by M. Davies (College Porter)
The 7th of March 1949 is when it happened. See the photos and the man of the moment: Mr. Percy G. Sheppard – Oriel’s Head Porter from 1927 until he retired due to ill health in 1956.
If the room in the photos doesn’t look familiar to you, sadly at the time of writing, we are in a pandemic and this year falls short of ‘normal service’. But relax, as many students are not so familiar with our senior library anyway. Well, the pictures are of our senior library and I guess most students first come across it when it is used for holding a guest pianist or classical concert in. Truth is, we nearly lost the whole lot, and the risk of the fire spreading was not only real but extremely likely. Effectively, we would have lost the building along with the central block separating second and third quad. From there, the ‘Doll’s house’ and who knows where the damage would have ended!
I first heard about this Oriel fire through ‘Dickie Bird’, the Head Porter who recruited me to ‘The Oriel’. He told me the story when looking at Percy’s portrait photo that used to hang with other past Head Porters within our Lodge. All sadly gone away now, which is why it seems more important that this Lodge story is worth a resharing.
Fire broke out in the roof of Oriel’s senior library. The alarm was raised and Percy took control, realising that if he simply evacuated everyone without swift action, the flames would become unstoppable, inevitably devouring the contents, including the prized manuscripts for which the library is renowned. First, he organised a human chain of staff and students to save the books and manuscripts. Then another, concentrating on getting water to the fire line in an attempt to slow its spread. The cry went out throughout the entire college – buckets and water carrying vessels of any type were commandeered along with all kitchen and hall staff. Indeed, any and everyone was required to join the effort. A runner was dispatched to get assistance from our neighbouring colleges – the cry went out that Oriel needed assistance and fast!
A few years ago, to mark the fires anniversary, I put up these photos and made a notice (as is known to happen from time to time). One student then told me that her grandfather who studied at Lincoln college happened to be caught up in the events. The human cry for all hands had even crossed the High Street, pulling in random public and students to join the rescue. He found himself carrying piles of books to safety before going on with his day. Photos of my notice were sent and delightedly received, and I was able to give him a belated thank you from our college (now also his granddaughter’s college).
Sorry, back to the story… With the fire service attending and getting multiple points of entry via external ladders, they brought it under control with the books and manuscripts safely evacuated, stacks piled some safe distance away in third quad.
The press and fire service acknowledged Percy’s quick thinking and his directing of the situation. Given the potential devastation, repairs were extremely light. Some 3000 books or manuscripts needed restoration with amazingly only 300 being totally destroyed, along with the library’s exhibits and the building’s entire roof. The buildings repairs were speedily commenced. I understand that they were totally completed with the library back in functioning condition within a year.
Percy Sheppard was appointed to Oriel just before the great depression which would bring Hitler to power in Germany by the mid 1930s. In the pre-war period, partly due to Percy and Dean Wand, Oriel was perceived as a happy and reasonably liberal regime for students (see previous article: ‘Double standards, doubled’). This period is probably the peak of out of hours ‘wall climb-ins’. But the war came; out of the 193 students in residence in 1939, 115 went into military service with a further 52 (including foreign nationals) going into ‘reserved occupations’ (chemistry, engineering, etc). The college became host for courses for the Royal signals. Mr B. Franklin (Lodge Porter) pre his 1935 employment at Oriel, had served in the Navy. For the war, he went back to sea in the North Atlantic. He returned and eventually became Oriel’s next Head Porter when Percy retired. During these war years, Percy’s gardening talents were also apparently known about. Indeed, first quad was for a while turned over to the production of tomatoes, whilst third quad was for the cultivation of cabbages and other vegetables.
As a point of interest, there’s a post war story that for a brief period it got decided by the student body that the food ration allowance should be pooled (some form of rationing itself continued for many, many years after the end of the war). The middle dining room table then was for the sporties (the sports considered were rowing, boxing and rugby). The others occupied the two outer tables. The sporties would get a full and a quarter ration while the others got their portion of slightly less than a full ration. Certainly, this is a reasonably common story around Oxford, so I am sure it is true of somewhere, and Oriel is always considered likely. To me, it seemed to be smelling in the right direction, though others disagree that this ever happened here. Can anyone confirm, or is this just one of those ‘deserves to be true’ urban myth things regarding our college history, or not even Oriel at all?
Our 1956 college record states: ‘It was a very fortunate day for the college when Mr Sheppard answered an advertisement and signed on to report at the college lodge on the completion of his appointment at Cowley Barracks. Throughout his long service, he has maintained the highest standard of conscientiousness and discipline, but the duties of a Porter are heavy, and the hours at night are severe. In recent years, Mr Sheppard has felt the strain, especially in the winter, and to our great regret he has had to recognise that it would be unwise to go on. He is to be found at 56 Oxford Road, Old Marston, where we hope his garden will flourish and his retirement be long and happy.’