Cecil Rhodes – hero or villain?

Three exhibitions running until mid-October attempt to contextualise Cecil Rhodes’s life

Since 2016 controversy has surrounded the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the façade of his alma mater Oriel College, Oxford. Born in 1853, Rhodes was a financier, politician and empire builder of British South Africa and was regarded as a white supremacist.

Protesters have campaigned for the removal of the statue because of Rhodes’s views on empire and race, with one suggestion that it should be turned to face the wall. Two years ago Oriel installed an explanatory noticeboard attached to railings describing Rhodes as a “committed British colonialist” who exploited “the minerals, lands and peoples of southern Africa”.

Rhodes House in Oxford, which administers the international scholarship scheme endowed in 1902, is re-evaluating his name.

Over the decades, participants have included Bill Clinton and former prime ministers of Australia. Changes to the programme have addressed divisive issues, while the Rhodes Trust has spent £38 million renovating the house, a Grade II building on the National Heritage List of England.


Three exhibitions running until mid-October attempt to contextualise Rhodes’s life. Nicola Green’s “I Am Because We Are” explores the achievements of ten Rhodes scholars and fellows; “The World Reimagined”, using large bespoke globes, recounts the history and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, while a photographic display poses a question: “Cecil John Rhodes: Hero, Villain, Ruthless Exploiter or Unjustly Accused?”

The issue has become a long-running cause célèbre, but although Rhodes remains a contested figure, the wider Oxford milieu carries on with town and gown life. It is renowned for venerable college architecture, complemented with tranquil cloisters and quadrangles, manicured lawns and hidden gardens. Some colleges are short on glamour but long on history.

One of the city’s most famous taverns, the Eagle and Child – itself an ancient listed building in St Giles – has been closed for several years but moves are afoot to reopen it soon in a new guise.

Planning permission has been granted to convert the upper floors into a hotel while still keeping the character of the small bar.

The Eagle and Child name refers to the legend of a noble-born baby being found in an eagle’s nest, hence the pub’s nickname “the Bird and Baby”. Dating to the 1640s and creaking with the ebb and flow of history, its literary fame comes from the middle decades of the 20th century when JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis joined a group of writers called the “Inklings”. Lubricated by beer, they commented on each other’s unpublished work in a private lounge known as the Rabbit Room. This was where Tolkien, who died 50 years ago on September 2nd, 1973, discussed his fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings which became an international bestseller.

A memorial plaque records the writers’ visits.

However, when the owners introduced a dartboard, Tolkien and Lewis moved their drinks from the Eagle and Child to the Lamb and Flag bar across the road which has an even older pedigree dating to 1613. It boasts a newly renovated low-beamed snug where the “Inklings” met.

Formerly owned by St John’s College, it is now a community-run watering hole after 300 drinkers pitched in to save it from closure in the past year.

While the city’s spires still dream and the golden stone gleams, the pandemic has left a legacy of vacant sites, languishing buildings and locked-up cafés. But the Queen’s Lane coffee house, established in 1645 and which claims to be the oldest continually serving coffee house in Europe, still thrives and is now known as the QL.

The face of Oxford constantly changes with many new developments taking shape. Several years ago the Blavatnik School, a glass building named after the Ukrainian-born British business philanthropist, celebrated the launch of the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter (ROQ). The Dublin-born artist Michael Craig-Martin’s striking sculpture – a tall magenta-coloured Fountain Pen balanced on its nib – stands outside the building. The pen echoes the circularity of the structure enlivening the cultural identity of the Jericho area.

Next door to it, the Stephen A Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities, costing £185 million, is under construction and will open in 2025.

Whatever the future of the Rhodes statue and Oxford’s literary pubs, something else that evokes the place remains constant – its love of acronyms, initialisms and jargon. In the Oxonian idiolect placenames are converted so that High Street becomes “the High”, the Bodleian “the Bod” or “Bodder”, Cornmarket, “the Corn”, and St Giles “the Giler”. Colleges too come with nicknames: St Edmund Hall is known as “Teddy Hall”, All Souls is referred to as “All Soggers”, while Christ Church is “The House”, after its Latin name Aedes Christi, the House of Christ.

GLAM, which might be thought of as part of an Oxford gaudy, is the body that comprises Gardens, Libraries and Museums, while “Tab” is short for Cantabrigian, slang for people who go to Cambridge University. The bowler-hatted bulldogs – their bark often worse than their bite – is the name for the university guardians tucked away in their gatehouses.

In 2006 St Hilda’s, the last remaining all-women college, finally decided to admit men. And although you may not hear the term much these days, the female students of St Hilda’s were humorously known as “Hildabeasts”.