As it’s pantomime season, the University Archives’ blog for December looks at the control the University once had over theatres and entertainment in the city of Oxford.
It’s perhaps not widely known that the Vice-Chancellor of the University had, for many years, a huge amount of power within the city. Power not only over the students and staff of the University, as now, but also over the people of the city and their daily lives. From the University’s earliest days, the Chancellor (and, later, the Vice-Chancellor) had authority over all kinds of business in the city. This included activities which we wouldn’t associate with a university today such as the regulation of local trades and food and drink, provision of public utilities and services, and the right to administer law and order. The Vice-Chancellor also gained the power to allow, or refuse, the staging of plays.
From 1881 every intended theatrical performance or public entertainment in the city of Oxford needed the permission of the Vice-Chancellor before it could go ahead. These ranged from plays and concerts to film screenings (in later years) and other entertainments such as boxing tournaments. The Oxford Police Act of that year gave the University the power of theatre censorship, with the right to veto any play which it thought unsuitable. Unfortunately the townspeople of Oxford appear to have had very little say in the matter.
The University worried about the corruption of its youth and frowned upon its students (who were all male at this point) fraternising with the opposite sex. Before women were first admitted as students in 1920, the University saw them as a moral danger to undergraduates, to be avoided at all costs. Actresses were considered to be one of the worst types of women and, as a result, the University kept close eyes on theatre companies visiting the city. It maintained registers of all performances (plays, films, concerts etc) which sought permission to be put on in Oxford.
These registers occasionally note particular issues with the plays staged, and these almost always involved trouble caused by (in the University’s view) the female members of the casts. One play, ‘Little Miss Nobody’, performed in Oxford in May 1899, caused complaints to be brought to the University Proctors. A note in the register, written in red ink, says ‘the girls out continually with members [ie students] and with them at the stage door. The Proctor was told the play was not decent’.
Another, ‘Lord Tom Noddy’, playing in Oxford for a week in June 1896, also caused trouble. A further red note in the register remarks that a number of undergraduates were caught talking to the women in the cast who were lodging in Beaumont Buildings and ‘A number of members saw and cheered them off at the station on Sunday’. The final note (which hints at more) states ‘had a lot of trouble with them’.
Sometimes it was the content of plays themselves which gave the University authorities cause for concern, especially when the title was, to them, somewhat suspect. The play ‘A Gay Girl’, which hoped to transfer from a successful run at the Grand Theatre, Maidenhead, to the Empire Theatre on Cowley Road in 1905, caused the University some consternation. Letters between the Grand and the Empire were sent to the University to reassure authorities that the play was morally sound. A copy of the script was even sent over. The Grand tried to allay their fears stating ‘surely if it contained a double meaning [it] would not be commonly used by ladies’. The University must have been persuaded as the play was given permission to perform and ran for a week in May that year.
Of course the behaviour of undergraduates attending the plays was another problem the University had to deal with. A series of audience disturbances at the Empire and the New Theatre in the early 1900s, some involving students, led the University to consider pushing for the Empire to be shut down. In the end it joined forces with the city authorities to issue stern notices to anyone, town or gown, who disturbed the performances. Undergraduates were threatened with the University’s own punishments for such antisocial behaviour as making noise, using bad language and joining in with the play’s dialogue.
The power of the Vice-Chancellor over entertainment in the city finally ended in 1968. Following many years of campaigning, the national fight to abolish theatre censorship led to the passing of the Theatres Act 1968. This repealed the 1881 Oxford Police Act and the Vice-Chancellor had no further power over what passed for entertainment in the city of Oxford.