The Phoenix Rises

On 20 October 1919, a meeting was called in Barnett House, Broad Street, to form a new society. E. T. Leeds expressed strong disapproval in 1921 of any suggestion of a link between this society and the old Antiquarian Society, and it is true that, in the words of the Oxford Magazine, the policy was “the discussion of a larger range of subjects,” in particular the undertaking of excavations. But those chiefly concerned with the foundation, L. H. D. Buxton, P. S. Spokes, and G. R. Carline, had been significant in the Antiquarian Society before the war—Carline, first president of the new society, had been the last honorary secretary of the old one.

At this first meeting the constitution of the society was approved, and thirty ordinary members were elected. E. T. Leeds became the first honorary vice-president, a position he was to hold until his death in 1955. Membership grew steadily; at the end of the first term there were 39 ordinary, 2 senior, and 9 honorary members.

Only when numbers are recorded in the minute books can we be sure of the effective size of the society. Thus in Michaelmas 1925 membership stood at 52, in Michaelmas 1931 at 94, and in Hilary 1934 at 132. In 1963 the figure of 200 members was passed for the first time, and the record membership up until 1969 (359) was achieved in Michaelmas 1964. Since then the numbers have varied between 180 and 330. All these figures refer to ordinary members; life members have increased steadily to 150.

Because of the gradual improvement in membership, income has risen steadily, allowing the OUAS to finance publications and research programmes even though the subscription rate has been remarkably constant. The original termly rate was £2/6, and despite an attempt to raise this to £3/- in 1931 it remained at £2/6 until 1953, when it was raised to £3/6, the figure at which it remained until 1969.

The first committee consisted of president, treasurer, secretary, and three ordinary members. This body, growing larger over the years as the extent of the society’s activities increased, has sometimes displayed that tendency to self-perpetuation observable in other learned societies. At a committee meeting in 1925:

“It was pointed out that the new officers were in an unconstitutional position, since their nomination (by the committee) had not been ratified at a general meeting of the Society. However, there had been no rivals nominated, and it was agreed to make no mention of this point at the first general meeting of the term. In this discussion the analogy of early Roman history was found helpful.”

Dispute centred on election to the presidency and, after the succession of the secretary to the presidency had been regularised in the 1960s, to the position of secretary also. When two candidates offered themselves for election in 1932 one of them proposed that, since “the majority of members under the present system had no means of estimating the qualifications of candidates to give a Presidential Lecture and might well be influenced … by mere appearances”, the candidates should “be made to deliver short addresses at the end of term before the election.” This was defeated because “a competition would be no better than a lottery, and … the procedure would be undignified.”