University balls and dances

With the academic year having come to an end and the celebration of summer balls having recently passed, we look back at a selection of the balls and dances which populated the University calendar in the decade following the University’s receipt of its royal charter.

Student social events have formed part of the University’s calendar since the early days of the institution. Looking at a student handbook from 1906 one can find a number of social functions listed for the session, including a series of soirées, a joint musical evening by the Choral Society, and a garden party. By the time the institution received its royal charter in 1952, becoming a full-fledged University, balls and dances had become a prominent feature of the student social scene.

Programmes for the Union Ball, 1939 [MS 310/78] and 1959 [MS 310/23]

Programmes for the Union Ball, 1939 [MS 310/78] and 1959 [MS 310/23]

One of the key events to mark the beginning of the academic year was the Freshers’ Dance. Specifically aimed at first year students, the dance was intended to provide a sample of University entertainment. However, as with many of the student dances held during the 1950s, the venue for the ball was the old Refectory (forming part of what is now Garden Court, Building 40). The venue proved inadequate, with the student newspaper the Wessex News noting that it was “not designed to accommodate two hundred and fifty whirling couples”. The result was often an overcrowded, hot and noisy event, with the behaviour of certain seniors leading to the annual dance becoming commonly known as “the cattle market”.  The late 1950s and early 1960s was a period of major expansion for the University and by the time of the 1960-1 session the Union was ready to move into the whole of the West Building, providing sufficient space for dances and live performances.

Next on the calendar was the Halloween Ball in October. Established by the Scottish and Old Time Dancing Society, the dance incorporated traditional Scottish music and was host to a selection of witches, devils, bats and similar nocturnal creatures. In 1956 an unexpected guest made an appearance: “Quite in keeping with the general atmosphere of diabolism was the sudden and unexpected entry of Kelly [the Engineering faculty’s mascot] surrounded by hooded engineers, bless their little cotton socks, furiously exploding Bangers.” [Wessex News, 6 November 1956, Univ. Coll. per LF 789.9]

Kelly the skeleton, the Engineering faculty’s mascot, was a regular guest at student balls and dances [MS 1/7/291/22]

Kelly the skeleton, the Engineering faculty’s mascot, was a regular guest at student balls and dances [MS 1/7/291/22]

A range of faculty and society balls populated the calendar throughout the decade. A description of the Interstellar Ball held by the Science Faculty in January 1957 reads:

“In front of the West Building stood a rocket ready for take-off, and inside the theme was carefully repeated with star-studded portholes, martian television sets, a flying saucer and various galaxies, not to mention a rather static mobile.” [Wessex News, 29 January 1957, Univ. Coll. per LF 789.9]

One of the most prominent social events on the University calendar was the Engineers’ Ball held in the late autumn. By the 1950s the ball had established itself as a tradition and was widely considered one of the most memorable events of the year. A great deal of effort went into planning and organising each ball. The refectory was decorated with gadgets and other mechanical wonders, bringing welcome relief from the “tedium” of its natural decor. Each year the venue was decorated to a particular theme, including the “Festival of Britain” in 1951, the “Brussels Exhibition” in 1958, and “Underwater” in 1959.

Photograph of students setting up the Engineers’ Ball, c. 1952 [MS 310/34]

Photograph of students setting up the Engineers’ Ball, c. 1952 [MS 310/34]

A review of the 1957 Engineers’ Ball in the Wessex News reads:

“No one who has not seen the Refectory when the Engineers have finished with it could believe that such a transformation of this monstrosity was possible. This year visitors found themselves in a fairground cum circus, with the usual appendages including, strangely enough, a Big Wheel. A large cage divided the bar in the annexe from the dancing room, an excellent idea, since it was mostly monopolised by the jivers who are always a nuisance to civilised dancers.” [Wessex News, 10 December 1957, Univ. Coll. per LF 789.9]

The Engineers’ Ball was considered more glamourous even than the Union Ball (though it lacked the gloss of officialdom that the latter possessed) with the same reviewer writing:

“The Engineers set themselves a very high standard, which they manage miraculously, year after year, to live up to. One can never judge an Engineers’ Ball by comparing it to other Union dances because they are not in the same class…” [Wessex News, 10 December 1957, Univ. Coll. per LF 789.9]

The popularity of the event meant that tickets were made available in order of precedence, as follows: Ball Helpers, engineering finalists, a limited number of other engineers, members of the Union, and even members of the University staff.

The spring brought two key events to the Union calendar: Rag day and the Union dinner and ball. Rag day was traditionally held on Shrove Tuesday and consisted of a variety of activities aimed at raising money for charity. It was seen as an occasion for “fun and high spirits” as well as being a means of bringing “pleasure, help and happiness to others”. Central to Rag day was the Rag procession which paraded through the city with all manner of floats accompanied by students in fancy dress. The day’s events culminated in the Rag ball which generally took place in the Guildhall in the city centre.

Route of the Rag procession, 1948 [MS 310/31]

Route of the Rag procession, 1948 [MS 310/31]

Rag day induced a particular atmosphere which some have described as “riotous”. This, on occasion, led to inexcusable acts of hooliganism which threatened the very existence of the Rag. Detailing the revival of Rag in 1948 after a lapse of many years, an article in the Wessex News notes that: “Over enthusiasm on the part of the students had caused the police to intervene in no uncertain manner, and the Rag machinery fell into disuse.” [Wessex News, 16 October 1951, Univ. Coll. per LF 789.9] A similar situation occurred in 1959 leading to the abolishing of the Rag for a number of years. While it was proposed that new University Arts Festival could act as a replacement, the Rag was reinstated again in 1963.

The Students’ Union held its own dinner and ball around the same time as the Rag (with an oversight in 1957 leading to the two events clashing). The event, regularly criticised as elitist, consisted of a dinner with speeches and toasts followed by a ball at the Guildhall. Looking at a programme for the Union Ball from 1939 one can find various ballroom dances listed, including quickstep, waltz, foxtrot, tango, etc., with the evening ending with a toast to “The King”. Fast-forwarding to 1959 we find both an orchestra, with traditional ballroom dances listed, alongside a jazz-band.

Photograph of students at the Union Ball, 1959 [MS 310/23]

Photograph of students at the Union Ball, 1959 [MS 310/23]

By the late 1950s, jazz had established itself as an integral part of the student social scene with nearly all dances and socials featuring jazz groups, either as support or as the main attraction. While balls remain a standard of the University calendar, options for live music at the University broadened in subsequent decades as live jazz and rock became an integral part of many student’s lives.

Today, the Freshers’ Ball, Graduation Ball and Engineering Ball remain some of the most prominent social events of the University year.

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