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Student Rags: why and when did they become popular?

1934 Rag at King's1934 Rag at King'sRags first became popular in the late nineteenth century, an echo of earlier expressions of popular culture such as the religious carnival and the medieval 'Lords of Misrule'.

These events shared a characteristic pattern in which authority was periodically turned on its head, and norms of status and sexuality were challenged in a comparatively safe and unthreatening way. Hence student rags often featured cross-dressing and processions that mirrored official celebrations.

The rag permitted students to reaffirm their group loyalties in a lively and colourful way while raising money for charity.

Early student social activity in London tended to be quite serious and worthy in its expression, characterised by programmes of lectures, debates and sporting fixtures.

However, this was beginning to change by the 1890s, which witnessed boisterous 'Town and Gown' antics by students that continued into Edwardian times.

University CollegeUniversity CollegeThe first real rag at King's College London occurred in 1912. Angry student anti-vivisectionists complained that a small dog had been vivisected repeatedly and unnecessarily and erected a statue of the animal in Battersea Park.

Indignant students from London medical schools quickly moved to destroy the statue, in the course of which a struggle took place with police and some students arrested and fined. They later reconvened in the King's quad with an effigy of the offending magistrate that was set on fire and thrown into the river.

The First World War for some constituted a cultural watershed in attitudes to established authority. Many members of staff and students of British universities saw active service and the experience of the veteran undoubtedly influenced the progress of the student rag after the war.

A medical student at King's in the 1920s, Edith Summerskill, later Minister of Food in Clement Atlee's government, reflecting on the contrast between the informal behaviour of her contemporaries with the more serious post-1945 student, observed that 'We were all too busy relaxing after the war, gayer, more high spirited and after a good time', she suggested that 'the 1914-18 war was far more terrible than this last war…consequently the reaction after the war was more marked'.

The rags of the 1920s were well attended and often organised with military precision. They received considerable press coverage not least for their impact on local communities.

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