The 1920's

In the 1920s the College felt very luxurious to students from less affluent homes. Food was plentiful, if stodgy, and there was a large staff of maids who worked very long hours. They not only dealt with housework and serving at table, but also made the students' beds and cleaned their shoes, and waited upon the dons. Indeed, much time at the General Meetings of undergraduates was spent discussing the complexities and responsibilities of various forms of social behaviour. In 1927 the President of the J.C.R. (Kathleen Major, later to be Principal of the College) regularly received complaints that 'students walked bareheaded about the town', and had to request that hats should be worn in public places.

The etiquette of the Dining Hall occupied a great deal of time, at a period when evening dress was worn and maids waited at table. Formal bows to the Principal were expected, but the quality of the bowing left much to be desired and members were asked 'to bow perceptibly'. Although there was an alternative to formal Hall 'those who went nightly to the Early Supper-Table' were not encouraged. Behaviour at Dinner was also governed by unexpected local customs. One student recalled that it was not the custom to ask anyone senior to yourself to pass anything at meals. When she returned home her astonished family thought that her manners had deteriorated when she rose to help herself to salt.

During the General Strike in May 1926 male undergraduates all over Oxford went out to man the barricades, but of necessity the response in the women's colleges was more muted. On 9th May 1926 a Special General Meeting was held at St. Hilda's to discuss the Archbishop's Petition. A group of churchmen assembled by the Archbishop of Canterbury had issued a three point appeal for the cancellation of the strike, for the Government to renew its offer of assistance to the coal industry and for the mine owners to withdraw the recent new wage scales. Subsequently there was a complaint in Oxford that the Archbishop's appeal was being disseminated 'by young persons who try to get the maid and others to sign it.' It was read to the Special Meeting and those who wanted to sign it were asked to remain behind. An appeal was also made for funds for the relief of Miners' wives and children. Afterwards one student of the College was to end up resenting the General Strike for completely non-political reasons. The absence of so many undergraduates caused the University to relax the rules on days required to be in residence. She had been ill and, but for this, would have had to repeat a year.

The continuing restrictions of chaperonage meant that contact with the social life of the University was limited, and so the students concentrated to a great extent on their own clubs and societies. At this period the College News letter in the St. Hilda's College Chronicle reports the activities of the Debating, Literary and Musical Societies, Poetry and History Clubs and the Social Study Circle. College dances were held, and rowing was strongly supported; in 1927 it was reported that 'St. Hilda's has distinguished itself recently in rowing, there being five Hall representatives in the boat that defeated Cambridge.' The Debating Society's vigour was attributed to the fact that its President was an active member of the Conservative Association, and its Treasurer was equally active in the Labour Club. The society did mix with male undergraduates. In 1927 the Society discussed with St. John's the proposition that 'Advertisement is the Curse of the Age' and with Queen's that 'The Artist is better equipped for life than the ordinary man'. The following year there were 'six mixed debates on such subjects as Pacifism, Victorianism, the Press, and the Life of a Cow'. Unfortunately the Literary Society was not as vigorous, and in 1926 it was recorded that 'The Literary Society has died this year; this was expected as it had been failing for some time. In its place has sprung up a very exclusive Illiterate Society, whose activities at present seem to be only to eat chocolate-biscuits and laugh.'

One of the most flourishing clubs was the Dramatic Society, but it could only put on private performances, for dramatic ventures were affected by the limitations on women. In July 1924 the Vice Chancellor and Proctors had forbidden public performances by any University or Intercollegiate societies except the Oxford University Dramatic Society (O.U.D.S.). This ban included the Oxford Women's Intercollegiate Dramatic Society and so created a grievance, for women could not be members of O.U.D.S. and so could not take part in any public intercollegiate performance.

In 1927 the President of O.U.D.S. sought permission for a woman undergraduate to play Miranda in a production of The Tempest. On this occasion the Vice Chancellor raised no objections, but ruled that the President must obtain the permission of the Women's Colleges, particularly with regard to chaperonage arrangements. Perhaps he knew what their reaction was likely to be. The reaction of the Principal of St. Hilda's, Miss Moberly, was concerned entirely with practicalities: 'I am afraid the practical difficulties would be considerable as none of the women's colleges have any night porter, and our hour for shutting them up is 11 p.m. I do not think we could make special arrangements for a maid to sit up for any student who might be taking part, and I imagine that rehearsals as well as performances are liable to go on late.'

In the 1920s a Poet Laureate was elected to write and read a poem for each General Meeting of the undergraduates. Although it is difficult to imagine a modern J.C.R. introducing this, some of the other customs of the 1920s may appeal to those of a later age. For example, it seems that those who were not taking examinations were expected to take early morning tea to those who were. However, other entries in the minutes suggest a more basic attitude to student care which is not so tempting. In 1929 some of the students had problems with mice; the Bursar's response was to offer the loan of Murky the cat.