Culture Interviews

A Walk with Uncomfortable Oxford

Original illustrations by Fred Seddon.

Uncomfortable Oxford is a social enterprise which has been running ‘uncomfortable’ tours of the city since 2018, locating discussions of colony, race, class and gender into the physical makeup of Oxford. Co-founders of Uncomfortable Oxford Olivia, Paula and Waqas offer some insight on the work they do in this interview with The Blue. 

Having been on one of their virtual tours there’s undoubtably a need to revisit and review the power structures written into the histories of the ‘dreaming spires’. None the less, I’m curious what specifically inspired the founding of this social enterprise. 

“All around the world, the name Oxford resonates with elite intellectuals encased in their ivory towers… It’s also the image visitors are fed on walking tours around the city, and it’s the impression given to incoming students every year as they enter a world of tutorials, dinners, and balls. We wanted to challenge that,” states Paula, one of the original co-founders and co-directors. 

“Our tours are not about the Oxford ‘dream’, but rather on what lies underneath: histories of violence, including slave wealth, imperial expansion, and discrimination” chimes in Olivia, the other co-founder and co-director. “We use the urban landscape as an archive to highlight how Oxford’s reputation and global ambitions directly benefited from international conflicts – and still do today”. 

“Yet teaching these histories isn’t everything – we want people to walk away with the tools to continue the conversation.” Waqas, the Executive Secretary explains. “All our tours are designed to facilitate an open discussion among participants, also encouraging them to contribute personal stories and perspectives alongside our research.”

Currently Uncomfortable Oxford offer four tours of the city: The Original Uncomfortable Oxford, Oxford and Empire, Uncomfortable Literature and Follow the Money. Olivia, Paula and Waqas choose one location from each tour as a sample of the Uncomfortable Oxford experience.  

The Original Uncomfortable Oxford Tour

The tour that started it all. Topics covered include imperialism, class, inequality, slavery, gender history, discrimination, and memorialisation.

Codrington Library

“This trail introduces participants to questions surrounding memorialization: Who is commemorated? Who is overlooked? What do statues, names, and memorials mean? and how does historical significance change over time? The stop we’ve chosen to highlight today is the Library of All Souls College. This Library was named after Christopher Codrington, a 17th century alumnus, donor, and slaveholder in Barbados. The Codrington library therefore offers a starting point to explore the profound economic impact of slavery and slave trade within the beautiful historic structures that surround us. It also calls for a discussion about the responsibility that modern day institutions hold for their role in perpetuating systems of injustice in the past, and their legacies in the present reparations debates.”

Oxford and Empire Tour

This tour contextualises the historical ties between Oxford and the British Empire, exploring how Oxford University was shaped by the imperial project and how its graduates went on to gain powerful positions in the Empire.

Natural History/Pitt Rivers Museum

The Natural History Museum dinosaur, Fred Seddon.

“‘Oxford and Empire’ digs deeper into the role of the University as an institution which produced and benefited from global systems of knowledge and power. Let’s take a look at the first stop on the tour: the Natural History Museum. This museum highlights the close links between the development of scientific knowledge and early voyages which documented the natural world in European terms. These voyages were an intrinsic part of what we know as the ‘age of explorations’, which started off the age of European colonization. By producing labels for the foreign plants, animals, and territories, scientists solidified intellectual authority and control over new lands and people. Here we encourage participants to question collections, labels, and the purpose of scientific knowledge by considering their role in the imperial project.” 

Uncomfortable Literature Tour

This walking tour explores a different aspect of Oxford’s heritage of letters. Walking through the streets that have inspired numerous authors, it examines the tensions between the traditional stories of the city and its diverse realities. Through the lens of narrative, this tour fosters conversations about mental health, repatriation, access, reputation, and the intersection of science and literature.

Blackwell’s Bookshop

Blackwells, Fred Seddon.

“This trail was launched last year to challenge Oxford’s literary stories and myths. Our last stop on this tour is the famous bookshop, Blackwell’s. This company served as a launching point for some of Oxford’s famous authors, and takes pride in disseminating their books. The detective fiction writer Dorothy L. Sayers and her colleagues succeeded in establishing Oxford as a centre for fictional crime and murder. The genre has since been widely associated with the city, alongside fantasy novels adapted to popular movies. Yet while authors like Sayers, Tolkien and Carroll are widely celebrated, comparatively little attention is given to authors of colour such as Capildeo, Marechera, and Naipaul. At its heart, this is what Uncomfortable Literature is all about, turning a page on the dreaming spires to diversify narratives about writers and their stories, as they endeavour to write Oxford differently.”

Follow the Money Tour

This tour highlights the University of Oxford’s relationship with contentious sources of revenue. It explores controversial funding sources that give their name to buildings like the Said Business School and the Sackler library. Participants will be challenged to explore the complexities of financial considerations and will engage in conversations about both historic and contemporary wealth distribution networks.

Sackler Library

Sackler Library, Fred Seddon.

“One of the questions we often get asked on our tours was: “who paid for this?” So we created the ‘Follow the Money’ trail to explore the controversial topics of money, funding, and finance.  Who donates to Oxford and why? How does the university decide to invest its own funds? Among past and present locations, the tour includes the Sackler Library, funded by Purdue Pharma’s former executives, who  have been accused of creating and profiting off the opioid crisis in the USA. As a result, the Sackler name has been blacklisted by numerous institutions around the world. Participants are invited to discuss the practice of ‘reputation laundering’ through philanthropic donations, which put the values and ethics upheld by the University to the test.”

Uncomfortable Oxford have been running fantastic virtual versions of their tours throughout lockdown (priced at £8 or £6 for students). They have also been producing podcasts tackling a variety of issues of empire available here for free. Follow their Facebook page here to keep up to date with their events, and their twitter (@UnOxProject) for relevant content.  

Gaia Clark Nevola

Gaia Clark Nevola (she/ her) is the Senior Editor for Culture at The Oxford Blue. She is in her second year studying English at St. Catherine's College where she is also LGBTQ+ welfare rep. Gaia enjoys creative writing, doing costumes for student theatre and telling people that she's actually half Italian, as though that constitutes having a personality.