Allan Brigham Allan Brigham is a local historian & Blue Badge Guide. He regularly speaks and writes about Cambridge. He is well-known for walking tours around Cambridge. Click here for details of the tours. This article was printed in the Cambridge Evening News.

Is Town v Gown a thing of the past?

Today thousands of students begin a new term at Cambridge University. Will the city's residents take any notice? Probably not. But once upon a time a new crop of undergraduates meant fresh meat for locals looking for trouble.

"When I came to Cambridge in the 70s I will never forget seeing graffiti saying: 'Bash a grad,'" recalls local historian and tour guide Allan Brigham. "But you don't see that much any more."

Graduation ceremony

Thankfully not, but go back a few hundred years and that graffiti could easily have said: "Maim a grad" - or worse.

From mutilations to murder, the university's 799-year history is marked by a whole host of riots and atrocities between the "Town" and the scholars, or "Gown".

"If you walk round Cambridge you can still see that broken-bottle glass on top of the walls - deadly stuff - to stop people climbing into the colleges," says Allan. "And if you look at those huge gates at the entrances of the colleges - they were not put there to keep the students in, they were there to keep the townspeople out."

In fact, Cambridge University owes its very existence to Town and Gown violence - in Oxford.

"There was a big riot in Oxford between the students and the townspeople in the early 1200s, allegedly over a prostitute. The students got beaten, I think three of them were hung up, and they left town," says Allan. "They nearly went to Northampton, which I love - the idea of Oxford and Northampton as the two major universities . . ."

But they spurned the delights of Northampton in favour of Cambridge, an active port which was prospering nicely. The students resumed their studies, the university grew, and inevitably so did its powers. This didn't please the town's residents, and gradually tension began to build.

Mill Road

"Right up until the late 19th Century, the university had loads of controls which included licensing pubs, prohibiting plays, and controlling weights and measures. They could imprison 'lewd women' for prostitution, and the vice-chancellor had the right to try university members, meaning they were exempt from civil courts," explains Allan. "All these seem pretty good reasons for the townspeople to feel they were second-class citizens."

In almost every century there is evidence of fighting between Town and Gown. Aside from their anger about the university's privileges, the locals resented the student "foreigners" for descending upon a town that had been theirs since Roman times, and the students weren't exactly blameless either; for centuries only aristocrats studied at Cambridge, and their high spirits often overflowed.

Part of the problem was the gowns themselves. Originally worn because students held minor clerical status, they quickly became a social symbol: flowing robes would be impractical for manual work, and set the students "above" the local residents. Right up until 1965, students had to wear gowns when going to lectures, supervisions, or into town after dusk, making them easy targets for townsmen looking to pick a fight.

"There was huge resentment against their wealth, against the power of the university over the town," says Allan. "Every bonfire night there were riots, and Town and Gown would beat each other up. Recently I had a guy on my tour who could remember going into town as a kid on bonfire night and fighting with the townspeople. So things are better than they were, even within living memory."

Cambridge Science Park

So why have things improved? Partly because the university has gradually let go of its privileges, and partly because it no longer has the monopoly over employment in the city: "An awful lot of jobs were college or university-based, which meant you had to touch your caps to the dons and students, and the pay was rubbish," says Allan. "But in the last 20 years the growth of the high-tech industry has meant there are job opportunities which just didn't exist in the past. I think that takes people's minds off beating up students."

Another factor is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to tell who is a student and who isn't, as the university gradually lets go of its Brideshead Revisited image. Last year 59 per cent of students came from state schools, and a new "supremo" has been appointed to encourage even more state school applicants.

So does Town and Gown rivalry still exist? "There was always tension, and it was justified - the university had outrageous privileges. Nowadays it's a lot better," concludes Allan.

"In fact, it's almost as if an indifference has set in, and that's a pity. I suspect there are quite a few local people who have never been inside King's College Chapel, but it's fantastic! Go and have a look around the colleges and gardens - although they charge tourists, local residents have only got to show a utility bill and they can get in for nothing.

"We are so lucky to live in what is one of the most beautiful towns in Western Europe. Everybody should enjoy it and feel that it's theirs."

Published: Cambridge Evening News 07/10/2008

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