Dead Society of Poets: What happens to defunct societies?

What happens after we die is one of the biggest and difficult questions that any philosopher could contend with. For societies, however, it is a lot more straightforward. Their effects, on the whole, end up in impassive blue boxes in the John Johnson Collection of the Bodleian Library. Within these boxes lie their final traces, with everything from well-used Termcards to faded posters, revealing a range of information about them. I took a trip back through the history of these forgotten clubs, to see what occupied the students of the past, and why they no longer exist.

One of the biggest problems associated with defunct societies is that many are simply too niche to maintain their ranks. With a standard undergraduate degree lasting between three to four years, a strong central idea is needed to draw in the Freshers year after year, but in the case of the following societies, it seems that a long-term future was not to be despite the efforts of passionate individuals. They also seem to be based around pop culture, and as such are subject to the changing popularity of their subject of choice. One such example is the James Dean society, dating to 1977, based around the actor most famous for his role in the iconic ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. The initial launch was big, promising to show his films (all 8 of them), publish a magazine, and host talks with those who knew him in life (Dean died in 1955). It even promised Dennis Hopper, the actor most well-known for his roles in Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now and Speed, among others! As to whether any of this actually happened is unknown, with the society presumably folding in the next few years. In a similar vein, the James Bond Society founded a decade later also struggled, despite offering fifteen films (at the time), along with the promise of an epicurean lifestyle including cocktail nights (Martinis preferred), meals and trips to filming locations. TV too was not immune, with the Blackadder appreciation society registered for only Trinity term 2001, though it persisted throughout the tenure of its founder, Terry Newman, at the university. As Robert Chard, its former senior member recalls, it ‘fared very well indeed while it lasted, with episodes shown on a large screen in a lecture theatre in St Anne’s, with refreshments and discussions afterwards.’ This even extended to having T-shirts made, but even these couldn’t prevent its closure after Newman graduated. Perhaps the society with the least range was the Rocky Horror Show Society, what with having just the one film and a tenuously related follow up. Time was fleeting, however, and the society did not survive the 1990s.

The next subset of dead societies, unlike the former, had a good run but were brought down by a lack of interest in the modern day. One example, perhaps chief among these, was the Oxford University Railway Society. Founded in 1931, the society lasted for over six decades, with a variety of activities on offer, from visits to various railway yards, signal boxes and the like to photography competitions. It also hosted speakers such as John B. Snell, managing director of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway, then the smallest railway in the world in terms of gauge; and also had its own library. They were even occasionally given permission to operate railways themselves, such as the former Radley-Abingdon line in 1959 and the Oxford-Princes Risborough in 1964. Despite unique events such as this, a lack of interest in the 1990s saw its demise, with the final death knell being a committee almost entirely full of academics in 1996. A further society with a noble past was the Tiddlywinks Society, or as they referred to it, Tiddlewinks. Lead by the self-styled ‘Master of the Winks’, they seem to have formed in the late 1950s, playing a Varsity match against Cambridge in 1958, something they have gone onto win only 4 times over the past 60 years. According to the English Tiddlywinks association, they helped introduce the game to America in the 1960s while on a tour funded by Guinness. Reforming multiple times, including 1985 and 2010, advertising with lines such as ‘Are you a harmless eccentric?’ is simply not enough to draw in members, though don’t put it past this society to re-form. Interestingly, both these clubs are still represented at Cambridge, though their Tiddlywinks society was taken over in the 1980s by the Manchester and Somerset equivalent.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join em’ is the old adage. These societies took that to heart, being subsumed into another. Political societies in particular seem to suffer this acutely, with many having a short half-life as their ideas are absorbed into others. Topically, the Campaign against a Federal Europe sought to organise a cross-party group, accompanied with dinners and drinking, in the late 1990s, while on the other side of the spectrum and earlier in the decade, the Abolition of Money campaign sought to achieve exactly what it said on the tin. While both were failures during their duration, the recent Brexit vote and trials of the universal basic income may yet give them success. Debating was also not immune, with the Merton and St Hilda’s Fanatics, a humorous debating society, closing down in the late 1950s as potential members were presumably siphoned off by the Union. While silly debates such as ‘this House believes that clots are the cream of the university’ were frequent, they weren’t above deeper questions, such as ‘this House would rather see life through a keyhole than from an ivory tower’. Even noble pursuits such as cheese appreciation, with their block of cheese-shaped membership cards, only persisted for a couple of years, later revived with added alcohol.

If a society doesn’t satisfy any of the above then maybe it just isn’t meant to be, being or quickly becoming redundant. An example of the former is the Oxford Phasmatological Society, founded in 1879. Essentially Victorian Oxford does Ghostbusters, they were ‘a society for the investigation of the occult’. Formed of a group who felt that they had experienced the unexplainable, their aim was to investigate reports of everything from ghosts to premonitions and assess the validity of these reports. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, they tried to give a fair verdict, deciding on evidence whether over 100 cases were due to natural causes, hoaxes, or unexplainable. Examples of the unexplainable include ‘death wraiths’, where individuals saw apparitions of their relatives at the moment of their death, a procession of phantoms along a road, and multiple haunted houses. With the founding of the still-extant Society for Psychical Research in 1882, and the original members leaving, the society ceased to be in 1885. On a much more modern note, the Macintosh Oxford Users Society (with the cunning acronym MOUS), was founded in 1993 to tutor students on how to perform such unthinkable feats as writing an essay! In addition, they also showed off the hardware and software available, but with the advent of ever faster and more user-friendly computers, it disappeared off the university radar. Another Oxford Mac User Group (OxMUG) exists in Headington, but a connection between them looks unlikely.

Finally, sometimes a society is a victim of its own success. One such example is the Pentagon Club. The female equivalent of a gentleman’s club, it saw women from ‘Somerville, Lady Margaret Hall, St Hugh’s and St Hilary’s’ (possibly St Hilda’s?) leasing premises on the high street in 1931 opposite Brasenose, to open a ‘delightfully furnished’ tea room, which ‘served very nice teas, with creamy cakes and sandwiches’. Despite fulfilling ‘a genuine need’, funding appeared to be difficult to come by, suggested by Elspeth Slimon to be due to ‘the authorities of the women’s colleges [getting] together and [deciding] to close it down’. The Pentagon Club was therefore closed in 1936, despite the lease on the property lasting for a further two years.

And there concludes a whistle-stop tour of many of Oxford’s forgotten societies. Many others didn’t make it in, including the Eight Dragons Society and the Free-fall parachute club. It just goes to show that with a bit of dedication, you can found a society for just about anything!