May Week: balls, boats and bubbly
King's May Ball 1925 - the morning after
Only in Cambridge would a period entitled 'May Week' actually be two weeks in late June. May Week marks the end of the examination period within the University and the last two weeks before undergraduates 'go down' for the summer. It is a 'week' of boat racing, garden parties, May Balls and College Events. Originally these festivities were held in May, in the final week leading up to the year end exams, but in 1882 the May boat races were moved to June and the rest of the activities followed suit.
The collection of documents and photographs below chronicle May Week merriment since the nineteenth century.
For many students (and Cambridge residents alike) May Week begins with the May bumps. The four day inter-collegiate and university boat race festival is held at the end of the third week of June. Often families and tourists come out to picnic next to the river and cheer the crews on.
'Bumping' is an unusual form of racing which evolved on the Cam during the 1820s. It allows large numbers of boats to race on a course unsuitable for conventional side-by-side regattas. The crews line up along the river with just one-and-a-half boat lengths (90 feet) between the boats and a the sound of a canon each crew tries to catch up with and actually collide with (bump) the crew in front of them before the crew behind does the same to them! For any given boat, the aim is to go up four places on the river during the course of the four day's racing.
In the second week (or fourth week of June), oars are replaced by champagne bottles, party frocks and black ties. The May Balls and College Events have begun! May Balls are formal affairs, requiring evening dress, with some colleges selling tickets only in pairs. The balls ae held in the college gardens, lasting from 9.00 pm until well after dawn, with 'Survivors' photographs and breakfasts for those who last the until dawn. Clare, Trinity and St John's put on spectacular firework displays during their May Balls - for which the Cam is often packed with punts of spectators. It's a popular excursion for tourists and Cambridge residents.
King's used to hold a traditional May Ball, but rumour has it that in the 1970s the college invited The Stranglers to play. The resulting crush from gatecrashers meant that the police had to be called. The local constabulary, the story goes, banned the college from hosting a May Ball for the next ten years. King's, in typical fashion, responded by having a June Event!
King's holds an annual event known as the "King's Affair", which is cheaper and not as formal as the traditional college balls. King's Affair enjoys a great reputation for "Beats not Bollinger", plus guests are invited to don any costume they choose. With seven different music stages focussing mainly on the best new forward-thinking DJs the atmosphere is more akin to a music festival than a sumptuous event.
Click on an image to enlarge it or start a slideshow of May Week photos and documents:
If you have any queries about the information in this page please contact Tracy Wilkinson, Assistant Archivist (tracy [dot] wilkinson [at] kings [dot] cam [dot] ac [dot] uk).