Founded as the Catholic Club in 1878, it was not until 1888 that the club was renamed the Newman Society. Meetings of the society originally took place at the parish church of St Aloysius Gonzaga or in members’ rooms. Speakers were frequently undergraduates and topics were wide-ranging. Quoting from surviving minute books, Walter Drumm notes:
“At the twenty-fourth meeting, on 2 November 1890, Mr. Parry (University College) read a paper on ‘Lake Dwellings in Switzerland’. ‘A desultory discussion followed, most of the speakers professing ignorance of the subject’. Mr. Urquhart read a paper on ‘Christian Socialists in France’ and Lord Westmeath on ‘De Quincy and Opium Eating’. Hilaire Belloc was probably the best known of the early members of the Newman; on 11 June 1893, when he was still an undergraduate at Balliol, he spoke on ‘The Church and the Republic’.”
When the Catholic Chaplaincy to the University was established in 1896, the Society found a natural home there, often meeting in the Chaplain’s rooms. The same year also saw the Society’s hundredth meeting, which took the form on 18 June 1896 of “a dinner at the Clarendon Hotel. Bishop Ilsley of Birmingham, the Duke of Norfolk and thirty-two others, which was practically the whole membership, consumed at 10/- per head: lobster bisque, sole dauphinoise, poussin (method of cooking unstated), gateaux and fromage.” The New York Times reported the dinner, observing that “the real point of the festivity… was not its apparent occasion. The main topic was the final settlement… of the long-contested question of the recognition by the Roman Church of the education of Catholics… at Oxford and Cambridge.”
The minutes for the period 1898 to 1907 have been lost. The records of the Newman Society are very sparse until the 1940s, from which period society cards have survived. However, as Drumm has emphasised, what records do remain all point to the fact that the Newman is central to Catholic life in Oxford:
“…we can see from the earliest records that the newly arrived undergraduate at the turn of the [20th] century would have been welcomed not only by his chaplain… but by his fellows who met at the Newman.”
By 1926, when Ronald Knox became chaplain to Oxford, the Society’s speakers were no longer predominantly drawn from the ranks of students. Meeting in the long room on the first floor of the Old Palace, then known as the Newman Room, the Society frequently attracted important figures. Such was the Newman’s importance that it even laid claim to some of the Old Palace’s furniture; Knox records that the Newman Room’s “larger sofa… was presented to the Society by Msgr Barnes, who assured me that it was the sofa on which his father proposed marriage to his mother”.
Meetings during Knox’s period as chaplain were generally held on Sunday evenings. In a description of a typical Sunday, Knox wrote:
“At five or ten minutes to seven the Newman speaker, duly washed, must be taken off to whatever club the Committee is dining at. He and the Committee must be lugged back to the Old Palace about 8.10 and given port in the chaplain’s room. The chaplain will keep a look-out to see when the members have mostly arrived (he may even send an S.O.S. to Campion to ask if a few people will turn up and conceal the sparsity of attendance); then he will take the Committee down to the Newman Room… and come to roost in a comfortable chair if he can still find one. During the five-minute interval after the paper, the chaplain invites one or two of the more distinguished people present… to come up after the meeting. During question-time he tries to keep things going… The visitors probably retire at eleven or soon after and the chaplain (unless he has the speaker to entertain) can now enjoy his own company.”
When Knox finally retired from the role of chaplain in 1939, his impact on the Newman Society and Catholic life in Oxford generally had been such that his farewell included “a dinner at the Randolph Hotel at which the Newman Society presented him with an early folio of the Douay Bible, a silver mug, a water-colour of the Old Palace, and £50.” His involvement with the society was not over, however. Women had been admitted to Oxford in 1920, and became members of the Newman Society and of the congregation at the Old Palace in 1941, having previously been cared for by a separate chaplaincy. Knox, who had been called on to return to Oxford but was unenthusiastic, proposed the merger to the Archbishop of Birmingham as a solution to the unexpected vacancy he was being asked to fill; as a confident Evelyn Waugh would later put it, Knox “was the author of the temporary amalgamation, which persists to this day.”
In 1945 the Newman was sufficiently established to merit two mentions in Waugh’s “Oxford novel”, Brideshead Revisited. The first reference comes in the course of Lady Marchmain’s comments to Charles Ryder about her son, Sebastian: “I want Sebastian to have all sorts of friends, not just one. Monsignor Bell tells me he never mixes with the other Catholics, never goes to the Newman, very rarely goes to Mass even. Heaven forbid that he should only know Catholics, but he must know some.”
The society participated in the refurbishing of the Chaplaincy which followed the Second World War; with Newman funds purchase was made of ‘a new wireless set and an electrically operated gramophone’. Socially, the Newman continued to reflect the character of Catholicism among Oxford students; Baroness Williams of Crosby has recorded that while she “went occasionally to the Newman Society”, she “was never part of the exclusive Catholic groups, usually young men and women from distinguished recusant families. Francis Muir has written of being introduced (by then-chaplain Mgr Valentine Elwes) to Elizabeth Jennings at a “Newman Society bun-fight” during this period.
The academic year 1956-7 saw the Society hosting a disputation conducted by Oxford’s Dominicans, an event repeated to much acclaim in Hilary 2014, with a further disputation scheduled for Michaelmas of the same year. In 1959 the Society held a dinner at which the Vice-Chancellor was represented, and which was attended by Archbishop of Westminster William Godfrey, who had become a cardinal in the previous year. The latter took the opportunity to announce the resignation of Mgr Elwes.
Following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the 1970s proved a turbulent decade in the life of the Church. Karl Rahner, who loomed large in the theological battles of the period, was one of several high-profile speakers at the Newman whose presence served to underline the era’s changes. The situation at the Chaplaincy, then under the authority of Crispian Hollis, was bleak, as the system of catechetical Sunday sermons – established in the time of Ronald Knox for the purpose of promoting students’ doctrinal and spiritual formation – collapsed. In the midst of widespread ignorance, doctrinal confusion, and moral rebellion, the Newman staked out its position in 1973, hosting an address by Elizabeth Anscombe titled “Contraception, Sin and Natural Law” – a philosophical defence of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on artificial birth control (Humanae Vitae). Yet the Society was not so inflexible as to refuse to accommodate some new social realities; a 1972 termcard expressed the hope “that activists, gnomes, ravers and potential saints will be inspired by this… term’s programme.”
By 1982 fashions had changed again, so that the year of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic voyage to Britain also saw the Newman organising a “Boaters and Bloomers” event – a prize being offered for the “best Brideshead dress”. The Pope’s visit was itself advertised by one enterprising president as a Newman Society event: Oxonians were informed that “His Holiness the Pope will address Newman Society members and others in Coventry.”
The Newman ceased to be the University’s sole Catholic society, following the creation by the University Chaplains of the Oxford University Catholic Society in 1990, though The Newman continued to play a significant role in Catholic life in Oxford: in 1996, the society organised a Sarum Rite Mass for the feast of the Translation of St Frideswide, patron saint of Oxford. Another such Mass was organised by members of the Newman in 1997, for the feast of Candlemas.
Following the election of Pope Benedict XVI, mentions of the Newman Society and its events appeared in the Catholic and secular press on a number of occasions. In November 2007, following Pope Benedict’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, the Society organised a High Mass in the 1962 extraordinary form of the Roman Rite to mark the centenary of co-founder Hartwell de la Garde Grissell’s death.
In October 2012 the University’s two Catholic societies merged, as a result of the need to unite the distinguished heritage of the Newman Society with the Catholic Society thus creating The Newman Society: The Oxford University Catholic Society. The merged Society resolved to continue the St Thomas More Lecture. The newly merged society made its debut on the broader Catholic youth scene when it acted as autumn host of the Catholic Societies of the Southern Universities in November 2012.