This year many students at Peterhouse will be celebrating the end of their exams in style by attending the May Ball (Wednesday 17th June). In honour of this event, we present here some material relating to past May Balls.
The first Peterhouse May Ball took place on June 14th 1892, replacing the usual termly concert. Reference to College Ball arrangements can be found in The Grayling (Cambridge, 1892) where it was noted that, “It has been decided to have the gardens illuminated with electric light”. This decision, however, was not without its consequences:
As this will take a large amount of power from the engine it is absolutely necessary that no electricity should be used in any private rooms in College. (The Grayling, 1892)
The earliest photograph of a Peterhouse May Ball that the collections hold is dated June 1st 1912. This was also the first May Ball of the twentieth century. According to a brief article in the College’s magazine, The Sex, the event was a complete success, although a last minute lack of female partners seemed to have caused some panic amongst the students:
… less than twelve hours before the actual commencement of the Ball, unforeseen and quite inevitable circumstances upset the most vital arrangement of all – the equilibrium of ladies and gentlemen. Diplomacy, prayer, flattery, all modes of recruiting known and unknown were tried, ere the wayward and diffident were gained. That they were gained, and that sexual aces were finally easy, is perhaps the most striking success of the heroic workers. (The Sex, Easter Term 1912, No.46)
We are lucky to possess a dance card from 1912 – this formerly belonged to Alfred Bossier, m.1910. In addition to being a charming part of College history the card provides us with a list of the dances performed on the evening – it also lets us know that Mr Bossier was not one of the gentlemen in want of a partner (at least for some of the dances).
So popular was the 1912 May Ball that another was held the very next year. Despite being a complete success, this event was “no longer graced by the charm of novelty” (The Sex, 1913, p. 50) and consequently received little mention in The Sex’s chronicle of student activities for Easter Term, 1913.
The depletion of student numbers over the war years, combined with rationing and threats of Zeppelin raids (see earlier post, Peterhouse and the Great War) meant that another May Ball wasn’t held in Peterhouse until 1919. Reports of the evening were effusive in their praise:
The weather could not have been more kind, and the night was perfect. The Fellows’ Garden is in itself one of the most attractive in Cambridge, but – have you seen it on a fine night, lit up with multi-coloured fairy lamps and Japanese lanterns, peopled with dim figures; men looking their smartest , women their most charming, moving softly about or conversing in undertones, unwilling to break the spell of enchantment that seemed to have fallen on the scene? (The Sex, Easter Term 1919, No. 65)
That is not to suggest that the event was entirely without incident:
It is true that one of the Committee trod on a flowerpot in the Ball Room, and that a notorious deer mistook a frock for something edible; but what is life without its humour? (The Sex, Easter Term 1919, No. 65)
The Old Library holds numerous other photographs, newspaper clippings and student accounts of May Balls. Such memorabilia provides a fun and fascinating glimpse of social and institutional history. We would be pleased to hear from people who hold similar material relating to Peterhouse. Let’s hope that this year’s May Ball will also provide fond memories and furnish our archive with images and anecdotes for future study and entertainment.