Ransoming and Rags: a Brief History of the UCL-KCL Rivalry

Ask any student in London and they will be able to tell you that the rivalry between King’s College London and University College London is legendary. It dates back to KCL’s foundation in 1829. The feud between the two universities is unsurprising, considering the principle reason that KCL was established at all was to provide an Anglican counterpart to the secular UCL. These two warring factions have duked it out in the academic sphere, in sport and in politics, though most amusingly expressed by the student body of each university during legendary ‘student rags.’

I don’t know about you, but to me the phrase ‘student rag’ conjures up interesting images of twee Victorian toffs slapping at each other with handkerchiefs. I say! I mean, this is sort of true, but the origins of student rags are far more wholesome. In short, RAG societies are student-run charity organisations unique to universities across the United Kingdom. Nobody really knows where the term ‘rag’ came from. The commonly accepted definition comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, which refers to the “act of ragging; esp. an extensive display of noisy disorderly conduct, carried on in defiance of authority or discipline.” (1) The term may have also come from the Victorian era, where students took time out from their studies in order to collect clothing (‘rags’) and distribute them to the poor and destitute. Essentially, as the Independent so eloquently put it in February 2012, student rags were manifestations of “bad behaviour for a good cause.” Student rags between KCL and UCL were particularly vibrant and colourful expressions of their rivalry, involving not just the characteristic fundraising activities, but cross-dressing, brawls and even kidnappings.

At the centre of this rivalry were the university’s mascots. Since 1900, UCL’s mascot has been a statue of Phineas Maclino (a controversial figure whose colonialist associations have been a talking point amongst UCL students as of late. I shan’t go into this in this article, but more can be found about the subject here). Also synonymous with UCL is the preserved body of philosopher Jeremy Bentham, displayed on the ground floor of the Student Centre. Likewise, most KCL students will have heard of Reggie the Lion, the funny looking red feline that represents the Student Union, or at least seen the various statues of him dotted around campus. Reggie was only adopted (read: rescued from a scrapyard) in 1923, before which KCL’s mascot was a humble, giant beer bottle representing students’ ‘bottled youth’ (and nothing else, wink wink). Perhaps the most iconic manifestation of our inter-university rivalry has been the repeated kidnappings of each other’s mascots. The most famous of these incidents occurred in 1922, when King’s students suffered a defeat on the rugby pitch. To get their revenge, Phineas was pinched and held under lock, key and guard on Strand Campus. It was only after an hour of battling, the infiltration of KCL by UCL spies and a stern warning from the police that Phineas was returned, albeit minus an arm.

However, the fight was not over. During rag week in 1927, Jeremy Bentham’s head was stolen by sticky-fingered KCL students. Rotten vegetables were thrown. Students were hospitalised, two even arrested, and egos were bruised. Following this, like German and British soldiers during the Christmas Day Truce, a mutually agreed upon ceasefire characterised student life during the Second World War. Nevertheless, when the war between the Axis and Allies Powers ended, the one between KCL and UCL resumed. In 1947, UCL students took it upon themselves to use a tin opener to circumcise poor Reggie. In a mission to avenge Reggie’s genitals, Phineas was again stolen, painted red, and dumped at UCL’s doorstep. Over the next few years, UCL and KCL students continued with their mascot abuse; Phineas suffered at tarring and feathering at the hands of KCL students, Reggie was dismembered, and, on another devastating occasion, buried upside down in Hampstead Heath. The temptation to steal Jeremy Bentham’s head was finally nullified when the real thing was locked away and replaced with a wax effigy.  

The latter half of the 20th century saw the popularity of student rags decline, with the last rag adhering to old traditions occurring in the 1950s. From the 1960s onwards, students became more involved with politics beyond the confines of their College. They set their sights on social justice on a larger scale, becoming involved with protests and sit-ins against the poll tax, university cuts and the Vietnam War. Student rags were thusly abandoned, and energies directed towards nobler causes.   

At present, the UCL-KCL rivalry emerges on the rugby pitch, with the annual London varsity series finishing in a match between the University College London and King’s College London RFC. In addition, fundraising activities have devolved into the responsibility of their respective Student Unions and societies. Although the days of bizarre student rags have passed, it’s strangely heart-warming to look back and realise the students of UCL and KCL have always been a bit weird.


(1) https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/nostalgia/nostalgia-students-rag-we...