There was only one normal week of term. Societies were cancelled. There were no sporting events. The pandemic caused mayhem at LMH and throughout Oxford.
I was about to write a short account of how LMH has felt during the past month or so, when curiosity led me to consult The Brown Book to see how College coped with the last great pandemic to have seized Europe – just as the First World War was ending.
There – in 1918 and 1919 – are brief accounts of a community in lockdown. In November 1918 – nine days after the Armistice brought an end to the First World War – the then Principal, Henrietta Jex-Blake, wrote a short report of life at LMH. It recorded that, for the first time in LMH’s history (it was then about 40 years old) an undergraduate had died. Her name was Joan Luard, and she had only been in residence for a brief period. She is buried in Birch, Essex. She is recorded by Jex-Blake as having died on 26 October 1918 (though The Fritillary – a magazine for the women-only colleges at the time – dates it as 26 April 1918).
A year later The Brown Book carries an ‘Oxford Letter’ which speaks of the Armistice having coincided with ‘the end of our visitation by the influenza epidemic’. It records that:
"Influenza had thrown 67 of our household prostrate at different times during a long three weeks, had raged among the servants and still leaves us with a vista of days when rounds of trays, temperatures and bed-making never ceased and when work at books secured an interlude among the messages and house-work to those of us who were neither nursing nor stricken."
Then, as now, the College had a wonderful nurse: Miss Ewbank then, Anne Harpin today. And the same palpable sense of teamwork is evident across a century. Today, as then, we have been so fortunate in the way everyone – porters, cleaners, tutors, cooks, maintenance staff, junior welfare deans and many more – have pulled together to keep the community safe, fed, looked after, instructed and secure.
As I write there are about 80 students in College – mainly those who found a trip home impossible, for whatever reason. It is at times like these when the expansive gardens come especially into their own, with many students finding relaxation, open air, exercise and appropriately distanced company.
Tutors and students alike – including the wider cohort of students at home – are trying to work out the implications of distance learning and exams in Trinity Term. We are all becoming instant experts at Zooming, virtual whiteboards and Microsoft Teams.
I feel particularly sorry for finalists, who are having to readjust to a different idea of exams (and, in some subjects, different exams). Some may find it easy to work from home; others are less fortunate in having a quiet space to themselves or access to wifi. All feel sadness they won’t have a final summer at Oxford – with all the post-exam euphoria that feels like a well-earned rite of passage. As the service we are able to offer our diminished pool of students we have taken advantage of the Government’s Employee Retention Scheme and ‘furloughed’ a great many support staff while we wait to learn how long we are to be bunkered down.
There is no disguising the grave financial implications for the College as we see our lucrative and important conference business vanishing into thin air. The value of our (modest) endowment is diminished. We cannot charge for accommodation with so many rooms empty – and we have no way of knowing whether we can attract graduate and visiting students for the 2020/21 academic year – assuming there is one! Our Treasurer, Andrew MacDonald, has been crunching the numbers and peering into an unknown future with not much more than a crystal ball to help him anticipate how this will all play out.
We are doing our best to keep in touch with the whole community, including alumni. As ever, we are grateful for all thoughts, prayers and offers of help from the whole LMH brother-and-sisterhood. We know this is an anxious time for everyone. It will pass – and in 100 years’ time our successors will be able turn to the record, including The Brown Book, to see a College facing adversity with love, support and fortitude.