It is no coincidence that the two longest-running student publications in Oxford are both named after rivers. For most of its near hundred year history, the Cherwell’s rival was not its relatively recent competitor The Oxford Student, but The Isis. As Binney and Edinger wrote in the paper’s first ever editorial, ‘For us the Cherwell personifies all that is most truly Oxford–it is all our own, the Undergraduates rivers, that is why we take its name for our Undergraduate paper.’ In contrast, they claimed ‘No one could call the Isis, which is the Thames, an Oxford river. It is just as freely associated with a hundred other places’
When Cherwell marketed itself as ‘Anti-Political Weekly Review’, the intention was to emphasise it was everything that The Isis was not. It was concerned with Oxford life, rather than outside politics. It contained undergraduate gossip, rather than long articles on the major national issues of the day. Politics was an outside influence distracting from the Oxford undergraduate experience, as outside organisations were ‘spending money so freely as to disturb our little community’. Thus the first edition proclaimed: ‘We don’t want Tories or Liberals or Bolsheviks to set us all by the ears for our opinions. We don’t want London papers to admonish us or our Dons, and we don’t want France to approve or disapprove of what we do here in Oxfordshire.’ Instead, Binney and Edinger believed that undergraduates needed a publication without a political affiliation, which would treat the Oxford undergraduate experience with the levity and appreciation it deserved. They were convinced that a partisan publication could never serve all Oxford students and thus could never acquire a large readership amongst them.
Ironically, The Isis had been founded in 1892 with some similar pretensions. In its founding ‘programme’, it too said it would ‘have no politics’ and intended ‘to be humorous without being ill-humoured’. Edinger said that by the time he was a student The Isis was ‘Conservative, traditionalist and anti-Woman student’, while he claimed that the Cherwell was ‘Radical, iconoclastic and feminist’ (this statement sits rather oddly with the idea that it was also non-political). Maintaining a consistent identity would prove a challenge for both publications. Throughout their histories, both the Cherwell and The Isis have repeatedly switched orientation within the Oxford undergraduate community. It was only after the Cherwell became a newspaper in 1953, while The Isis remained a magazine, that they permanently became distinct.
Edinger’s description of the Cherwell in later years is, at times, sharply at odds with the idea of the paper as non-political. For example, in 1949, Edinger even wrote that in its early years the Cherwell had been broadly supportive of the Liberal Party. The conclusion I have reached on this issue is that Edinger believed that the Cherwell’s non-political status really meant two main things. Firstly, that it should not be connected to any political party and remain independent of any society in Oxford. Secondly, that it should be a platform that all Oxford students, regardless of their political persuasion, felt able to contribute to. The day that the paper was taken over by a narrow and self-perpetuating political clique would be the day that it would no longer be representative of student opinion. Rather than forgetting this founding principle, the surprising thing is that for a large part of its history the Cherwell has been able to maintain this tradition. Indeed, the Cherwell’s non-political stance has probably contributed to its ability to outlast its partisan competitors more than many past editors would be willing to admit.
By Robert Walmsley
Part 2 – Two Rivers, Two Publications