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Armour, ghosts and bus accidents: university myths and legends

Universities are replete with strange myths and legends. Paul Greatrix investigates.
This article is more than 4 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Unsurprisingly perhaps given their history and quirky ways of working, together with gossip being a core communications channel, universities are replete with strange myths and legends. A couple have caught my eye recently from both sides of the Atlantic.

First, we have a classic from Oxford where until 2016 new students were provided with a Grey Book containing all of the University’s examination regulations (it’s now all online):

Legend has it that somewhere within this weighty tome is the stipulation that if you arrive at the Exam Schools (where all University exams take place) on a horse, in full armour and carrying a sword, then the examiners are obliged to give you a glass of sherry. One student is said to have tried this and to have been given the glass of sherry, but at the same time was fined a shilling for failing to wear a sword as part of his outfit. Variations on this story include that students dressed in such a fashion are automatically granted a First, but we’re not aware of anyone having tried this successfully! In fact, the story is also known by students at Cambridge, which adds an extra layer of doubt to its authenticity.

I’m not sure there is much doubt about the authenticity of that yarn. Even more credible though is the story of the headless ghost of St John’s College:

Legend at St John’s College has it that the library is haunted by the ghost of Archbishop William Laud, a former Chancellor of Oxford University, who had a lot of involvement in the building of various parts of the college, including the library. His ghost is said to be headless (Laud had been beheaded in 1645 for supporting Charles I), and to disturb studious students by kicking his head along like a football.

Meanwhile, over in the US, there is a widespread myth among students that if you get run over by a bus then your tuition fees will be waived by your university. The Chronicle recently ran a story on this and noted its prevalence and enduring power:

It’s a decades-old legend thriving like a weed in the crevices of college dorm rooms, dining halls, and libraries at colleges in Georgia, Ohio, Virginia — and just about everywhere else. In all of those cases, officials have roundly assured students that it’s just not true.
Nonetheless, the college rumor mill keeps feeding the same myth. And about a month ago it invaded the University of Illinois, when Miranda Sun collided with a bus on the Urbana-Champaign campus.
“I finally achieved what every single college student in America has dreamed of, yet can only hope will happen to them. That’s right. I got run over by a bus on campus,” Sun wrote in a viral tweet.

She did not get her tuition debts written off. Where do these tales come from? The piece suggests, quite reasonably, that many universities offer hardship funds and behave compassionately towards students who suffer significantly in one way or another and are willing to waive or reimburse some portion of fees in exceptional circumstances. You can understand, sort of, how this can end up as a bus accident waiver myth.

It’s a great story. But there are many, many more and I’m looking forward to reading about them in this book by Simon Bronner – Campus Traditions: Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University – which looks great:

From their beginnings, campuses emerged as hotbeds of traditions and folklore. American college students inhabit a culture with its own slang, stories, humor, beliefs, rituals, and pranks. Simon J. Bronner takes a long, engaging look at American campus life and how it is shaped by students and at the same time shapes the values of all who pass through it. The archetypes of absent-minded profs, fumbling jocks, and curve-setting dweebs are the stuff of legend and humor, along with the all-nighters, tailgating parties, and initiations that mark campus tradition—and student identities. Undergraduates in their hallowed halls embrace distinctive traditions because the experience of higher education precariously spans childhood and adulthood, parental and societal authority, home and corporation, play and work.

Back in the UK, one Cambridge myth turns out to be true. Despite sounding wildly improbable an Austin Seven delivery van appeared on to the roof of Senate House in 1958. It was an extremely elaborate student prank – they don’t do them like that any more.

5 responses to “Armour, ghosts and bus accidents: university myths and legends

  1. Every student at Birmingham knows that if you walk under Old Joe clock tower as it strikes you will fail your degree, though opinions vary as to whether this applies throughout your studies or only on your way to exams… as Old Joe is next to the Great Hall where exams would be sat back in the day, if Old Joe struck it would certainly mean you were late for your exam…

  2. It’s Founders Day in Aberystwyth. A day when the great and the good process along the seafront to kick a nondescript bar at the end of the promenade in the hope that they will be back again some day. I’ve never yet met anyone who knows how this tradition came about, but Aber alumni of all ages can regularly be seen doing this.

  3. When I was at Durham, a story was in circulation which claimed that an undergraduate could claim a pint of ale during his exam. One brave soul tried it. A bottle of Tetleys was bought from Blayney’s on New Elvet. The student was served his ale, and was promptly fined a guinea for failing to wear a sword on university precincts.

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