Hallowe’en special: when Oxford behaves badly

Student Life

We might be too old for Hallowe’en trick or treating, but Oxonians get up to all sorts of mischief. And we thought students were all as good as gold..

(Taken and adapted from Richard O. Smith’s “Oxford Student Pranks”, The History Press, 2010)

Pope gets his own back

Such was the extent of student debauchery in Oxford in 1214 that a papal legate was despatched to Oxford in an attempt to sanctify the city and save its collective soul. Oxford’s scholarly population’s plan was to visit the cardinal daily and ply him with copious plates of food, bottles of strong wine, port and beer… and a working girl. Unfortunately, the students’ plan pivoted on the certainty that that he would be a bent legate. Thus, their next ‘trick’ involved a sizeable student army marching to Osney Abbey to kick his holy ass back to Rome. They collected fallen tree trunks to makeshift battering rams and improvised weapons, but the legate’s cook ordered everyone to boil bowls of water and oil. As soon as the students broke through the abbey gates, boiling liquids cascaded down and scolded the students. The cardinal was able to escape to London, and the students were summoned to the King.

Wedgies, Medieval style

In medieval times, a student practice named ‘tucking’ became widespread. This involved forcibly shaving the heads of anyone attempting a Masters of Arts degree, prior to implementing the practice of scratching a newly arrived Oxford student under the chin with a thumbnail until blood was drawn. This appears to be the medieval equivalent of wedging nervous first formers on their first day at big school, and the authorities, like despairing schoolmasters forced into making announcements about graffiti, banned the practice.

A truly shocking story

Peter Shelley came to Oxford in 1810 to study chemistry and undertook research into electricity – mainly providing him with the technical expertise to connect a strong electrical current to the metallic door knob of an unpopular don. Even more daringly though, Shelley would frequently be spotted tip-toeing along the High Street; whenever he saw townswomen he would stop for a chat, and whilst they were busy conversing with each other, Shelley would swap over the newborn babies in their prams. Shelley died from a boating accident in 1822, but his memorial continues to be the site of student pranks dedicated to his honour.

Buy It Now: BNC

In 2005, Lincoln student Dave Green put Brasenose College up for sale on eBay, listing the item as ‘an Oxford College surplus to requirements: going cheap’, adding the further description of ‘a used item since 1509 so generally in quite worn condition’. Bidding reached over £1 million before the item was forcibly removed from the auction site, and the college authorities fined the prankster £50. He also had to read the Latin grace in Brasenose before formal hall.

The Tabs’ efforts

Our rival pranksters Cambridge have also dipped their quill in the ink of student mischief. In 2009 steeplejacks had to be called to remove festive Santa hats from the tops of our of King’s College Chapel turrets, arranged there with foppish talent by nimble students unafraid of the 150ft drop. The pissed-off steeplejacks though, having to employ ‘extra long ladders’ to remove the headgear, dissuaded the dissidents from coming forward.
The plotters behind the notorious ‘Austin Martin’ spectacle of 1958, in which Cambridge awoke to find the car perched nonchalantly atop the Senate House roof, came forward after 50 years of secret pride in June 2008. Ringleader Peter Davey explained  that he and ten eager volunteers had winched the abandoned car to its bafflingly inaccessible position after feeling that the roof was ‘crying out’ for decoration. But the kings of Cambridge friendly pranksters have to be the Cambridge University Breaking and Entering Society, or ‘CUBE’. Purely for the shits and giggles, they spend time and energy that could be focused on a good 2:1 on casing joints, cracking locks and jemmying windows…all to leave everything as they found it. The one calling card the sneaks leave to let the institution know it’s been done over is a rubber duck, looking down from the most difficult-to-reach beam of the main hall ceiling.