English at York: “anything but traditional”

As the class of ’66 celebrate their 50th anniversary, Dr Judith Woolf remembers the birth of a department

With due respect to Philip Larkin, what really began in 1963 was the University of York – and English, with just fifty students and six full-time members of staff, was one of its first four departments.

The recent death of the last survivor of the six, Sandy Cunningham, ‘poet extraordinaire’ as a former student once aptly dubbed him, has brought back vivid memories of a teaching and learning environment as creative, richly comic and seemingly improvisatory as Sandy himself.

Another former student, Pauline Stephenson, remembers that ‘Sandy’s lectures were always apparently off the cuff and full of vigour and surprises but in fact he worked them over and over before delivering them.

He also never left straight away after the lecture but always waited until the last shy student had privately approached and asked about something that had puzzled them.’

Both the verbal plate-spinning and the friendliness between staff and students were typical of the early years of the Department.

Sandy Cunningham
Sandy Cunningham

Although in 1963 the sugar rush of the swinging sixties had barely begun, the introduction of student grants the previous year, along with a much-needed expansion of higher education, offered new possibilities to a cohort of students whose treat-free postwar childhoods – confectionery was rationed until 1953 – had hardly prepared them to become the luckiest members of the luckiest generation in history.

At York, most of the youthful founding academics had been children during the war, although a few, including the head of English, Philip Brockbank, had been in the forces.

They were understandably eager to shape the future by creating innovatory programmes of study, so despite its Oxbridge trappings – the colleges, the lake, the word ‘Ebor’ instead of York on degree certificates – the new University of York was anything but traditional.

Photo 2__Philip Brockbank
Philip Brockbank

Earlier plans had been rather different: there had even been a scheme to create a ‘University of Britain’ in York, to which ‘students might come from all over the world, but particularly from the Colonies and the English-speaking world, to learn what is the English way of life’.1

Indeed, Heslington Hall and its grounds were originally earmarked for a folk park, with ‘a maypole on the green, morris dancing’ and ‘open-air plays by the lake’, where ‘a Welsh coracle could be moored to show how our Celtic ancestors fished before the Romans came to Britain.’

However by January 1959, when a leader in The Times queried, ‘After Redbrick, Mushroom?’, modernity had won the day; and the architects’ plans for the York campus did indeed include a ‘mushroom’ in the shape of a striking water tower.

The day before the University opened, John West-Taylor (who, as Registrar, would impose an elegantly austere design aesthetic on the campus) was discovered by The Yorkshire Post gleefully sticking red and blue-headed pins into a map of Britain.

‘Blue is for the boys and red for the girls. The map shows that our numbers are almost equally divided between North and South and between the sexes.’

Photo 4_Royal visit 1965
The Royal Visit, 1965

Overseas students were represented by blue and red flags stuck into the North Sea. The paper regarded it as headline news that HALF ENTRANTS ARE GIRLS, and the following day it returned to the subject in an article headed BEAUTY IS YORK’S KEYNOTE, extolling the charms of ‘the beautiful and modishly-dressed girls who seemed to be sat on every other chair in Heslington Hall’.

A certain ‘Miss Haleh Afshar, 19,’ even earned her own ecstatic sub-heading, Hearts melted; ‘”I think it’s marvellous to be a founder-member of the university – we shall be senior all the time,” she whispered bewitchingly.’

(Professor The Baroness Afshar was later to pioneer the teaching  of Women’s Studies at York.)

The University started its life inside the welcoming walls of Heslington Hall, and in October 1965 the Queen arrived to open the first two colleges, Langwith and Derwent.

Much has changed since then: the mushroom has gone and the Siward’s Howe water tower is now concealed behind a screen of trees like Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

There is a handsome second campus at Heslington East, and the old one is fast filling up with large, curvaceous buildings, very different from the old Clasp system.

However, the English Department course, although thoroughly modernized and much expanded, is still based on the syllabus originally devised by Professor Brockbank and his colleagues, combining English with foreign literatures and the history of ideas.

Above all, York students of English are still as bright, as eager and as intellectually curious as that very first cohort back in 1963.

2: Heslington Hall York: Suggested Folk Park (York 1957) pp. 14-5.

Feeling nostalgic? 1980’s alumnus Frazer Sheppard recalls his days as a DJ on the URY airwaves.