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Student pranksters painted college red
That must have been a riot of a party. At any rate it caused something of a riot at Christ Church, Oxford. The occasion was the 21st birthday of Sunny, 9th Duke of Marlborough, but the Blenheim Row — as it came to be called — arose as a result of a few Christ Church undergraduates, who had been invited to the ball, painting the college red — and a good many other colours too.
They became cross after the Dean, Francis Paget (1851-1911), and Senior Censor Sampson, imposed petty restrictions on them (concerning getting back in good time, for instance). The petulant undergraduates painted slogans reading “Damn the Dean” and “Damn Sampson” on the doors and walls of the Great Quadrangle, and even cut the bell-rope of Great Tom, the ancient bell used to toll curfews, originally brought to Christ Church from Osney Abbey when the college was founded in 1546.
Then they circulated a paper comparing the college to a prep school and complaining of “Puritan principles. Venal porters. Indifferent dons.”
This happened in 1893, during the so-called belle epoque, or naughty nineties. The next summer something similar occurred: all the windows in Peckwater Quad were smashed following a Bullingdon Club dinner, and Sampson, shocked to the core, stood down after 16 years in the Censor’s job.
Judith Carthoys, the archivist at Christ Church since 1994, writes in her informative new book The Cardinal’s College (Profile Books, £40): “In spite of the relative benevolence towards undergraduate antics, the Blenheim and Bullingdon rows damaged Christ Church’s reputation, and numbers dropped for a brief period in the mid-1890s.
“Up to 50 sets of rooms stood empty, a far cry from the overcrowded state at the end of the previous century.”
In 1870, Paget’s predecessor, Dean Henry Liddell, had also had to deal with rowdiness. Members of the Christ Church Society stole all the statues from the library in protest against the dismissal of a friendly porter called Timms. Worse, they lit fires between the statues, damaging an early Aphrodite and Eros. Shades here of Betjeman’s poem Varsity Students’ Rag: “And then we smash’d up ev’rything, and what was the funniest part/We smashed some rotten old pictures which were priceless works of art.”
Liddell remarked that if this vandalism had been committed by Town — not Gown — everyone would have demanded the severest punishments. In fact, a solicitor was consulted and the threat of legal action, not to mention thunderous publicity from The Times, shamed the perpetrators into giving themselves up. Ms Carthoys says that Edward Marjoribanks, the first to enter the library, was among three undergraduates expelled.
Liddell said: “Young men of large fortune have little to fear from such penalties as we can impose. Their parents often look without severity, or even with a half sympathy, on acts similar to those in which they formerly took part themselves, and by long traditional habit take a sort of pleasure in hearing of practical jokes played within the precincts of a college.”
But he was indulgent; convinced that this was simply a prank that had gone too far. (In other words, a little as though a P.G. Wodehouse character had by mistake hurt a policeman while trying to take his helmet on Boat Race night).
As for the the 9th Duke of Marlborough, he gave another party for his 60th birthday. No one this time tried to stop undergraduates staying out late. The only trouble was that the duke forgot how old he was: he gave it in 1930 when he was still 59.