Skip to the main content
Celebrate culture at UCL at the International Festival Join in

With the recent refurbishment of the Union’s Phineas Third Floor Bar, the Phineas statue has been removed from the bar over the past few months to keep it safe during the building works.

The reopening of the bar has led the Union’s sabbatical officers to find out more about the history of Phineas and review whether the current name of the bar should be retained or updated, and if, where and how the statue should be displayed in future.

The bar has been called Phineas since 1993 when it was named after the Union’s mascot Phineas Maclino.

Phineas has been the Students' Union at UCL’s mascot since March, 1900, when as part of a celebration to mark the relief of the siege of Ladysmith during the Boer War, students stole Phineas - a wooden Phineas highlander statue - from outside Catesby’s a local department store on Tottenham Court Road. This was the first of many occasions when the Phineas statue was stolen by UCL students. Its presence became more frequent as generations of students adopted Phineas as their mascot. Eventually the statue moved permanently to the Union after Catesby’s ordered a replica and donated Phineas to the Union.

From 1922 Phineas became the focus of friendly rivalry with students at King’s with regular attempts by students at each university to steal each other’s mascots, including the infamous 1927 battle of Gower Street when students from both colleges hurled flour and rotten vegetables at each other.  Phineas became an important part of student life and in the 1930s was held in such esteem that a ritual became established where all students were expected to raise their hats to the statue.

Although through the years Phineas has represented many things for different students, the original moment when the status was first stolen and adopted as the Union’s mascot was a celebration of a major event in the Boer War. 

This was the culmination of many years of attempts by Britain to increase and maintain its colonial control of South Africa. This struggle intensified in the latter Victorian era following the discovery of gold and diamonds in the country. The conflict was fought between the British and the Boers who were Dutch settlers. It divided opinion in the UK and around the world.  

Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed in the war, with many others caught up in the violence.

A key moment in the war was the siege of Ladysmith, a town in the Natel province of South Africa, named after the wife of the Governor of Cape Colony, Sir Harry Smith.  This occurred after 15,000 British troops were sent to Natal, amid growing tensions, to defend the colony in case of attack.  However, the Boer leadership believed that the presence of the soliders was a signal that Britain was trying to take control of the Boer republics and attacked them on 12 October 1899.  This resulted in the Battle of Ladysmith a major defeat for the British, with the troops driven back into the town.  Ladysmith was then besieged for 118 days.  The conditions were extremely harsh as food supplies ran out and the Boers captured the only clean water source. 

After several battles between the sides, the British eventually broke the siege on 27 and 28 February.  When the news broke in London on 1 March 1900 there were major celebrations.  It was proclaimed by the Lord Mayor from the Mansion House to a large crowd. It was Britain’s first major military victory since Waterloo, nearly a century earlier.  As the news reached UCL, students abandoned their studies for the day to join the spontaneous celebrations, filling the Quad and marching around the hospital.  A student called Jaspar Blaxland and his friends stole the Phineas status from Catesby’s and brought it back to the Quad where it was displayed on the portico, soon to be joined by a member of the army who the students had found and paraded on their shoulders back to UCL.

After the siege of Ladysmith was lifted, the British used overwhelming force with 400,000 troops to take control of the Boer republics.  The Boers fought back with guerrilla warfare, leading to the British deliberately destroy civilian farms and livestock as part of a scorched earth policy, with thousands of refugees held in racially segregated concentration camps where they were held in very poor conditions. Large proportions of those held in the camps died of hunger and disease.

The war ended in May 1902 when the Boer leadership surrendered.

The situation in the camps were documented by the British campaigner and pacifist Emily Hobhouse.  She brought the conditions to the British public’s attention and campaigned for change to improve the lives of those held there.  After visiting the camps she wrote: “I call this camp system a wholesale cruelty… To keep these Camps going is murder to the children.”

When Hobhouse returned to England she received much criticism and hostility from the British government and the media, but eventually succeeded in obtaining more funding to help the victims of the war.  Over time attitudes to the conflict began to change and more and more people became aware of and angry about the suffering caused.

The results of the war eventually paved the way to the creation of the Union of South Africa as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire in 1910. The new Union continued and extended racially prejudicial policies started in the colonial era, denying land rights to the indigenous majority population. This was ultimately later succeeded by the formation of the Republic of South Africa in 1961 with its apartheid policies towards the majority black population.

Students’ Union UCL was an active participant in the fight against apartheid. In 1965 it was the second organisation anywhere in the world to officially recognise Nelson Mandela when our students voted him as our Honorary President, a name still connected to the Union via the Mandela Hall (fitness studio) in the Bloomsbury Building.  The Union also successfully fundraised, working with UCL to support the living costs for young black South Africans to study at the college.

Whilst throughout the past 119 years many generations of UCL students have not been aware of the connection between the original adoption of Phineas as the Union’s mascot and the Boer War, it is clear events of the conflict would not be moments that the Union and its officers would wish to celebrate today, as it led to appalling abuses of human rights and suffering and the deaths for thousands of civilians.

As the students union with one of the largest and most diverse membership of students anywhere in the world, the sabbatical officers believe that for the 21st century the Union should consult with its members on potentially renaming the bar and adopting a new mascot that better represents the values we hold today. This could help to ensure that the Union and its facilities will always be seen as welcoming and inclusive to all students and in no way connected with or could be seen to tacitly endorse events which run counter to our values.

The officers would like to open a consultation with our members until 15 November, prior to a discussion at Union Executive on 2 December.  The consultation will cover:

  • What do you think about the Phineas statue and its role as our mascot – and what do you feel it represents?
  • What values do you think we should celebrate in the name of our main bar and the Union’s mascot?
  • Is Phineas still an appropriate name for the bar and mascot for the Union for the future?
  • Do you have alternative names for the bar or ideas for a mascot that we should consider that celebrate alternative aspects of our Union’s history or values?

We are sure that there will be many strongly held views about this issue. No decisions have yet been taken and we would like to invite anyone who feels strongly about it to send us their thoughts. We would also be happy to meet any student to discuss this further and will respect all perspectives raised.


The consultation period is now closed