Music, Meals and Memories: Delving into the St. John's College May Ball Collection

Today, the St. John’s College May Ball is considered one of the most spectacular parties in the world and a highly-anticipated event in the College calendar. With the exception of 1910, (following the death of King Edward VII) and between the years during and immediately after World War One, St. John’s has held its Ball annually in June since at least 1888. Much has, of course, altered during this time. Throughout the Ball’s 100-year plus history, institutions and traditions have come and gone, as have tastes in food, entertainment and attire. The collection of May Ball material currently held in the St. John’s College Archives - which includes an extensive range of programmes, tickets, photographs, posters, financial accounts and menu cards - documents these cultural shifts and so provides a fascinating insight into an important aspect of the College’s social history. To mark the opening of a new May Ball exhibition in the St. John’s College Archive Centre next month, we take a closer look at some of the pieces from the collection from across the decades to consider how the Ball has been shaped by generations of attendees.  

The Guest List

There is no evidence for how many individuals attended the first Lady Margaret Ball in 1888, but in its early history, the Ball appears to have been a more intimate affair, held in the Master’s Lodge with supper in the Senior Combination Room. Dancing took place in the Hall – one can make out the lavish decorations used for the 1898 Ball in the photograph below.

In the twentieth century, the extent of the Ball continued to expand across the College site, with guests now moving freely between both sides of the river and out onto the Backs. By the 1960s, multiple performances were staged simultaneously in different locations, and by the early 1990s, a penchant for themed balls saw the whole of the College re-imagined as a parallel world. Early examples of themed Balls include ‘The Jungle Book’ (1993); ‘Catalonia’ (1994); ‘A Midsommer Night’s Dreame’ (1996); ‘Venetian Carnival’ (1998); and ‘Orient Express’ (2000). The growth in the size and scope of the Ball has been reflected in the increase in ticket prices over the decades which, even allowing for long-term inflation, has more than doubled since 1970.

Members of the College have always held priority for tickets to the St. John’s Ball. Female fellows and students were not admitted as members of St. John’s until 1981, yet women could and did attend the College Ball prior to this as guests of their male Johnian counterparts. Colour-coded tickets, such as those shown here for the 1929 Ball, reinforced the difference between Johnians and their partners: blue tickets for the gentlemen and pink tickets for the ladies. By the 1950s, however, coloured tickets had fallen out of favour and were replaced with a neutral plain, white card.


The Menu

The series of menu cards in the College’s May Ball collection enables us to trace how particular dishes have fallen into and out of fashion over time. Up to the mid-twentieth century, French cuisine was very popular and the dinner menus were typically printed in French, rather than in English. One of the earliest extant menu cards, dating from 1921, includes salmon in a ravigote sauce, baked ham, crab farci (a classic French appetizer in which the shells are stuffed with breadcrumbs, butter, crab meat and seasonings), meringues, pineapple a la Cussy, bonnes-bouches de fois-gras, and to finish, petite marmite au depart – a type of aromatic broth made from meat, vegetables, and seasonings, served in the small pot in which it has cooked. The seven-course dinner menu for the 1898 Ball, featured below, includes duck, quail, pigeon, beef, and for dessert, a rather intriguingly-named Lady Margaret Boat Club (L.M.B.C.) cake!

By the 1960s and 1970s, the dinner menu had become far simpler, typically including roast ham, chicken and other cold meats, a staple selection of potato and Waldorf salads, followed by bowls of fresh strawberries and cream. What distinguished the menu of the St. John’s College Ball from that of other Colleges at this time, however, was the presence of ‘cygnet St. Jean’, or ‘roast swan’ - a dish permitted by law to only a very limited number of institutions in the United Kingdom apart from the British monarchy. The serving of roast swan at the May Ball continued until the mid- to late 1980s, at which point it was removed from the menu entirely. In the twenty-first century, the dinner menu has seen the introduction of a vegetarian option alongside more traditional cuts of beef, lamb, duck and guinea fowl.

Alongside the formal sit-down meal, the provision of lighter refreshments at the Ball over the years has also helped to keep guests partying on throughout the night. The menu card for the 1950 Ball lists popular buffet snacks such as Swiss roll, cheese straws and strawberry ices, but with the advent of fast food and increased diversity in cultures and cuisines, today’s May Ball is likely to include stalls selling a range of sweet and savoury treats to cater to different tastes. Crepes, hot dogs, pizza, doughnuts, sushi and copious supplies of alcohol offer a welcome ‘pick-me-up’ when energy levels are flagging. Globalisation has paved the way for more adventurous gastronomic delights as well: in keeping with the ‘Lost Worlds’ theme of the 2014 Ball, crocodile kebabs and camel meatball pittas made an interesting and unusual addition to the usual fare!

While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the 6am ‘Survivors’ Photograph first appeared, one can safely say from the evidence of existing programmes that guests have always danced well into the early hours, only to have their photographs taken at breakfast the next day. Today, formal breakfast is served in the Senior Combination Room at 3.30am, and includes a variety of hot and cold options, such as cured meats, croissants, fruit platters and fresh eggs. Sadly, no breakfast menus from the early College Balls have survived, but bacon baps and cups of hot soup were certainly on hand for guests by the early 1960s to quell hungry stomachs at the break of day. Co-ordinating the supply of food and drink for the Ball is a considerable undertaking. For the 2016 Ball, the College Catering Department estimates that it will prepare around 25,000 portions of food to serve throughout the course of the night.

The Entertainment

Well-fed, well-watered and well-entertained: the guests at the St. John’s College Ball have always had plenty of diversion with which to amuse themselves in the long hours between dusk and dawn. Early dance cards, such as those printed in 1898 and 1912, typically featured waltzes such as the Blue Danube and the Lady Margaret Waltz, yet as one moves through the twentieth century, the repertoire expands to include new dances such as the fox-trot, quick-step and tango.


By the 1960s, ballroom dancing has largely given way to headline performances by bands such as Russ Henderson’s All-Steel Band and Ian Stewart and his Orchestra (Stewart being one of the subsequent co-founders of the Rolling Stones). Since then, the Ball has attracted a whole host of artists, including Status Quo (1970); The Troggs (1984), and Hot Chocolate (1996), to perform alongside a range of jazz bands, orchestral ensembles and a capella groups. Guests have not only been spoilt for musical entertainment. Other divertissements, such as massage parlours, jousting, casinos, hot air balloons, coconut shies, shooting ranges, and fireworks have all featured on the May Ball line-up at one point or another.  

Examining the documents left behind, one can form a fairly good impression of what the May Ball of yesteryear must have been like. The collections held in the College Archives tell us what people ate, what they wore, what type of music they listened to. Yet the experience of being present at a Ball is less easy to record, and behind the words and images on a page lie countless private memories, concealed from public view. These are left to the imagination.

For further information, see R. Langhorne, “The Lady Margaret Ball: A Note on the Early History of the May Ball’. The Eagle. Vol. LXVIII (Easter 1980) p.p. 27-31.

 This article was contributed by Eleanor Swire, Information Services Graduate Trainee, 2015-2016.