by M. Davies (College Porter)
Fred Bickerton started at University College as an Under Scout (more specifically as ‘under bedmaker’) in 1897 and retired as Head Porter in 1950. I thought the following may be of interest from his published memoirs.
When Fred first started in the Porters’ Lodge as an ‘under-porter’, he noticed an extremely unpopular student:
He took no part in the communal life of the college, not because he could not afford it, for he was, I believe, quite a well off, and if he made any friends at all, he made them outside the College walls. His attitude generally was supercilious and stand-offish. You never saw him go into the Junior Common room or appear at any of the College occasions. In those days the colleges kept far more to themselves than they do now, and such conduct as this was regarded as insulting.
One day some men from the College went to the market with a bag and bought some feathers. They also purchased a tin of wood-tar.
I was on duty in the Lodge that night. It was quiet, and one of the College servants had stopped for a few minutes to gossip to me. Then, suddenly, there was a terrific hullabaloo – a fearsome scream – and into the Lodge there rushed an appalling apparition, naked and black from head to foot, with fluffy feathers stuck all over the glistening tar. He looked like a chicken in a nightmare. He was gibbering with terror, shaking and shivering all over, and in hysterics. We did what we could to calm him down, and then I went to see what had happened.
His rooms were in utter chaos. The raggers had overturned his pianola, of which he had been very proud, I heard. His pictures and furniture had been thrown out into the quadrangle. The drawers had been pulled out of the dressing-table and the contents scattered all over the floor. I noticed powder-puffs among the wreckage!
His scout spent hours trying to restore him to some semblance of humanity. It was hard work, and I believe he used ammonia to scrub off the tar.
Naturally there was a lot of trouble about it. The Fellows of the College were expected to take severe disciplinary action. But when it came to doing anything, it came out that the man had been so unpopular that practically the whole College would have to be sent down. This might have been no more justice, but it was hardly practicable. In the end all that was done was that the man in question (now scrubbed white again) was asked to move out of his College rooms into lodgings, and thus the peace was preserved for the remainder of his stay in Oxford.Bickerton, F. (1953), Fred of Oxford: Being the Memoirs of Fred Bickerton, Until Recently Head Porter of University College, Oxford. London: Evans Bros., pp. 34-35.
I recall the first time I came across this story in the early 1970s told by an adult relative who, whenever she visited, expected us children to be on ‘best behaviour’. Apparently, according to her version, there had been a democratic vote on the matter prior to the actual tarring and feathering. The social outsider and student’s peer motives were explained finally to all listening with a single deliberately whispered sentence: ‘The man was a homosexual!’ I can see her now nodding her head slowly, letting the silence speak stronger than any more words. All the adults present seemed to understand the severity of the revelation but more – the silence and her nodding head instinctively made it very clear that no further words or conversation on the matter were either necessary, wanted or probably acceptable. So, the silence continued further for a suitable time and then the subject was changed. Incidentally, this lady was the same relative who, when being guided in a group around some stately home, was asked by the guide: ‘Do any of you know how Edward the Second died?’ There is still a certain chill that occasionally goes through me when I look at our founder’s huge portrait in our college dining hall and recall her short reply ‘They inserted a red-hot poker’.
I have since seen illustrations of this tarring and feathering incident, though the motives given for it are in response to the man’s haughty or pompous personality. Fred’s account in large part chimes with this but I have no doubt the sentence ending complete with explanation mark regarding the ‘powder puffs’, given what else is happening in that paragraph, is effectively a large wink to the reader for the hidden or unspoken motivations behind these actions. Some topics, it seems, were just not talked about openly, or at best were treated as a dark secret. I note also that Fred reflected in part on this story that joking and mischief generally of fifty years past used to be ‘more cruel’ and that ‘things which seemed comic then would now offend’. Fred wrote his account in the early 1950s about an incident that probably happened around 1903. Three years after the death of Oscar Wilde (of Magdalen College) in taboo, exile, and poverty despite his previously hugely acclaimed popularity.
It is sombre to think how the curtains of time can hide away the events of just a generation gone. And it can be good to lift the illusion, to find the true stories beneath.