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Samuel Alexander (1859-1938): Lincoln College’s first Jewish Fellow

Dr Joshua Bennett

  • Darby Fellow in Modern History
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Samuel Alexander’s election to a fellowship at Lincoln College in 1882 marked a significant moment in the remoulding of Oxford University which occurred during Britain's nineteenth-century age of reform. In a university which had been a closed Anglican society for undergraduates until 1854, and for tutors, professors, and heads of house until 1871, Alexander became the first Jewish Fellow of an Oxford college. Oxford’s opening to Jewish students and scholars did not leave the kinds of architectural monument, in the form of new colleges and permanent private halls, which ultimately attended the admission of nonconformists and Roman Catholics: such as Mansfield College, Manchester College, and Campion Hall. But it has left a rich archival record, of which Alexander’s legacy to Lincoln’s holdings represent a significant share. The most personal artefact to survive is a photograph of the young Alexander, sporting one of the Norfolk jackets which came into fashion in the later part of Victoria’s reign (above, right). The photograph is of the type conventionally taken for the Common Room albums which traditionally recorded dons’ comings and goings from Oxford colleges between the nineteenth century and the end of the twentieth, when the practice of continuing them generally fell into disuse.

Born in Australia in 1859, Alexander had come to England in order to try for a classical scholarship at Balliol College, which he won in 1877. Five years later he successfully put himself forwards for the fellowship examination, also in Classics, held in the Lincoln College Hall on 21 April 1882. The Oxford University Gazette printed a notice of Alexander’s election on 2 May (below). Established in 1870 to provide members of the reforming University with a common source of intelligence on its affairs – thus locally instantiating the centrality of the newspaper to the creation of that disinterested public sphere in which Victorian liberals placed high-minded confidence – the Gazette is kept in bound volumes in Lincoln’s Archive. (The print edition has more recently become a permanent casualty of the pandemic.) After a probationary period of one year, the Rector of the College, Mark Pattison, admitted Alexander and his twin-probationer, John Edward King, to ‘the rights and privileges of perpetual fellows’ of Lincoln. The ageing Pattison’s frail hand can be seen confirming them to this agreeable station in the College Register for 1883 (bottom).

It was fitting, and probably not coincidental, that Alexander should have been elected to Lincoln at a period when Rector Pattison was one of the leading advocates of the secularisation of the University, and the cultivation of ‘modern’ subjects within the context of the emerging tutorial system. Alexander’s own intellectual ambitions placed him at the avant garde of a university that was shedding its formerly ecclesiastical character, though not its engagement with the anxiety over the future of religion, and the prospects for maintaining a shared framework of moral reference, which marked Victorian intellectual culture. Teaching philosophy as part of the study of Classics at Oxford, Alexander broke with the Idealism which then predominated amongst the University’s philosophers in favour of a more self-consciously scientific approach to ethics in his first book, Moral Order and Progress (1889). He relatedly developed his interest in experimental psychology, studying the subject in Germany in the winter of 1890-91. In search of new opportunities to pursue his increasingly scientific and realist approach to philosophy, he left Lincoln to take up a position at the University of Manchester in 1893, where he remained until his retirement in 1924. There he would apply himself to renewing the intellectual vitality of metaphysical philosophy in the light of his interests in the philosophy of science, a work that reached its fullest expression in his Space, Time, and Deity (2 vols, 1920). Alexander also became a supporter of the Zionist movement, as he watched with sadness the intensification of political anti-Semitism on the continent. He died in Manchester in 1938, replete with academic honours, and was buried in the section reserved for the Jewish Reform Congregation at the Manchester Southern Cemetery.

Despite his later distance from Oxford, Alexander remained fond of Lincoln, and retained his associations with a college he had served energetically for ten years. In the autobiographical fragments which he left to posterity, Alexander later recalled how ‘we were a fairly happy family, and on terms of great personal kindness with one another’. Lincoln’s Order Book records that he became Domestic Bursar on Chapter Day in November 1886, in the more amateurish times when such posts, which have since grown vastly in complexity, were filled by the College’s academics on a rotating basis (below). Long after his departure from Lincoln, one of Alexander’s friends amongst the fellowship, Warde Fowler, a Roman historian and ornithologist – not as remarkable a combination of specialisms at the time as it may sound today – orchestrated his election to an Honorary Fellowship in 1918. In the light of such testimonies to the welcome which Alexander found at Lincoln College, its present-day members can look back with satisfaction on the constructive role which their society played in a significant episode of modern Britain’s Jewish history.

A fuller version of this piece can be found on the ‘Opening Oxford: 1871-2021’ website, which contains a series of essays dedicated to the consequences of the 1871 Universities Tests Act for religious diversity at the University.

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