Last term, a Christ Church undergraduate made student-paper headlines for bringing a homemade flamethrower to a college “bop” (party for all the undergrads in college). But we junior deans and equivalent officers who lie awake at night worrying that such things will happen on our watch should be relieved that matters are no longer as they were in the late-Victorian period, as described by M.C. Curthoys in the History of the University of Oxford, vol. 7:
One outward sign of the new seriousness was the exclusion of dogs, whose nocturnal howlings had occasionally disturbed the peace of the unreformed colleges; Warden Sewell carefully enforced the rules against them at New College in the early 1860s, while George Bradley made their removal an issue at University College. Supper parties, a long-standing target for moral reformers, were suppressed at Trinity during 1857 and 1858 by the dean, Frederick Meyrick, who detested their ‘noisy and ill-conducted’ proceedings, ‘gross language’, and ‘filthy songs’. Gatings and rustications were imposed on attenders at rowdy wine parties in the following decade….
As proctors during 1882-3, Scott Holland and A.L. Smith of Balliol conducted a purge against prostitution in the town, declaring their priority to be ‘protecting the Undergraduates from needless temptation by vigilantly attending to the public decency of the streets’. Their actions… were reinforced by the University branch of the Church of England Purity Association, founded in 1883, whose 800 members in 1887 included about 30 per cent of all undergraduates in residence…. Membership at Keble, where the association seems to have originated, was almost universal; Oriel and Worcester also provided substantial support. Sexual vice was thereafter a diminishing concern among disciplinary officers; entering a college after hours, though still an offence, ceased to be automatically associated with gross moral turpitude, and ‘climbing in’ over the college walls could become a relatively good-natured test of ingenuity. In other matters it proved more difficult for college deans to take concerted action. L.R. Farnell, Sub-Rector of Exeter from 1882, complained of their failure to agree a common policy towards college bonfires, undergraduate celebrations usually of sporting victories, which threatened to get out of hand in the mid-1880s. Some colleges treated them as occasions for licensed uproar, like bump suppers (previously disreputable occasions but which became sanctioned as official college events). These provided essential outlets for the violent energies of the young men confined within college walls. During the restoration of the Bodleian, when the Schools tower was covered in wooden scaffolding, rockets, bombs, and sparks from a vast bonfire blazing in the nearby front quadrangle of Hertford, in celebration of the college going head of the river in 1881, presented an alarming prospect. The conflagration, ‘fed with tables and chairs by a mad set of undergraduates who were chiefly occupied in dancing insanely about it’, had the permission of the Senior Proctor. A Harvard graduate visiting Queen’s witnessed Provost Magrath looking on benignly at a bonfire circled by undergraduates variously hanging from trees or bashing tin baths.
Spectacular breakdowns of control, widely reported in the press, showed that the establishment of a new order in the colleges was not uniformly smooth. Rapid expansion in student numbers during the 1860s placed additional strains on the colleges’ disciplinary resources. An early sign of trouble was the gating of the whole of Merton College following a bonfire in the college on 5 November 1865. All the undergraduates at Trinity were threatened with rustication in Hilary term 1867 after a succession of incidents, including the blocking up of a passageway with snow to prevent access to morning chapel and the cutting of the chapel bell-rope. The same sentence was threatened at University College in March 1868 after a fellow had been ‘screwed up’ (i.e. shut in his rooms by the insertion of screw into his outer oak door), and the rooms of an undergraduate vandalized, apparently in the wake of an unpopular decision of the governing body. At the end of November 1868, the governing body at New College actually carried out the sanction of mass rustication when the undergraduates reused to give up the names of those responsible for smashing an unpopular student’s windows. The culmination of this turbulent period was the Christ Church library riot…. Further outbreaks occurred at the end of the 1870s. Discipline broke down in Wadham after eights week in 1879 when the authorities prohibited the holding of a college concert. In the following summer Bradley rusticated the whole of University College after the undergraduates refused to incriminate those responsible for screwing up the oak of a tutor, who was also Senior Proctor; they were subsequently taken back when the culprit owned up.