A Brief History of the JCR: How the Common Room Became Common

At a first glance, there can seem to be something paradoxical about the relationship between Junior Common Rooms and colleges. On the one hand, JCRs are one of the best levers of influence colleges have on students – it’s common for colleges to rely on JCR support for the enforcement of certain rules (this has been especially true in the pandemic), which saves them from an entirely top-down approach with implementation. On the other, JCRs have the potential to be the strongest facilitators of resistance against a college, as a space where the entire undergraduate body can unify against some specific policy. Of course, this ambiguity is exactly why the relationship works. At their best, JCRs provide a point of negotiation between students and colleges, with mutually beneficial results.

There are lots of ways reality can deviate from this lofty contractarian ideal. Most obviously, college/JCR relations can get fractious, and disaffiliation is an ever-present threat. But there can also be disjoints between JCRs and the student bodies they purport to represent. We might wonder what percentage of the electorate even vote in JCR elections, let alone attend the meetings? Do JCR politics favour certain kinds of people, whose views are correspondingly represented to the college disproportionately?

All of this concerns only the function of the JCR as an intermediary between students and college, which is certainly not the only aspect of their activity – but it is a particularly interesting one, because the development of this relationship is the history of the modern JCR. It reveals both that their contested nature is in the JCR’s DNA, and that their emergence formed a cornerstone of the revival of the university within England’s educational system.

The forerunners of today’s institutions, the original JCRs, were private members clubs attended by the wealthier students, and were mostly known (at least by the dons) for the drinking and debauchery they promoted. Some had long histories – New’s was founded in the 1680s – but by the mid-19th century, they were mostly seen as a nuisance. General disorder was rife in this period, exemplified by the practices of large spontaneous bonfires on college grounds and of ‘screwing-in’, which effectively entailed imprisoning unpopular students or tutors in their rooms by nailing their doors and windows shut. Common rooms were seen as encouraging these kinds of activity. At the same time, colleges were trying to reform, by refocusing on academic achievement with the modern tutorial system, expanding student numbers and organising regular ‘governing body’ meetings. Achieving these goals involved cracking down on student excesses; consequently, Magdalen moved to disband its JCR, while Corpus’ was successfully dissolved in 1852.

At New, college authorities had been complaining for years about the exclusivity and laziness their common room fostered. The final straw came in 1868, when, following a particular ‘screwing-in’ incident, the college mass-rusticated its undergraduate body for not revealing the culprits. The JCR was targeted for closure, perhaps thought to be either directly involved or perhaps as a symbolic gesture.

However, officers of the common room moved to defend it. They argued that JCRs helped integrate freshmen, and that they spread the costs of holding social events from individuals. Alfred Robinson, a tutor at New reputed for his disinterested service to university life, heard their pleas: rather than being fully disbanded, the New JCR was permitted to survive if it agreed to some oversight. 

The major alteration was that the old subscription fees were now incorporated into the battels of every New student. This was, I think, important for two main reasons. The first is that, because all freshmen were automatically subscribed to their JCR, it became the most inclusive club or society at the university. As such, it became the centre of college life, both in terms of everyday socialising and hosting specific events. The second is that, as tends to happen, a more integrated financial structure led to a close political working relationship between JCRs and colleges. JCRs became the main point of contact between colleges and students; and thus to the extent that the college/student relationship was important to students, JCRs were too.

Whatever the reasons, New’s new JCR was a success. Over the next quarter-century, almost every college founded their own in a similar fashion. They became a mainstay of the Oxford undergraduate experience, fulfilling a dual role as a place to socialise, take newspapers, and buy subsidised tea and coffee, and also as a forum for student politics. In the 1960s, a study of student life (aptly titled ‘The Student in the Age of Anxiety’) interviewed Oxford students about their lives at university, and JCRs came up again in these two contexts – by now, the ‘JCR politician’ was reported as a ‘well-known type’.

The evolution of the MCRs seems to have been a less contested process. They emerged in the 1960s, as graduate student numbers surged throughout the UK, almost quadrupling over the decade. These MCRs were modelled as independent parallel institutions on the JCR formula. The one exception is my college, Wadham, where since 1976 there has been no JCR but rather a combined Student Union (whose name is the bane of freshers already confused at the difference between the Oxford Student Union and the Oxford Union). This came about in the aftermath of 1960s radicalism, especially prevalent at Wadham, which had its own semi-officially titled ‘Ho Chi Minh quad’ for several decades. Still, the combined student union survived the movement that spawned it, and remains to this day. The combined organisation retains support, allowing both a greater combined pressure upon the college and more integration between grads and undergrads with joint events. 

This brief history brings up as many questions as it answers. For instance, how much did historical accident shape what we now know as the JCR? Had Robinson not intervened, would the Oxford system be unrecognisable; or did structural pressures around the university’s expansion necessitate the emergence of institutions functionally similar to JCRs as we now know them? 

However we answer these, it seems to me that we can’t underestimate the importance of the JCR in shaping and maintaining present-day Oxford. Colleges differ, and my experience of the JCR might well be less than representative. But the development of the JCR coincided with the development of modern Oxford and, I believe, continues to define Oxford today.

Sources:

Curthoys, M. C., ‘The Colleges in the New Era,’ in M. G. Brock and M. C. Curthoys, The History of the University of Oxford: Volume VII: Nineteenth-Century Oxford, Part 2 (Oxford, 2000)

Zweig, Ferdynand, The Student in the Age of Anxiety : A Survey of Oxford and Manchester Students (London, 2016)

St Edmund Hall, ‘History of the Middle Common Room,’ accessed 26/06/21, https://www.seh.ox.ac.uk/discover/explore-teddy-hall/history-of-the-hall/history-mcr

Wadham College, ‘Celebrating 40 years of women at Wadham,’ 30/09/2014, https://www.wadham.ox.ac.uk/news/2014/september/celebrating-40-years-of-women-at-wadham

Title Image:

Magdalen College: Ed Webster via Wikimedia Commons

Merton College Chapel: Andrew Shiva via Wikimedia Commons

Read more about the history of Oxford here.