According to the ever reliable source that is Wikipedia, Student Rags began as a manifestation of the rivalry between University College London (UCL) and King’s College London, the two oldest and largest colleges of the University of London. These late nineteenth century rags ‘often featured cross-dressing and processions that mirrored official celebrations. The rag permitted students to reaffirm their group loyalties in a lively and colourful way while raising money for charity.’ Post-1945 the emphasis became more upon charitable activity than frivolous rivalry, and the ‘Rag Week’ emerged, with processions, publicity stunts and charity collections, although the mascots of the two universities were still vulnerable to the occasional kidnap.
Here in Southampton, our own Rag history is no less colourful. In 1930 the annual Rag parade was banned for being ‘excessively rowdy’, and after returning in 1947 it was banned again in 1959 after a series of stunts were seen to give the University a bad name. These stunts included unfurling a banner at the top of the Civic centre’s bell tower, paining ‘UoS’ and ‘RAG’ on Stonehenge (yes that’s THE Stonehenge), stealing football boots from Southampton FC changing rooms and breaking into Pankhurst Prison to once again leave their mark with paint.
In more recent years Rag, both in Southampton and across the UK has become far more respectable. Somewhere along the way Rag acquired the acronym ‘Raising and Giving’ and came to be considered a valuable asset to local, national and international charities. From 1986 until 1997 RAG at SUSU was so important it had its own Sabbatical Officer. In these years vast amounts were raised, with a record of £38,000 in the academic year 1994/5.
RAG has been a major influence at SUSU over the years. In May 1993 SUR FM (Southampton University RAG FM) broadcast for four weeks, both to raise money for charity and also to increase support for a permanent SUSU radio station. The Wessex News (forerunner to the Wessex Scene) reported that ‘ the organisers promise a station geared to the listeners rather than the presenters’ and ‘the existence of a permanent university station very much relies on the success of this pilot station’. SUR FM was successful and in 2000 Surge radio was born!
Other successful RAG stunts have included a 4000 mile journey in 1990 by two Southampton engineering students into then-USSR (now Russia) in a £250 Vauxhall in aid of Children in Need. The Southern Daily Echo reported that ‘Keith and Nigel saw little sign of Moscow’s current food shortages’ and that the boys remarked ‘it’s hard to see how the Soviet Union can be taken seriously as a super-power when we were having to dodge horses and carts on the motorway.’.
The ideological divides of the Cold War were apparent closer to home in 1986 when a left wing RAG committee member wrote a strongly worded letter that was published in the Wessex News. He complained ‘You’d think the rich b***ards in SUCA (Southampton Univeristy Conservative Association) would cough up… But no, not a sausage.’ The angry author also attacked the Christian Union whose ‘charity interest goes as far as it enable them to convert Ethiopians… even though prayers won’t provide water or food.’
RAG once again courted controversy in 1993 when it hosted a women’s only Ann Summers party. The initial publicity was withdrawn following a complaint from the Women’s and Equal Opportunities Officers, although the offending images were later published alongside an article on the affair in the Wessex News. There were also complaints at the women only rule, however an Ann Summers representative argued this was so that ‘Ladies can shop in privacy.’ Despite the controversy the event was a huge success with ticket completely selling out.
The charities RAG has supported have changed significantly over the years. In some years all profits went to a single charity, whereas in other years they were split between many charities, with donations across the years ranging from £43.27 to £38,000. Several years focused on supporting primarily local charities. In 1997/8 the RAG committee decided that the Meningitis Research Trust was to be a permanent beneficiary of RAG proceeds. This decision was made following the death of Melissa Irvine, a Southampton student, with meningitis; however it seems the decision was not enshrined in the RAG constitution and was forgotten in later years. In recent years RAG has begun nominating three charities each year- one local, one national and one international, who benefit from general ‘RAG’ events, whilst one off events are held to raise money for other charities.
In the last decade RAG successes have included a world record attempt for the most people downing shots at once, the arrival of the annual Amsterdam trip, an appearance by the great Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the arrival of the fresher’s festival RAGfest!