The History of Initiations at Otago University

The History of Initiations at Otago University

With the student ghetto, couch burning, broken bottles and the Hyde St party, it’s easy to villianise modern student behaviour. However, in contrast with their parents, grandparents, and greatgrandparents, students these days are angels. Joel Macmanus reports on the dangerous and disgusting history of student initiations.


The year is 1935 and you’ve just arrived at the University of Otago. It’s probably your first time away from home, a few days’ travel rather than a few hours. You show up, suitcase in hand, to the hall where you’ll be living for the next four years. Soon you’ll embark on the adventures of adult life, get your degree, meet someone special, settle down. But right now, it’s late, and you’re exhausted, wishing for nothing more than a hot supper and a warm bed.

But just a couple hours into your sleep, you’re woken by a blood-curdling scream and a great pounding at your door. Masked figures burst into your room, grab you and drag you downstairs in nothing more than underwear and a pair of suspenders. “Get on your knees,” they scream, as you’re blindfolded. You stay there for over two hours, all the while copping earfuls of abuse. If you ask for food, you’re fed a bun laced with Methelyne Blue, which changes the colour of your urine for weeks. If you ask for a drink, hard liquor is shoved down your throat. Eventually you are dragged away to receive the ritual baptism of ox blood and engine oil. The blindfold is removed, and a group of young men dressed in jackets and ties erupt in applause. You’ve just completed the first step of your initiation into Selwyn College.

Then the freshers are rounded up and led by flaming torches to Studholme, where they treat the young ladies to a gentlemanly serenade: a haka, hoarsely bellowed, and probably poorly performed by a group of barely dressed upper class white men. Then the boys are tied together by a long line of rope with tin cans rattling on the end. They are marched to the footbridge of the Leith, where a cannon is fired and they plunge into the Leith, to race to the Dundas Street Bridge. The women of St Margaret’s college are encouraged to enliven the proceedings by throwing flour, tomatoes, peaches and sod at the boys as they run. After they dry off they are invited to join St Margaret’s for a dance, though unfortunately the copious amount of alcohol the boys had drunk causes the evening to be cut short, as the Warden feels the boys are being quite ungentlemanly in the way they are “breathing beer on females”.

1935 was the first running of what would become the oldest and most famous initiation ritual at the University of Otago, the Selwyn College Leith Run. Critic was on board with initiations right from the start, encouraging the rituals and calling freshers, “merely unpleasant animals, utterly unimportant and valueless … in short, the scum of the University”.

The current iteration of the Leith Run, now in its 82nd year, involves fresher boys carrying a heavy concrete bath along the river. Fresher girls follow them arm-in-arm, and second years walk alongside clutching cardboard shields to protect them from the barrage of eggs and other projectiles they’re pelted with. There’s a legend at Selwyn College that this tradition goes back over 100 years, starting with three theology students who stole a bath from Knox college and took to the river because they thought they were being chased by dogs. This doesn’t appear to be based on any recorded history, as in the decades following the first running in 1935 there is no mention of a bath being part of the Leith Run. Indeed, when British documentarian Michael Palin observed the event in 1996, there was no bath to be seen. The carrying of the bath therefore appears to be a recent addition. Both Selwyn and Knox did historically feature baths prominently in their initiation rituals, but in a very different way. Each kept a cold bath, often filled with kitchen slop, outside on the quad, which students would be forced to bathe in fully clothed as a punishment for rule-breaking – failing to wear a jacket in the dining hall, or disrespecting the president were common examples. Selwyn did away with bathing as a punishment in 1989, soon after female students started attending. The tradition carried on at Knox in various forms until as late as 2009.

Selwyn College was the first hall to develop any kind of intense ritual initiation, which even at the time were considered a cheap knock-off of American fraternity traditions. Other colleges soon followed. In 1938 it was reported that two lorry-loads of Knox freshers were found by police in the early hours of the morning tied up in their pyjamas in the middle of the Octagon in the pouring rain.

When Arana was founded in 1945, the first students put a lot of planning into how they would go about initiating those that would come after them. Unfortunately, by 1946 the numbers of new students vastly outnumbered the returners, meaning the very first initiation was almost overthrown by a people’s rebellion. After being collected into the common room, the freshers were informed that an initiation was about to begin. The freshers revolted, desperate to escape whatever horrible punishment lay ahead. They banded together, forming scrums and attempting to break down the doors which the older students had chained shut. After realising the futility of their escape plan, they eventually settled down and accepted their fate. In a long line, the freshers were let out one by one on their hands and knees into a spanking train, where they were whipped with “knotted towels, blunt instruments, and stirrup,” while an enthusiastic band played jaunty tunes. They were then walked to the Leith, where they were ceremoniously baptised in its water. Afterwards, they were told to perform an impromptu talent show for the women of Carrington College. Critic reported it was won by a “hot boy playing saxophone in his underwear”.

This tradition was apparently dropped entirely, as by 1949 the process was entirely different. The young men and women of Arana and Carrington were stripped, painted head to toe with sticky molasses, and covered in black fluff to make them look like sheep. They were then paraded around the university by their ‘shepherds’, before the traditional dip in the Leith. The Carrington girls were spared the swim and made to perform a dance instead.

St Margaret’s was slow to create its own rituals, though in 1958 the Dunedin Evening Star carried a photo of the college’s fresher girls being paraded around wearing rugby jerseys, their hands tied behind their backs, and their faces painted like clowns.

Early initiations at Otago weren’t just about humiliation and physical prowess though, there was of course plenty of alcohol. 1937 saw Selwyn College introduce the Turner Tossing Trophy, which was presented annually to the fresher who could scull two pints the fastest. The trophy is still awarded, though no longer for drinking. However, it was Knox who were truly responsible for turning initiations into drunken affairs. In the 1930s the Knox initiation involved a midnight dip into a dirty duck pond, but by the mid-1940s the ritual required freshers to dig their own shallow graves and lie there while older students poured liquor down their throats, often until they passed out.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that initiations started to get some push back from the moral authorities. In 1959 a 19-year-old Arana student was taken to hospital unconscious after falling off a ladder during an attempt to ‘raid’ Carrington College. It was covered on the front page of the Otago Daily Times four days straight, and resulted in the first ever public call by a University of Otago Vice-Chancellor for more sensible initiations, asking “The more mature among the students to take control to such matters”. Knowing their initiation that year would garner national attention, Selwyn College students sarcastically held up large signs reading, “This initiation is being conducted with the utmost care”.

Despite Selwyn’s attempt to make a joke out of the whole situation, the incident at the Arana initiation caused a media firestorm. It was soon followed up by claims that another initiation-related injury, a concussion from 1952, had been misreported. At the time, it was written that the boy had slipped on some grass. As more information came out, it was revealed that his hands had been tied behind his back and he had received a forceful blow from an older student. This came soon after news of a student in Adelaide drowning during an initiation ritual. Four of the Adelaide student’s initiators were charged with manslaughter.

By June of that year, the Lecturers’ Association had requested that the University Council ban initiations altogether. In 1960 it was announced that any initiation which “brings discredit upon the university” would result in disciplinary action. St Margaret’s and Arana toned down initiations and introduced more individualised activities. Without Arana to partner with, Carrington didn’t bother with initiations at all. At Knox, the University Chancellor set down a hard ban, though they continued in secret and soon popped up again in the following years.

Selwyn was the lone holdout; in fact they apparently made their initiations even more brutal. The 1965 Selwyn College Record reports that the initiation, “took the usual form of egging, blueing, drenching (outside and in) and tar and feathering, except for the introduction of large quantities of compost, which added a distinctive flavour to the proceedings”. Over the course of the 1960s, Selwyn would introduce a mud fight (which still exists to this day), and would often dump large drums of offal on selected freshers.

Through the 1970s and ‘80s initiations at Selwyn and Knox continued to receive plenty of negative media attention. Some, including the Wardens, thought the introduction of girls to the colleges would tone things down, suggesting it would reduce the “barbaric, masochistic drinking culture”. Going co-ed was not a popular idea, in fact after the idea was proposed the Selwyn College Students’ Association wrote a formal letter to the Warden requesting that he “get fucked,” calling women “a malignant tumour, a cancer that threatens to kill Selwyn as we know it … they hold a destructive attitude to the tradition and life”.

Women by all accounts got on board with the traditions quickly. Initiations in the ‘80s were a mix of heavy drinking and psychological torture. Freshers would be frequently subjected to verbal abuse and have their bedroom doors chainsawed down in the middle of the night, some would be told to wear toilet seats around their necks all week. A common scare tactic included a ‘Castration Board’ which random names would be added to over the course of O Week. At the end of the week it would be revealed that it was nothing more than a list of names.

In 1988 a drunken attempt at running the Leith left five students with minor injuries, mostly bruising and strained muscles. That’s when the government stepped in. A report provided to Prime Minister David Lange on the incident led to the Ministry of Education lobbying the Board of Otago Halls to take a series of steps to eliminate the ceremonies, even though a survey of first year students found them overwhelmingly supportive of the traditions. The next year, O Week was a far more subdued affair. The Leith Run remained, as did many other traditions, but they would be done while sober, and the more dangerous and humiliating rituals were scrapped. The university exerted its influence and was willing to crack down not just on the students, but also on the halls that participated in dangerous rituals.

Nowadays initiations are totally banned. While, they still exist in many forms, for halls, sports teams, and clubs, they survive by rebranding as ‘bonding’ or ‘get togethers’, and, while they still often involve healthy levels of alcohol, they’re a far cry from what once was. Any student who forces someone to drink or engage in any dangerous initiation activity can face serious repercussions from the Proctor’s office.

Many an Otago student will bemoan the days gone by, pining for brutality of the 1930s. Halls these days can make one feel coddled sometimes. It can be frustrating to be told what you can and can’t do as a legal adult. But when the ‘good old days’ means being soaked in ox blood and offal, passing out in a hole in the ground, and risking serious injury, that’s probably a good thing. There’re plenty of opportunities to get fucked up and do embarrassing things at uni, but at least you can do those of your own volition.


Remember the only person with the power to veto your lease is your landlord. You don’t have to take part in any dangerous or demeaning behaviour. Don’t learn from the older generations – repeating their idiotic behaviour could hurt someone or get you permanently kicked out of uni.

The Proctor says:

The difference between good fun and a situation that’s not OK is the type of impact it has on everyone involved. If it’s good fun with your mates that does not cause harm or upset to anyone else, damage property, or breach the law and/or Student Code of Conduct then it’s probably fine.

However, any ritual that causes harm to others is not acceptable. I’d urge students to think carefully to make sure everyone’s welfare is considered when they are planning their events. Common sense plays a big role here. Here’s a link to information about the Code to have a read of:

If students would like advice about what they are planning, they are welcome to contact the Proctor's Office.

This article first appeared in Issue 24, 2017.
Posted 12:33pm Sunday 24th September 2017 by Joel MacManus.