York: The New World

David Corkill recalls life in the University’s “pioneer” class of ’67

It always rather surprised me that an ancient city such as York did not have a university until 1963.

David Corkill
David Corkill

In fact, York was just one of a clutch of universities that sprang up in the 1960s to meet the growing demand for higher education from the baby boomers.

As it was very much a work in progress during 1963-65 there were no halls of residence until my second year and even then places in college were few and far between. All students in my year were in lodgings for their first year, and many continued in lodgings or shared private accommodation for much longer.

In those days no pupil or student moving away from home left without a trunk. A few weeks later I brought my bike to York to join the mass ranks of cyclists on the city’s streets. I arrived in the city on 7th October and recall standing in line in Heslington Hall to register.

The queue was quite long so I struck up a conversation with two lads in front of me. They became long-term friends and I introduced one of them to my landlady’s daughter. Lo and behold, a couple of years later they married.

Alcuin college in the 60s

Adapting to a new routine proved challenging because it was, as I commented, ‘rather a strange way of life’.

Things got off to a bad start when I went down with a stomach bug, presumably attributable to the new environment, nerves and the absence of restrictions on my alcohol consumption.

Confined to bed for a few days I missed some of the Freshers Week activities and fretted that I might be missing something important.

My first history lecture was at 8.45am (an ungodly hour for students). I recall that it was delivered by Peter Rycraft in surely-the-best-place-to-study-history: Kings Manor in Exhibition Square.

It may only have been the first week of classes but on Thursday a general election took place and I helped the Labour candidate, Alex Lyon, to get the vote out. Labour won nationally but narrowly failed to win York.

When Harold Wilson called an early general election in Spring 1966 Alex Lyon got his chance and I once again canvassed for him, successfully this time. He remained MP for York until 1983 and married Clare Short.

As one of the so-called ‘plate glass’ universities, York began life full of new ideas and innovations.  At first, there was no Senior-Junior Common Room divide and staff joined students for meals and coffee breaks. This did not last long and within a few years staff had an SCR to use as a bolt-hole.

At the same time, York revelled in its nickname of ‘the Oxford of the North’ because of its collegiate system and, unfortunately from my point of view, Saturday morning tutorials. And I thought that Oxbridge only used the sixth day of the week because their terms were so very short!

To be fair, most staff did try hard to bridge the gap between themselves and the students and some even joined us for an end-of-term pub crawl. Professor Gerald Aylmer put on a wine and cheese parties at his lovely house on Marygate as did Professor Gwyn Williams who revealed himself to be partial to Spanish wine.

It was during our conversation that night that he christened me ‘El Corkill’. As a student on Harry Wilson’s West African Nationalism course I was invited round to his home for tea where I fell in love with his American wife’s home-baked Mississippi mud.

In the 1960s the university scarf was worn as a badge of identity. It marked you out as one of the ten per cent who were bright enough to go into higher education. The colours were all-important but the problem was to find colours that looked distinctive.

The story-probably apocryphal: that the Students Union Committee were at in Heslington Hall pondering the issue when, in desperation, someone suggested the colour of the curtains. Hence the orange and brown concoction that hung round my neck for three years!

The History Department was innovative with regard to exams and made an effort to add some variety to the traditional assessment diet. The three-hour exam still had its place but we were also given ‘open book’ exams when we picked up the questions from the departmental office at 9.30 am and handed our answers in forty-eight hours later.

There were no first year exams in the summer but the equivalent stage took place in March the following year at mid-point in the degree course. Inevitably, there were casualties.  I remember the case of a Geordie friend of mine whom I got on particularly well with because we were both interested in horse racing.

He adopted the Andy Capp-style of wandering around reading racing cards in his newspaper and nipping into the bookies for a bet. At times he did look a bit like a fish-out-of-water in what was a middle-class, southerner-dominated history cohort and he came a cropper.

Fortunately, his post-York story saw him become a schoolteacher in his beloved North-East. I recall writing an essay on Danton for the French Revolution course run by Gwyn Williams, a diminutive Welshman with a big intellect and a strong stammer who eventually made it to the TV screen in his own series on Welsh history.

In the second year we were encouraged to take a language and I naturally jumped at the chance to take Spanish. It turned out to be an excellent choice as my tutor was Nissa Torrents (known to me as Mrs Donnelly) who later lectured in Latin American Literature and Cinema at University College, London and is credited with launching the study of Latin American and Iberian cinema in the UK (Obit. Died 1992).

A fervent anti-Francoist who spoke seven languages, Nissa was a lively personality and inspired teacher who mixed with the likes of Vargas Llosa, Garcia Marquez and other leading Latin American writers. She can be credited with fanning the flames of my interest in Spain and South America.

Rievaulx Abbey (Image credit: Wehha, Wikipedia)
Rievaulx Abbey (Image credit: Wehha, Wikipedia)

In between lectures we took refuge in the Kings Manor JCR, a stately room once used by the Council of The North. There we hatched the idea of forming a Ramblers’ Club to take advantage of the wonderful walking country on our doorstep in North Yorkshire.

To my amazement we quickly recruited over fifty members and I was elected to the Committee of what became known as the Outdoor Society. Trips included Rievaulx Abbey, Helmsley, Richmond and Fountains Abbey.

As the university’s sports facilities were virtually non-existent at this juncture, I played badminton at the Railway Institute and, in the summer, tennis in Rowntree Park against fellow history students Bob Morley, Judy Richardson, Alan Berry and Bill Shiels.

My rivalry against Bill was renewed in 2014, on the university’s all-weather courts, some forty-seven years after we last locked horns! Naturally, I took advantage of term-time race days to visit the Knavesmire and watch the high-quality horse racing on offer.

corkill pic 2
Left to right: Peter Wallerstein, Glenn Sutton, Tom Holden and David Corkill (1963)

As for my ‘work-life balance’ I used to aim to focus on researching and writing essays or seminar papers from Sunday to Thursday and begin my weekend on Thursday evening.

Even in those days, York had plenty to offer, including the Rowntree Theatre for my first introduction to Berthold Brecht in his ‘Life of Galileo’ and ‘Mother Courage’, regular visits to Peter Maddens café on High Petergate to take advantage of the student discount, the Enterprise and 55 Clubs and, of course, York’s renowned pubs.

The city is reputed to have the most pubs per square mile of any city in the country and we drank in a good number of them, including most frequently the Lendal Inn, Royal Oak, Punch Bowl, Ye Olde Starre Inn and the Charles XII near the university campus in Heslington.

The tiny cellar that was the Enterprise Club on Walmgate (later transferred to Nunnery Lane) became York’s answer to the Cavern in Liverpool and showcased local bands.

The ‘Ouse Beat’ never quite managed to reach the heights of the ‘Mersey Beat’ but Neal Guppy, the indefatigable owner of the Enterprise Club became an Honorary Freeman of the City of York in 2010 for his longstanding commitment to the cause of music and dance.

On sunny days we relaxed and sunbathed in the Museum Gardens at the back of Kings Manor and, when raining, frequented the Coffee Shop. For a special evening out we favoured Bernie’s Inn Steak house (indicating what a gastronomic backwater we inhabited) no doubt washed down with Mateus Rose or Blue Nun! But for a real treat I recall a visit to Youngs, reputedly the birthplace of Guy Fawkes.

The university ensured a regular diet of course-related and mind-broadening lectures. In January 1965, I attended a talk by Enoch Powell who, I noted, was a ‘good speaker but extreme views’.

A month later, Edward Heath, soon to become leader of the Tory Party, spoke at Heslington and visits from Edward Boyle, later Minister for Education and Reginald Maudling, a future Home Secretary followed.

I attended a talk at the Friends Meeting House by Vince Cable. It is noticeable how much hair the former Business Secretary could boast in his younger days!

vince cable news cutting
Vince Cable argues against the motion  (1963)

Before it moved to the Heslington campus, the History department was based in Kings Manor in the centre of York. Originally built as the Abbott’s House of St Mary’s Monastery and later the Headquarters of the Council of the North, the Manor received visits from Henry VIII, accompanied by wife No. 5, Catherine Howard, James VI of Scotland, on his way south to assume the English throne, and Charles 1 in 1642.

The university took over the building in 1962 and converted the Cellars, originally built to store the food and drink for Henry VIII’s visit according to some sources, into a social space. Keen to liven up the social scene for a still small number of undergraduates, I volunteered for the Cellars Committee and was tasked with publicity and promotion as well as organising their membership cards.

T-Bone Walker (Image credit: Heinrich Klaffs)
T-Bone Walker (Image credit: Heinrich Klaffs)

The venue opened on Friday 2nd February 1965 with music provided by a modern jazz group followed the next evening by a Valentine’s dance. The vaulted roof echoed to the sounds of famous acts including T Bone Walker, Chris Barber and during the 1967 June Ball, Georgie Fame.

Often the best nights were Motown and soul sessions with local bands like Dawn and the DJs who played regular bookings. On one occasion The Luvvers (Lulu’s backing group) they failed to turn up, so Dawn and the DJs did three hour set!

By the summer 1966 the Cellars stood on the brink of extinction. I joined the Committee with the remit of averting its demise and saved the day (temporarily) when we won a SRC vote that guaranteed the £300 debt.

The bar at Kings Manor, staffed by barmen from the nearby RAF base also holds memories for students in the mid-1960s and was often the venue where our evenings began or ended (or both).

One memory is of a beer and vodka-fueled sing-along (vodka became something of a student drink-of-choice at this time) when some post-match Nottingham university students were drinking there and I climbed up on a table to lead the singing of Ilkley Moor bar t’at – although for the life of me I don’t know how I suddenly knew the words to the song; a Lancastrian turned Yorkshireman for the evening!