Above: The first page of the first set of printed accounts for University College, Oxford, from 1883
© The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford
In 1850 the quiet of Oxford was shattered. After many years of criticism inside and outside the university, a Royal Commission was created, which led to an Act of Parliament which began the process of modernising the university. Several obsolete customs such as limiting fellowships and scholarships to applicants from particular counties or schools were abolished.
In 1872 a new Parliamentary Commission was created to investigate the income of Oxford and Cambridge. This was more easily said than done: the commissioners encountered arcane accounting systems, some barely altered since medieval times. As at Magdalen College, some accounts were still written in Latin.
Therefore a great change was introduced: from 1 January 1883 all Oxford colleges had to prepare printed accounts set up identically. Since then, colleges have submitted such annual accounts for public scrutiny. Furthermore the wealthier colleges now had to give some of their income to the university to help with its rising administrative costs.
These changes presupposed that the colleges’ incomes would remain in a healthy state, but the 1880s and 1890s saw a period of great financial upheaval, thanks to two causes.