John Ruskin, leading nineteenth century thinker, critic, artist, general man of unimpeachable talents and genius, was also a man of social conscience. Prone to considering all detail, from noticing the most minor daub in a painting to the tiniest vein on an ivy leaf, Ruskin even observed the state of Britain’s roads.
Within the village of North Hinksey in Oxfordshire, one such road, now named Ruskin Road, was one of these little details which caught Ruskin’s eye. The story that follows may well have been a forgotten moment of history but thanks to the reports of Oscar Wilde and Hardwicke Rawnsley, the founder of the National Trust, as well as Punch’s caricatures, we have details of a plan Ruskin set in motion in 1874.
Ruskin spent much time in Oxford, not least because he was the Slade Professor of Fine Art and founded The Ruskin School of Drawing in the University Galleries there (now the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology) in 1871. That same year, Ruskin’s concern with society seemed to escalate and further manifested itself in a series of ‘Letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain’ which was published under the title Fors Clavigera between 1871 and 1884. Also in 1871, Ruskin founded St. George’s Company (although since 1878 this has been known as the Guild of St. George). All of these projects centre around Ruskin’s desire to propagate a new and better society, one which served and enriched the lives of the working man. Rather than alienate him from the lower classes, Ruskin’s privileged position made him seek to clarify his own political and social view, and in order to do so he spent much time communicating and writing to working class men: another slightly earlier text, Time and Tide (1867) also demonstrates this type of engagement.
Whilst spending time in Oxford, Ruskin would ride out into the countryside and in doing so he noticed the state of the roads in between Upper and North Hinksey, roads which were described by Oscar Wilde as being like a ‘swamp’. The road was ‘so full of ruts and depressions that the carts avoided it, and following their own sweet will over the village green, made it unsightly with deep ruts, and useless to the children for their play…broken pots and rubbish that partly filled the ruts. A more untidy, hopeless-looking village green…not seen in Merrie England’.
Ruskin determined to do something about the state of this road and in doing so applied his intellectual ideas to changing the reality of those who lived or travelled through the area. In 1874, Ruskin and twelve students from Balliol College, set about repairing the road and improving sanitation for local residents much to the glee of Punch.
Wilde later reported more fully:
We were coming down the street—a troop of young men, some of them like myself only nineteen, going to river or tennis-court or cricket-field—when Ruskin going up to lecture in cap and gown met us. He seemed troubled and prayed us to go back with him to his lecture, which a few of us did, and there he spoke to us not on art this time but on life, saying that it seemed to him to be wrong that all the best physique and strength of the young men in England should be spent aimlessly on cricket ground or river, without any result at all except that if one rowed well one got a pewter-pot, and if one made a good score, a cane-handled bat. He thought, he said, that we should be working at something that would do good to other people, at something by which we might show that in all labour there was something noble. Well, we were a good deal moved, and said we would do anything he wished. So he went out round Oxford and found two villages, Upper and Lower Hinksey, and between them there lay a great swamp, so that the villagers could not pass from one to the other without many miles of a round. And when we came back in winter he asked us to help him to make a road across this morass for these village people to use. So out we went, day after day, and learned how to lay levels and to break stones, and to wheel barrows along a plank—a very difficult thing to do. And Ruskin worked with us in the mist and rain and mud of an Oxford winter, and our friends and our enemies came out and mocked us from the bank. We did not mind it much then, and we did not mind it afterwards at all, but worked away for two months at our road. And what became of the road? Well, like a bad lecture it ended abruptly—in the middle of the swamp. Ruskin going away to Venice, when we came back for the next term there was no leader, and the ‘diggers’, as they called us, fell asunder.
Another account by Rawnsley can be found in The Atlantic Monthly although this was not written until 1900. Rawnsley notes that ‘Ruskin knew it would mean a certain amount of running the gauntlet of criticism, and that young men were very sensitive. His idea was to invite a certain number of men, whose spirits might be supposed to be able to bear the strain, to meet him, every week or fortnight, at breakfast in his college rooms, that he might thus personally get into touch with them. He left to my Scotch friend the selection of the men [which included Ruskin’s editor Alexander Wedderburn, Ruskin’s biographer William Gershom Collingwood, Alfred Milner, and economic historian Arnold Tonybee]. And so it came to pass that on March 16 twelve men, all from Balliol College, and all of very various ways of looking at most things, met the professor at breakfast, heard his plan, and swore their allegiance’.
Whilst in Genoa and Rome, Ruskin had dedicated time to designing and planning out the work and the work commenced upon his return. However, the men were mocked not lauded. Punch wrote:
Scholars of Ruskin, to him be true.
The truth he has writ in the Stones of Venice.
May be taught by the Stones of Hinksey to.
It was not deemed suitable for men of deportment and education to be digging in the swampy mud of a rural community; they should have been reading Classical Literature and debating higher minded philosophies. But flooding and cholera were identified by Ruskin as being real social issues which could impact the village without action being taken. His ability to put his theory for social improvement into practice was remarkably Pauline in its stoicism, and for the most part it proved effective, certainly in relation to rallying men to the cause. However, despite several teams of twenty men said to have taken their turn over a period of months the road was not completed. Nonetheless, the scale of the project demonstrates Ruskin’s capacity to mentor and inspire those he came into contact with and it remains just one example of Ruskin’s aptitude to think beyond class and public opinion, and to push those around him into action for the greater good by being unafraid of doing what, to him, seemed obvious. Social reform was not something just to be discussed.
For he looked with such a look,
And he spoke with such a tone,
That one almost received his heart into one’s own.
To see how else the episode was reported, refer to the report from The New York Times, 31st March, 1900, here.
 Hardwicke Rawnsley, The Atlantic Monthly, Vol 85 April 1900
 Oscar Wilde, Essays and Lectures (London: ), p.
 Rawnsley, The Atlantic Monthly, Vol 85 April 1900