sharpest words are saved for poor Jacob Bobart (1641–1719), who succeeded his own German-born father, Jacob senior, as the head of Oxford’s Botanic Garden (then called the Oxford Physic Garden). Both Jacobs seem to have had their eccentricities: the elder was allegedly accompanied round the garden by a goat, and the younger had (a few years before Uffenbach met him) altered the corpse of a rat he found to make it look like a miniature winged dragon – which some people fell for, until he admitted the deception. Uffenbach doesn’t seem to have disliked the elderly botanist, but he is certainly very scathing about his appearance…]

We entered the Hortus Medicus [i.e. the Physic Garden] and Professor Bobart was waiting for us. I was greatly shocked by the hideous features and generally villainous appearance of this good and honest man. His wife, a filthy old hag, was with him, and although she may be the ugliest of her sex he is certainly the more repulsive of the two. An unusually pointed and very long nose, little eyes set deep in the head, a twisted mouth almost without upper lip, a great deep scar in one cheek and the whole face and hands as black and coarse as those of the poorest gardener or farm-labourer. His clothing and especially his hat were also very bad. Such is the aspect of the Professor, who would most naturally be taken for the gardener. In point of fact he does nothing else but work continually in the garden, and in the science of botany he is the careful gardener rather than the learned expert. Yet the industry of the man in publishing the works of his predecessor Morison, who far excelled him in learning, is as praiseworthy as his work in the garden. To come to the garden itself, the good man conducted us round most willingly and showed us all he had, a considerable number of items, but not approaching in interest either those in Leyden or in Amsterdam.

[Uffenbach’s Oxford diary ends with another brief, and sadder, tale of an Oxford eccentric, albeit not one he could meet in person. The don in question is Thomas Creech (1659–1700).]

On 7 October we went together to see the beautiful library which Codrington had bequeathed to the College of All Souls… Eleven years ago, directly over these rooms where the library is, a Mr. Creech lived, and as is well-known, hanged himself like his favourite Lucretius, whom he had translated into English and illustrated with learned anno!ations. He had been expelled from the Collegium Omnium Animarum [i.e. All Souls] on account of unsteady behaviour, upon which he took lodgings in this house. As he intended to hang himself, he pretended to the apothecary that he was going to London, who therefore supposed he was away, until he was found hanging by the belt of his dressing gown. The landlord or apothecary told us a strange thing: namely that at that time Mr. Creech was always in very great fear of being overturned when travelling or in a coach, so that often when he was going anywhere by vehicle, he would lose consciousness, for which reason he usually rode on horseback. Consequently when he announced that he was going to London by coach the landlord was very much surprised. It appears that he was so afraid of driving, because he had made up his mind not to end his life in a fall but swinging in the air by hanging himself.

[It took five days for Creech’s body to be found. The story goes that he had wanted to marry a Miss Philadelphia Playdell but she was told not to by friends; the Dictionary of National Biography drily reports “committed suicide from disappointed love and pecuniary difficulties”. The coroner’s inquest found him ‘non compos mentis’.]

In early June I am publishing Oxford: Visits through History, which includes more of Uffenbach’s adventures and many more from other writers. Readers of Histories are the first to know! And you can order it at HALF PRICE until 31st May:

Order for Half Price!

1, anyone?


J.E.B. Mayor, Cambridge under Queen Anne (1911). Mayor’s book included extracts of Uffenbach’s writings about Oxford and London, although the Oxford extracts here are from the 1928 translation by father and son W.H. & W.J.C. Quarrell, published as Oxford in 1710.


Rare praise from Uffenbach. Thomas Hearne became a notable antiquarian. He kept a diary, too, but alas I’ve checked and it doesn’t tell us about his meeting with the German visitor.