Oxbridge: birthplace of British binge-drinking?

Connie Fisher 27 October 2011

Britain’s obsession with binge-drinking has its roots in the drunken revelry of Oxbridge drinking societies in the 1600s, new research claims.

According to Cambridge History lecturer Dr Phil Withington, the boom in numbers of educated elite arriving at Oxford and Cambridge came hand-in-hand with a massive increase in excessive alcohol consumption, drinking games and raucous banter.

In 1630 student numbers reached a peak which wasn’t exceeded until after World War One.

Hundreds of wealthy gentlemen celebrated their new-found freedom at gentleman’s clubs and ale-houses, and wine consumption almost doubled in the period. “Students learned not just to study but to drink, which became integral to male bonding, camaraderie and rites of passage,” Dr Withington stated.

Britain’s notorious booze culture has previously been blamed on the working classes of the past, but the research claims the poor would not have been able to afford excessive amounts of alcohol.

This research is part of an ongoing investigation funded by the Economic and Social Research Council into the problem of binge-drinking in Britain.

Dr Withington, expert on the role of intoxicants in the early modern period, said the actions of 17th century Oxbridge students, including Latin drinking games and the performing of initiation rites to join societies, has echoes in student activities today.

“Socialising became intrinsically linked with intoxication and drinking establishments and it became OK to be very, very drunk in public – attitudes we have inherited.”

Cambridge has a tradition of notorious alcohol-fuelled social events including Suicide Sunday and the annual Varsity Ski Trip.

Welfare and Rights Officer Rosie O’Neill said drinking was “undeniably a part of student life” but health concerns should not be focused solely on students but on the increasing drinking problems among older adults in society.

Connie Fisher