“A pre-fab building site with 200 students”

Original alum remembers 1960s York

Two years after the University of York opened its doors, John Dearing arrived. John was an English and Related Literature undergraduate in 1965. This is the first of a two part series in which John shares his memories of the original University of York.

The University of York is born

Sometime in 1963 I read a piece in one of the Sunday papers entitled “Newbridge” about the new universities that were just starting up. I was particularly attracted by York and decided that was where I wanted to go.

I had my interview in December 1963 – a week or two after the assassination of JFK – but to my disappointment was only put on the waiting list.

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So I had an enforced “gap year” (of course, that expression was not yet in vogue), in which after spectacularly failing an Open Scholarship to Cambridge I spent six months teaching in what must have been one of the worst private schools on the planet.

In the meantime York offered me a place on the basis of my good A Levels. This delay was probably all to the good as I was 19 by the time I ‘went up’ and a little bit more mature (as I like to think) than a year earlier.

Some 200 students

There were a bit more than 200 by the time I arrived but it did mean that at least for those in College (and I spent my first year as an inmate of Langwith) almost everybody knew everybody else.

I remember arriving on the campus in October 1965. It still looked like a building site and the representatives of the JCR detailed to show the newcomers where to go seemed to be equally lost.

Heslington Hall in 1963, before building work on the Lake or Derwent had begun..jpg
Heslington Hall in 1963, before building work on the Lake or Derwent had begun

I shared a double room with a chubby student, Pete, from Manchester who was studying Social Sciences. At first we didn’t get on too well (chalk and cheese etc.) but later ‘grew on each other’ and shared a flat in our second year.

Peter arranged our second year flat [actually a room plus shared facilities] at 77 Nunthorpe Road (which inevitably became known as Sunset Strip) in a house owned by an archetypal mean Scotsman called A F Harrison.

There was a lot of talking about CLASP, the prefabricated building system used for the first colleges and then there was the iconic water tower on the then eastern extremes of the campus on the other side of Heslington Lane.

1960's Central Hall
1960’s Central Hall

It was freezing cold and heated by a one-bar electric fire. When you switched it on, the dial on the electric meter started whizzing round at the speed of light.  So Pete decide to import a paraffin heater.

When Harrison found out, he nearly hit the roof.  “It’s not only dangerous but it stinks the whool hoose oot.” So we were given our marching orders and got a better place at 13 Wenlock Terrace.

The Queen officially opens Langwith & Derwent

Langwith and Derwent Colleges are 'officially' opened by the Queen and Prince Phillip
Langwith and Derwent Colleges are ‘officially’ opened by the Queen and Prince Phillip. In the photograph the Queen is flanked by Lord James (right) and Langwith Provost, Philip Brockbank (left).

In 1965 the Queen and Prince Philip came to open Langwith and Derwent ‘officially’. My diary entry for October 22nd states that I saw the Queen and “Phil” – I assume I must have been in Langwith at the time.  I also wrote an extremely bad poem on the occasion which refers to:

The Queen in a turquoise coat

Pulling down cords and acknowledging cheers.

There were just two colleges open when I arrived; Langwith and Derwent, but in 1967 the second pair, Vanbrugh and Alcuin, opened.

I was one of several students who responded to an appeal to transfer to (in my case) Vanbrugh in order to give the new colleges a bit of maturity and solid wisdom (some hope!).

Image source John Dearing
Campus Early 1960s. Photo taken by author. Image source John Dearing

Student life

Very occasionally we would go for a pub crawl in York. I think it was at the end of the Autumn term in 1965 we arrived towards the end of the evening at the Lendal Bridge [now the Maltings].

A group of about ten city blokes decided to go outside and settle an argument with fisticuffs and I stood by the door and tut-tutted until one of my co-crawlers dragged me back in and probably saved me from my being duffed up myself!

Otherwise there were frequent visits to the two village pubs. We tended to prefer the Charles XII as the athletic types used to inhabit the Deramore (originally called the Yarburgh) and talk about rugby all the time.

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John and friend outside Charles XII pub in Heslington Village

The Charles was then a delightful village pub with a distinct public and lounge bar, a separate snug at the rear and an outside toilet block known as the “necessariums”.

I revisited it on my first trip back in 1969 and found it had been gutted and ruined – one of the reasons I didn’t go near the university for the best part of 20 years after graduating!

But it wasn’t all boozing, I went to the theatre in York several times, as well as concerts and so on.

New age

For myself, having gone to an all-male Grammar School I found myself for the first time since primary school enjoying the company of girls.

A typical student room 1963
A typical student room 1965

Things were pretty free and easy and there was not a lot of pressure on students, certainly in the English department to attend lectures – just the seminars and tutorials.

I had two stints on the Langwith JCR Committee, initially as Secretary. This gave me a seat on the SCR and also on the College Committee.

On one occasion the question of student morals came up.  Said Brockbank, who was also provost:

“Well, ladies and gentlemen, as you know we don’t have any college rules at Langwith but it has come to my knowledge that some of the girls are spending too much time in some of the men’s rooms, so I am proposing to introduce some conventions…..” 

Despite this innovation, evidently some degree of hanky-panky still went on!

John signing his book. 'Reading Book of Days'
John today: Signing a copy of his book, Reading Book of Days