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Student life in the 1950s

David Milne came up to Keble in 1955 after a couple of years working as Assistant Manager in an office factory, and read History. What follows are some extracts from his Keble memoir.

A Keble rag, Eights Week, 1959

On Sconcing
Sunday 23 October 1955

At supper I had my first close-up of what is, in my opinion, the revolting custom of ‘sconcing’.

The boy on my right accidentally quoted a phrase in Latin.

The rules of sconcing prohibit, among many other things, which I shall list another day, the use of a foreign tongue – except to a foreigner who knows no English.

Supper for Athletics Club and Boat Club, 1952

The boy on his right, a very bumptious youth straight from Grammar School, immediately sconced him, although he was technically not entitled to do so (which I hope to explain; with the rules another day).

Anyway, the sconce was insisted upon and the ‘offender’ had to sign a chit for one sconce. Presently the wine-waiter appeared with a 2½ pint silver tankard – full with beer. The rules of this custom require the offender to drain the bowl without his lips leaving it. If he fails, the person who sconced him may finish it. But if he succeeds, the ‘sconcer’ has to pay the penalty and himself buy a sconce. If he, the sconcer, can ‘down it’, the person on the other side of the accused, me in this case, has to buy a sconce. If he cannot down it then, as before the person on the other side of the accused finishes it. And so it goes on.

Disciplinary infractions, student sent down, 1957

Now, in this case, the accused, an ex-army type, knew a thing or two about drinking and downed it. The accuser, the bumptious youth, had now to have the bowl refilled at his expense and try himself. With great pride he managed, bar a little, and was just starting to argue that it was my turn, when he turned a nasty pasty colour, fell silent, and then turned his stomach out – being violently sick all over the table. Nothing further said about my having to do it. I am still debating with myself the morals of all this.

On Bonfire Night
5 November 1955

The Broad was stiff with police and on the other side a proctor, surrounded by his four henchmen (‘Bulldogs’) [Wearing bowler hats and dark suits, they are, in effect, University police], taking some poor undergraduate’s name. All very polite and courteous however – the Proctor raised his mortar board both before and after.

Cases like that are usually just told to report back to their colleges and stay in for the rest of the evening. Only more serious offences are summonsed before the Proctors on the Monday – to be fined or ‘gated’. [confined to college in the evenings for a specified period].

By now we could hear the noise, before completely muffled by the buildings, and soon came upon the main crowd outside the Randolph Hotel in St. Giles.

An earlier version of Bonfire mayhem, from the Hoggarth cartoons

The traditional ‘attack’ on it was taking place. We watch it from the top steps of the Martyr’s Memorial. A dense crowd blocked the road and cars and buses had the greatest difficulty in getting through. Their only way of doing so was to charge without caution and thus force the mob to divide. Timid car drivers were soon engulfed, but I didn’t see any ‘bouncing’ of cars as last year. ‘Bangers’ were being thrown into the crowd by those on the fringes (and even by a passenger on the top of a bus). A steady stream of bangers was sent against the entrance and walls of the Randolph. I think somebody must have appeared in the entrance (just out of our view, round the corner) to admonish the mob, because suddenly a forest of arms went up in the Nazi salute. I must remark that there were hardly any undergrads to be seen – it was being organized entirely by local boys. Soon tiring of their efforts here, the hard core set up the cry of “We want the Taj”. (Taj Mahal restaurant in the Turl), and soon the whole army was streaming away.

Comic cross country, early 1950s

I didn’t want to get involved, but as Ros was so persistent, a compromise was made and we went to the Turl by another route and found it completely blocked. The ‘attack’ was in progress. The police were remarkably restrained – I noticed that the ‘Specials’ were a trifle jittery, though being pared with the regulars this was offset. Soon again tiring of this, the crowd set up the cry of “We want the Randolph”, and poured down the Turl and into the Broad to go into St. Giles. We hurried down a side street into the Cornmarket to try and cut them off. A rather sorry sight in the Cornmarket kept us there. A Proctor with his four faithfuls and a convoy of police was being followed by a mob of town boys shouting: “We want theBullers”. (Bulldogs). Three of these gentlemen’s traditional bowler hats had been snatched off and the ‘game’ now appeared to be to secure the fourth. When they were alongside the corrugated iron fence of the huge Woolworths building to be, now just a steel skeleton, the mob completely overflowed the Proctorial party and held it pinned immobile against the fence. Those on the fringe of the crowd then threw a show of bangers. After this had gone on for some minutes, the police charged and cleared a way through and out. It was then getting late, so I had the difficult job of persuading Ros that it was time to go back. We went via the Broad, where a smokebomb had been set off and it was almost impossible to see from one side to the other. A large number of Trinity men were watching the ‘fun’ from behind the safety of their iron gates. The first few drops of rain were falling as we passed an ‘attack’ on the Proctors rooms in the Bodleian. Soon after we go in, it poured down; then a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder. O ye feeble motrals, how dare you try and compete with the Gods!

We waited until it had all cleared and then walked back to Keble, which was then, and remained, very quiet.

On Warden’s Collections
3 December 1955

Back to Keble for the ceremony of Collections. Alphabetical order lists had been put up in the lodge with times for attendance – starting on Friday evening to mid-day Saturday.

All the tutors sit at the high table in Hall – like an inquisition. And we wait at the other end in our time-batches.

The Governing Body in 1952

Your name is called out and you march up the hall and wait until the person sitting in the seat of judgement has been ‘dealt with’. Then it is your turn. You sit down on the other side of the table facing your tormentors.

Mr. Rice-Oxley, in the absence of the Warden, is in charge of proceedings.

Leonard Rice-Oxley, Tutor in English (1921-60) with students in Fellows’ Garden 

Mr. Hugh-Jones, seeing one of his P.P.E. candidates, puts down his newspaper and smiles bleakly. The Chaplain carries on reading his novel and points out an amusing passage to his neighbour.

Rice-Oxley turns over the pages of a huge volume until he comes to your name – studies the comments made therein by your tutors, and then attempts to summarise them. “A very good start to P.P.E. You have a highly developed critical faculty – etc., etc.” At last he comes to an end of his eulogy, wishes you a happy vacation, and shakes hands with you across the table as you rise. H-J has risen and you wish him and his a happy Christmas while shaking his hand. He asks you how you have got on with Mr. Hill. You tell him that you have been able to keep up with the work, but find it difficult to remember it. He replies that although it is different from what you have been doing for the last three years, it is surprising how much a man under sentence of death will remember!

Compiled by Dr Ian Archer, Fellow and Tutor in History

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