Monday, 11 October 2021

University of Hull - The Early Years

To mark the University of Hull's birthday, this blog post explores the early history of our City's university, so here goes...

Portrait of T.R. Ferens [U PHO]

On 2 February 1925, local philanthropist and entrepreneur Thomas Robinson Ferens held a lunch for a group of Hull’s leading civic figures at his home, Holderness House. During the lunch, he announced his intention of providing a financial gift to establish a university in Hull. He confirmed his intention in a letter written the same day to the Lord Mayor of Hull, Councillor A.D. Willoughby, the text of this letter read: 

My dear Lord Mayor, The need of provision for high learning in Hull, has greatly impressed me, and I have taken the opportunity of consulting University Professors and other friends, in regard to the matter, and I have decided to set aside for the purpose of forming a nucleus of a University College for Hull the sum of £250,000. Very shortly I am going from home for a few weeks and on my return I propose calling together a few local friends interested in education to formulate plans. With kind regards, I am sincerely yours, Thomas R. Ferens. 

With this gift (and with the subsequent hard work of a lot of people), a longstanding civic desire to establish a university in the city became a real possibility. Just three years later, on 11 October 1928, the first staff and students arrived at the Cottingham Road campus and the University College of Hull (later renamed as the University Of Hull) was born. Unfortunately, we don’t know if Ferens’ letter to Willoughby survives. It was still in existence in the 1970s when T.W. Bamford wrote an institutional history of the university, but the author gives no indication in his book as to how he came by the letter or where it was kept.

Minutes of first meeting of the University of Hull [U REG]

Fortunately, plenty of other records have survived and are now preserved at Hull History Centre. Since the earliest years of its existence, the University of Hull has created and kept records that document its own history and development. The minutes above represent the first ever meeting of the organizing board, which oversaw the foundation and construction of the university. The minutes are taken from a volume of proceedings, and are the earliest known official record created by the university. Aside from a complete series of minutes, the university’s records include congregation programmes documenting degree ceremonies and former graduates, syllabuses and course descriptions, personnel files for key former members of staff, and back issues of student magazines and newspapers.

First photograph album of the University [U PHO]

But one of our personal favourites is a large photograph album, which is stuffed full of fantastic early prints from the 1920s and 1930s. So we thought we would use it to take a brief look at the first years of the university…

Cottingham Road campus site, prior to building work beginning

In addition to providing £250,000, Ferens purchased three fields, comprising 18.756 acres in total. He donated the land to the Hull Corporation, intending that the Corporation would then grant the land to the Organising Board, which had been appointed to establish a University College in Hull. This photograph shows the Cottingham Road campus site, including the fields donated by Ferens, around 1927, before any building work started. After some negotiations, and a few issues with the Board of Education, the transfer of land took place in October 1927. But by this time construction work had already begun on the site.

Foundation stone laying ceremony, 24 August 1927

The first pile had been driven over a month earlier, during a ceremony held on the 24 August 1927 and led by the wife of Arthur Eustace Morgan, who would be the first Principal of the University College of Hull. Eight months later on the 28 April 1928, the foundation stone was officially laid during a very prestigious ceremony led by the Archbishop of York and attended by the Duke and Duchess of York. The photograph above shows, in seat order, the Archbishop of York, the Duchess of York, President Ferens, Prince Albert the Duke of York (later King George VI), and Principal Morgan.

Duke of York laying the foundation stone

And here we can see the Duke of York laying the official foundation stone during that very same ceremony.

Science Block under construction, 1929

Only two buildings existed on the campus site when the University College of Hull opened to students on the 11 October 1928. The first of these buildings was the Science Block (now known as the Cohen Building), which you can see here under construction in 1928…

Arts Block under construction, 1928

The second building was the Arts Block (now known as the Venn Building), which you can see here shortly after completion in 1928. The two buildings were designed by W.A. Forsyth and Partners in the Neo-Georgian style, and would later be categorized as a group of architectural significance by Historic England. They are both now Grade II listed buildings.

Needler Hall, 1929

Two further buildings are of importance to the early history of the university. During the initial planning work, members of the Organising Board took the decision that students enrolled at the University College must be resident, unless living at home or unless there were exceptional circumstances. This policy necessitated the provision of halls of residence for students. Two buildings were purchased in Cottingham during the early part of 1928, this was because there was no time or money left to construct purpose built halls before the university was scheduled to open. One of the buildings was known as Northfields, and was renamed Needler Hall. It can be seen here in this photograph as is looked around 1929 when the university’s first students were resident there.

Thwaite Hall, 1929

The other building purchased for use as a halls of residence was Thwaite Hall in Cottingham, seen here around the same time. Male students were housed in Needler Hall, whilst Thwaite Hall was used to house female students.

Needler Hall dining room, 1929

A warden was appointed to live at each of the halls of residence, and it was the job of these wardens to oversee the running of the buildings and the welfare of the students living there. Meals were served in common dining rooms and dinners were formal affairs, with students being required to wear academic gowns.

Thwaite Hall common room, 1929

Common room space was also provided in each halls of residence, so that students could mix and relax together in their leisure time. However, this was still a segregated affair, with female students’ having their own common room at Thwaite Hall.

Guildhall, Lowgate, Hull, 1920s [U DX336/34/4]

But what about the early academic departments? In 1927, upon hearing that the University of Leeds wished to cease law training in Hull, the Yorkshire Board of Legal Studies approached the Organising Board to ask if the University College would take over law training in the city. Grants were secured to appoint a lecturer in Law, and James Louis Montrose took up post on the 1 October 1927. A Legal Studies course started on the 20 October 1927, and was taught in the Law Society Hall and in the Guildhall. This represents the University College’s first functioning department and course.

Workers Association Rally on campus, Jun 1928

Around the same time, the Workers Educational Association approached the Organising Board and asked for the appointment of a tutor so that Adult Education classes could begin as soon as possible. The Organising Board appointed Professor T.H. Searls who took up post on the 1 January 1928.

Extra-mural students' visit to campus, 1929

The Department of Adult Education was one of the major successes in the early years of the University College. The department operated extra-mural courses in the local area and across the wider Yorkshire region. These were courses run by the University College but teaching was carried out off campus. 

First staff and students of the University, 1928

Activities in the Law and Adult Education departments had begun before staff and students were able to take up residence on campus. On the 6 October 1928, administrative staff, who had been operating out of Maritime Buildings in the centre of the city, became the first members of staff to move to the University College site on Cottingham Road. They were followed on the 11 October 1928 by sixteen members of academic staff (including the Principal who also served as a professor of English), 2 assistant teaching staff members, and around 39 students.

Student working in the Zoology lab, 1929

These early academic staff and students represented fourteen academic departments in total; these being Adult Education, Botany, Chemistry, Classics, English, French, Geography, German, History, Law, Mathematics, Philosophy and Psychology, Physics, and Zoology.

Students and technicians working in the Advanced Physics lab, 1929
Students working in the Fisheries lab, 1929

Science subjects were particularly popular.

Geography room with map consultation table, 1929

Teaching spaces were small compared to modern standards, but then the student population was very small at the time, around just 39 students in the beginning.

Typical lecture theatre, 1929

And this photograph shows us what a typical lecture theatre would have looked like in the early days, complete with slide projector to aid the tutor when delivering lectures.

Official opening of the University College of Hull, 10 Oct 1929

With the teaching spaces now in use, the official opening of the university took place on the 10th October 1929, a full year after the first students and staff arrived on campus. Present at the ceremony were Principal Morgan, Thomas Ferens, H.R.H. Prince George (later the Duke of Kent), and Benno Pearlman in his role as the Lord Mayor of Hull.

Staff and students on campus, Jun 1935

Next followed a period of slow though steady expansion. The University College welcomed further local students from the city of Hull and the wider region.

Students with Foreign Secretary, Arthur Hendserson, 1933

The university attracted noteworthy guests to come to speak to the students, such as the Foreign Secretary Arthur Henderson in 1933.

First football team, 1929

Extra-curricular activities started to take place and sports teams were formed.

Early members of the Dramatic Society, 1930

And it wasn’t just sports that began to flourish. A dramatic society was established, with members putting on plays for the entertainment of themselves, and the other students and staff. This society was particularly active in the early years and started a long tradition of drama and theatre at the university.

First generation of University of Hull Students, 1933

And so the University of Hull was established with a first generation of students who graduated in 1933. This was just a brief introduction but there’s much more to the history of our city’s university. If you want to find out more for yourself, why not arrange a visit to the History Centre to see what you can discover?

Claire Weatherall, Archivist

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