What was it like to study at Bristol in the 1960s?

As part of our Humans of UoB series which features past and present members of the University of Bristol community, we interviewed History alumnus Barry Williamson from the class of 1964.

The 1960s brings to mind images of The Beatles, JFK, bus boycotts, miniskirts, hippies and almost- nuclear war. But what was it like to be a university student during this dynamic decade, and how does it compare to the experiences of today’s students?

Related: Looking back at Winston Churchill as UoB Chancellor

Epigram interviewed Barry Williamson, a former Bristol History student who graduated in 1964. After university, he spent time teaching in India and then moved back to Bristol with his wife Sylvia, working as a history teacher until his retirement. Both still live in the city and we spoke to him about his experiences.

The University of Bristol was a different place in the 1960s. Your favourite student newspaper did not exist, an elderly Winston Churchill was Chancellor and the Cold War was raging. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) had an active presence on campus while Barry remembers sitting in Churchill Hall listening to coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), talking to his friends about what they would do in the event of nuclear war. He remembers that the common answer was to ‘all go to bed with our loved ones.’

Image: University of Bristol Library Special Collections

Civil rights were on the agenda and Bristol was no exception. The Bristol Bus Boycott, in which Bristol students took an active role, took place in 1963 after a West Indian man was denied an interview at the Bristol Omnibus Company. Anti-apartheid was another common cause and Barry remembers that students held a demonstration against an appearance from the Springboks.

Making a mockery of our £9000 a year, tuition fees were non-existent in the 1960s and grants for living costs were awarded dependent on a student’s family income. Only 1 in 20 people went to university in the 1960s, compared to almost half now.

According to Barry, the university was a fraction of its current size, with the History department and library in Wills Memorial Building and English in Berkeley Square as the Woodland Road Arts complex or the ASS did not exist. All students in Barry’s year were able to sit in the Great Hall of the Wills Memorial Building, indicating the size of the class of 1964 compared to the thousands that make up the class of 2018.

Private school students dominated the university. While this may not mark much of a change between then and now, Barry remembers feeling intimidated as a student from ‘a small, rural state school’. 2/3 of students were male and as you had to be ‘properly dressed’ at university, nearly everyone wore jackets and ties. Jeans were a ‘sensation’ and only one student in the whole cohort wore them. Barry remembers the whole experience as ‘terribly conservative.’

Image: University of Bristol Library Special Collections

The Students’ Union was located in the Victoria Rooms and Barry remembers that he ‘belonged to too many societies’, perhaps one thing that hasn’t changed for students since the sixties. This included the Opera Society and the Settlement, a legacy from the University’s early days.

The Settlement was located in Barton Hill and was part of a wider network of Settlements across the UK designed to bring cultural and educational opportunities to disadvantaged areas. University students could volunteer and Barry ran a youth club and old people’s club, while Sylvia ran a drama club.

University accommodation was also vastly different. Barry spoke of how the university was there in loco parentis, or ‘in place of parents’. Legally, those under the age of 21 were not considered adults and subsequently, the majority of students were unable to vote in the General Election of 1964 which saw Labour’s Harold Wilson win the majority.

As the university had much more responsibility for its students than it does now, there were strict rules in the halls of residence. Sylvia spoke of her time in Clifton Hill House which she describes as ‘strict’ and ‘boarding school like’, with a ‘Victorian lady’ as warden and a porter who would check the opposite sex had not been snuck in. All residents had to obey a 10.30pm curfew.

Image: University of Bristol Library Special Collections

Barry lived in Churchill Hall for all three years of his degree and would walk or cycle to the Triangle due to the lack of U1 bus. Stoke Bishop consisted only of Wills Hall and Churchill Hall, with talks of building Hiatt Baker in the pipeline. Students didn’t go home at all during term time and trunks were sent from home to Temple Meads, which were then forwarded on to the right residence.

There were strict rules surrounding sex. Sylvia told us about the time she was starring in a production of Mother Courage which was abandoned as the director was found in bed with a girl. It was reported by his landlady and he was subsequently kicked out of university.

Getting drunk was ‘unheard of’, while Freshers’ week consisted of talks, coffee bars and day trips instead of club nights. The new students were taken of a tour of Wills Tobacco factory in Bedminster and Fry’s Chocolate factory in Keynsham. All were given a ‘welcome packet’ of different cigarettes and a box of chocolates. Barry met Sylvia in their first week, meaning they have been together for more than 50 years. They spoke fondly of the Goldney Ball where curfew was extended, calling it ‘very romantic'.

Image: University of Bristol Library Special Collections

Lastly, the history degree was vastly different. There were 40 students and 15 academics, compared to now when more than 200 students a year and 40 academics make up the department. Barry describes his academic education as ‘boring beyond belief’ due to a curriculum dominated by political and traditional history, or the ‘history of great men, battles, causes and consequences’. The syllabus consisted mainly of British and European history from the Romans to 1939 with an exclusive focus on secondary literature rather than original sources.

The academics, all male, gave lectures which ‘were an insomniac’s dream because you almost had to fall asleep.’ Barry remembers one lecturer who would ‘read from an old exercise book slowly and paused interminably as he turned over the page.’ Students were expected to memorise the lectures and Barry added that the ‘idea you might be making students into historians was an absolutely crackers idea.’ He remembers very little contact with tutors and describes most as lacklustre, with a few notable exceptions. Exams were all taken at the end of the final year- 10 exams in two weeks. Barry remarked: ‘the Great Hall is a place of misery for me.’

Image: University of Bristol Library Special Collections

As a History student, it was fascinating interviewing Barry and comparing our university experiences, establishing how my favourite period in history, the 1960s, was lived by 'everyday' people. While we might have had wildly different experiences in terms of university culture, social life and academia (how essays and revision were completed without the internet is beyond me), it is clear we both have had experiences in Bristol we will remember for the rest of our lives.

Featured image: University of Bristol Library Special Collections

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