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’).
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.
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.
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.