Academic Circuses and Pedagogic Funfairs
[A lost internet connection at TiL headquarters has made posting difficult of late. Apologies. I am working to clear the backlog.]
It is considered to be mere coincidence that the West End has three major intersections named after the three greatest English Universities: Oxford Circus, Cambridge Circus and Leicester Square. In fact, it is far from coincidental.
In the 17th century, when the area now known as the West End was fields, but was fast disappearing under a network of Aberdeen Angus steakhouses and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. Having suffered considerably during the English Civil War, the Great Universities found themselves in straitened circumstances, and had to search more widely for undergraduates and patrons. So, they set up camp in strategic fields near the growing centre of London and built circuses there.
These circuses featured not only preforming fellows of the universities - Professor Sidney Woolden, a theologian from Caius College, Cambridge, was particularly famous for his death-defying thesis-eating spectacle - but also entertaining sideshows such as "Guess the Weight of This Gloss of the Book of Philemon", "Drink a Yard of Port" and "Hammer the Swan" (often played in that order).
All this was intended to lure visitors who could then be given the "hard sell" on signing up to the universities. It is believed that Adam Smith was only lured to Balliol, Oxford, after being given a flyer at the Oxford Circus and believing he was going to a golf sale.
Now, sadly, all that remains of these noble spectacles is the spaces they once occupied.