This blog post on University life will explore the world of Rag. These student-run, fundraising events and organisations have been part of student life for over 100 years.
The name ‘Rag’ is rather obscure and no one is entirely sure of its origins. The Oxford English Dictionary describes the act of ragging as “an extensive display of noisy disorderly conduct, carried on in defiance of authority or discipline”. The thought is that early fundraisers may have ‘ragged’ passers-by until they made a donation. Another idea is that the word came from the Victorian era when students took time out of their studies to collect rags to clothe the poor. More recently, ‘backronyms’ have been invented including ‘Raise and Give’, ‘Raise a Grand’ or ‘Raising and Giving’ to emphasis the philanthropic aspect of the activities.
Rag has been part of University life in Southampton since at least the 1920s. Alumnus Peter Smith describes how it was “a highlight of the Winter term, and it was always held on Shrove Tuesday, as if to get the festivities over before the strictures of Lent.” Over the years, it has consisted of a variety of activities, ostensibly aimed at raising money for charity, including a procession, ball, a show and the publication and sale of a ‘Rag mag’. As the years progressed, the antics became progressively wild. And, as you might imagine, the event has not always existed in harmony with Southampton residents.
This excerpt from the University College Southampton Rag Bag published in May 1927 describes the early days of Rag:
There is probably little doubt in the minds of the public as to what a University Rag is, even though many have never seen one: and whatever opinions exist on the subject we can say quite safely say that whenever there is a University or a College there is bound to be ragging. The tradition is established and will persist; and as Colleges grow and develop, so the quantity and quality of its Rags will alter. Up to the present the Rags arranged by the students of University College, Southampton, have been, it must be admitted, very mild affairs, and we apologise very humbly that we have been unable to provide the town with better entertainment. Better times are in store, however. The College is growing fast and by the time Southampton is a University City, Rags will be as permanent and prominent a feature of town life as they are in other seats of learning.
A key feature of Rag was the publication of a ‘Rag mag’, a small booklet traditionally filled with politically incorrect humour sold in the lead up to Rag Day. The earliest Rag mag in the University Collection is a copy of Rag Bag dating from 1927. Over the years Rag has been abolished and revived on a number of occasions. Its revival in 1948 was followed by the publication of Goblio, the longest running Rag mag in the collection, with copies dating from 1949-64. From 1967 the University’s Rag mag took on a range of titles, including “Son of Goblio” or; Babel; Southampton City Rag; Flush; Dragon; and Southampton Students Stag Rag.
Apparently the 1958 edition of the Goblio was banned and later ritually burned at the Bargate. Consensus among the students was that this was an extreme response with one recounting how the Goblio “was certainly rude and scurrilous, largely satirical, but rarely offensive”. While these magazines might be considered tame by today’s standards, times have changed and we struggled to find any jokes we felt appropriate – or funny enough – to share. Copies of the Rag mags are available in the University Collection in the Open Access area of Special Collections.
The Rag mags bring our attention to another mystery in these matters: who, or what, is a ‘Goblio’? The origins or the word are again a little vague and it has now fallen out of use. It appears to have first been used around 1905. The New Zealand rugby team had just made their first tour of Britain. The story goes that a group of College students went to see the All Blacks depart from Southampton Docks and were deeply impressed by their goodbye ritual – the now famous haka. A “solemn conclave was held by night in the Cowherds’ Inn” to select a suitable yell that could be given in response and ‘Gobli-i-o’ was the outcome. It is described by former students as a “war cry at football matches and in Rags” as well as used as a farewell after student gatherings: the cheerleader would shout ‘Golbio’ and the rest of the group replied ‘Gee’. There was also a ‘Gobli dance’ performed during Rags. The students would form concentric circles around a policeman or tram aimed at causing disruption while, of course, also collecting money for good causes.
For many years, an afternoon procession was a key part of the Rag. Decorated floats on lorries lent by local firms, complete with ‘Rag Queen’ (usually a local girl), would parade through the town providing entertainment and collecting money.
The Engineering Society were always very prominent during Rag, often accompanied by their human skeleton mascot “Kelly” and their 1920s vintage open single decker charabanc called “Toast rack”. In 1948 they are reported to have produced at 60 ft dragon for the parade!
Other events have included an annual Rag ball with dancing and fancy dress at the Guildhall and a Rag show with a revue format.
Obviously a key aspect of Rag – maybe more so for some years than others – has been raising money. The University has chosen various charities over the years. In 1927 “all money (less Rag expenses)” supported the children’s summer camps organised by the Rotary Club of Southampton. In the years following the Second World War, the festivities were called the Gaslight Gaieties and the money went to the Armed Forces Charity, formerly known as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. In 1958 the chosen charities were: Dr Barnardo’s Homes; British Empire Rheumatism Council; National Society for Cancer Relief and the Handicraft & Social Centre for the Blind. A Students’ Union handbook from the 1950s reported that sums raised in recent years ranged from £800 to £1,400.
As with all University cities, there have not always been harmony between ‘town and gown’ and over the years, Rag has been a point of conflict. In 1927, the Rag Mag stated:
Horse play and hooliganism are not ragging, though unfortunately many think the terms are synonymous. We shall try to show they are not, and, indeed, what ragging has taken place in the past has, on the whole, been free from unpleasantness
R.G.Smith, an engineering student here in the 1940s recalls “jovial goings-on which were enjoyed both by ourselves and the citizenry of Southampton […] dressed as Long John Silver complete with parrot, I ‘held up’ the Ordnance Survey Office with a fearsome looking horse pistol and stung the personnel there for contribution to the Rag charity collections.” We wonder if Southampton residents have the same cheery memories of the Rag as Mr Smith?
It is clear that, at times, Rag events did get out of hand. Alumnus Olive, who was a student here in the early 1960s describes the attempt to establish a “Charities Week Appeal” in November 1961: “to distinguish from its infamous predecessor ‘Rag’.” She describes how there was “a genuine attempt to get away from the unpleasant features of Rag and to concentrate on the worthwhile task of collecting money for local good causes.”
Things did not exactly go to plan. Olives gives the details: “The whole thing looked as if it was going to be too quiet and respectable until Students’ Council decided to ban Goblio. A packed Union meeting confirmed their decision and inevitably it was reported in the local and national press, radio and television. As there is no such thing as bad publicity £900 net was raised for charity. For the first time there were no letters of complaint either to the University or the local press.”
Despite best endeavours, it was difficult to disassociate the fund raising from the pranks and “the annual flour and water fight” still took place in Charities Week. Although Olive reports positively that “no hard feelings, and a good deal of hard cash (£1450) for charities resulted”.
Southampton students have organsied various stunts over the years. In the early years – when trams still ran through the town centre – the students used to process into town, stopping traffic and collecting money. May Ellis paints a vivid picture:
The Marlands was a large open space where eventually the civic centre was built. The men wore any kind of fancy dress, and we wore our gowns and were occupied with selling copies of the Rag bag. From the farflung parts of the town we converged on the Clock Tower, at noon. This was a large stone sculpture, Above Bar, in the centre of the road, at the junction of Commerical Road. (It has since moved into the gardens). Around it we formed four concentric circles – 4th years inside and 1st years outside, for “Gobli”, the college war cry. This very successfully halted trams (yes! trams!) and other traffic from every direction.
W.Tomsett gives a similar account:
I remember taking part in a Rag on the town during those years. We crocodile down the Avenue, snakewise over the tram lines. When a tram didn’t stop some lay down across the rails until it did. We were in all sorts of fancy dress. Some carried buckets of paste – others theatre bills. These were stuck on bonnets and side of cars (which were halted) and on side of trams.
As the years progress, the stunts got more elaborate and extreme. Various former students have recollected: a banner appearing overnight down the civic centre clock tower; a cannon being lifted from one of the Winchester army establishments by residents from Connaught Hall; painted footsteps leading from Lord Palmerston’s statue in Romsey Square to the nearby lavatory; the “kidnap for ransom” of a top Southampton Football Club player and a banner proclaiming Rag draped over Stonehenge. Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight was broken into by a group of Southampton students as a publicity stunt. The Rag of 1963 featured a trans-Atlantic advertisement as the Queen Mary sailed for New York with Rag painted on her stern; apparently, Cunard were very understanding!
In the twenty-first century, Rag has become the major fundraising committee of the University. Along with volunteers, they spend the year raising money for dozens of charities. Events include speed dating in February, hitch-hiking events to Christmas markets and the ‘Big Give’. Don’t worry if this all sounds a little tame compared with the antics of previous decades – there’s still the option of getting your kit off for the annual Rag calendar!
Its not possible to calculate the amount raised for charity by Southampton Rags but, whatever the total, it is heartwarming to think about all the good causes that have benefited from Southampton’s students over the years and the many more thousands of pounds more that will be raised in the future.