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Practical joke, or wanton vandalism? The Library Statues Row - May 1870

Written by Judith Curthoys, posted on Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Document of the Month - May 2019

(DP v.c.1)

On the night of 10/11 May 1870, members of the Loder’s Club (the Christ Church Society), stole all the statues from the Library, allegedly to avenge the dismissal of Timms, a friendly porter with a knack of turning a blind eye to undergraduate excesses.

Lighting bonfires between the statues, the perpetrators just intended to leave a mark but damage was done to the busts of Gaisford, Frewin, and Guise, as well as the bronze of Marcus Modius and the 4th-century BC statue of Aphrodite and Eros.

DP v.c. 1 - page from Dean Liddell's notesThe guilty parties refused to own up, and their peers vowed to screen the perpetrators. The dean was shocked – his appeal to the undergraduates was filled with sadness and vexation - and, in a statement to the Governing Body, expressed his opinion that, if this act of vandalism had been committed by the men of the town, everyone would call for the severest punishment that the law could inflict. The Governing Body agreed that a solicitor should be instructed.

On 18 May, the Times leader announced that the act was “the most brutal and senseless act of vandalism that has disgraced our time.”  He suggested that even the most imaginative of authors could not have dreamt up something “too monstrous to be accepted by a gallery of cockneys.” But such an act had been dreamt up, and it was only the threat of legal action, and much publicity in the press, that prompted the guilty parties to give in their names and apologise to the dean.

Proceedings were foregone but three men, including Edward Marjoribanks (later Lord Tweedmouth, Comptroller of the Household and a Privy Councillor) who had been the first to break into the Library, were expelled, two rusticated, and two more gated until they had taken Responsions when they, too, would be rusticated.

Dean Liddell, of whom there had been high hopes that he would turn out “gentlemen and useful members of society,” commented in a speech to the Governing Body on the difficulty of controlling “the class of young men who have long been in the habit of resorting to this place ... Young men of large fortune have little to fear from such penalties as we can impose. Their parents often look without severity, or even with a half sympathy, on acts similar to those in which they formerly took part themselves, and by long traditional habit take a sort of pleasure in hearing of practical jokes played within the precincts of a College.” 

Liddell was firmly of the opinion that there was nothing malicious in the disturbance, and that all that was needed to deal with such matters was to create a better, more enlightened feeling between the undergraduates and the senior membership.