Crime and punishment, Oxford-style

OXFORD 1950s

Devotees of the British TV cop show, Inspector Morse and his younger self “Endeavour”, set in mid-last century Oxford, are probably unaware that there was a rival constabulary in that university city.

Oxford University had its own police force but like most things in Oxford in the 1950s, it was imbued with archaic eccentricity. The purpose of the police force was to discipline the student body, particularly the undergraduates.

The chief of police was called the Proctor. There were two of them – a Senior Proctor and a Junior Proctor. They were supported by forty constables of the Oxford University Police called Bulldogs. These were usually local men chosen for their bulky frame and their desire to restrain unruly undergraduates. The Bulldog uniform was a dark suit, complete with collar and tie, and topped off with a bowler hat. They looked less like cops – more like butlers on their day off. The Proctors were also dark-suited, topped with academic gowns and mortar boards.

The Bulldogs had full powers of arrest within the University and within 6 km of any University building. Formed in 1829, they were amongst the oldest police forces in the UK, having been set up in the same year as Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police. They predated Inspector Morse’s Oxford City Police by about thirty years.

Towards midnight (curfew time) the Bulldogs could be seen roaming the city streets on the lookout for curfew breakers. On Guy Fawkes Night ( 5 November) they could be seen helping the local constabulary keep undergrads from storming the Randolph Hotel – an annual tradition.

One morning I entered my college, Wadham, by the gatehouse and looked as usual in my pigeonhole for any mail. This is where post from the outside world was placed, together with invites to clubs, notes from tutors ,etc.

On this occasion I pulled out a plain envelope which, on opening, contained a sheet of paper headed: SUMMONS. It required my attendance to meet the Junior Proctor in his office at a specified time in the Sheldonian Theatre. This is a magnificent neoclassical building designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1669. It is used for graduation and other ceremonies.

No reason for the Summons was given. I was left to speculate on the nature of my crime. I think the Summons was written in mediaeval Latin but maybe my memory is playing tricks.

On the appointed day I turned up at the Sheldonian Theatre (just a stone’s throw from my college), wearing the required sub-fusc ( Lat. Sub Fuscus = Dark Brown).. This involved putting on a dark suit, white shirt, white bow tie and an academic gown. Mine was an anaemic half gown with black ribbons hanging off the side. This told everyone that I was only a Commoner and had not been smart enough to qualify for a college scholarship and proper Scholar’s full gown.

The Junior Proctor was sitting behind a large desk, wearing his Junior Proctor’s rig. He looked very young and I later found out that that Junior Proctors were chosen from amongst the youngest college fellows and accepted the post out of a sense of duty or to help with promotion prospects. The position was for twelve months and involved admin. tasks as well as policing. It was a job, in other words, that nobody willingly wanted. This probably explained why this Junior Proctor looked rather bored as he read out the charge sheet.

I should explain that all undergraduates owning a motor vehicle had to register it with the Proctors and then had to ensure that said vehicle was carrying a green lamp. I had such a green lamp fixed on my Lambretta motor scooter.

My offence was that the Bulldogs had seen my scooter leaving my college at ten minutes after the midnight curfew. Most evenings would pass very quickly talking with a group of friends in the room of someone fortunate enough still to be living in college.. I confessed to having been the driver and said I was on my way to my digs in Cowley, a few km away.

The Proctor then adopted a curious, pained expression and sat looking at me for some time, presumably mulling over an appropriate punishment to fit the crime. Or maybe he was registering his disdain for the whole process. I recall that at my matriculation ceremony a year or so earlier, when I stood in the same Sheldonian Theatre with several hundred other undergrads all clad in sub fusc, a Junior Proctor had initiated the proceedings by declaring: “This farce will be over in a few minutes”.

I nervously stood awaiting my sentence.

Suddenly the Junior Proctor looked up , summoned up his most serious face and said: “I m going to have to admonish you”..

This made me rather nervous as, widely-read as I was, I had never heard the word “admonish”. An embarrassed silence ensued for several minutes. I imagined all sorts of dire punishments from being held in a downstairs dungeon to incurring an unaffordable fine or, worse still, having to memorize a lengthy apologia in Latin, ancient or mediaeval. Or perhaps he was just going to tweak my ears.

Eventually the Junior Proctor said: “I admonish you”.

A further silence ensued while I took in the enormity of my punishment.

I stood there stupidly until eventually the Junior Proctor, with a dismissive wave of his arm, made it clear my punishment was over. I had done my time – it must have lasted all of two minutes.

I walked out a free man.

Postscript: The Bulldogs were disbanded in 2003 after public criticism they were exercising unauthorized authority over the citizenry of Oxford. Apparently they had gone around arresting too many people who were not members of the University. This had also upset the local constabulary, The Thames Valley Police, who had succeeded the upstart Oxford City Police in 1968.

Inspector Morse would surely have been pleased to see the back of the Bulldogs whom he would undoubtedly have written off as a comic but irritating rival force.


Sydney, June 2021.

3 thoughts on “Crime and punishment, Oxford-style

  1. A fascinating insight into life at Oxford Uni. I was very chuffed to receive my online Advanced Diploma in Local History…I can’t quite imagine the thrill of studying there, though the thought of Latin makes me less enthusiastic.


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