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Oxford Brookes: What's in a name?
By Jane Curran
BBC Oxford contributor

John Henry Brookes. Photo courtesy of Oxford Brookes University.
Oxford Brookes was named after John Henry Brookes (1891 1975)

Oxford Brookes - the name is so familiar, yet many have little or no idea who the university is named after.

50 or 60 years ago, however, it would have been hard not to have come across John Brookes.

He was involved in numerous aspects of life in Oxford, as an educator, artist, photographer, actor, magistrate and a life long member of the Rotary Club.

He was known for his kindness and generosity, for his youth work and encouragement of community spirit.

He also had a reputation for his good way with people - he could be very persuasive in the nicest possible way, and thus generally achieved what he wanted.

John Henry Brookes was born in Northampton on January 31, 1891. His father was a craftsman who later made his mark in technical education, and Brookes said that it was his father's work in this field that greatly influenced his own career.

He was a pupil at grammar schools in Northampton and Leicester, and in 1909 enrolled at the Leicester School of Arts and Crafts. At that time he was very interested in Ruskin and William Morris - not simply in their art, but in their ideas about craftsmanship and the reshaping of society, and he put some of their precepts to practical use in his life as a teacher.

In 1913 he first stayed, then came to live, in the Cotswolds - in Chipping Campden, where there was a thriving community of artists and craftsmen working at the Guild of Handicraft which had been set up there. He concentrated on sculpture and work as a silversmith.

During World War I, he was a conscientious objector, and had to become a farmworker, a job to which he took enthusiastically, even the early rising - indeed, for the rest of his life he would get up at 5.30 each morning in order to fit in everything he wanted to do.

His love of the countryside and of village life stemmed from this time; he was a keen cyclist and always took paper, pencils, and pen and ink with him to draw the buildings and scenes that appealed to him most.

For many years his drawings were a regular feature of the Oxford Times, but he maintained that they were "not art - only records of things I love". He felt they recorded the minor architectural treasures and the natural beauty of what he saw as the increasingly ravaged and desecrated countryside.

In 1919, when he was 28, he married, and he and his wife, Helena, had two children, a daughter and a son. Three years later, he took up his first post in Oxford, teaching stone carving at the Oxford City School of Arts and Crafts in St. Ebbes, and in 1928 he became Headmaster of the School of Art, which had two staff members and 90 students, and Vice Principal of the whole institution.

Brookes revived classes for printers, and it was he who pioneered day release study for printing apprentices - they went to the old 'Bible Side' of Oxford University Press in Walton Street for their classes and later to the printing school which was set up in Juxon Street in Jericho.

He introduced a course for architectural students, and in 1934, when the school was renamed the Schools of Technology, Art and Commerce, he became the first Principal of the combined Technical and Art Schools.

Under his direction, the school continued to expand, and after World War II it was clear that the new buildings begun in Cowley during the war would be too cramped. By 1950 the college had over 4,000 students and was in 19 sites scattered all over the city.

The Morrell brewery family offered 33 acres of land at the top of Headington Hill, but the city council turned down the plans, which led to a public protest and a huge citizens' meeting in the town hall (a rare occurrence at the time), but eventually permission for revised plans was granted.

The foundation stone was laid by Lord Nuffield, and the first parts of the College of Technology opened in 1956, the year Brookes retired. In 1970 the College became Oxford Polytechnic, and in 1992 it became a university.

John Brookes was a tremendously popular man, and no fewer than 17 retirement parties were held for him, the town hall having to be hired for his leave taking, as hundreds of well wishers wanted to attend. Total retirement, however, was not in Brookes' nature, and although he no longer taught or worked in college administration he continued to pursue his other interests.

He had become a magistrate in 1946, and was appointed Chief Magistrate in 1961. He was concerned about levels of delinquency in the city, and had an enlightened approach to dealing with young people.

Indeed, he had long been involved in youth organisations, such as the YMCA and the City Youth Committee, as he felt that through them young people could be encouraged to make the most of the opportunities available for being educated, or serving apprenticeships, to enable them to earn a satisfying living.

He had taken part in amateur dramatics, and after his retirement he became one of the new directors of the Oxford Playhouse, and helped to form a new company, the Meadow Players, which was to stage educational plays and others under the direction of Frank Hauser. This was to be one of the Playhouse's most successful periods.

As well as being President of the Oxford Rotary Club and the Oxford Photographic Society, Brookes believed that Oxford's unofficial groups were one of its best assets, and he belonged to many; he was a great believer in community spirit and in the importance of fellowship and generosity, and he was keen to promote cooperation and goodwill not just between the many different social groupings in the city, but also between town and gown.

At the end of the 1920s, the Brookes family had moved to The Gate House, 125 The Slade, in Headington, where despite his many commitments he and his wife found time to cultivate a garden which was the envy of the neighbourhood.

He was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Oxford in 1935, and an OBE in 1953, and he died after a long illness in September 1975. John Brookes lives on in the university which honours in its name the man of vision who worked so tirelessly for the cause of education in Oxford in the twentieth century.




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