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Discover the stories of the people buried here.

The Acland



The massive stone cross which marks the Acland grave at the far end of Holywell cemetery is not a thing of beauty, but its size reflects the personality of Henry Wentworth Acland, buried there with his wife Sarah and the eldest of their seven sons. The life of Sir Henry Acland (1815-1900), Radcliffe Librarian, Physician to the Radcliffe Hospital and Regius Professor of Medicine, spanned almost the entire 19th century. A man of wide culture and deep but unobtrusive piety, restless, impetuous and hyperactive, he made a more lasting impact on Oxford than many of his better-known contemporaries.


Born at Broadclyst, near Exeter, Henry was the second son of Sir Thomas Acland, 10th Baronet of that name. Much was expected of an Acland, and the family had a long tradition of service to the county of Devon and to society at large. Sir Thomas and his wife inspired awe, as well as love, in their many children. Henry had the education then considered appropriate to his rank and society. From Harrow School he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1834. The young Henry Liddell was his sympathetic tutor, and it was at Christ Church that he formed a lifelong friendship with John Ruskin. In his Memoirs, Ruskin would many years later include Acland among those of his contemporaries who showed ‘elements of curious possibilities in coming days. None of us [was] then conscious of any change or chance of change, least of all the stern captain [Dean Gaisford] who, with rounded brow and glittering dark eye, led in his old thunderous Latin the responses of the morning prayer’. After a breakdown in health Acland took a year out, in the course of which he explored the eastern Mediterranean, hobnobbed with sailors and bandits, and learned the art of seamanship. Though eventually he achieved only a third class in Schools, family connections won him a fellowship at All Souls, and that gave him the security he needed to achieve his ambition of becoming a doctor, pursuing his medical studies in London and Edinburgh. Exposure to the cheerful callousness which was prevalent among the London medical students came as a shock to the young Fellow of All Souls who, in his own words, ‘had not yet learned to view his fellow-men as machines without souls’.


In 1845 he returned to Oxford at the invitation of Dean Gaisford to take up the post of Reader in Anatomy at his old college. It was a college, not a university, appointment, and regarded as something of a sinecure. Natural Philosophy (or Science, we might now call it) was still seen as a harmless hobby, pursued by amusing eccentrics like Dr Buckland, but beyond the pale of serious academic study (which meant the Greek and Roman classics, and – to a lesser degree – Mathematics). Acland was repelled by the narrowness of the Oxford curriculum, and he and his supporters determined not to rest until – in his own words – ‘means for rightly studying what is vouchsafed for man to know of this universe were accorded to the youth committed to their care’. His ambition for the establishment of an honour school of Natural Science was realised in 1850. But the new school still needed a worthy home, and Acland devoted the following ten years to the planning and construction of the University Museum, inspired by Ruskin and designed by the young Dublin architect Benjamin Woodward. All the sciences were gathered there under the one roof, in keeping with Acland’s belief in the importance of a general grounding in the sciences, particularly for medical students. For him, educational considerations took precedence over vocational training. He was against premature specialisation, and held to the view that the clinical training of medical students was better undertaken outside Oxford, at a later stage. (It is fortunate for us that in his later years he had to concede defeat on this issue). It was also a central tenet of his educational philosophy that ‘the utter severance of moral training from the communication of knowledge is a great evil’.


As if his academic duties were not enough, Acland also took on, from the start, what was the largest medical practice in the town and county of Oxford. Sometimes his coachman would drive him as much as 70 miles in the one day, travelling out as far as Thame and Bicester. In Oxford itself it was said that ‘no-one of any respectability thought of dying without seeing Dr Acland’. A two-handed compliment, indeed! When cholera broke out in 1854 it was Acland who organised and supervised measures to prevent the spread of the epidemic, and his subsequent report brought about much-needed changes in the city’s water supply and sewage system.


When he took on his practice the medical practitioner was still regarded in polite society as being ‘not quite a gentleman’. That could not be said of Acland. He was well equipped by birth and character to defy convention. Some thought it unsuitable that a Regius Professor should give lectures to the general public in the Town Hall, or that he should appear on the river in ‘boating costume’. More seriously, he was prepared to challenge even his friends on matters of principle. In 1870 the proposal to award an honorary doctorate to Charles Darwin was stubbornly opposed on moral and theological grounds by his old Christ Church friend Edward Pusey. Though Acland reserved judgment on the validity of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, he championed his right to free scientific enquiry. ‘If you will show me a single irreverent passage or uncharitable passage in Darwin’s writings’, he told Pusey, ‘I shall reconsider the matter’. (In the event Darwin declined the honour, on grounds of ill-health).


From 1847 the centre of Acland’s operations was his home (described by him as a ‘rabbit-warren’) in Broad Street, on the site of what later became the New Bodleian. Woodward designed its library, and the famous James O’Shea carved an inscription from Wordsworth’s ‘Ode to a Skylark’ over its fireplace:


                               ‘Type of the wise who soar, but never roam;

                                True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home’.


 It was Sarah Acland who gave that home stability. Undergraduates were made welcome to musical evenings on Sundays, but during the week the Doctor was more often than not in a state of perpetual motion. There were too many calls on his time, too many unexpected visitors, and on at least one occasion his ever-resourceful, ever-tolerant wife packed him off to Didcot to write his letters there in the station waiting room. ‘I know no pleasure more keen’, said Henry, ‘than being left for two hours in a railway station undisturbed’

  Sarah Acland died on 29 October 1878, borne to her grave at Holywell by her six surviving sons. Henry followed her twenty-two years later, in the autumn of 1900. The route to the cemetery from Broad Street was lined with silent crowds.  


Martin Murphy

John Herbert Barber

John Herbert Barber died on 2nd December 2005, aged 93. Born in 1912, he devoted his life to two enthusiasms: drama and writing. His love of drama was the result of boyhood experience. He was the son of a Birmingham cinema-developer, and as a child in the 1920s he assisted in one of the cinemas by selling tickets, escorting people to their seats, and making thunder-noise for the silent films.

  In 1929, after leaving King Edward's School, Birmingham, Barber went to Birmingham University, where he happened to meet a visitor from Oxford, David Nichol Smith. Smith was the recently elected Merton Professor of English Literature who, during the 1920s, had built up undergraduate English at Merton College. He persuaded Barber to apply to Merton. He was admitted, and arrived in Michaelmas 1930 just as a new drama society, 'Merton Floats', was gaining momentum. In December Barber played Alworth, a gentleman page, in the ambitious Floats production of A New Way to Pay Old Debts (c. 1621) by Philip Massinger, sometime of St Alban Hall. Other participants included the founders of Floats, Giles Playfair and Kent Willing-Denton, and Hermione Baddeley, a well-known professional actress. Playfair's father, the West-End producer Sir Nigel Playfair, was co-producer. There were five performances, given in Hall. The following June, Barber played Salvius, a Greek, in X=0 (1917) by John Drinkwater. Barber's tutors included Nevill Coghill (Exeter) and Merton's new English tutor (from 1931), the poet Edmund Blunden. Barber considered Blunden a poor tutor, and for the rest of his life wondered whether he should have complained to the College authorities. His broader affection for Merton remained, however, undimmed.


  After graduating, Barber stayed in Oxford. Like some other contemporaries he joined a newspaper, in his case the Oxford Times, where he worked as a sub-editor. He entered the precincts of the theatrical work   6  in London in the late 1930s when he joined MGM, which employed him to find play-scripts suitable for filming. But this was cut short by war. Unmartial by nature, Barber declined military service and served as an ambulance driver. Afterwards he worked on the popular weekly magazines Picture Post and the Leader.


  In 1950 Barber enjoyed a true 'break' when he was appointed Theatre Critic of the Daily Express, then one of Britain's best-selling newspapers. Its prominence helped to make Barber a leading figure in the theatrical world, and enabled him to promote the theatre to a wide public. The Express also allowed him to commission photographic work. Among the photographers he employed was the young Anthony Armstrong-Jones, who later married Princess Margaret. Barber was pleased to be one of the first critics to appreciate the talent of Richard Burton (1925--84). Likewise, exactly fifty years ago, he was quick to enthuse about John Osborne's controversial Look Back in Anger, of which he wrote: 'It is intense, angry, feverish, undisciplined. It is even crazy. But it is young, young, young.'

  Barber greatly respected the legendary Editor of the Express, Arthur Christiansen, and left the paper in 1958 following Christiansen's demotion by his proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook. For six years Barber worked for the eminent literary agency Curtis Brown and then joined BBC TV as a script editor. But in 1968, now in his mid-fifties, he regained the heights when he was invited to become Chief Drama Critic of the Telegraph. He remained there for eighteen years, into his seventies, contributing several reviews a week and a feature article. His work often took him abroad -- to Dublin, Paris, New York, and the theatre festival at Louisville, Kentucky, where he was a regular guest. In London he famously improved conditions for critics by persuading West-End managers to start their opening nights half an hour earlier than usual, so critics could see a play through before racing to meet their copy deadline. He served as President of the Critics' Circle in 1982.


  Barber retired in 1986, and in 1992 he returned to Oxford. He was glad to be near Merton, and appreciated his more frequent contacts. His idea of 'retirement' included piano-playing and the study of Latin poetry. In the latter he was helped by young tutors, some of them Mertonians. He kept in touch with theatrical friends, and published articles to the end of his life, including several in The Oldie. He made a generous donation to Merton for classics, and enjoyed telephone conversations with Hugh Morrison (1930) in Canada. He was married twice, and was survived by four children, six grandchildren and his widow Kathy. His funeral was held in chapel, when the readings included a passage by his fellow Mertonian T.S. Eliot (1914).


  John Barber combined kindness and courtesy with zest, and these characteristics informed his work as a critic. Never the egotist, he sought to be fair to productions and players while also being truthful to his readers. His taste was broad, ranging from classical European theatre to innovative modern drama, to musicals, to light entertainment. He wrote, as Michael Billington commented in the Guardian, 'with wit, precision and a cherishable gift for the illuminating phrase'. As a young critic, he won the respect of the older generation. When he became a senior figure, he took trouble to help and encourage newcomers. He was someone people could trust. Barber was tall and slim with a full head of hair. In his last years one would see him quietly strolling around Oxford, often covered by a broad-brimmed hat, bringing a touch of 1920s elegance into the twenty-first century.


Professor Max Müller


When Frederick Max Müller (1823-1900) first came to Oxford in 1848 what impressed him most, as he recalled in his autobiography, ‘even more than the hospitality of Oxford, was the real friendship shown to an unknown German scholar.  I must have seemed a very strange bird, such as had never built his nest in Oxford’. It never entered his wildest dreams that in a few years’ time he would be a Fellow ‘of the most exclusive of colleges (Christ Church) and a married one at that (not even invented then)’ and the first Professor of Philology.


Max Müller was described as the greatest Sanskrit scholar of all time. He had more honours to come including a fellowship of All Souls and membership of the Privy Council which meant that he could take the title of Right Honourable.  In 1873 he dined with Prince Leopold (presumably when he was staying at Wykeham House in Banbury Road) who told him that the Queen had charged him to say how pleased she was that he had decided to stay in England.  He became a naturalised Englishman which no doubt pleased his wife who was British.  She was closely associated with the setting up of women’s colleges in Oxford.


The Müllers lived at 7 Norham Gardens (‘Parks End’) which was originally the home of Professor Goldwyn Smith which he had built for himself on the edge of the Parks in 1862 as a bachelor’s house. They bought it at auction in 1867. Max had 13,000 volumes in his library here.


The poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, describing his visit to the Müllers in 1886, wrote:


‘It was a lovely family picture, a pretty house, surrounded by attractive scenery, scholarship, refinement, simple elegance, giving distinction to a house which seemed a pattern of all we could wish to see beneath an English roof.’


Other well-known visitors were the Right Honourable W.E. Gladstone and the poet Emerson.


Following his funeral in St Mary’s in the High Street nearly all the large congregation walked on foot to Holywell Cemetery where he is buried.  His grave is still very much visited.


Max Müller is buried in plot H166 together with Georgina 1835-1916 and William Grenfell 1867-1945.  It is easy to find as you need to go all the way down the central path. Area H is at the end on the left.  His grave is in the 2nd row back from the end wall and it is a large grave the third one in from the central path.

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