History of the Society

On 10 July 1999, Brother Michael Powell of St. George’s College, Weybridge started an internet discussion group (originally, eGroups, which were taken over by Yahoo!) on the subject of academical dress. The group was discovered by the Rev’d Philip Goff, Academic Consultant to Ede & Ravenscroft, whilst engaged in a routine search for new sites on academical dress on the internet. He then contacted other people he knew were interested in the subject, who in turn contacted people they knew, all of whom joined the group.

Philip Goff was very keen that the group should be complemented by a formal society, which would hold meetings, undertake and publish research, arrange visits, and generally foster interest in academical dress. Nick Groves suggested that the name ‘the Burgon Society’, should it ever come into being, might be appropriate, as sometime previously, he had been involved in trying to set up an academical dress society, which was to be called the Burgon Society, after Dean Burgon, the only person to have had a hood shape named after him. There are many precedents in other learned societies for them to be named after a famous person involved in the field – the Linnæan Society, for example. Also, unlike various other ‘niche interests’ – stamps = philately, archery = toxophily, etc – there was no such learned-sounding name for the study of costume, let alone specifically academical costume.

Following a discussion, it was decided to hold a meeting of members of the eGroup, so on Saturday 13th November 1999, seven members met in London at the Wheatsheaf Inn, Rathbone Place. Members brought various items of academic dress, which were inspected, and Philip Goff again raised the subject of forming a society, but no decision was taken, as Brother Michael felt there were not enough members of the group to justify such a move, but a programme of possible visits/activities was discussed. It was also decided that the various numbers of Hoodataought to be scanned for posterity.

Nick Groves then took over the organization of meetings, which he suggested might be six-monthly. A second meeting was held on Saturday 17th June 2000, at the University of London Chaplaincy Rooms in Gordon Square, and was attended by six members. By now there were over 60 members of the eGroup and it was decided, subject to the approval of Brother Michael, who was unable to attend the meeting, that a society should be formed, with an emphasis on the academic study of academical dress.

Brother Michael agreed, so a draft constitution was drawn up by Nick Groves, based on that of the Royal Historical Society, and discussed at a third meeting, attended by seven members, held on 2nd September 2000, again at the University of London Chaplaincy Rooms in Gordon Square.

Saturday 21st October 2000, at a meeting attended by nine members in Room 103 of Senate House, University of London, saw those nine members form themselves into the Burgon Society. This is regarded as ‘Foundation Day’, and the annual Congregation is held on the Saturday closest to it. The constitution was ratified, officers were confirmed, those present became Foundation Fellows, and final plans were put in place to launch the society. To quote from Michael Powell’s e-mail to the eGroup:

“I would stress that the Burgon Society aims to become a recognised and respected learned society with a strong basis in formal research and study. With that in mind I am aware that many egroup members might wish simply to continue belonging to the rather more informal structure of an egroup, and I would hope that our group will continue to provide a lively forum for the exchange of information about academic dress and related subjects.”

Thus the relation between the Society and group was made clear. It is worth noting also that at this time a body called the Central Institute London, came into being – a body which admitted people to various levels of membership, with accompanying robes.

The first officers and members of Council were:

  • Chairman: The Rev’d Philip Goff
  • Registrar: Stephen James
  • Director of Research: Nicholas Groves
  • Treasurer: Ian Johnson
  • Membership Secretary: Matthew Duckett
  • Editor of Annual: Michael Powell
  • Communications Officer: vacant
  • Archivist: Giles Brightwell*
  • Webmaster: Peter Durant*
  • Ordinary members: Bruce Christianson; John Horton; Philip Lowe; Robin Rees.

(*The Archivist and Webmaster are appointed by Council, and not elected by the Fellowship. They are full members of Council, with voting rights, and this remains the case. The post of Membership Secretary was amalgamated with that of Treasurer, and later that of Registrar.)

Once the Society was firmly established, it was possible to approach people well-known in academic dress circles to become Fellows honoris causa. These included the late Dr George Shaw, author of the standard reference work on academic dress; Sqn Ldr Alan Birt, editor of Hoodata; and Prof. Graham Zellick, Vice-Chancellor of the University of London. The late Dr John Birch, Organist emeritus of Chichester Cathedral, agreed to serve as President – a post he held for two five-year terms – and the Rt Rev’d Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, agreed to become Patron.

Through his contacts with the Lambeth Degree Holders’ Association, Philip Goff knew its Secretary, Dr James Thomson, Master of the Charterhouse, and the Society was thus enabled to use the Great Chamber there for its first Congregation in 2001; this is a connexion which has strengthened over the years, with each succeeding Congregation being held there.

The Society was set up with the normative grade of membership being that of Fellow, for which a degree of competence in the subject had to be demonstrated; but there is also a simple subscribing membership for those who do not wish to undertake the work required to gain the Fellowship (in this it resembles the Royal Historical Society, as opposed to, for example, the Royal Society of Arts, in which all members are Fellows).

The original requirements for the Fellowship were set out as follows:

  • EITHER to read a paper of approximately one hour’s length (or an equivalent number of shorter ones – about 3 maximum) at a special meeting of the Society;
  • OR to publish in the Annual or other ‘approved’ publication a paper of approximately 5000 words (or equivalent in shorter papers) on some aspect of the history, practice or design of robes (NB: the simple submission of a scheme of robes designed would not normally be acceptable).
  • The submission is discussed and voted on by the assembled Fellows.
  • Work already published can be submitted; an ‘approved’ publication would normally be a refereed journal.
  • The level of work required is Level 3 – i.e. final year BA standard.

This was fairly quickly altered so that the usual method is the submission of a dissertation of about 5000 words, with publication in the Annual (later, Transactions) following. The first two Fellows by submission were Philip Lowe (‘Origins and Development of Academic Dress at the Victoria University of Manchester’), and Noel Cox (‘Academical Dress in New Zealand’).

It will be noticed that one of the first candidates to submit work lived in New Zealand, and an international membership has been a feature of the Society since its first beginnings, doubtless made easier by the existence of the internet, and of the Yahoo! group from which the Society sprang: it is still a source of new memberships. It has also been a notable feature of the Society that its Council meets physically only two or three times an year, almost all of its everyday business being transacted by e-mail. This enabled the election in 2010 of a Councillor in the USA, Stephen Wolgast, who is able to take a full part in proceedings.

In 2005, George Shaw said he intended to pass onto the Society the copyright of his various works, which happened rather sooner than expected, with his death in 2006. The resulted in the publication in 2011 of a third edition of his standard reference work (Academical Dress of British Universities, 1966; Academical Dress of British and Irish Universities, 1995) as Shaw’s Academical Dress of Great Britain and Ireland, or ‘Shaw III’ as it is already known, thus linking his name with the work in perpetuity, as happened with Crockford, Bradshaw, and Wisden.

The Society has certainly fulfilled its initial aim ‘to become a recognised and respected learned society with a strong basis in formal research and study’. The quality and amount of research is astonishingly high; large amounts of forgotten information bearing on historical development have been brought to light, and several ‘urban myths’ laid to rest!

The Society’s Decennium saw it gain Registered Charity status as an educational charity, a landmark in any society’s history: one which has come remarkably quickly to the Society, and doubtless follows from this output. The frequently-exasperating process of applying for this status was successfully negotiated by the Treasurer, Ian Johnson, who, together with the successive Registrars (including a short stint when he held both posts), keeps the business side of things in order.

It continues to complement this scholarly work with various meetings: an annual Study Day (now Conference) at which papers are presented; visits to museums, archives, and universities – as well as the ever-popular occasional visits to Ede & Ravenscroft’s storage facility! Congregation remains the ceremonial highlight of the year, with admission of new Fellows, and a purely social Garden Party, at which members are encouraged to wear their finest robes.

The Society naturally awards its own academic dress. This is based on the college colours of Worcester College, where Burgon read for his BA (black and pink), and Oriel, where he was a fellow (blue and silver), together with crimson, taken from the MA hood lining. An initial design for the FBS hood (which is, of course, in the Burgon shape) was dark blue, lined with Oxford MA shot crimson, but this was felt to be too easily mistakable for the Oxford MA itself, and was replaced by the one still in use – black, lined and bound with shot pink silk (crimson shot ivory, known as ‘ruby’). The principal officers’ robes are made in dark blue, faced with shot crimson, and trimmed with silver lace. A ‘festal’ hood, of a Durham full shape, in black, lined ruby, and bound on all edges with fur (of the wearer’s choice), was approved in 2009, for those who wish to wear it.