Obituary: The Rev Graham Midgley

John Cowdrey
Wednesday 19 May 1999 23:02

GRAHAM MIDGLEY was a bachelor don of a kind nowadays all too rare who devoted practically all of his working life to the Oxford college, St Edmund Hall, in which he resided. As a tutor in English literature whose interests centred upon Alexander Pope and the Augustans, he belonged to a troika of fellows of the hall, the others being R.E. Alton and R.B. Mitchell, who from the mid-1950s taught the English school together for more than 30 years. They inspired an almost familial loyalty among their pupils. Their complementary gifts and personalities ensured that this loyalty was never divided.

Midgley's success as a tutor lay in the fact that he was seen to be more than a tutor. His warmth, approachability and gift for friendship enabled the exploration of literature to be a joint venture. His pupils found him refreshingly free from academic dogma, so that he encouraged their individual perceptions and at the same time fostered their appreciation of the social and cultural context of literary works.

His personal qualities ensured that there was no aspect of college life upon which he did not set his mark. He was dean for over 20 years. His sense of fair play and his good humour especially commended him to the somewhat maturer earlier generations who, like him, had done national service. (He served in the Royal Artillery, latterly in Burma, from 1942 to 1946). He transformed the still highly paternal decanal discipline that he inherited into a pastoral and consensual regime in which, however, collegiate structure was honoured.

Such a regime was also to be educational: not the least enduring lesson that many learnt from Midgley was how merited reproofs should be given and received. With the confrontational attitudes of later student protest he had little sympathy. So far as the Hall was concerned, it ended when Midgley countered a procession, mostly not of Aularians, which was intent on occupying the Hall to secure the reinstatement of a rusticated undergraduate; he marshalled the whole body of Hall men to ascend the college wall and chorus a mocking parody of "Auld Lang Syne". No answer was possible except for the demonstrators to disperse.

Pastoral motives had led Midgley, whose inner conservatism had been attracted to the Tractarian tradition in the Anglican church not least by its liturgy and music, to seek ordination on the title of his fellowship. In 1978, he vacated the office of dean and undertook the chaplaincy. Over the years he became the friend of a wide range of undergraduates through dining, essay, and other college clubs. The musical and dramatic societies flourished under his patronage. Though not much of an active sportsman himself, he encouraged all Hall sports. In so doing, he was accompanied by his dog Fred, whom he was able to keep only after sedulously undermining a long college taboo against pets. It delighted the undergraduates, as did his public apprenticeship in the sculpture at which he became proficient. He and his dog were carved in stone on the tower of St Peter in the East, now the college library at St Edmund Hall. He wrote the following epitaph for Fred:

Beneath this turf the Dean's dog Fred

Without his master, goes to Earth, stone


But on the tower, stone Dean and Fred


Enjoy the sunshine and endure bad weather.

Midgley's first publication was a much-cited article on the Old English poem "The Wanderer". The poem answered to a noticeable melancholy that underlay Midgley's affability; poetry, like sculpture, existed to articulate such human feelings and it must not be left to the philologists. In 1973, he produced an admirable study bringing to life "Orator" Henley, the eccentric sometime clergyman whose "gilt tub", is mocked in The Dunciad. Three volumes in the Oxford edition of The Miscellaneous Works of John Bunyan followed (1980, 1986, 1989). A certain lack of empathy with Bunyan may be suspected.

No such deficiency is apparent in his University Life in Eighteenth-Century Oxford (1996); drawing upon a vast familiarity with the sources, he presented it in a splendidly readable way in the spirit of Pope and Hogarth. He deliberately left on one side the debated question of Oxford's scholarly standards. Without judgement or censure, he set out to exhibit the social life of both junior and senior members - their eating, drinking, wenching, sports, and cultural pleasures; these contributed to a life full of zest, variety, and sometimes violence, but seldom solemn or dull.

For all his attachment to Oxford, Graham Midgley retained deep roots in his native Yorkshire. Born in Bradford, he attended the Grange High School before winning an exhibition to St Edmund Hall in 1941. To his Bradfordian loyalty he added the character of a dalesman by acquiring a cottage in the remote hamlet of Horsehouse in Coverdale. He identified with its people in church and in pub, delighting to serve as curate in the one and landlord in the other in the absence of the respective incumbents. He similarly served the church of South Hinksey, near Oxford, where he settled in retirement, serving also as chairman of the parish council. But his devotion to St Edmund Hall and all its members and interests remained undiminished to the end. He was an indefatigable and successful fundraiser.

John Cowdrey

Edward Graham Midgley, English scholar and university administrator: born Bradford, Yorkshire 29 September 1923; Lecturer, Bedford College, London 1949-51; Fellow, St Edmund Hall, Oxford 1951-84 (Emeritus), Dean 1956-78, Vice-Principal 1969-78, Chaplain 1978-85; University Lecturer in English, Oxford University 1951-84; ordained deacon 1956, priest 1957; died South Hinksey, Oxfordshire 7 May 1999.

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