Journeys to and from Magdalen: the Dick Pfaff letters

21 November 2023

The latest ‘Illuminating Magdalen’ blog post is written by Isobel Cree, a volunteer at the Magdalen Archives. Isobel has been volunteering for two months to gain experience in the archives sector prior to applying for a Master’s course in Archives and Records Management, and has spent part of her time cataloguing a collection of letters sent by Richard ‘Dick’ Pfaff (RS 1957–59, DPhil 1962–65). In this post, she gives a glimpse into the travels and experiences that a student like Pfaff might have enjoyed in the late 1950s.

Cataloguing this collection of correspondence has been my biggest project during my time at the Magdalen Archives. I’ve been lucky to work on a variety of records and have been able to glance into the lives of former students and fellows. The Dick Pfaff collection, spanning 140 pages of correspondence sent to family members in the USA, is one that has proved particularly engaging. Pfaff wrote weekly to his parents and sister, giving them updates on his life in Oxford. As such, the letters are a treasure trove of information, since they were written to help Pfaff’s family understand a place they were never able to visit. Similarly, they help us to understand events from which we are separated by many decades, giving us an insight into Pfaff’s daily life at Magdalen. You can read his first impressions of Oxford on an earlier blog post here.

The first letter in the collection opens with Pfaff mentioning the telephone call he had with his family from his hotel in New York before setting sail. This would be the last time Pfaff spoke to them for two years, as passage by ship took two weeks and flying was expensive (one of the letters mentions a Chicago-London flight costing $522, which is around $5,600 in today’s money). In the following letter, Pfaff awaits his arrival with anticipation, having been stuck in the Channel for eight hours. This excitement was clearly felt by all the Rhodes Scholars on board with him, a group he finds ‘congenial’ and free of distinctions.

Fig. 1 Dick Pfaff writes of his excitement to arrive in Oxford, P455/C1/3 (i)

The intersection of Magdalen and the Rhodes Trust in Pfaff’s experience is marked from the beginning. The Warden of Rhodes House greeted the new students on board their ship, before taking them to a reception on their arrival at Oxford. Later, Rhodes vacation travel initiatives encouraged Pfaff to travel throughout the UK and Europe and to stay with various former Rhodes Scholars. Pfaff was so excited to arrive at Magdalen that he writes of his last night on board:

I went to bed a little after eleven, but, like most of my compatriots, was so excited by the whole business that I couldn’t sleep. Finally about three I got up and visited the fellow next door who was reading out loud to his roommates – none of them could sleep either – and at last I slept from four until six when I had to get up.

But while the Pfaff letters are interesting for the light they shed on his life at Magdalen, they are also rich in details concerning the time he spent outside Oxford. Unable to pop back and forth affordably across the Atlantic like his counterparts today, Pfaff and other American Rhodes Scholars spent their vacations travelling in the UK and Europe.

Pfaff therefore eagerly signed up for the University ski trip to Zürs, Austria, in his first Christmas vacation. He knew that his budget would suffer but also that he wanted to make the most of his time in Europe:

‘travelling with a group, especially a group of my friends, seems like a good idea for my first time on the Continent, and the whole thing sounds like great fun.’

Fig. 2 Pfaff writes of his upcoming ski trip, P455/C1/7 (ii)

Pfaff was right to take the opportunity, since his later travels were mostly undertaken alone. He loved skiing, and stayed at Zürs with Magdalen students Nick Daniloff (C 1957–59) and George Baer (RS 1957–59) in a well-appointed room. During his solo trip to Vienna later in the vacation, however, Pfaff did not enjoy quite the same luxuries, and was sometimes forced to stay in rooms as cold as 4°C! Despite enduring such hardships, this did little to improve his tolerance of the cold in his room at Magdalen, on which subject he often wrote to complain to his parents.

Pfaff’s later journeys included a trip to Paris during the Easter vacation, accompanied by his friend, George Baer. Pfaff, a history student, clearly tried to spend as much time in European museums as possible before returning to the States. His main interest when travelling, however, was cathedrals. Pfaff seemed determined to visit every significant English cathedral city, many of which he saw during the summer vacation (Pfaff would later become one of the foremost scholars of medieval English liturgy).

Fig. 3 A crossed out paragraph in a letter sent from the Highlands, P455/C1/54 (i)

During this time, Pfaff also went to the Scottish Highlands to remove himself from company and focus on studying St Augustine (his chosen special subject). However, the letters show vividly how such isolation could affect his mood. Pfaff writes with striking emotional transparency to his parents about his feelings. In one instance, he crosses out an entire paragraph before explaining:

‘There is a rougher side of my nature which feels the need to assert itself by subjecting me to something strenuous and probably unpleasant.’

Although Pfaff was very keen to return to Oxford and London society, he largely kept to himself in his second year, prioritising work. During the Christmas vacation, however, he travelled alone to Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome, and even visited the Uffizi five times, writing that he had ‘an enormous sense of despair as I left it, that I couldn’t sort of capture it all in my head.’

After this vacation, Pfaff remained in the UK due to budget and time restrictions, but he was able to travel due to plans made by Miss MacDonald of Sleat, who organised accommodation for Rhodes Scholars through what was known as the Dominions Fellowship Trust. Pfaff spent most of the Easter vacation in college, but visited St Austell. He was surprised to find himself enticed by the domestic life that his host family enjoyed, which shook the ‘bachelor imperturbability’ he typically embraced at Oxford.

Fig. 4 One of Dick Pfaff’s final letters home from Magdalen, P455/C1/104

Pfaff’s travels became less social still whilst he stayed with various families around Inverness, where he prepared for his final viva, or oral exam. Pfaff seemed to be dreading his return to Magdalen: within a couple of days, he would be leaving. At the time, he believed this was for good. Pfaff returned, however, in 1962, and completed his DPhil in Theology in 1965. One of the most poignant moments in his letters concerns his last night at Magdalen, when, with Richard Snow (E 1956–59), he ‘spent about three hours wandering very slowly over the college grounds that night, and next morning early climbed to the top of the tower for a last, splendid view of Oxford.’

Somewhat fittingly, the Dick Pfaff letters have also travelled around the world only to return to Magdalen, thanks to his son, David, who donated them to the college Archives in 2022. Here they will remain for as long as the college exists, allowing future researchers a fascinating insight into the life and times of one of its students.