Monday, May 04, 2009

The History of a Historian - A.R. MacEwen. V

Alexander Robertson MacEwen was a fairly typical undergraduate, with pleasant manners, a keen sense of humour, and an interest in all sorts of things. As such, he made many friends at Oxford. While some were those friendships that pass with the end of university, others were of the more enduring kind. He was a member of the college rowing club, as well as a debating society, and among his friends were men who would become MPs and leading educationalists. He was cheered in 1872 by the arrival of another United Presbyterian, W. Gunion Rutherford, who had also won a scholarship. The news prompted him to write to his mother: "UPs for ever!"

But into this happy world of sports and studies an unexpected tragedy came. The captain of the cricket club was found in his rooms dead, a bullet through his brain and a pistol by his side. He had shot himself during the night. The cause of the suicide was unknown, though it was thought to have been extreme physical pain. The whole college was shocked, and an atmosphere of seriousness descended on everyone, including MacEwen. Face to face with death in the midst of life, he wrote to one of his sisters: "I feel here that all study is a weariness of the flesh, and no better or more elevating than stone-breaking, unless it be pursued with a spiritual aim and a desire to serve and know and thereby glorify God. I believe that you are right in joining our Church, but, my dear girl, I know that there is a danger of deluding ourselves that in so doing we are doing an act that is itself good."

He was also engaged in practical works. John Ruskin (pictured), one of Oxford's celebrities at the time, and considered extremely eccentric, had a scheme to drain the marshes around the village of Hincksey, which he felt were having a bad effect on the health of the villagers. To do this, he enlisted a small army of undergraduates who were christened 'the Diggers'. They came, many of them, as men who did not know how to dig, but under the foremanship of Ruskin's head gardener, they were soon moulded into a reasonably effective workforce, and the marshes were drained.
At the end of it all came the examinations. McEwen was incredibly unwell during an examination. He was seized with some sort of fit, and wrote 'worse than nonsense', before having to be taken to a doctor's, where leeches were applied and he was put on medication. He was glad to find that he had a second-class degree. All of this he later saw as God's providence. A First Class degree might have pushed him into the life of an Oxford scholar, a Second Class kept him for the Church.
But he was still invited to spend some time in academia, as Assistant Professor of Humanity in Glasgow University. While he was considering what to do, a new tragedy struck. On the family holiday to Wales in the summer of 1875, his father Dr. MacEwen was taken ill and died. On his death-bed he testified "I have no fear of death. God in His goodness has kept that away, but I should have liked to work for Him a little longer." He died on 4th June, before he could see his son enter the Divinity Hall, but knowing that he would do so.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

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9:06 a.m.  
Anonymous said...


I am researching Ruskin's Hincksey road-mending project, and, since MacEwen was one of the "captains" of the band of "diggers," evidently responsible for keeping the roster of participants, he is potentially an important source of information.

The diggers included Ruskin's primary disciples, such as Collingwood, Wedderburn, and Anderson, as well as other Oxford undergraduates, such as Oscar Wilde, Arnold Toynbee, Hardwicke Rawnsley, and Alfred Milner, all of whom later stated that their lives were significantly shaped by the experience of working with Ruskin. MacEwen's memoir states that the names of approx. 80 young men who participated in the project are included in the rosters.

I am hoping to find those rosters, and I am curious if MacEwen's papers are archived anywhere. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

6:16 p.m.  

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