In The Name Of Fun

It doesn’t take much to distract students from their studies; in fact you would be forgiven for thinking that they spend a great deal of their time energetically pursuing just about any other available diversion. There is a great history of mischief-making at my university, and this is a potted account of it.

In its earliest days, the university was a prep school for the monasteries. Undergraduates were preparing for a life of asceticism and self-denial, not using education to climb the social scale or better themselves. As such, discipline was severe and extensive, leisure was discouraged, and the idea of hobbies or sports viewed with horrified distaste. Dice, cards, drink and the possession of unusual pets (at King’s it was forbidden to own dogs, ferrets, birds, monkeys, bears, wolves and stags) were punishable offences. Students had to wear their gowns at all times in the town and curfews were strictly imposed. Proctors policed the streets, carrying the hefty, leather-tooled book of statutes about their persons and using it as a weapon when necessary (probably the origin of the phrase ‘to throw the book at someone’).

‘I don’t believe it, Sire! The ball was good! Didst Thou not see a puff of chalk?’

The situation started to change when the old feudal system began to fade. The Tudors recognized the need for a class of educated civil servants and intelligence became a more prized ability. Aristocrats now sent their sons to university and colleges welcomed the association with wealth and nobility. It was also the start of a slippery slope, as far as sports were concerned. Tennis, bowls and riding were indispensable pleasures in a young nobleman’s life, and the entourage necessary to each rich student included stable attendants and games instructors, all of whom stretched the resources of the town to breaking point.  Street brawling, gaming and drunken behaviour all began to increase steadily.

The university reached a low point somewhere around the seventeenth century. Much as the authorities tried to maintain strict standards, the only really compulsory activity was religious attendance on Sunday, and many a young undergraduate had to be carried into chapel by his friends. Dr John Edwards, minister of the Round Church wrote that ‘nearly half the members of the university oscillated between mental depression and wild excess’ due to stultification and drink, while undergraduate life appeared to be a continual riot. The undergraduate, Christopher Hull, wrote to his father in 1762 that a band of students had repeatedly attempted to break into his rooms: ‘I was terrably frighted for I w’d not persuade myself th’t it was any of the college but y’t it was somebody come to rob my and accordingly hid my money in y’e Bedstraw another time they had broke my door to pieces before I co’d get hold of my trusty poker’. It was harder to avoid grievous bodily harm and keep one’s possessions intact than it was to get a degree.

When the thought of women in a rowing boat was considered amusing.

Organised sport was reluctantly seen as a better outlet for high spirits, although it was not at all organized at first. Football made its appearance in the early decades of the nineteenth century, but one match report of a game against Chesterton village describes how ‘many university representatives had their head broken in by staves and others had to take refuge in the river.’ Unsurprisingly, it was about this time that a set of rules was put together and subsequently taken up by the fledgling Football Association, providing the basis of the game as we know it. The rules of boxing were also established in Cambridge in this period, although the first official Varsity contest didn’t take place until 1897, boxing long being a sport that brought with it the threat of rustication or expulsion. Rowing traveled from the schools of Eton and Westminster to Cambridge, with the first boat club being formed in St John’s in 1825 and the first boat race against Oxford taking place in 1829. Cricket also became a popular sport, as did swimming naked in the river. Modest females avoided the area around Coe Fen, or shot open the shield of their parasols as they passed.

Amateur dramatics reached prominence in the teeth of prohibition. Students and townspeople alike were banned from the theatre within fourteen miles of Great St Mary’s church between 1844 and 1894 (before then it was considered unthinkable that such a low form of entertainment should pose a threat to university life). It was a Trinity student, the enterprising son of a London stockbroker, Francis Burnand, who was responsible for founding the ADC (Amateur Dramatic Club) in 1855, smack in the middle of the ban. The patronage of Edward, Prince of Wales in 1861, who was at that time studying at Trinity, did improve the standing of the club with the college authorities, although tutors continued to look with disapproval on its light-hearted fare of burlesques and comedies. Amateur thespians also had to resort to complicated advance warning systems to evade the wrath of the proctors, with ‘speaking tubes’ leading from the bar to the green-room and ladders in place below the windows. The ‘hit of the evening’ on 3rd December 1859 was a rewritten version of Goethe’s Faust, in which Faust summoned the Proctor to investigate a disturbance outside his study. The ‘proctor’ duly appeared, accompanied by two bulldogs, cut short his conversation to chase a student seen without his cap and gown and sang a solo, after which he exited, dancing. You will recognize the formula of the student revue here in its infancy.

Truly scary: night climbing

Somewhere between the end of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, sporting prowess, acting and debating talent, and even inventive misbehaviour eased themselves into a position of tolerance and then general respect. Perhaps the best example of an admirable student prank comes from the secretive group known as the nightclimbers, students who scale the perilous facades and towers of the colleges, burdened with camera equipment in order to record their feats. On the night of Saturday 7thJune 1958, an Austin van appeared on the rooftop of the Senate House, transported there by a derrick the nightclimbers had spent weeks constructing. It took four days to retrieve the Austin, as opposed to the single night it had taken the students to set it up, and the dean of Caius College discreetly arranged for a congratulatory case of wine to be sent to the miscreants. Cambridge was no longer a place that valued rigid self-discipline above all other qualities; instead it had become a locus for all sorts of talents, even those of misrule and subversion.

Dismantling the van to remove it from the roof. How DID they get it up there?



16 thoughts on “In The Name Of Fun

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it! And these days, too much to drink is such a common problem but one that the dean and his assistants try hard to stamp out. Good – drinking in moderation is fun, anything else is self-abuse.

    • Thank you! The universities were almost a part of the monasteries at first, so yes, a great deal of discipline and pretty dreadful living conditions too!

  1. This was fun to read! And it is no wonder that women in a rowing boat was considered silly given all the clothes they had on. If they capsized they would be in danger of drowning with those big skirts,ah but they’d go out dressed properly 😉

    • LOL! There was such a long, long era when it was more important for a woman to be well dressed than safe, comfortable, able to breathe, etc. Thank goodness that is all done with now!

  2. Thanks for this thorough piece of history… something I’d never have read anywhere on an everyday blogging visit. I’m glad to see women are finally being regarded as ‘equals’. Now, just wondering, when did they start rowing without having to wear a dress? On another note, it’s interesting to see the ‘secularization’ of higher education. While being more liberal and free certainly has its value, but would you say also that something has been lost along the way with such evolvement?

    • The women’s boat club actually began around the early twentieth century, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t wear dresses to row in! Nowadays, of course, they can give the men a run for their money. As for the secularization, well, it’s been quite some time now that we’ve had a modern syllabus. But I suppose what I think is missing these days is intellectual curiosity from the students – it’s so much about the grades. You could possibly argue that the way our ideology has changed – towards as much control of our lives as possible, with little sense of destiny – has contributed at least in part to this.

  3. It is amazing to study and teach in an institution with so much history.
    The climbing anecdote is bugging me… I think I read about something like that in a novel … But where…

    • Caroline, there was a novel written about the night climbers, so perhaps you read that? I am very lucky at Cambridge to have so much history around me – you feel it all the time, very present in every building, every tradition, even the simplest things like eating meals. Yesterday was Ascension Day, for instance, and the choir go to the top of the chapel tower and sing at midday – it’s a wonderful spectacle.

  4. Litlove – you’ve written the story of my life! On a serious note it is an interesting account which could be an indicator of the changes in attitudes to authority and the role of ‘play’ in education in society as a whole. I’m tempted to say that if a university wants innovative students who think outside the box what can you expect!

    • Well you are quite right, and I think it’s that spirit of creativity that made the night climbers prank so justifiably famous. After all, it was a pretty good one! Nowadays we expect students to work hard and play hard. It sounds great although in fact it destroys any chance of a healthy work-life balance afterwards! But your comment did make me laugh – are you going to ‘fess up about all the naughty things you’ve done? 😉

  5. Hah–that’s quite a history. There must have been quite a problem of bears as pets for them to have created a rule against them. Imagine hiding one of them in your rooms! Do the antics still continue to this day? And just how does one top getting an Austin on to the roof? I guess it’s one way to let off steam from serious studying… (And do the female students now perpetrate a fair amount of the “play” these days?

    • Danielle, I know! What was it with the bears? Why did anyone think they’d make a great pet? Alas, these days it’s more often than not the girls who end up in the local hospital, being treated for alcohol poisoning. But the students do still get some time for fun – rag week in January is full of crazy things they do, like hitchhiking in groups to the continent and so on. I’m always happy to know they are doing something unusual and creative with their free time (rather than just drinking themselves under the table!). But how they got that van up on the roof, I will never know!

  6. Great stuff! As some varsity sports have taken on absurd importance in American collegiate life, it’s nice to think this might be just another pendulum swing.

    In the 1960s the president of UC Berkeley, Clark Kerr, sparred with then-Gov. Reagan before getting fired. In leaving he said: “The three purposes of the University? To provide sex for the students, sports for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.”

    Learning can happen anywhere, never more true than in the internet age.

    • Oh Ben, I love that quote – hoo! Too funny! And rather true. At this university, I personally think that rowing has taken on way too much importance. But since Mister Litlove was a half-blue in the rowing squad we, ahem, have to agree to disagree on that one! 🙂

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