Tom Brown’s University Days

In our last blog post, we looked at the long and varied career of Maurice Bowra, twentieth century’s most quintessential eccentric don. Other unique teachers and intellectuals may not quite have shared Bowra’s public profile, but were equally treasured by their students for their sharp minds, dedication to teaching, and occasionally peculiar personalities.

One such figure was Courtenay ‘Tom Brown’ Stevens, a lecturer in archaeology at Magdalen college, Oxford, who taught at the college between 1933 and 1972. While Stevens’ unusual nickname was never fully explained, it might be assumed that it was based at least to some extent on the energetic protagonist of Thomas Hughes’ famous 1857 novel. Stevens certainly displayed a similar enthusiasm for life to his fictional counterpart. As a youth, he had worked as a pheasant-beater for the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination sparked the First World War, and in the Second World War, he served in the British intelligence service, writing German-language newsletters to be dropped behind enemy lines. Stevens is also given credit for originating the ‘V for Victory’ sign, popularised by Winston Churchill; his fondness for the symbol was said to be partly as a result of its Morse Code symbol, dot-do-dot-dash, which reminded him of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

For all his daring wartime exploits, Stevens’ university reputation rested on two things: his passion for teaching and his passion for a tipple. Often these two things overlapped: Stevens aimed to share two bottles of claret a day with his tutees, and no tutorial session was complete without a drink of some sort. Once, Stevens was acclaimed for giving seventy-two hours of tutorials in one week. Stevens’ fondness for a drink was not restricted to his students. For dinners with his fellow scholars, he designed (and was the sole operator of), a ‘port railway’, responsible for diligently moving wine around the table in short order. Stevens’ multi-decade career as a tutor demonstrates that an enthusiasm for the finer things in life need not stand in the way of an academic vocation.