The history of student life: 7 things you didn’t know

From revelries to riots, British student life is filled with remarkable traditions and characters. Here, our own Ellie Cawthorne, who presented a BBC Radio 4 series which explores 900 years of student life, brings you some lesser-known facts about the history of British students…

(Hulton Archive/Getty)

1) Students have long loved a bit of revelry

“They spent the rest of the day in boundless merrymaking and kept large bonfires burning while drinking wine in celebration…”
 
Written by the medieval chronicler Walter Bower, this description paints a vibrant picture of the party atmosphere following the establishment of St Andrews University in 1414. Bower’s account of scholars “drinking wine in celebration” suggests that students have, since the earliest days, enjoyed a bit of raucous fun – in Scotland at least. 
 
St Andrews is also known for its ‘Raisin Weekend’ – a longstanding tradition in which new students traditionally gave their ‘academic parents’ (older students) a pound of raisins for introducing them to the university community. In return for this gift of raisins – or wine nowadays – freshers are welcomed into the ‘academic family’ with two days of challenges and parties, ending in a massive foam fight. In the 1930s, revelry got so out of hand that celebrations were banned completely for three years. Outrageous behaviour and “the theft of female nightwear” were cited as causes for the ban.
 
But St Andrews was not unique in its party spirit. During the Tudor period, Cambridge scholars were writing and staging satirical comedy plays to entertain their peers in the evenings – a kind of 16th-century student stand-up. A century later, the diary of undergraduate Abraham de la Pryme recounts students “singing and drinking… til morning” and pranking local people with “knavish tricks” to make them believe a local house was haunted. 
 
By the early 19th century a young Lord Byron took this raucous behaviour to new extremes as an undergraduate at Cambridge. After purchasing a significant wine collection to keep at college, he wrote to a friend of Cambridge’s “eternal parties”, at which he “supped with a large assortment of jockies, gamblers, boxers, author, parsons and poets”. But even Byron was not exempt from the after-effects of such a lifestyle, concluding in one letter “I apologise for the dullness of this letter, but to tell you the truth, last night’s claret has not gone out of my head”.
 

An 1824 cartoon depicting the drinking escapades of Oxford students. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images) 
 

2) Things could get violent

At student protests in 2010, scenes of chaos unfolded on the streets of London – windows were smashed, eggs thrown and smoke bombs set off. A total of 153 arrests were made – 139 students were charged with breach of the peace, seven with violent disorder. But while these events may seem extreme, they were not the first student protests to spill over into violence. 
 
In 1968, student protests at Essex, sparked by lectures from controversial speakers, saw cars burnt and local bank windows smashed. In 1907 around 1,000 angry medical students marched on London to defend their right to study anatomy by vivisection (dissection of live animals) in the so-called ‘Brown Dog Affair’. This was just one disruption in almost seven years of conflict over vivisection, during which time medical students let off stink bombs during court cases, attacked effigies of a local magistrate and scuffled with police. One undergraduate was even arrested for “barking like a dog”.
 
Arguably the bloodiest conflict in British student history was the St Scholastica’s Day riot of 1355. Following decades of simmering tension between Oxford’s students and local townspeople, violence erupted after a pub brawl in which two scholars struck the taverner over the head with a quart pot [a drinking vessel]. Events quickly spiralled into armed warfare as students ran amok, ransacking and burning Oxford’s buildings. 
 
Seeking revenge, 2,000 townsfolk marched into town the following day carrying bows and arrows and bearing a black banner, reportedly calling out “slay slay, havok, havok, smite fast, give good knocks”. An estimated 40 to 60 scholars were killed, including one particularly young student aged just 14. The death toll of townsfolk remains unknown.
 

3) University wasn’t just for the rich

It’s a popular assumption that universities have been the preserve of the wealthy. But this hasn’t always been the case. 
 
Britain’s very first universities were an altogether more modest affair than you might imagine. The first students of medieval Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrews were most commonly the sons of middle-ranking clergymen, preparing for careers in the church. Admission records show that the majority of St Andrews’ first cohort of graduates went on to careers as middle-ranking vicars and canons – only one climbed the social ladder to become an abbot. 
 
By the 16th and 17th centuries ‘sizarships’ – a kind of early bursary system – were flourishing. Sizars were granted reduced fees and in repayment were obliged to act as college servants. Colleges were sure to make a sizar’s economic inferiority clear: he would eat meals only after serving the masters and other students (quite possibly eating leftovers) and was marked out by wearing different academic dress to his full-fee-paying peers. 
 
Despite being rather degrading for sizars, the system did open up higher education to many remarkable minds, including poet Edmund Spenser (c1552–99), satirical playwright Thomas Nashe (1567–1601) and novelist Oliver Goldsmith (c1730–74). Even Isaac Newton, whose mother wanted him to become a farmer, began his career at Cambridge in 1661 as a sub-sizar. He studied for free, on the condition that he undertook college servant duties alongside his physics and maths.
 
‘Scholars at a lecture', 1736. (Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
 

4) There were many rules and regulations

Today we think of university life as a period of newfound freedoms. However, at many points in history, student life was remarkably controlled and regulated. Medieval and Tudor disciplinary reports and university decrees provide evidence of significant attempts to control students’ morals and improve their behaviour. In the words of a 1544 decree from St Andrews, students were expected to be “honest in life and sober in character”.
 
To this end, time for extra-curricular activity was restricted: games such as football were banned because they were seen to be diverting players from more scholarly pursuits. Instead students were expected to take walks speaking only in Latin (the language of academic teaching) or practice archery (a legal requirement for all students in a defence of the realm statute of 1424). Students were also required to look the part of the wholesome, ‘godly’ scholar. In St Andrews, a 1453 law forbade the wearing of “beaked caps and gowns open at the neck showing gay shirts”. Rules from 1544 reiterated the fact that scholars must “adopt all the vestments, woollen and linen that become sober men and people of the clerkly sort”.
 
Some rules and regulations hinted at serious concerns about misbehaviour much more threatening than the wearing of “gay shirts”. In 1453, for example, St Andrews students were forbidden to carry knives of any kind, and in 1410 Oxford University decreed that scholars must live in college halls rather than the town, to stop them "sleeping by day and haunting taverns and brothels by night, intent on robbery and homicide".
 
Of course, there were always students willing to break the rules: legend has it that when college orders forbade Lord Byron from keeping a dog at Cambridge in the early 19th century, he neatly side-stepped the rulebook by bringing along a tame bear instead.
 
 

5) Students could be very young

Today student life is seen as a rite of passage into adulthood: a time to live independently, have new experiences and learn to cook (badly). But while modern graduates may joke that freshers behave like children, during the medieval period this could actually be the case, as students as young as 12 were frequently admitted to university. But gaining a university degree could be a long, slow process; a full course in theology could take 12 years to complete.
 
The admittance of remarkably young students continued throughout the Tudor and Stuart periods. In a diary entry dated 13 April 1693, Cambridge undergraduate Abraham de la Pryme describes “a freshman of about twelve years old, a meer child” being admitted to St John’s College. According to Pryme, the scholar, named Needham, was “so well brought up that he understood very perfectly the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew tongues”.
 
Pryme also reported hearing accounts “from all the college and multitudes of hands besides” of a sober and studious 11-year-old scholar, admitted to the college a decade earlier in 1679–80. This scholar reportedly “understood not only the aforesaid languages, but also the French, Spanish, Italian, Assirian [sic], Chaldean, and Arabian tongues”. Despite his bright start in life, however, this young student did not go on to great things. Pryme was sad to recount how in adulthood the once promising young scholar turned into “a drunken whoring soul”.
 
Medieval scholars attend a lecture, c1400. Some of the scholars at the front appear to be young children. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
 

6) Women were not always welcome

In 1897, crowds gathered to see an effigy being hung from Cambridge Senate House. This effigy took a somewhat unusual form: that of a female cyclist. This dramatic public hanging, after which riots ensued, was a response from male students to a proposal put forward to grant female students full degrees. 
 
The hanging of the effigy conveyed a clear message: women were not welcome in academia. The lady cyclist was understood by all those present to symbolise the ‘New Woman’ or ‘Girton girl’– a figure portrayed in the popular press as a horrifyingly masculinised woman, thoroughly ruined by too much education. The strength of opposition to awarding women degrees seen in Cambridge that day did not fade quickly: it was to be another 51 years until women were finally awarded full degrees at Cambridge (in 1948).
 
Women had begun to enter student life in significant numbers only a few decades before the hanging of this effigy. The foundation of female-only colleges in the late 19th century – such as Girton College Cambridge (1869) and Royal Holloway College in Surrey (1879) – offered many women unprecedented opportunities to pursue education.
 
Life at the first female colleges was similar to that of a private boarding school – students were tightly timetabled and closely watched. At Royal Holloway, female students’ social lives were dictated by a strict schedule. Attendance at afternoon tea, served daily at 4pm sharp, was compulsory.
 
Colleges also had to combat Victorian concerns about university life, exposing young women to the threat of social and sexual impropriety. Girton students were only permitted male visitors – including relatives – in their room on the basis that the door remained open throughout and the student did not sit down in her guest’s presence. At Manchester’s Owens College, meanwhile, female students had to be accompanied by a chaperone even when visiting that classic den of temptation – the library.
 
Male undergraduates at Cambridge University protest against the full admission of female students by hanging an effigy of a 'New Woman' on a bicycle from a window in 1897. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images) 
 

7) Many foreign students received a warm welcome

British university campuses have been admitting foreign students since the 12th century. Many of those who travelled from across the globe to study in Britain faced prejudice and discrimination (especially ‘enemy’ nationals in times of war), finding themselves the subject of xenophobic hostility and suspicion. However, a large number also enjoyed a warm welcome at British universities.
 
Samuel Satthianadhan, who studied at Cambridge in the 1870s, was one of many Indian students who travelled to Britain for an education in the 19th and 20th centuries. In his Four Years in an English University (1890) – a guidebook for those following in his stead – he reassured readers that the Indian student in Britain “moves without any feeling of awkwardness”. Satthianadhan painted a strikingly optimistic picture of college life as a foreign student, asserting that he had come across “no invidious distinctions of rank or race, the reverence with which men regard wealth or status being counteracted by the admiration they entertain for moral or intellectual excellence”. 
 
Meanwhile Edward Atiyah, born in 1903 in what was then the Ottoman empire, had a similarly positive experience at Oxford in the early 1920s, reporting: “Not even at the beginning did I in any way feel that I was a stranger, nor was I ever conscious of a racial prejudice against me. I encountered kindness and friendliness everywhere. By my friends in college I was treated in every respect as one of them, and my identification with the English people was now complete”.
 
During the two world wars, British universities saw an influx of refugee students and academics seeking asylum and academic freedoms. In 1915 King’s College London was hosting around 100 refugee students, mostly Russian and Belgian, who accounted for approximately half of the entire engineering department. A real effort was made by King’s to educate and integrate these refugee students – they received free education, food, accommodation and clothing. English lessons were introduced and a school of Slavonic studies was even established. 
 
Scenes from Student Life aired on BBC Radio 4 in April 2016. Find out more here. Presenter Ellie Cawthorne is currently web assistant at History Extra. You can listen to Ellie discussing the history of student life on our History Extra podcast here.
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here