A Warm Welcome with a Biscuit
Posted on: 10 December 2021 by Kim Fisher, VG&M Visitor Services in 2021
In our previous Victoria Building history blog we found out more about the construction of the Victoria Building and that after many delays, it finally opened publicly on the 13th December 1892. In this blog we find out more about the eventful opening ceremony that happened on the following evening.
A Warm Welcome
The opening ceremony reception was held in the Victoria Building on the evening of 14 December 1892 for over 3,000 guests. No expense was spared and the whole event cost around £377 which is the equivalent of around £30,000 today.
The fire in the grand entrance hall was lit to warm the guests during the evening, refreshments were served in the engineering laboratory next door and guests were entertained with a varied programmed of instrumental pieces by the fireplace on the ground floor and on the second floor in the Tate Library.
Previously, a separate opening ceremony for the clock tower had been held in November with many of the donors such as William Hartley in attendance. The ceremony on the 14th December was the official celebration for the new building and was to primarily thank the citizens and dignitaries of Liverpool for their generosity and support in helping to fund the construction of the new college building.
The musical programme for the opening ceremony reception evening.
Salvete Cives Nostri
On the night, a special performance of the first University College song called ‘Salvete Cives Nostri’ was also performed in the Arts Lecture Theatre by the University College Choral Society. Professor Herbert Strong was the Professor of Latin at University College Liverpool and he had composed the lyrics to the song.
Portrait of Professor Strong by George Hall Neale, VG&M Collection
It was performed in Latin with the accompaniment of an English translation in the opening ceremony programme. The song title translates to ‘We Give You Greetings Citizens’ which is fitting because the University College fundraising appeal for the construction of the Victoria Building had relied heavily on the generosity of the citizens of Liverpool who has raised £250,000 for the new university college and its brand-new buildings. It appears that this song was written specially for the opening ceremony as it directly thanks the citizens of Liverpool for helping to build the Victoria Building and establish University College Liverpool and states “These halls the home of learning, we owe to thee alone.”
As the Victoria Building was the first home for the School of the Arts, Professor Strong included Greek mythology in the song. The Goddess Athena Pallas also known as Minerva the Goddess of Wisdom, was included in the song as she was the patron of scholars, learning, science and art and was a suitable muse for the faculty of arts.
Albert Lister Peace composed the music and although he was not employed by University College Liverpool, he was a talented musician and had recently taken the position of organist at St Georges Hall in Liverpool.
Salvete Cives Nostri Song lyrics in Latin and English taken from the programme.
On the 22 May 2015 a choral performance was recorded in the Leggate Lecture Theatre where the song was first performed 123 years earlier and you can view this video on our YouTube Channel.
Taking the Biscuit
Modern colourised photograph of student Ramsay Muir who reported the opening ceremony events from the students’ viewpoint.
The authorities of the university had decided that the public opening of the Victoria Building should be held in the Arts Lecture Theatre. Lord Spencer would perform the ceremony and many distinguished guests were invited but there was no room for the students to attend.
The student body protested and produced a petition of 250 signatures. They requested that the top balcony should be kept free for students for the Opening Ceremony and more importantly, for future public functions and the petition was taken to the University Senate the following day and they were allowed to attend.
A meeting was held to ensure tickets were distributed fairly and to discuss how to maintain order at the ceremony, something that had been requested by Principal Rendall. The student body decided that no student would act as a policeman and they would not be held responsible for student behavior. Many of the students were angry that their petition had not been taken seriously and believed that the senate was showing the student body mistrust and contempt. The student revenge was then planned and in student Ramsay Muir’s own words the following happened at the opening ceremony:
'A wire had been rigged up from one horn of the semi-circular gallery to the other, the middle of it being immediately over the head of the Earl.
When the procession filled the platform and just as the Chancellor took his seat, an enormous biscuit, about three foot in diameter, specially baked for the occasion, was run along the wire and amid the breathless attention of the whole audience gradually lowered until it hung right in front of the chancellor, completely obscuring him from the audience.
It bore an inscription stating that it was for the Senate, which took the biscuit for its impudence in trying to exclude the students.'
Modern illustration of the biscuit stunt by Michelle Keeley Adamson
Although the dignitaries of Liverpool had been treated to the dignified rendition of ‘Salvete Cives Nostri’ by the college choir, it appears that the favourite pantomime songs of the students echoed around the Arts Lecture Theatre during the biscuit debacle so that the audience could also hear the choral talent of the other university students. Muir stated the following account in The Sphinx student magazine in March 1893:
“Remarkable musical efforts were produced by the student’s orchestra which consisted of bagpipes, tin whistles, penny trumpets and rattles ….University songs were rendered with great spirit such as ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.’
It was amusing to watch the professors during the spectacle, one chewed his moustache so hard to keep himself from laughing that it has not recovered to this day, another stroked his beard and looked melancholy, a third, not particularly distinguished for keeping order in his classes, actually shook his fist at the gallery.”
From Pranks to Press
It’s thanks to Muir’s accounts in the college magazine and memoirs written later in his life that we know more about the opening ceremony and the student prank from their point of view and not just what was written in the national press. Some of the newspaper articles published at the time stated the following accounts:
“In yesterday's function in the theatre of the Victoria Building of University College, bore some trace of a semblance of fun. ‘Taking the cake’ is not an academic phrase, but is likely to become so, for the biscuit of colossal circumference, which the students slung down to the Mayor at the close of his introductory speech, will, so long as it exists, necessarily be looked upon as a classic of the oven.”
“Then the students relapsed into their discordant yells. A number of living cats appeared to have got into the building. And for the sacred precincts of the Muses, the arts and sciences were given over to caterwauling resembling the resurrection of a whole galaxy of feline mummies.”
“Students are but boys, and they must learn that this is not their business to take the law into their own hands. On the other hand, high dignitaries should remember that even boys have a certain sense of amour propre, which it is unwise to neglect.”
Extracts from newspapers several days after the student pranks – Left ‘Supplement to the Manchester Courier, Saturday December 17 1892. Right – The Liverpool Mercury, Monday 19 December 1892
Misunderstandings and mending relationships
Ultimately, it appears that there had been misunderstanding on both sides. The students had felt they had been left out of the clock tower ceremony in November and that no provisions had been made for their attendance at the December opening either until a petition had been drawn up by the students themselves. The opening ceremonies were an opportunity to thank those involved in raising money for the building and the students themselves had contributed towards this and they felt as if they were not as important as the dignitaries of Liverpool who had generously donated to the construction fund.
However, from the University Senate’s point of view, this had not been done intentionally and said it would never happen again.
University College Liverpool Principal Gerald Henry Rendall
The day after the opening ceremony, Gerald Rendall offered his resignation as principal of University College Liverpool. Whether his resignation was due to the students' behaviour at the Opening Ceremony or the exhaustion of several years facilitating the construction of the Victoria building is unclear, however, he changed his mind and continued in his post for a few more years until 1898 with the help of the newly appointed Vice-Principal MacCunn.
The fact that he stayed for sixteen years and was involved in improving student life while he was principal shows that he did care very much about the students and when he finally resigned, the students gave him an illuminated manuscript full of their praise and thanks to all he had done for them during his sixteen years of service.
We may never know what his true thoughts were on the student spectacle however it appears relationships between the college authorities and its students were mended.
The student gift given to Principal Rendall when he left the college in 1898
Ultimately, the opening ceremony was something that was remembered by all who attended and goes to show that student pranks were around even in the 1890s.