Whilst the Oxford Union is celebrating its bicentenary year, it seems an appropriate moment to look back at how the Society has celebrated in the past.

Jubilee anniversary (1873)

The 50th anniversary of the Oxford Union Society was marked by a Jubilee banquet with speeches held in the Corn Exchange (located in the courtyard behind the old Oxford Town Hall) on 22 October 1873. The event was attended by four hundred members, including ninety ex-officers. The British Lord High Chancellor and former Union President, Roundell Palmer, 1st Earl of Selborne, took the Chair.

Toasts were made to those fields of public life in which the former Oxford Union members present had made their name: the Church, the Army and Navy, the House of Lords and the House of Commons, the University of Oxford, the Bench and the Bar, Literature, Science and Art. Many of the speeches looked back forty, or in a few cases fifty years, to recall the early days of the Society and its members. They also called on current members to continue the Union’s contribution to public life.

Given the list of attendees, the then President of the Union’s declaration did not seem out of place:

If you wish to read the history of the Oxford Union during the last fifty years, you must search the annals of your country ; if you wish to read the names of those who have been foremost in serving their country in Church and State during the same period, you must read the lists of the Oxford Union Society.

As well as the Lord Chancellor Selborne, another former President, the Marquis of Salisbury, then Chancellor of the University, made a speech. Other former Presidents to speak included the Secretary of State for War, Edward Cardwell; the First Lord of the Admiralty, George Goschen; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Tait; the Archbishop of Westminster, Henry Manning; the Attorney-General, John Coleridge; and the Bishop of Oxford, John Mackarness.

Centenary anniversary (1823/1824)

The Centenary banquet was held on Friday 29 February 1924 at the Town Hall with approximately 500 attendees, including many ex-officers. It had been due to take place on 5 December 1923, but was postponed due to a General Election.

A hundred tickets were reserved for former Union officers. Tickets cost 1 pound 10 shillings each. Cheaper tickets at 10 shillings were available for Ladies to enjoy dessert and wine in the gallery.

A number of former Union presidents attended the banquet including former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith; future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan; then Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, John Simon; politician and former Viceroy of India, George Curzon; writer Hilaire Belloc; and the Archbishop of York, Cosmo Gordon Lang. Future Prime Minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike also attended.

Similar toasts were made as at the fiftieth anniversary dinner, representing the fields of public life in which former Union members served.

The banquet was preceded by a centenary debate at the Oxford Union. The motion ‘that civilization has advanced since this House first met’ was supported by Professor Gilbert Murray and Philip Guedalla, and opposed by John Buchan and Ronald Knox.

The year before the dinner and debate, a ball was held on 26 June 1923. The dance card for the event included space to write in the attendee’s partner for each dance. A copy of the dance programme from the fiftieth anniversary in 1873 was also included.

Sesquicentennial anniversary (1973)

The 150th anniversary dinner was held at the Randolph Hotel with a champagne reception held at the Union beforehand. Sixty ex-Presidents attended the dinner.

Attendees included former Union Librarian and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, as well as MPs representative of the three main UK political parties: Michael Stewart (President 1929 MT), Geoffrey Rippon (Librarian 1944 TT), William Rees-Mogg (President 1951 TT) and Jeremy Thorpe (President 1951 HT).

There were far fewer toasts than at previous celebrations. Reflecting the admission of women to membership in 1963, the first Union female officer, Janet Morgan, proposed a toast to the Union.

Bicentenary anniversary (2023)

To celebrate the past 200 years of Union history, a bicentenary debate was held on 24 February 2023. The debate was attended by 22 ex-Presidents, 10 ex-officers and more than 70 former committee and life members. The motion that “This House believes it was better ‘Back in my day'” was defeated, but excellent speeches were heard from both sides of the House. An historical display prepared by the Library team attracted a great deal of interest. A Bicentenary meal at the Oxford Town Hall is also planned for June and will be attended by many former Union Presidents.

Our Bicentenary year also coincided with two further important anniversaries for the Oxford Union.

On 9th February 2023, an anniversary debate was held to mark the 90th anniversary of the famous 1933 ‘King and Country’ debate. This was the first time, since the original debate, that the Oxford Union revisited the motion whilst a king sat on the British throne. This time the motion was defeated, with 88 votes For, 212 Against. A library display featuring many items from our archives accompanied the debate.

On 11 February, the Union celebrated 60 years since women gained admission to the Union on the same terms as men. Members heard from Victoria Schofield (Ex-President, Trinity 1977 & Chair, OLDUT) and The Hon. Michael Beloff KC (Ex-President, Michaelmas 1962).