Skip to content

The obscure and the ugly: Societies and initiations at the University of Bristol

Laura Butler explores the quirks of student groups at the University of Bristol.

By Laura Butler, Second Year Politics and Sociology

The University of Bristol has over 350 student groups, with many that celebrate obscure themes and traditions. Bristol's student societies cover a number of niche interests and many conduct illicit initiation ceremonies.

Niche interests

The Re-enactment Society is a group belonging to the national Historia Normannis society. They re-enact mostly 12th-century combat craft, cooking, religion as well as fashion. This eclectic group is perfect for anyone looking for a new hobby or has a budding interest in re-enactment.

If you're interested in joining you can look at their SU page where membership can be purchased for £10 a year.

For Swifties, the Taylor Swift Appreciation Society - or TaySoc - is a place that you can call home. They arrange Taylor-themed socials from club nights to brunches and can be joined for just £5 a year!

The University of Bristol also has its very own Pagan society, offering two levels of membership. Free membership grants you access to sessions exploring the basics of Paganism. Paying members receive a more in-depth experience that includes access to resources such as tarot cards and educational books.  

They arrange weekly 'Witchy Wednesdays' along with themed socials and an annual Yule ball to celebrate the winter solstice.

Illicit initiations

It is no secret that many UK university societies have obscure initiation ceremonies featuring heavy binge drinking and strange challenges intended to humiliate. An article by the Bristol Tab investigating some of the worst initiations in the country included 'apple bobbing' for dead rats and sliding down a vomit-soaked sheet. But do Bristol's student societies take part in these strange practices?

Initiations are formally banned by the Bristol SU, with ‘welcome drinks’ taking their place instead. However, the practice of society initiations still appears to be widespread. Epigram investigated some of the stranger examples of this elusive practice within Bristol's student societies.

Freshers were blindfolded and led into a tarped kitchen where they ate a thoughtfully prepared three-course 'menu' that included a raw vodka-soaked onion and cider with Tabasco.

One student member of a men’s sports society - who wished to remain anonymous - told Epigram the list of items freshers had to bring to their welcome drinks, which included 69 horse hairs, an intact yet hollow creme egg and a bin in case you throw up. Freshers were blindfolded and led into a tarped kitchen where they ate a thoughtfully prepared three-course 'menu' that included a raw vodka-soaked onion and cider with Tabasco.

Another student detailed a lovingly prepared meal from his welcome drinks, that consisted of cat food paired with red wine and siracha.

'Aftermath of an initiation' | Epigram / Ellicia Metcalfe

Rules are in place throughout these welcome drinks and the breaking of them results in punishments ranging from getting an eyebrow shaved off to a 'visit from doctor spoon'. This is where the student is encouraged to snort a teaspoon of vodka.

Challenges are not exclusive to drinkers. One student reported seeing groups compete to eat two loaves of bread and drink two litres of milk in the shortest time possible in order to avoid forfeits. Participants were also asked questions by established group members while being slapped by a fish.

Captains explain that the challenges are optional and only for the purpose of 'having a laugh with your mates.’ One study shows that initiations or 'hazing' can help to create group cohesion and can be important in developing a sense of belonging.

Bristol's best-kept secrets: Exploring the city's hidden gems
Fresher's week: Learning to manage your expectations

However, this is not to say it is without its negatives. The initiation practice is found to have negative psychological effects, with participants going along with it only to feel accepted and not out of a genuine desire to participate. Additionally, the creation and promotion of group identity through the use of initiation practices can suppress individual identity.

Initiation ceremonies are a controversial tradition. Despite their ban, initiations and similar practices continue in some form amongst Bristol's student societies. They can clearly cause psychological distress, but traditions to promote group identity do not have to go to these extremes. This begs the question of how traditions can be embraced in a way that does not jeopardise the well-being of students, but instead allows for the formation of a community.

Featured image: Epigram / Ellicia Metcalfe

Will you be joining any societies this year?