While an undergraduate at Trinity College, Oxford, Newman led a remarkably rich student life. He took up the works of Gibbon and Locke, entered himself for university prizes, attended concerts, studied manuals and tried experiments in chemistry, and attended lectures in the newly-emerging science of geology. At a time when student activities were migrating from locations in town into the colleges, which were becoming the natural home for sport, dining and drinking, debating, politics and literature, Newman played first violin in a music club at St John’s College and co-founded the Trinity College Book Society for the dissemination of modern novels (such as Ivanhoe). With his friend John Bowden, he composed a verse romance called Bartholomew’s Eve, which they had printed (250 copies in two instalments), and started a periodical. Appearing just two years after the first truly undergraduate magazine, The Undergraduate ran to six numbers and enjoyed a brief popularity, until the cover of anonymity was blown in March 1819 and the editors abandoned the enterprise.
Newman wrote an article in 1819 for The Undergraduate, in which he proposed the establishment of a debating society for Oxford undergraduates which should meet fortnightly to debate matters covering ‘the whole range of history, poetry and the fine arts, indeed nothing should be excluded but the politics of the last 100 years’. This was written before the Oxford Union was founded (1830) and its forerunner, the United Debating Society (1823–25). Gathering its members from all the colleges and halls of Oxford, Newman proposed that ‘it would be a school for the future senator or lawyer, it would enlarge and refine the mind, it would be a most agreeable relaxation after the toils of the day’.