A student dining club at Corpus Christi College, Oxford

A formal undergraduate dining club at Corpus Christi  

By Olivia Williams (St Edmund Hall, 2006) 
Undergraduates have known since time immemorial that the most diverting way to pass a cold night in Oxford is a warming alcoholic concoction. The question is: which one to go for?

A nineteenth century cocktail guide, Oxford Night Caps: Being a Collection of Receipts for Making Various Beverages Used in the University by Richard Cook provides an insight into how undergraduates may have wet their whistles in Michaelmas terms gone by. Oxford Night Caps was such a hit that it went through numerous editions from 1835 until 1931. Cook opened his compendium by quoting Horace, perhaps hoping to add some scholarly weight to the frivolous proceedings:

What cannot wine perform? It brings to light 
The secret soul, it bids the coward right;
Gives being to our hopes, and from our hearts 
drives the dull sorrow, and inspires new arts.

The Octavian Club Dinner Queen's Lane. 8 December 1911   The members of the Octavian Club (St. Edmund Hall's Billiard Club) in evening dress before their dinner  
Members of St. Edmund Hall's Billiard Club at The Octavian Club Dinner of December 1911

Cook offered a plethora of beverages to 'drive away dull sorrow'. His 'Rumfustian' was a particular hit at festive celebrations. The punchy drink included a warm pint of gin mixed with egg yolks, strong beer, white wine, grated nutmeg, lemon juice, cinnamon, sugar and sherry.
 
'Such is the intoxicating property of this liquor,' Cook's recipe boasted, 'that none but hard drinkers will venture to regale themselves with it a second time'—a fresher's challenge if there ever there was one. 
 
students and female relatives at Magdalen College, 1880-99  
Magdalen students (with their female relatives) pictured between 1880-99, when the JCR steward claimed that it was not 'uncommon' for them to drink 'a bottle of wine apiece'

Oxford

Also recommended to get gatherings off to a flying start was his Hot Gin Punch, made with two bottles of gin mixed with boiling water, the juice and rind of lemons and oranges, liquid calves’ feet jelly, white wine and capillaire (a medicinal syrup made with maidenhair fern). The elaborate nature of the recipes in Oxford Night Caps suggests that students put plenty of careful consideration into their tipples of choice. 

 
Before all of these elaborate cocktails became fashionable there was of course the humble pint of beer. Oxford students have certainly always been passionately attached to that too. When a Rector of Exeter College watered down the college’s supply in the seventeenth century, students threatened to leave unless the requisite strength was reinstated. The Rector duly backed down.
 
Some did, inevitably, take all of this merriment too far. Edward Stanley, later the University Chancellor, told the House of Commons in 1834 that undergraduates often attending compulsory morning and evening chapel under the influence of alcohol was 'most injurious to the morals'.
 
There would be some comfort for Stanley though. The Dictionary of the University of Oxford, edited by Charles Dickens, noted: 'Wines are an expiring institution at Oxford... The 'big drunk' given by private individuals for its own sake has indeed a fitful vitality in some colleges, but wine-drinking is passing away with other customs of former generations.'
Skating on the frozen Thames at Port Meadow, Oxford, 1890  
Skating on the frozen Thames at Port Meadow in 1890 
 
This shift was observed decades later by Richard Gunstone, the steward of the Magdalen JCR. He held the position for 34 years until his retirement in 1914, so he had seen a thing or two. He reflected that 'students today are much quieter, not so reckless as they used to be... It was not an uncommon thing for the former race of students to drink a bottle of wine apiece'. 

 

Images © OU Images and Shutterstock

Comments

By Christopher Nor...
on

Whatever happened to the delightful tradition of "Sconcing"?

By timothy keates
on

At a so-called 'party' in the early 1960s I was given, among other fluids, two large glasses of a mixture of gin and cider, which I duly hosed down. The resulting hangover caused me to feel almost suicidal. One of my hosts was of Ukrainian extraction, and gave me a typical Russo-Ukrainian breakfast (at noon): a pipestem glass of vodka, a salted herring, a pickled cucumber, and blinis with sour cream — and stood over me while I got it down. I can't recall whether it worked.

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