Rag Drag and Early Twentieth Century Undergraduate Masculinities

This post was contributed by Emily Rutherford, a PhD candidate in History at Columbia University.  She works on gender and education in modern Britain, and is writing a thesis about opposition to coeducation in British universities between 1860 and 1935.  She has published articles in the Journal of British Studies and the Journal of the History of Ideas.
Follow her on Twitter @echomikeromeo

While doing archival research on student life in early twentieth century British universities, I was struck by the central role of cross-dressing in student celebrations. Today, when we’re used to thinking about cross-dressing in the context of LGBTQ identities, a drag routine in a 1910 student performance might seem oddly out of its time—but in the early twentieth century drag entertainment was a ubiquitous aspect of male student life in universities across Britain (as well as on the other side of the Atlantic).

The annual student “rag” was an especially major site for cross-dressing. The “rag” in its modern form arose in the 1890s in Scotland and northwest England. On a designated day (e.g. Shrove Tuesday or Bonfire Night), hundreds of men students would don fancy dress and parade to a theater in the city center. After the performance, they would hit the city’s bars and nightclubs.

Rags were particularly popular at large urban universities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, and the London colleges. There, a lot of work went into maintaining the rag as a masculine space. In the early twentieth century, many aspects of student life were voluntarily gender-segregated, with separate common rooms and social calendars. Official policy made clear that these rules applied when student life spilled out onto the city streets, with women students advised to stay away from proceedings. Rags were dangerous and frightening places to be, with mass football matches or flour fights turning into punch-ups. The Manchester University men’s common room instituted a levy in 1921 for a fund to pay for the inevitable property damage that the rag occasioned. Rag rituals also sometimes enacted violence against women, through the ceremonial public execution of rag-doll mascots.

After the jrl16080071First World War, university administrators and student leaders sought to domesticate rags by associating them with collections in aid of local hospitals. In view of this, women students sought to participate in collecting efforts in fancy dress, but university administrators and police felt that this would be both undignified and unsafe. It was often determined that women could go out with collecting tins if they wore caps and gowns instead of fancy dress. At Manchester, after voting down women’s participation in the fancy dress procession several times, the women’s union decided in 1935 that women students could participate if they submitted their costumes for approval to a student committee. At other universities, women did not participate in parades and pageants until after the Second World War.

In the absence of women, men dressed in female drag played an important role in the iconography of rag celebrations. Stock fancy-dress characters included working-class women, suffragettes, and mothers and babies. Borrowing from the pantomime tradition, skits featured men playing roles such as a femme fatale in a Hollywood film shoot, Boadicea or Maid Marian, or a queen or lady mayoress who would award prizes for the best costumes. The first male same-sex kiss in British cinema is generally held to be in 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, but a 1922 Pathé newsreel records an amorous moment between two Durham students dressed as a knight and a damsel-in-distress.

Rag drag’s raucous mockery of femininity in coeducational universities was ubiquitous and unremarkable. It made a distinction between men’s risqué performances of femininity and the decorous, respectable appearance of the actual women students in academic dress. It also folded envelope-pushing around gender and sexuality into the general topsy-turvy carnival atmosphere of rag festivities. Behavior (such as two men kissing) that could have gotten men arrested for gross indecency in other contexts, could in a cinema newsreel shown to audiences around Britain be represented simply as student hijinks.

Thinking about rag drag tells us something about student life at universities around Britain in the early twentieth century, and about the growth of a national (albeit highly gendered) student culture that could unite the experiences of men studying, say, at Glasgow, Sheffield, and Cambridge. It also offers a different perspective on the stories we tell about the history of gender and sexuality in modern Britain. The Durham students’ kiss has forebears in Shakespearean comedy, and descendants in Monty Python and the generations of television sketch comedians inspired by them. Even as the British state and society have consistently marginalized and punished many forms of gender transgression, there are others that are at the heart of the national cultural heritage. What these traditions leave out—whether, in this case, they can be reconciled with the full participation of women in comedy, student life, or a perception of a unified national cultural identity—remains to be seen.

The Christie Medal for University History

The University of Manchester awards an annual prize for research by its students on the University’s history.  The research may be presented conventionally as an academic essay or creatively: the 2017 entries including a digital artwork and a history podcast.  Last year’s winner was a short story about the University’s medical school by Joshua Allan, while runner up was an ‘Object Biography of the Manchester Museum’ by Samuel Williams.  Their winning entries can be read on the University’s website here.

The current competition for the Christie Medal for University History has a closing date of Friday 8th June 2018, and is open to undergraduate and postgraduate students at the University of Manchester.  An application form can be downloaded here.  The competition is judged by members of the Research Group on University History.


The prize-giving for the 2017 award

Skull and Bones, Singapore Style? Imagining the Ivy-League in Authoritarian Confines

Dr. Jason Luger is an urban geographer currently lecturing at the University of California, Berkeley, in the College of Environmental Design.  His research focuses on the production of urban space, the relationship between material and digital activism and social networks, the nexus of art, politics, and space, and authoritarian urban geographies.  Jason’s research has been featured in journals such as IJURR, Antipode, Geoforum and CITY, and his co-edited Volume “Art and the City: Worlding the Discussion through a Critical Artscape” (with Julie Ren), was published in 2017.  He is an assistant editor at the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies.  

In August 2012, Yale / NUS Liberal Arts College opened its doors to the first crop of students at its campus in Singapore.  Instantly, a new history was created, combining mythologized elements of the storied ‘Ivy League’ university (Yale, in New Haven, USA) with Singapore’s own National University of Singapore.  The hybrid, the first standalone liberal-arts college to open in Asia, is a complex and intriguing example of the way in which global mobilities and imaginaries circulate and are assembled via bilateral flows of ideas and capital.  Partially governed by Yale, though independent, Yale / NUS offers Singaporean students (and those from outside Singapore) the novel experiences of an all-encompassing campus experience through a liberal-arts design featuring small class sizes, residential colleges, and a multi-disciplinary, arts-heavy curriculum modeled after the liberal arts colleges of the United States.  This represented a dramatic shift in Singaporean higher-education, which has traditionally emphasized the ‘STEM’ subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) and where the majority of students live at home, rather than on-campus.  Other campus features include a ‘quad’ (central green and social space), a black-box multi-purpose theatre, and a garden-like environment taking advantage of Singapore’s lush, tropical climate.

Main Quad Singapore

Fig.1: Main Quad at ‘University Town’, NUS and Yale / NUS, Singapore (Jason Luger, 2013)

However, the question of how a liberal arts college, with all that entails, can operate within Singapore’s illiberal, soft-authoritarian confines, became a troubling one that generated much controversy inside and outside of the City-State.  Yale faculty took issue with the limitations on freedom of expression (particularly around political themes) in the City-State, as well as Singapore’s restrictions on LGBTQ rights, such as the local Penal Code 377A which permits the arrest of gay men partaking in consensual sexual activity (even if hardly ever enforced).  Other restrictions forbid students to form political parties on campus, or to extend official invitations to speakers on certain political themes. These, critics said, prevented the true operation of a liberal arts college.

In some ways, Yale / NUS has demonstrated a locally-situated operationalizing of the Yale model (albeit with Singaporean characteristics), such as the creation of a ‘secret society’ for elite students in the style of the famed ‘Skull and Bones’ society at Yale, of which several American presidents have been members.  Questions remain, however, about the degree to which students can (or want to) push the critical boundary of controversial topics, themes and opinions, given local restrictions on things like free speech, assembly, and political organizing.  It is here where Yale / NUS diverges most significantly from its North American counterparts (places such as Middlebury College, Vermont, which has seen raucous protests in 2017 in response to controversial invited speakers).

Yale Singapore

Fig. 2: Yale / NUS campus under construction, 2013 (Jason Luger, 2013)

The faculty maintain a statement on the freedom of expression, which can be found on the Yale / NUS website:

Faculty statement on the freedom of expression

‘We are firmly committed to the free expression of ideas in all forms—a central tenet of liberal arts education.  There are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated.  This principle is a cornerstone of our institution.’

However, where exactly the line is, or as it is known locally the ‘Out of Bounds’ marker (sometimes shortened to ‘OB’), is at best, hazy.  While there has been on campus support for the LGBTQ community, including an ‘Ally Week’ featuring events in support of LGBTQ students, there has also been push-back from authorities about what is, and is not, permitted.

Most recently, new restrictions were put in place about the use of space on campus: among them was a change in policy in the usage of space in the college, which sees a new ‘Event Approval Committee’ to assess the “desirability and feasibility” of holding an event on campus.  And any event that requires licenses or permits under the ‘Public Entertainments and Meetings Act’ or a permit under the ‘Public Order Act’ would not be allowed (The Straits Times, Feb 2017).

Yet, the case of Yale / NUS should push observers to turn their gaze back toward so-called liberal arts campuses in the ‘liberal’ West.  I conclude by asking the question: are they truly free of authoritarian restrictions, self or de-facto censorship, or the other benchmarks of authoritarian power which, as Foucault (1980) proposed, flow in a circular and sometimes ground-up manner (rather than in a top-down, hierarchal direction?)

Rather than being an outlier or an authoritarian step-child of the liberal arts geography, Yale / NUS may actually serve as a useful mirror of the current authoritarian paradigm that is increasingly global in scale and deeply embedded within, and across, supposed ‘liberal’ structures and locales.  The securitization and neoliberalisation of the university campus is a global reality a generation in the making; administrators often find themselves playing the role of the police or even the autocrat on campuses where activism and violent political rhetoric threaten operations and safety.  The most ‘liberal’, at least in popular imagination, of American major universities – the University of California at Berkeley – has gone so far as to ban speakers altogether whose presence is deemed a security threat.

Yale / NUS may be, therefore, a replica of what already exists – a Singaporean mirror of the new reality, and sign of things to come.  The possibility also exists for a new form of liberalism altogether – one that may yet open up spaces for critical thought and expression that those too focused on a ‘liberal’ lens may fail to see.


Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Pantheon.

The Straits Times, (13 Feb, 2017) Yale-NUS space use a bone of contention, by Calvin Yang.

Securing an academic career: Past and present

This post is from Dr Cath Feely, a Lecturer in History at the University of Derby, after short early-career stints at Durham, Sheffield and Manchester. She was Co-Chair of History Lab Plus from 2014 to 2016.

Recently, a senior colleague told me that he thought History was perhaps the most argumentative (or ‘bitchy’) of academic disciplines. I started to protest but then remembered how I had felt in wake of some of the bad-tempered Twitter ‘debate’ prompted by Matthew Lyons’ History Today column on ‘the betrayal of early-career historians’ by established academic historians a year ago in late August 2015. Many historians, understandably including those facing unemployment and underemployment, retweeted Lyons’ piece approvingly. Others, myself included, were offended by the implication that simply by having an academic post they were complicit in harming the people that they cared about: their students; their colleagues; their friends. Emotions ran high. As then the co-chair of History Lab Plus, a national network for early career historians, for me the debate was confirmation that people felt the need for support in the post-PhD period but, at the same time, I was uncertain as to what such support should look like and whether it would ever be enough.

As William Whyte argued, in an excellent blog that he wrote for us at History Lab Plus, Lyons’ piece was ‘fundamentally presentist’ in his demonstration of the problems facing early-career historians. These problems, and the emotional and practical impact they have on historians attempting to enter the profession are not at all new. This was starkly brought home to me when I was researching the history of the History Department of the University of Manchester, when I was myself between temporary contracts, in the summer of 2013. Manchester was a pioneer of postgraduate education in History and was among the very first institutions in the country to award PhDs in the subject. As I read though the correspondence of lecturers with their recently-graduated students in the 1920s and 1930s (all available in the John Rylands Library), it was hard not to relate their trials and tribulations on the job market to my own.

Indeed, sometimes their words seemed dangerously close to the kind of half-hopeful, half-resigned, sometimes desperate emails that I must have sent to my supervisor (luckily for my dignity, having switched institutions several times, I don’t think evidence of these survive for future historians to ponder). For instance, after several disastrous interviews, one couldn’t help sympathising with Dr Sophia Weitzman, who wrote to Manchester’s Professor T.F. Tout in May 1925:

Mr Barker said I should hear about the King’s College appointment by Tuesday next. I’m beginning to despair of ever getting anything on an interview. These jobs go to the tall, capable-looking women and I’m neither: College lecturers are a type and “insignificant me” doesn’t look the part. However, as I can’t alter that there’s no sense in being depressed about it.

However, one problem Weitzman had which was undoubtedly less of a problem for me was that she was a woman. That’s not, of course, to say that gender bias does not still affect academic careers in History. It undoubtedly does, as the 2015 Royal Historical Society Gender report made very clear. But it does seem to be more an issue of progression within the job rather than the explicit discrimination that the early Manchester women PhDs faced in entering the profession. However, it is incredibly important that the more invisible structural barriers and pressures that can exclude both men and women from a variety of backgrounds from pursuing an academic career are kept very firmly at the top of the early career agenda.

What is also clear from these letters is that very few of the students, and indeed their mentors, expected that they would end up in traditional academic careers (although, at that point the ‘academic career’ in History was actually still very new), even as they hoped that they might. They were a remarkably pragmatic bunch, taking up a range of what we would probably call ‘alt-ac’ jobs: as librarians, archivists, editors, university administrators, hall tutors, etc. As such, however, they were not seen as ‘giving up’ on History but rather contributing to it differently, and were very highly respected in the discipline. Indeed, early academic historians such as Alice Cooke, the first woman to graduate with a Masters’ degree at Manchester (before the advent of the PhD), had periods of lecturing punctuated by cataloguing some of the most important library collections in the country throughout her career. It was not out of the ordinary to swap back and forth in this manner and it remained so into well into the mid-twentieth century.

The introduction of the PhD was part of the professionalization of History as an academic subject, but as these letters and our own experiences suggest, that for most of its history there has been an underlying tension between the ‘apprentice’ model of the degree and the fact that a minority of its graduates have got academic jobs. The booms in the expansion of HE in the 1950s/60s and again in the 1990s/2000s masked this. So, is the PhD itself the problem? Has it always been the problem? Should less people be doing PhDs? Is the PhD simply setting people up for jobs that do not exist?

I am very torn on this, as I imagine many academics are, which is why many of us were so hurt by the shouts of betrayal in 2015. The fact is that I loved my PhD, even though it was damn hard and I did it part-time never expecting to get a job. I think the research I produced was valuable and important in and of itself, as I think the PhD research I now supervise is valuable and important in and of itself. And the fact is that I did (like most supervisors) get a job against the odds and, for all of the pressures of that job, it is an immense privilege to walk into a lecture theatre and debate and discuss the subject that I love with intelligent and passionate students. So while I feel very strongly that it is our duty as academics to be very, very clear to potential PhD students both about the realities of an academic career and the immense competition that there is in even getting entry-level positions, I also don’t think we should presume that this is the only value of doing a PhD. At the same time, neither do I want to lead people up the garden path and do think that, despite the million doom and gloom blog posts about the academic job market, a remarkably large number of PhDs seem unaware about the state of academia and who inevitably feel betrayed.

When I tie myself up in knots about this, I am reminded of the exasperated words of Professor George Unwin, also of Manchester, to his student Mabel Pythian (later Mabel Tylecote, who went on to play an important role in civic life and politics in Manchester) c. 1920. He was referring to women students, but I think it applies to all now:

‘I have given my best efforts to women students most of whom have not achieved what they set out to do. I don’t blame them & I go on hoping.’

I think that’s the real problem. We’re not really as bitchy as discipline as it first appears. Actually, often the problem is that we care too much: we care about the discipline and don’t want to discourage those who we think might be the future of it; we care about our students and we believe in them, so hope against hope that it will turn out alright; and we care about scholarship, and rigour and think that the production of a substantial piece of historical research should not be reduced to job training or ‘graduate attributes’.

Occasionally when I was Chair of History Lab Plus, I would see criticism that we were part of the problem. We were training people into how to enter ‘the system’ rather than questioning or overturning it. I understand that and, frankly, I don’t know what to do about it. My instinct is to be kind at in individual level: to pass on practical advice, to share ideas, encourage and, like Unwin, to ‘go on hoping’. But on a larger scale, maybe commitment to individual kindness is allowing harm.

These tensions have been around as long as the PhD. Maybe it can only take genuine reflection and debate about what the PhD is for, including discussion of its history and development, to take us any further.

Durham University: Last of the Ancient Universities and First of the New (1831-1871)

This post was contributed by Dr Matthew Andrews who researched part-time for his doctorate at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Professor William Whyte, St John’s College.  He investigated the foundation and early decades of Durham University, revising the accepted view of the University’s difficulties and re-examining the growth of higher education in the nineteenth century. Email: m.p.andrews@dunelm.org.uk. Twitter: @HE_MPA

Durham University did not at first live up to the expectations of its founders.  Historians, following the verdict of the Royal Commission which investigated Durham’s chronic state in the early 1860s, have tended to blame this failure on an anachronistic view of university education and gross internal mismanagement.  By looking again at what was attempted and the wider context, however, it can be seen that many of the difficulties Durham encountered were beyond the control of its leaders.  The initial problems, therefore, tell us more about the development of universities in the nineteenth century in general than has hitherto been appreciated.

Typically, nineteenth century higher education has been defined by reform at Oxford and Cambridge, hastened and extended by Royal Commissions; the development of new forms of higher education in London that were influenced by European, Scottish and North American models; and the growth of technically and industrially orientated civic colleges (later to become universities) partly through the expedient of the London University External Degree and the federal university model.[1]

As an Anglican institution with many traditional aspects Durham has not fitted this narrative and so historians have generally felt comfortable explaining it away as nothing more than a staunchly High Church reaction to the febrile atmosphere of reform in the early 1830s.[2]  Eric Ashby, for example, praised London University for its ‘broad spread of academic and professional studies’, while he condemned Durham for being ‘obsessively anglican’.[3]  Michael Sanderson, at least, recognised Durham’s attempt to pioneer engineering as a subject of university study, especially to appeal to its ‘Northern milieu’.  Still, however, he concluded that the University’s ‘origins were not especially noble’ as the Chapter were simply attempting to forestall an attempt ‘to dispossess it of funds’.[4]

Knocking In - small

The Norman Gateway to University College, Durham

Nevertheless, there is much to project Durham as an attempt at educational reform in its own right.   The Durham Chapter, led by Archdeacon Charles Thorp, in fact intended to establish a modern university that would benefit northern interests.

Durham did not, for example, follow the professorial model of the older English universities, which was itself the subject of calls for reform.[5]  The professorial model at Durham followed the Scottish pattern.  Thorp always intended that the Professors would work: they would ‘have the charge of the studies in their respective departments and work as at Glasgow and the foreign Universities, and as they did at Oxford in old times’.[6]

The subjects of study would be different too.  Unsurprisingly for a church foundation, Theology was important but the Durham Licence in Theology would offer focused ministerial preparation.  The absence of such provision at the older universities provoked continued agitation for improvement.[7]

It was originally intended that the University would offer a medical course, and one of the first members of staff was a Reader in Medicine: William Cooke who was given ‘a complete osteological collection … wax models and graphic representations’.[8]   The intention was to offer a course leading to the Licence of the Society of Apothecaries, as was similarly practised in King’s College and London University.[9]  However, the demand was negligible and after 1836 there is no record of Cooke providing any academic lectures.  Durham proved too small a town for professional medical studies, especially with a quickly growing School of Medicine in nearby Newcastle.

The Freshmans Dream - small

The Freshman’s Dream

More radical still than medicine was the course in civil engineering.  The nearby and extensive collieries, many being Chapter property, seemed to make Durham an ideal centre for professional mining studies.  Yet the course was a clear departure from the long-established model of English higher education and the first of its kind in the country.  A degree in all but name, the intention was to enable ‘the profession of Civil Engineer [to] take the rank in society which its importance demands’.[10]  For a while the course was popular, even exceeding those admitted to study Theology or Arts in 1839/40.  The course was no cheaper than undertaking a pupillage or apprenticeship, however, and, even though the course contained a significant practical component and was supported by leading industrialists, after studying for three years graduates found themselves with no advantage when considered for employment and so the course dwindled to nothing in the 1840s.

Alongside these new disciplines, the Bachelor of Arts remained the core ‘academical course’ and here Durham craved equality with Oxford and Cambridge.  Admission was by passing a matriculation examination.  This was an innovation in England, as the practice had yet to be universally adopted by the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, which perceived such tests as an attempt by the University to restrict who they could admit.[11]  Entrance exams had, however, been instituted in Scotland at Marischal College and St Andrews in the early 1820s.[12]

The Durham examination system introduced a new concept to British higher education: the external examiner.  These external examiners were recruited from Oxford and were an essential part of the strategy to demonstrate the equivalence of Durham awards.  In addition, the introduction of external examiners followed the accepted principle that teaching and examining duties should be separated.

Despite such innovations, as access to the older universities opened Durham struggled to recruit.  The University was cheaper than Oxford or Cambridge but not sufficiently less expensive to make a real difference.[13]  In April 1843, the University attempted to gain recognition for Durham graduates to be awarded ad eundem degrees of Oxford but the attempt failed.  A similar and also unsuccessful attempt was made a decade later to gain such a privilege at Cambridge.

Durham’s failure can be attributed to both lack of supply, and lack of demand.  At the start of the century secondary education was largely undeveloped in England save for the limited and often exclusive provision of the grammar and public schools.  There were no independent examinations in secondary schools until Oxford and Cambridge established the Local Examinations in 1857-8, with Durham itself swiftly following in 1858.[14]  Many of the new universities and colleges actually survived in part due to the success of their secondary schools while their higher courses suffered.[15]

As for demand for graduates: most of the professions were still far from convinced of the value of the courses that the new institutions offered and until the middle of the nineteenth century the links between industry and the universities were negligible.[16]

Getting Up Lectures - small

Getting up for Lectures

It was also crucial to any new institutions’ disadvantage that English society still operated by patronage until well into the nineteenth century.[17]  The implication of this was that for as long as the support of a prominent patron remained more important than qualifications (and even ability) in order to gain entry to the more desirable careers and professions, the practical value of the system of certificates, degrees, and other awards being developed in the new universities and colleges would be minimal.

The result was that higher education in England (and in fact across Europe) did not expand consistently throughout the nineteenth century.[18]  According to one analysis of enrolments, there was even a decline in the rate of admission to English universities between 1821 and 1861.  The number of students enrolling in 1831 was lower than in 1821.[19]

Students in English Universities 1801-1901 (Male Students Only)[20]


It was in this period of stagnation, while facing the resurgence of Oxford and Cambridge, that the attempt was made to found Durham.  It is little wonder that the University struggled, as did all new establishments.

Resurrecting Durham’s early reputation by showing that its founders were more ambitious than is generally known, and that its failure was actually typical of the period, is more important than a parochial corrective, for reinterpreting Durham’s problems demonstrates that the general understanding of higher education during the nineteenth century fails to grasp the complexities of a system in development as well as competing perspectives on reform.


[1] H. Perkin, The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880 (London, 1969), p. 298; M. Sanderson, The Universities in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1975), pp. xi-xii, 22-3, 26-32, 80; W. Whyte, Redbrick: A Social and Architectural History of Britain’s Civic Universities (Oxford, 2015), p. 21.

[2] A. Bartlett and D. Goodhew, ‘Victorian to Modern, 1832-2000’, in D. Brown (ed.), Durham Cathedral: History, Fabric, and Culture (London, 2015), pp. 111-27; B. Pask with D. Brown, ‘Post-Reformation Clerical Scholarship’, in Brown (ed.), Durham Cathedral, pp. 469-81.

[3] E. Ashby, Universities: British, Indian, African (Cambridge Massachusetts, 1966), pp. 19-28.  See also: A. Briggs, ‘Development in Higher Education in the United Kingdom’, in W.R. Niblett (ed.), Higher Education: Demand and Response (London, 1969), pp. 95-116; K. Vernon, Universities and the State in England 1850-1939 (London, 2004), pp. 63, 102.

[4] Sanderson, Universities in the Nineteenth Century, p. 32.  See also: J. Innes and A. Burns, ‘Introduction’, in A. Burns and J. Innes (eds.), Age of Reform: Britain 1780-1850 (Cambridge, 20030, pp. 1-70; Perkin, Origins of Modern English Society, p. 298; Vernon, Universities and the State in England, p. 101; Whyte, Redbrick, p. 33.

[5] A.J. Engel, From Clergyman to Don: The Rise of the Academic Profession in Nineteenth-Century Oxford (Oxford, 1983), pp. 35-6.

[6] [Balliol College] Jenkyns Papers, IVA.6: Thorp to Van Mildert, 10 December 1831.

[7] D. Inman, The Making of Modern English Theology: God and the Academy at Oxford 1833-1945 (Minneapolis, 2014), pp. 43-103.

[8] Durham University Calendar 1842, p. 12.

[9] H.H. Bellot, University College, London 1826-1926 (London, 1929), p. 145; F.J.C. Hearnshaw, The Centenary History of King’s College London 1828-1928 (London, 1929), pp. 113-4.

[10] [Durham University Llibrary] Durham Dicesan Recrods: Chevallier to Maltby, 25 November 1837.

[11] Ashby, Universities, p. 25; S. Rothblatt, ‘Failure in Early Nineteenth-Century Oxford and Cambridge’, History of Education, 11/1 (1982), pp. 1-21, p. 11; D.A. Winstanley, Early Victorian Cambridge, (Cambridge, 1940), pp. 154, 167-8.

[12] D.J. Withrington, ‘Ideas and Ideals in University Reform in Early Nineteenth‐Century Britain: A Scottish Perspective’, The European Legacy, 4/6 (1999), pp. 7-19, p. 13.

[13] H. Longueville Jones, ‘Statistical Illustrations of the Principal Universities of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland ‘, Journal of the Statistical Society of London, I (November 1838), pp. 385-97, p. 390.

[14] J. Roach, Public Examinations in England, 1850–1900 (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 64-76, 89.

[15] Whyte, Redbrick, p. 47.

[16] M. Sanderson, The Universities and British Industry 1850-1970 (London, 1972), p. 3.

[17] W.J. Reader, Professional Men: The Rise of the Professional Classes in Nineteenth-Century England (London, 1966), pp. 4-6; W.G. Runciman, Very Different, But Much the Same: The Evolution of English Society Since 1714 (Oxford, 2015), pp. 35-40.

[18] R.D. Anderson, European Universities from the Enlightenment to 1914 (Oxford, 2004), pp. 119-37; Reader, Professional Men, pp. 142-5.

[19] M. Greenwood, ‘University Education: Its Recent History and Function‘, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 98/2 (1935), pp. 1-33.  Greenwood’s figures excluded female students for ease of comparison across the century, he therefore calculated the rate of entry as a proportion of the male population aged 15 to 25.

[20] Source: Greenwood, ‘University Education’, p. 7.

The Medieval Universitas

This article has been contributed by Marci Freedman, a medieval historian who has recently completed her PhD at the University of Manchester. Her research profile is available on: https://manchester.academia.edu/MarciFreedman

The University as an institution is often associated with the built environment. Its infrastructure reflects a certain gravitas and they seem to breathe an air of erudition. Universities are incredibly proud of their buildings which highlight their beginnings and their heritage; no campus tour is complete without these points of interest. Whilst this may provide the history of a specific university, it is not the physical environment which can inform us about the early rise of the university as a socio-cultural development of the twelfth century. In fact, the infrastructures of universities across Europe often do not accord with their earliest years as the majority of buildings are late medieval or early modern foundations. To truly understand the rise of the university in the Middle Ages, one must turn to the people and cities who provide the backdrop. It is the purpose of this post to explore who comprised the earliest universities, their position within respective university cities and what this reveals about the university as a place of learning in medieval European society.

Medieval uni

The true beginnings of Europe’s oldest universities are obscure. What is certain is that the university is a development of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Within these uncertain beginnings are wandering scholars – men who travelled to seek out masters of a specific subject, or who followed these masters from city to city. Masters attracted scholars through their reputation which led to students hiring them for instruction, thereby establishing a learning group known as a universitas (learning community). Other universities were established by the Church who paid the masters, and others still were established by the nobility and state. The earliest university structure was predominantly transient and comprised of lectures organised in ad hoc locations, often private halls and Churches. Certain cities did emerge as the leaders in specific fields – Bologna for law, Paris for theology (to name just two), with students travelling from across Europe to attend them. This tied universities to the urban expansion that was occurring across medieval Europe.

With the influx of students into cities the demand for goods, services and accommodation rose, as did the prices of these necessities. A student would typically require a range of supplies and services, including (but not limited to) stationery, books, clothes, food, ale/wine and money changers. In the natural course of supply and demand, prices could be extortionate. In response, students and masters began to organise themselves into guilds against the exploitations of townsmen. One means was to threaten to leave the city and take their learning elsewhere (as students in Paris did in 1229). A second option was to negotiate a charter with the town which would grant privileges to masters and students – such as price fixing and student exemptions from civil jurisdiction (although they remained subject to the ecclesiastical courts). To further mitigate the inflated prices of room and board, purpose-built colleges were erected in some towns, particularly in Oxford. The beginnings of the University as an institution – one which was self-governing and insular – caused tensions between “town and gown” (the city and the university) and, at times, erupted into violence (such as Oxford’s famous St Scholastica Day of 1355). Nonetheless, teaching continued and physical structures were gradually built which further tied universities to specific cities and entrenched them within the urban landscape.

The student body was entirely comprised of literate men, anywhere from their mid-teens to thirties, who arrived at the university with a range of motivations and incomes. All were proficient in Latin, the lingua franca of medieval learning and allowed for men of different nations to converse. It is difficult to trace the daily lives of students, and little evidence survives which shed light on this section of urban society. Some of the documentation which has been left to us include: university and college statutes, student manuals, court and law records, sermons, as well as letters from students themselves. Much of this data provides a one-sided portrayal of lazy, reckless and haughty students who were a nuisance to the general populace. Townspeople might typically complain about ‘brawling, whoring, dicing, swanking around in inappropriate clothing, singing, dancing, carrying weapons and insulting not only the respectable citizens but also the forces of law and order’.[1] The extant evidence does little to differentiate between the different classes of students – the idle and aimless versus the diligent and academically gifted students – and can offer quite a negative image. Amongst the paucity of evidence is a body of letters which does shed some light on the daily lives of students. Reinforcing this image is a letter from a father to a son who sternly writes:

I have recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies, whence it happens that you have read but one volume of law while your most industrious companions have read several. Wherefore I have decided to exhort you herewith to repent utterly of your dissolute and careless ways, that you may no longer be called a waster and your shame may be turned to good repute.[2]

Those who did attend university for academic pursuits were by far the larger group; though they remain less conspicuous in the documents. Of those that have survived, we are often presented with an image of the cash-strapped student which may resonate with their modern counterparts. For example, two twelfth-century brothers wrote to their father requesting funds:

This is to inform you that, by divine mercy, we are living in good health in the City of Orleans, and are devoting ourselves wholly to study…We occupy a good dwelling, next door but one to the schools and market-place, so that we can go to school every day without wetting our feet. We have also good companions in the house with us, well advanced in their studies and of excellent habit…Wherefore lest production cease from lack of material, we beg your paternity to send us by the bearer…money for buying parchment, ink, a desk, and other things which we need, in sufficient amount that we may suffer no want on your account (God forbid!) but finish our studies and return home with honour…[3]

Although only one example, it begins to balance the view and reveals that there were plenty of assiduous students in attendance. The majority of requests were replied to by parents who remitted the desired amount – though some parents might have added a caveat for the student to moderate their expenses.

Medieval learning was a transmission of knowledge from masters to students. This was accomplished through lecturing from a specific text as well as through disputations, all of which were in the pursuit of knowledge. The university, however, was primarily an institution of vocational training; graduates were the clerks of government, high-office holders of the Church (bishops and theologians) as well as lawyers and doctors. The university thus offered a rare avenue for social mobility, providing poorer students opportunities not available before. Learning was especially useful to the State as governments ‘modernised’ trade, tax collection, record keeping and legal systems. Thus, it was university-educated men who increasingly came to underpin the bureaucratic machine of both Church and State.


[1] Hunt Janin, The University in Medieval Life, 1179-1499 (Jefferson: NC, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2008).

[2] Charles Homer Haskins, The Rise of Universities (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1923) pp.79-80

[3] Ibid.

Contextualising the ‘D.P. Controversy’: UK student responses to European migration after WWII

The cover image shows University of Manchester students entering Whitworth Hall in the 1950s. Image courtesy of University of Manchester Library

This article has been contributed by Dr Alison Newby, who is currently researching the international student experience in the UK and works with University of Manchester collections, particularly those held in the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre.

Migrants are in the news. Wave upon wave of refugees from all over the world, risking life and limb to reach the shores of Europe. Set to be one of the most intractable issues of the century, the scale of this crisis can easily seem unprecedented. But is it?

Europe has experienced refugee crises before. The level of internal displacement after World War II was even greater and the challenges possibly even grimmer than those we face now. The flotsam and jetsam of the 1940s cataclysm were mired in the wreckage of those same economies, mangled as they were by devastation and destruction. Millions of people had been displaced with little hope for the future amid insurmountable difficulties in the present.

Amongst those displaced masses was a generation of university students. How did students in the UK respond to migration and the complex issues surrounding the task of ‘reconstructing university life’ in Europe after the war? This blog post will touch on the reaction nationally on campuses during the 1940s, before presenting how those issues played out specifically in the ‘D.P. Student Controversy’ in the University of Manchester Student Unions from 1949 to 1950.

By the 1940s a particular sense of student identity had emerged which ensured that the plight of displaced students across Europe did not go unnoticed among their peers in the UK. Georgina Brewis’s work on student volunteering1  charts the decades of voluntary action and coordination of national and international student associations in universities which had strengthened that sense of student identity, as well as the drive among students nationally to undertake campaigns and social service as students for students.

Significant national and international student organisations were active on UK campuses. By the war’s end, British students were already supporting an extensive relief programme for student victims. Universities in occupied territories had been viewed by the Nazis as breeding grounds for opposition to their regime, with the consequence that students were an actively persecuted population. What became known as World Student Relief (WSF) was set up by International Student Service (ISS), the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF), and the Catholic group Pax Romana to focus on the needs of student refugees in particular.

UK students participated in helping WSR provide study material to both Allied and Axis student prisoners of war, send food supplies to students in occupied countries, and set up rest centres for students in liberated areas. After the war, WSR was recognised by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) as a relief agency specialising in the reconstruction of university life.

The National Union of Students (NUS) was also active on campuses, cooperating with the likes of ISS internationally to increase awareness of the scale of the task. In 1946, the NUS helped establish the International Union of Students (IUS). This new body lacked the specifically religious impetus that had historically driven the organisations noted above. Soon divided into opposing camps reflecting the growing chasm between east and west reflected in the emerging Cold War, IUS came to be increasingly viewed with suspicion by many as being overly influenced by Communists.

The rehabilitation of Germany as well as contacts with local and displaced students there were much-debated subjects. British student delegations to Germany contributed reports to their institutional magazines and newspapers revealing the extent of deprivation amongst students, emphasising the need for essential intellectual contacts to reduce Germany’s isolation. These reports educated the wider student body. It was in this broader context that a scheme encouraged by the UN International Relief Organisation (IRO) and organised by ISS arose to resettle selected displaced students from Germany and Austria within universities in countries such as the UK, the US and Canada.

By March 1949, the US was absorbing 1,500 such students, Canada 50 and the UK 35. IRO had set rigid standards for who would be considered a ‘D.P. Student’ in order to eliminate Quislings. Applicants needed to have gained their Matura qualification, and to have previously attended university – in the country they had been forced to leave, a German university, or the Baltic University, Pinneberg (a temporary institution in Displaced Persons camps in Germany, opened in 1946 to educate refugees from the Baltic States). In the UK, assurances were given by certain universities that they would accept specific numbers of such students. Oxford undertook to accept 3, Birmingham decided on 1 or 2, whilst Exeter, Cardiff, Liverpool and Manchester each opened their doors to 1.

So much for the bigger picture. How did this play out locally amongst students in individual UK universities? Unfortunately, actual contemporary student views and activities are difficult to uncover. University archives have tended to see student union records in particular as ‘dispensable ephemera’. With a few honourable exceptions, institutions have made no effort to preserve them. Thus it is necessary to extrapolate from what little remains to get a feel for events and attitudes at a grassroots student level. To flesh out the story of how UK students responded to the migration of their peers from Europe, this study utilises resources held in the archives of the University of Manchester, reconstructing the so-called ‘D. P. Student Controversy’ in the University’s three Student Unions during 1949 to 1950.2

The question of ‘D.P. Students from Germany’ seems first to have arisen in March 1949. The Women’s Union (WU) sub-committee noted that acceptance of such students in universities across the UK could create considerable antagonism because university entrance was already so difficult for UK nationals. Nevertheless, sub-committee members wanted to support the presence of a D.P Student. To avoid problems in the wider student body, they suggested seeking the University’s consent, having the NUS control the financial aid, and raising money to support the student through voluntary contribution from other students.

Subsequently, the General Committee of the Men’s Union (MU) discussed in detail raising funds to cover the expenses of the D.P. Student. However, members faced an uphill struggle when an opposing faction decried the very idea of adopting such a student in the first place. Clearly, D.P. Students in Europe constituted a divisive issue on campus. Some in the student body were incensed that sacrosanct principles of democracy and freedom of speech were being threatened in this case by attempts among the factions to manipulate Student Union procedures to promote their own agendas. Eventually a motion at an Extraordinary General Meeting of MU was roundly defeated following a discussion in which ideological and political objections to displaced persons en masse were unsuccessfully pitted against a humanitarian plea for individual action.

The matter of the D.P. Student had tapped a rich vein of disagreement which continued to divide student opinion. Proceedings during a later WU General Meeting laid the precise bones of contention bare. The President supported an IUS missive outlining the trials and tribulations of D.P. Students, stating that the Committee recommended the WU join with the other two Unions to support the D.P. Student Scheme. However, wider ideological divisions concerning fears that the IUS was too close to Communists were filtering down into the student body itself, and this was reflected in the ensuing WU debate.

Sensitive to this, the NUS representative distanced herself from the IUS position, doubting that the D.P. Student Scheme was really necessary. The ISS representative advocated a broader view, saying that a D.P. Student should be allowed to benefit from experience of the British way of life to take back a conception of British democracy to less fortunate people at home. Another participant thought “colonials” should be invited rather than suspected “Fascist” undesirables. And yet another advocated strongly that Manchester should live up to its increasing reputation by setting an example for the furtherance of international understanding.

Student opinion in Manchester was clearly divided on the same lines reflected in the national debates described above.

Clarifications appeared in the University’s student press giving assurances that international bodies would ensure the exclusion of Quislings from the Scheme. British University lecturers working in Germany would serve on selection committees, and rigid IRO standards would be imposed on decisions about potential candidates. A shortlist would be sent to UK university departments able to accept a student. By October 1949, the three Student Unions had agreed the principle of maintaining a D.P. Student in Manchester for three years. The names and dossiers of candidates were examined by the Student Union Presidents in conjunction with the University authorities.

Thus it was that students participated in deciding which D.P. Student would benefit from attending the University under the Scheme, and student activities raised the funds to pay for his stay. The chosen student finally arrived in October 1950.

The above illustrates that, even at a local level, divisions existed in the UK student body surrounding the issue of the migration to Britain of D.P. Students. These divisions reflected wider ideological disagreements which in part stemmed from the emergence of the Cold War that would separate east and west in Europe for decades to come. Nevertheless, traditions of student voluntarism, activism and social service as students for students continued to be influential. The sense of a unique student identity that transcended borders won out in the skirmishes surrounding the controversial policy of accepting within the university displaced people from a region of Europe ravaged, not only by the effects of war, but also by the social collapse which flowed from the destruction of the Fascist regime that had caused so much harm.



  1. See Georgina Brewis’s superb study: A Social History of Student Volunteering. Britain and Beyond, 1880-1980  (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan  2014).
  2. According to Brewis, the Universities of Cambridge and Liverpool have excellent records, as have several women’s colleges. This study pieces together the D.P. Student Controversy from editions of the University of Manchester’s News Bulletin  of 1949 to 1950. The News Bulletin was the official newspaper of the three Student Unions of the University of Manchester. The three Unions were the Women’s Union, Men’s Union and Tech Union (representing UMIST students), and they coordinated operations during the period. Student-originated material such as the Bulletins has rarely been preserved, so the availability of this University of Manchester publication (running from  21 November 1932  to  10 November 1960) offers a significant window into the world of students at the time. It can be consulted in the University of Manchester Archive, and was brought to my attention by Dr Sarah Webster, who has also written for this blog. Information concerning international student numbers generally over time at the University of Manchester and its antecedents has not been collated, but can be gleaned from the volumes of  Reports of Council to the Court of Governors which run from  1871  to    The category ‘Stateless’ is mentioned in three of these:   1951  (1 student);  1952  (2 students);  1954  (1 student).  ‘Stateless’ appears to refer to the displaced student who benefited from the D.P. Student Scheme, though it is not clear why there are two in 1952 and none in 1953.