A Foreign Country

1960’s alumnus Ian Stuart returns to York to find a different world to the university he remembers

The past is a foreign country and they really do things differently there. I came to realise that a few years ago when I took part in the university’s 50th-anniversary celebrations. It wasn’t just that we all looked very much older, it was the evidence of massive change all around us.

A university that started with 216 undergraduates now has 4100 students on its books. There were no colleges in 1963; there are now ten. A university that has a worldwide reputation started off in Heslington Hall (with refurbished stables.)

The year 1963 was more of a continuation of the 1950’s than the start of the swinging ‘60s. It was an era of steam trains, black and white TV, and Dixon of Dock Green. Even the currency was different; pounds, shillings, pence, florins, guineas, half-crowns, tanners, threepenny bits, and who knows now how many farthings there were in a pound? (960 actually.)

The University of York’s 50th Anniversary Website

It was a time of formality and strait-lacedness which would be cracked open in the following years. We dressed to imitate our parents not to annoy them. The men wore sports coats and cavalry twills, the women pencil skirts and twinsets. There was a distinct air of “Brideshead Revisited” in the early months.  

If, as Philip Larkin said, ‘Sex began in 1963 between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP’, then it was very cautious sex in a pre-Pill world  There was plenty of lust but little fulfilment- any girl who got pregnant disappeared without trace – no doubt put on the next train out of town and sent home.

Being a single mother incurred a massive stigma. It was a time of enormous and unthinking prejudice. Most women were expected to marry and were underpaid if they insisted on staying at work. Indeed, the generation of women who started university in the early sixties was the generation who would knock down these barriers once and for all.

As for gay rights… most of us didn’t really know what homosexuality was, and the prejudice of the time meant we would probably have mocked it. I can recall no racial prejudice, perhaps because there were a large number of overseas students and we were all as bewildered as each other.  

Perhaps the greatest social change in the last fifty years has been the explosion of mass communication. No-one could imagine the instant connectivity we now enjoy. Landline phones were far from universal in 1963. If you needed to contact someone and didn’t have a landline, you’d ask to borrow a neighbor’s or use a phone box. And yes, police boxes were an actual thing. And no, I never found The Doctor in any of them. Although I did look…

If all else failed, you wrote a letter. There were two postal deliveries a day and it cost fourpence for the stamp. People kept letters, especially if they were love letters. Does anyone keep love emails today? Or Tweets?  

The first University of York Chancellor, Lord James

York has always looked for more than academic competence in its students, and the first cohort was selected to be pioneers as well as able academics. Before the university even opened, York was slated to be the “Oxbridge of the North.” Students – and lecturers – turned down prestigious Oxbridge offers to come north and be in at the start.

I’m sure that I was offered a place, not on my respectable but mundane A levels, but on my theatrical experience. A friend of mind wanting to read Maths, had a rather lukewarm interview until he mentioned that he played the cello. He was immediately offered a place, not only at the university but in the string quartet which was in the process of formation.

The advantages of having 216 students and 28 academic staff are obvious. You could have as much contact time with your tutor as you wanted. The teaching style was based on tutorials and seminars, rather than formal lectures.

Lord Harewood, Chancellor from 1963 to 1967

Because we were such a small community and rather isolated from the city, the academic staff played an important role in student societies. The first president of the Drama Society was Bernard Harris, a member of staff, and Tony Gibbs, and John Dixon Hunt both played in  Richard II one of the early productions. There was a real sense of joint enterprise. We knew we were laying foundations.  

There is one huge difference between now and then. No tuition fees. I was financially supported by Leeds City Council (I lived there then) for three years. Hard to imagine today. I shall always be grateful for the enormous freedom I enjoyed and I hope that I have repaid some of that gift since.

Yes, the past really is a foreign country, and it was wonderful to go back there as a tourist for the anniversary celebrations. And I can always visit again if I want to. After all, I have dual nationality.