1953 UCL Rag
24 November 2003
After 50 years, UCL revisits a report on the 1953 UCL Rag, by Peter Hooper (Engineering 1955).
In August 2003, BBC Radio 4 presented a report on the 1953 UCL Rag. The reporter had found a reference to the event in an old magazine and then interviewed several people, including me, to see what it was all about. His final programme was well produced but left out some material, because of time limitations. Also, there was more emphasis on why it happened instead of what happened. So, after 50 years, I am trying to set the record straight. Names are omitted to protect the guilty.
Preamble The universities of the early 1950s were much smaller than today, and there was a sense of community. In that post-war era, many things were in short supply, rationing was still in effect, and so at university we sought to liven up our lives occasionally. The provincial universities had their Rag Weeks, which included processions and carnivals and raised money for charities. In London we tended to be lost in the metropolis, with a large part of the population oblivious to the existence of the university, let alone the colleges.
Until 1951, UCL had, on November 5, a rag procession with floats that cruised Bloomsbury and then came back to the Front Quad, where the floats were burned and there was a party. Notable was the Medics float 'Adimin Eevova'. This had large plywood cut-outs of Adam and Eve. Adam had an automatically raised fig leaf which revealed the 'Serpent', much to the amusement of the more mature ladies in the bystanders. In 1952 the reconstruction of the Portico and the Dome was completed and so the Rag procession had to wend its way to an open site, on the South Bank of the Thames, to have the bonfire.
The strategy for the 1953 Rag probably evolved from the event in September 1952 when the King's College Camel Racing Club challenged UCL to a 'camel race' from the bottom of the Kingsway to the Strand in front of King's College. On this occasion an overly zealous police inspector ended up in a water-filled horse trough. But that is another tale in itself.
The 1953 scene
In May 1952 I was asked by the Chairman of the Phineas Committee to join the committee and look after its modest budget. On arriving back at UCL at the end of the summer I was told that the chairman had failed his exams and was no longer a student, and that I must become chairman. The bad news was that the Phineas Committee not only had to cherish and protect Phineas, it had to organize the Union Night festivities and the November 5 Rag procession.
As chairman, I met with the Provost, Professor Ifor Evans (later Lord Evans), and the police to make arrangements. I was told that the South Bank site was no longer available.
The police suggested a cleared bomb-damaged site at the Elephant and Castle. Although I questioned its suitability in terms of potential for trouble from outside elements, the police assured me there would be no problems, and so I agreed to that site.
About three days ahead of the event, I was called to the Provost's office, where the Superintendent of Police said that we could not go to the Elephant and Castle. It was a "dangerous location". So the Provost said, "You have no choice. You must cancel the Rag."
Now, although the Rag was primarily a UCL occasion, some other colleges joined in. It gave them a feeling of being part of the overall university, and a lot of people were upset at the imposed cancellation. So an ad hoc committee was formed to see what could be done. With my high profile on the original negotiations, I had to retreat to the background, although I attended the first meeting in the UCL Students' Lounge. The following colleges, plus others, were present and grouped into the PROS and the CONS for reasons which will become clear later.
Kensington Free Hospital
Queen Elizabeth College
Queen Mary College
London School of Economics
John Cass Institute
North East Poly
Royal Victoria Hospital
School of Pharmacy
It was decided to have a noisy, but non-violent, protest demonstration. A strategy was developed based on a two-pronged approach to Parliament Square. The Eastern colleges, known as the CONS (Congregation) would assemble at St Paul's at 6.45 PM, carrying signs that they were off to see the Queen. The City of London police would be advised that the procession would leave in an orderly fashion going up Fleet St to Temple Bar, where we knew that the Metropolitan police would attempt to block the march. The marchers were instructed not to try to force through the police cordon. Then, when the police were distracted at Temple Bar, the larger group, the PROS (Prostitutes) would hit Piccadilly Circus at 7.15 PM. A noisy demonstration would continue there for about thirty minutes.
And then a trumpet would sound the retreat. The PROS would then either walk or take the Underground to Westminster to meet the CONs , make some more noise for a while and then disperse. Instructions concerning behaviour were printed and distributed.
At the meeting, an estimate of numbers was needed. A roll call was started, with contributions of 150, 200, 100, 250 ... which was not encouraging. So they looked at me. I crossed my fingers and said there would be 1,200 from UCL, which cheered up everyone. We finally came up with an estimated turn-out of 4-5,000. In fact we got at least double that number.
For November 5, we had planned that nothing would happen until the evening. However, in the early afternoon a separate group, possibly originating at King's College, decided to give the Rag a naval burial. They took a plywood coffin loaded with foaming blue laundry detergent and consigned it to a fountain in Trafalgar Square. This attracted the attention of the police. Following this, the labour trade unions had a large protest march in the same area. This gave the police some problems, so when the University Rag erupted they were not in a good frame of mind.
At St Paul's everything went according to plan, and the procession headed off up Fleet Street. The Metropolitan police, warned by the City police, were waiting at Temple Bar but, due to the large numbers, the procession went straight through their cordon. The police hastily retreated to the Admiralty Arch, at Trafalgar Square, determined to stop a march on Buckingham Palace, which of course was not the plan.
I went to Piccadilly Circus to watch developments, and stood on the south side. At 7.15 PM all was quiet, and then I could see hordes of students pouring out of the side streets from the north heading for Piccadilly Circus. The medics, I believe, from St Thomas's Hospital had borrowed costermonger barrows from Covent Garden market and sent them wildly into the scene. Faraday House students brought a plywood ambulance and were pushing it at one end while the police were pushing back at the other. In no time it was complete pandemonium. The police, particularly the senior officers, were rushing around and arresting people indiscriminately, including me. A group of us were herded into a Black Maria van and then taken up to the police station at Savile Row and eventually charged with obstruction. They kept us there until London Transport closed down for the night. But when we were released,our friends were waiting with cars and taxis so we all went home, having been instructed to appear at Bow Street Magistrates Court the next morning.
Meanwhile, back at Piccadilly Circus, all was going well, with lots of noise but no property damage. I had seen one episode where a large constable had a girl student by the scruff of the neck and was marching her away. Her friend came up behind and used her umbrella to tip his helmet over his eyes, then gave him a thwack across the back of the neck, and they both scuttled away. As planned, after half an hour a trumpet sounded an the police found that, at last, they could start clearing the scene by pushing the crowd into the entrances to the Underground. Down below, all the escalators were switched to down and the London Transport staff were shouting "Westminster this way".
Further south at Westminster all was peaceful and quiet until the PROS came flooding out of the Underground, and the CONS procession came down Whitehall. Although there was lots of noise and some fireworks, everyone had been given strict instructions that there should be no attempts to enter the grounds of Parliament. After enough time had passed to ensure that the sitting session be made aware that there was a discontented group outside, things gradually quietened down and everyone went home.
On the morning of November 6, those arrested were summoned to Bow Street. A large crowd of supporters was in attendance to cheer on the accused. The police lied freely in presenting their evidence. In my case, I stated that I was taking photos for possible use by the college magazine, 'Pi', when the police inspector grabbed me. He claimed he was re-arresting me, after I had escaped earlier, which was not true. I suppose it was poetic justice.
Outside the court the crowd was serenading the police with refrains, such as "Why was he born so beautiful?" and "Why are we waiting?", but there were no incidents. Inside the waiting area, members of the rugby team recognized members of the police team. Threats were exchanged on what would happen at the forthcoming match between UCL and the Police 'E'-Division team, but it was all fairly light-hearted. Unfortunately the case against Mrs Penelope Twigge-Molecey, an innocent housewife and bystander who was arrested, did not proceed. We had senior counsel dying to appear on her behalf. But as it was discovered that she was a niece of a very senior official of the Metropolitan Police, she was rapidly removed from the scene.
Anyhow, to my knowledge there were no serious charges and most people were fined about £1 and released on payment.
The hub-bub died down and we continued with our studies. Then in early December I received a letter from the Provost requiring me to meet with him, the day after the college would close for Christmas, to discuss the events of November 5. The only acceptable excuse for non-attendance would be a medical certificate. This scared me. The presidents of the Engineering, Medical and Laws societies had all offered their support immediately following the Rag, but I doubted if anyone would do much if they returned in January and found that I was no longer there.
Professor Ifor Evans was quite reassuring. There had been questions from Parliament on what it was all about and he had to send a report. My pleas of knowledge but innocence were accepted and I left with his hand on my shoulder and congratulations on my "statesmanlike behaviour".
In the BBC broadcast there was a suggestion that the record of the Rag was suppressed. There was no thought of this, other than that there was no requirement for an official history, and the story is just part of the folklore of University College London
I cannot finish without sharing this last story. As the crowd was moving along, a policeman said, "Let's take a big one" and seized a large student. His girlfriend protested and one of the police told her to shut-up and slapped her across the face. Her squire objected to this and belted the constable, resulting in a merry battle. An Irish labourer, on his way home from work, saw the battle and went over to complain about the police behaviour. Unfortunately a Black Maria full of police arrived in time to see two officers on the ground with the student, and a man arguing with the third officer. So they set on the Irishman. It took six officers to get him into the van. Then they put some of us in as well and we went to the Savile Row police station. The students got out quietly but it again took six police to extract our new Irish friend. After a spectacular bout with the duty sergeant they put him into the dangerous prisoners cell. About half an hour later, when I was being booked, the Irish gentleman was allowed out of his cell, wandered around, and then, after a few choice words, disappeared into the night. "Thank Gawd he's gone," said the sergeant.
Image: Phineas and committee, with Peter Hooper on the right.