The Oxford Bulldogs: Bark Worse than their Bite?

In May 2002, a dispute between Covered Market traders and the Oxford University Police – also known as the Bulldogs – over the presence of delivery vehicles near the Examination Schools brought the historic institution into the spotlight. A traders’ spokesman branded them an “anachronism”, a sentiment shared by the President of the Student Union who dismissed them as a “costumed pantomime”; this public discussion would eventually culminate in the force’s loss of its royal warrant and the handing over of warrant cards in a ‘special ceremony’. A ‘special ceremony’ for a peculiar phenomenon – but was its abolition overdue? And did the bowler hatted institution have any real power, or was its criticism based on ideological grounds?

Officially, the Oxford University Police had the same power as police constables, including the power of arrest, within four miles of any university building. This power was granted to them in the 1825 Universities Act, which gave Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors of universities the right to appoint constables. The historical proximity between the creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 under Robert Peel – a Christ Church alumnus – and the formalisation of the Bulldogs’ power left the university police open to the same opposition as its London counterpart. Initially, Peel’s initiative was heavily criticised by those who thought that the newly instated ‘bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’ were a threat to civil liberties. In Oxford, the creation of the university police was seen as a consequence of the role of the townspeople in the St Scholastica Day riot, which, though having occurred in the 14th century, had indebted them to the university from then on, initially in the form of an annual tribute. The Bulldogs therefore served as a uniformed reminder of the division between town and gown.

In the national and even international perception, the Bulldogs may not come as a surprise. Contemporary attitudes towards the police in general fit in seamlessly with widely held beliefs about the power inequalities extant at Oxbridge, still tainted by its once purely elite demographic of private school alumni, for whom Oxford and Cambridge were springboards into the most powerful positions. There is certainly scope for the Bulldogs to be interpreted as class division incarnate; nothing could symbolise this inequality better than a uniformed group of Old Boys patrolling the streets and reprimanding the citizens of Oxford, armed with smug grins and the burning desire to exert the authority believed to be rightfully theirs by virtue of their ancestry. Service on the force would simply be the earliest authoritative exercises of their careers.

But ‘zooming in’ on the people – to the delight of the social historian – who actually constituted the force not only produces a more complex image of the Bulldogs, but points to the larger historiographical problem of reducing and judging institutions to and according to their origins. An interview of the ‘last female Bulldog’ carried out by the Oxford Mail in 2016 overturns any notions of the Bulldogs as an elitist vanguard consciously devised to enforce class divisions. Lindsey Mills, the 75-year-old, grandmother-of-six interviewee, describes herself as “a people person” and talks more about the opportunity provided by serving on the force to meet figures such as Bill Clinton, the Queen and Nelson Mandela than her power of arrest. To Mills, who started out in 1997, her role was theatrical, and her uniform a costume; she describes her position on the force in thespian terms, as “acting” and “play[ing] the part” rather than enforcing any meaningful divides.

A pair of Bulldogs outside Examination Schools (Stephen Craven, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Student opinion of the Bulldogs was similarly complex, and by no means homogeneous. Of interest to every fan of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh himself – the archetypal progressive Oxbridge student, frustrated at his institution’s unrelenting adherence to tradition – had a run-in with the Bulldogs in his days as an undergraduate. In a letter to a friend, Waugh complains that he was stopped by a “bowler-hatted servant and brought to the Proctors” on his way to a fancy-dress party for which he had dressed as “the Conservative Working Man”; he was then rebuked for carrying around workmen’s tools, which was deemed unseemly. In the same letter, Waugh goes on to wonder whether the Bulldog acted out of “snobbery or ill nature, or whether he was afraid of being attacked”. Either way, in Waugh’s eyes – and therefore the eyes of his fashionable circle of friends – the Bulldogs were lapdogs to the senior academics and stuffy dons, acting as barriers to student self-expression. The fact that the nickname of ‘Bulldog’ – a tongue-in-cheek reference to a popular mug depicting Churchill as a bulldog wearing a bowler hat – originated within the student body is a reliable indicator of their perception of the bowler hatted force as composed of self-important, wannabe representatives of the elitist British establishment.

Students who came to Oxford expecting greater freedom had reason to antagonise the Bulldogs. In its heyday, the force’s members were far less benign than Mills. Their targets, however, were not the ‘ordinary’ Oxford citizens, but the scholars under their supervision. Up until the end of the Second World War, the university had parental responsibility over its students, which then granted the Bulldogs the unpopular powers associated with parents, including removing undergraduates from pubs and getting them to bed on time. The most common misdemeanors were failing curfew, or being found with the opposite sex; these were punished on evidence presented by the university police, which earned them the wonderful title of ‘Chief Sniffers of University Bulldogs’. In cases of cheating in exams, the Bulldogs even had the power to send students down, which, in addition to their control over student life, would have made them undoubtedly unpopular figures.

By the 21st century, the Bulldogs’ power had fizzled out, with only 3 full-time and 20 part-time officers remaining on the force. The 1825 Universities Act had established the Bulldogs as the city’s moral and legal guardians; at the time of their abolition, or rather transformation into ‘Proctors’ Officers’, they had had to content themselves with stewarding ceremonies and exams, as well as providing security. In her six years of service as a constable with a warrant card, Lindsey Mills had never even arrested a student. The stripping of their powers nearly 200 years after their formalisation had been reduced to a mostly symbolic act.

The survival of the Bulldogs into the 21st century is a testament to Oxford’s historically uncertain position between innovation and tradition. Caught between upholding thousand year old customs, but also posing as a centre of cutting edge research, Oxford’s existence in the modern world is something of a paradox. The same dons in charge of the Bulldogs sent Percy Shelley down in 1811 for writing a pamphlet about atheism, only for a memorial to be displayed in his honour at University College just a few years later. More generally, this position has resulted in the stifling of creativity in an institution supposed to be pushing the boundaries of human thought. In Waugh’s case, an ‘1840 Exhibition of Victoriana’ he had planned with fellow students was “banned without any sort of reason” by “the authorities”, indicative of an institutionalised shirking of commitment to academic curiosity. History has taught us that all institutions have a natural life span, measured by a rise and inevitable fall. Operating in such a contradictory fashion, it is sometimes a wonder that Oxford has managed to keep going for so long.

In the history of the Bulldogs can be read the history of Oxford itself; the evolving power dynamics within the institution itself and the strains of the town and gown relationship, but also its attachment to tradition, however outdated. Symptomatic of the changing role of academia, the Bulldogs’ abolition also offers clues to Oxford’s modern identity. Powerful or purely symbolic, the university’s police force proves that the secret to the survival of a one thousand year old institution is not just solid architecture, but an ability to adapt to the times when traditions become anachronisms.