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WVU's First Rhodes Scholar: Charles Frederick Tucker Brooke

Letter Transcripts 1904-1905 Letter Transcripts 1905-1906

In October 1904, West Virginia University’s first Rhodes Scholar, Charles Frederick Tucker Brooke, or “Tucker Brooke,” as he was known, set off for England to study literature at St. John’s College, Oxford University. Brooke earned an A.B. at WVU in 1901 and a M.A. the following. He had begun a fellowship at the University of Chicago when he was awarded the Rhodes scholarship. The Rhodes Scholar program had just been established in 1902, making Brooke among the first group of Rhodes Scholars from around the world.

Charles Frederick Tucker Brooke, ca. 1906
Charles Frederick Tucker Brooke, ca. 1906

A recent donation of letters by Brooke to the West Virginia & Regional History Center detail his experiences at Oxford and his travels around England and Europe. From 1904 to 1906 Brooke wrote to his family and others with regular updates on his studies, social engagements, and travels. The letters are an addition to an existing collection, A&M 3865, the C.F. Tucker Brooke Papers, which is comprised of family photographs, Brooke’s WVU, Oxford and Yale diplomas, and other artifacts including a program for the dedication of Brooke Tower which was named for him in 1989.

A letter from Tucker Brooke to his mother in 1905 on Union Club stationary.
A letter from Tucker Brooke to his mother in 1905 on Union Club stationary.

Charles Frederick Tucker Brooke was born in Morgantown in 1883 a son of St. George Tucker Brooke and wife Mary Harrison Brown. He entered the University’s Preparatory Department (equivalent to high school) in 1896. During his tenure at WVU he was a member of the Kappa Alpha fraternity and served as Class Poet in his senior year.

brooke's father
St. George Tucker Brooke, first law professor at WVU, ca. 1900

His father, St. George Tucker Brooke, became WVU’s first professor of law 1878, having trained at the University of Virginia. During the Civil War, St. George served in the Confederate Navy and then in the 2nd Virginia Cavalry, Fitz Lee’s Brigade. Tucker Brooke’s mother, Mary was a native of Charles Town, West Virginia.

The new cache of Tucker Brooke letters presents a genial and devoted young man embarking on an exciting new opportunity. In addition to the status of his studies, Tucker Brooke provided detailed descriptions of the people and places he encountered all with a subtle and good natured sense of humor. His letters begin on his journey across the Atlantic in 1904. Brooke describes the trip and his new acquaintances, including other Rhodes Scholars onboard.

The voyage has been delightful; we have a very congenial party and have had, comparatively speaking, I believe, a very calm passage…The fellows are all very pleasant, though one or two of the Westerners are rather unpolished, among them my only companion at St. John’s, Murray from Kansas…My room-mate on board is Carothers from Ark. whom I mentioned, I think, in my postal from Boston. His is one of the few undergrads, but is very pleasant and quite the soul of fun. Fleet from Va. is exceedingly good mannered and gentlemanly, as, in fact, the others are, almost without exception. I don’t think I have seen a more altogether agreeable crowd. (October 3, 1904)

Upon his arrival in England, Brooke proclaimed, “Oxford looks beautiful in its antiquity and quaintness and I know I shall like the life here very much.” But his initial reaction to some British customs came with some cynicism. Lamenting the lack of hot water for baths, he noted, “Regular bathrooms are unknown in this country and all the hot water on the island, so far as I can ascertain, is taken internally in the form of weak tea.”

Still, Oxford provided care and comfort for its students. Brooke was assigned two “scouts” that looked after his domestic needs. He wrote to WVU President Daniel Purinton, “I expect I shall become so lazy after a year or two of this, that I shan’t know how to wait on myself when I get home.”

brooke's mother
Mary Harrison Brown Brooke, ca. 1890.

As he settled in, his letters provide additional insight into the routines of Oxford students at beginning of the twentieth century. All students were provided with tutors who served as advisors, proscribed assignments, and kept upon them pursue their work. Brooke’s first tutor was a Mr. Snow who assigned him a paper to write each week and then discussed the paper during a weekly meeting. Brooke describes Mr. Snow as “very learned and very pleasant to me personally, and I feel quite fortunate in having had him assigned to me as tutor.” Brooke joined the Union Club, “that being considered the thing to do.” He described the Union as “a kind of combination of debating society, circulating library, club, and news agency with a restaurant and numerous other accessories attached.” Many of his letters are written on Union Club stationary.

Brooke’s correspondence does not dwell much on the subjects of his studies, but certainly reveals his studious and scholarly nature. In his first year, Brooke was especially concerned about the time spent on social calls and appearances instead of rigorous study. He relayed to his family that

Classes meet only once or twice or at most three times a week and students are left to work on much more by themselves than at home. I like the system very much, but really there is so much to do always at the university in the way of athletics and social visits from other fellows or the like, that I don’t see where anyone finds much time for hard study. (October 18, 1904)

As time passed, Tucker Brooke found a balance between his studies and social activities. He did very well on his review at the end of his first term. He described the scene in detail for his mother.

I got through the last formality of the term, collections or “coleggers” as the students call it. It is quite an impressive ceremony and for those who have neglected their work a quite painful one. A long line of dons [professors] with the president in the middle sit on one side of a big table in the hall and the students are called up one by one and made to sit in solitary grandeur on the other side of the table facing the dons. One don reads the president then a short notice of the work which the student in question has done and the amount of industry he has shown. For the purposes of discipline they take care to never make this report too flattering…I fared very well as my report stated that my industry had been satisfactory, that I was by no means a beginner in English literature, and that I was adapting myself to English methods of instruction – which last point they regard evidently as a sign of considerable progress.” (December 4, 1904)

A few months later Brooke remarked on the comradery that developed between the Americans at Oxford which he estimated to be about 150 in February 1905.

I don’t think very many people have 150 acquaintances they are in as close touch with, as each of us is with the other members of the American colony here. I really think it is more likely that we shall Americanize Oxford than that Oxford will Anglicize me in any serious way.

During holiday and summer breaks, Tucker Brooke traveled across England and to continental Europe. This time away gave him a chance to go sightseeing but also the opportunity for solitary study. Many letters detail his long walks up mountains and across the countryside. He also eventually took up bicycling. “Bicycles are cheap here and very popular, as nearly everyone has one and uses it to the limit. I expect to see a lot of country this spring that I could not reach by walking. For pleasure, however, and enjoyment of scenery I prefer walking very much.” In April 1905, he compared a walk near Lynton in Devon, England to the scenes from his home in Morgantown.

[We] started again by a path up the Lyn river. The river is about the size of Quarry Run and very much like it, the water being equally clear and rapid. Our foot path wound along the left side at the bottom of steep, wild hills and the views here were as fine as any I have ever seen on the Cheat and rather like them. (April 29, 1905)

Tucker Brooke also spent time in Germany in Heidelberg, Freiberg and Holstein. He hoped to improve his German language speaking abilities and immersed himself while in the country. In England, Brooke traveled to London and all the cities nearby. He investigated Stratford-on-Avon which was of particular interest to him as his research focused on Shakespeare

bachelor of letters certificate
Tucker Brooke’s Oxford Bachelor of Letters Certificate, 1907

After a year at Oxford, in November 1905, Tucker Brooke was living “my usual Oxford life with twelve or fifteen disconnected lectures a week, two tutors for whom I write papers, and enough regular work of my own to keep me occupied without preventing me from enjoying the mild frivolities of Oxford.” In early 1906, he moved into new lodgings which he shared with a roommate “Tandy.” In this last year, he also traveled to the islands of Guernsey and Jersey over break. He found them to be especially beautiful and an excellent place for uninterrupted “work” in preparation for his examinations.

This time for concentrated study paid off. A letter to his mother in June 1906 relays, “I was given the only first-class among the men who took the examination….Getting a first at Oxford is regarded as so much a matter for rejoicing that I have been kept busy answering notes of congratulation, etc.”

He also enclosed a “rather gushy” note from a Miss Aglionby of London. She writes, “your parents have just cause to be proud of you; then to think an American - & a West Virginian & son of a Virginian did it -, took the only first; you have honored us all & I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

brooke's family
Tucker Brooke and Family, ca. 1920.

Throughout his letters Brooke commented frequently on his expenses repeatedly assuring his family that the cost of living was not as expensive as expected and that he was in good financial shape. He also entreated upon his family to visit him in England also with the appeal that the cost of travel and lodgings was very low. In his later letters, his eagerness for his family to visit was a frequent topic with Tucker Brooke outlining many possible activities and ventures across England. Finally, in May 1906, he received word from his father St. George that he would visit beginning in July. Tucker Brooke’s last letter in this collection was sent to his mother from Edinburgh in August and details his travels with his father.

Ultimately, Charles Frederick Tucker Brooke received B.A. (1906) and B. Litt. (1907) degrees from Oxford. In 1909, he married Grace Brakeford in Charles Town, West Virginia, with whom he would have three children. That same year, he began a long teaching career at Yale University, eventually becoming the Sterling Professor of English and a leading authority on Shakespeare and Elizabethan literature. Tucker Brooke died in Connecticut in 1946. Through his Oxford letters, we get a rare glimpse of the life of one of WVU’s distinguished alumni.

brooke circa 1930
Charles Frederick Tucker Brooke, WVU’s First Rhodes Scholar, ca. 1930.