THE official opening of Oxford Town Hall in 1897 was marked by peaceful celebrations inside and violence outside.
Student disturbances in city centre streets marred what should have been a landmark day in the city’s history.
The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, had arrived in the city to perform the opening ceremony before a capacity audience in the main hall.
While dignitaries were enjoying themselves at a civic reception afterwards, there was turmoil outside as “young gentlemen of the university” went on the rampage.
It all started, according to reporters on our sister paper, The Oxford Times, with students frightening the police horses.
“Certain foolish individuals had provided themselves with crackers which exploded occasionally beneath the animals’ feet and caused them to plunge and rear wildly, scattering the crowd in all directions.”
Attracted by the bangs, the crowd pressed even more closely together and soon the horse trams, which no-one had thought to suspend for the night, had to battle their way through a raucous and high-spirited mob.
“Locomotion through the evening was much impeded by the boisterous and unruly behaviour of undergraduates, who paraded the streets arm-in-arm or in gangs and, by dint of vigorous rushes, swept all before them, making matters not only unpleasant but really dangerous for all but the most active.
“For two hours, considerable excitement prevailed and time after time, the cry of ‘Now, Varsity’ could be heard, followed by a rush and the dispersion of the crowd by the mounted men.
“Sticks were brandished and blows freely exchanged. Again and again, the police vigorously drove the crowd back amid loud and prolonged screams and hoots. Ever and anon, a luckless undergraduate could be seen being ignominiously dragged to the police station by four of five police to the lasting detriment it is feared of his attire.”
Metropolitan Police officers had been drafted in to help that day and it was they who were widely criticised for acting with “undue severity”.
In an editorial, The Oxford Times said: “It would have been as well or better had the men who were strangers to the town been coached beforehand as to the peculiarities of an Oxford crowd in term-time and as to the advisability of suave rather too heroic treatment of junior members of the university when in holiday mood.
“They are very irritating to the temper and very provoking to the peaceable citizens they delight to hustle and inconvenience. But the method adopted by some of the ‘foreign’ police to check these turbulent spirits was not calculated to lessen the evil.”
Twenty people were arrested during the violent clashes and the first prisoner to occupy the new cells at the Town Hall was the future Lord Birkenhead, then plain F E Smith, of Merton College.