How much do you know about the history of our university? Based on a popular Twitter thread from 2020, this blog post uses records from our very own archives to tell the story of our foundation and early development.
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Ferens and his £250,000
We start with a man (points if you spot the connection to our University motto)…
On 2 February 1925, local philanthropist and entrepreneur Thomas Robinson Ferens held a lunch for a group of Hull’s leading civic figures at his home. During the lunch, he announced his intention of providing a financial gift to establish a university in Hull. He confirmed his intention in a letter written the same day to the Lord Mayor of Hull, Councillor A.D. Willoughby:
Holderness HouseLetter from T.R. Ferens to A.D. Willoughby
Hull, Feb. 2nd 1925.
My dear Lord Mayor,
The need of provision for higher learning in Hull, has greatly impressed me, and I have taken the opportunity of consulting University Professors and other friends, in regard to the matter, and I have decided to set aside for the purpose of forming a nucleus of a University College for Hull the sum of £250,000.
Very shortly I am going from home for a few weeks and on my return I propose calling together a few local friends interested in education to formulate plans.
With kind regards
Thos. R. Ferens
With this gift (and much subsequent hard work by many other individuals), a longstanding civic desire to establish a university in the city became a real possibility. Just three years later, on 11 October 1928, the first staff and students arrived on campus and the University College of Hull was born.
Unfortunately, we don’t know if Ferens’ letter to Willoughby still survives. It was around in the 1970s when T.W. Bamford wrote an institutional history of the university, but the author gives no indication in his book as to how he came by the letter.
Not to worry, we have plenty of surviving material within the university’s own archives to help us tell the rest of the story. One such item is the first minute book of the university, which records the first ever meeting held to set things in motion.
But let’s face it, even though they are incredibly useful, minute books are dry and dull to look at. If you are anything like us, what you really want to see are pictures, lots and lots of pictures. Well, chief among the treasure trove of material that constitutes the university’s archives is an album, stuffed full of fantastic sepia and black and white photographs. This invaluable record dates right back to the first years of the operation of the university in the 1920s and 1930s. So we continue our story…
The campus site and buildings
In addition to providing £250,000, Ferens purchased three fields, comprising 18.756 acres in total. He donated the land to the Hull Corporation, intending that the Corporation would then grant the land to the Organising Board, which had been appointed to establish a University College in Hull. After some negotiations, and a few issues with the Board of Education, the transfer of land took place in October 1927.
But by this time construction work had already begun on the Cottingham Road site. The first pile had driven over a month earlier, during a ceremony held on the 24 August 1927 and led by the wife of Arthur Eustace Morgan, who would be the first Principal of the University College of Hull. Eight months later, the foundation stone was laid during a very prestigious ceremony. Those in attendance included the Archbishop of York, the Duchess of York, T.R. Ferens as the first President, the Duke of York (Prince Albert, later George VI), and Principal Morgan. The Duke of York did the honour of laying the foundation stone.
Only two buildings existed on the campus site when the University College of Hull opened to students on 11 October 1928. The Science Block (now known and the Cohen Building) and the Arts Block (now known as the Venn Building). The two buildings were designed by W.A. Forsyth and Partners in the Neo-Georgian style, and would later be categorized as a group of architectural significance by Historic England and given Grade II listed status.
Halls of residence
However, two further buildings are of importance to the early history of the university. During their initial planning work, members of the Organising Board took the decision that students enrolled at the University College must be resident, unless living at home or unless there were exceptional circumstances. This policy necessitated the provision of halls of residence for students. Northfields (renamed Needler Hall) and Thwaite Hall, both in Cottingham, were purchased for this purpose in early 1928, there being no time or money to construct purpose built halls.
Male students were housed in Needler Hall, whilst Thwaite Hall was used to house female students. A warden was appointed to live at each of the halls of residence, and it was the job of these wardens to oversee the running of the buildings and the welfare of the students living there.
The first departments and courses
In 1927, upon hearing that the University of Leeds wished to cease law training in Hull, the Yorkshire Board of Legal Studies approached the Organising Board to ask if the University College would take over law training in the city. Grants were secured to appoint a lecturer in Law, and James Louis Montrose took up post on the 1 October 1927. A Legal Studies course started on the 20 October 1927, and was taught in the Law Society Hall and in the city’s Guildhall. This represents the University College’s first functioning department and course.
Around the same time, the Workers Educational Association approached the Organising Board and asked for the appointment of a tutor so that Adult Education classes could begin as soon as possible. The Organising Board appointed Professor T.H. Searls who took up post on the 1 January 1928.
The Department of Adult Education was one of the major successes in the early years of the University College. The department operated extra-mural courses in the local area and across the wider Yorkshire region.
On the 6 October 1928, administrative staff, who had been operating out of Maritime Buildings in the centre of the city, became the first members of staff to move to the University College site on Cottingham Road.
They were followed on the 11 October 1928 by sixteen members of academic staff (including the Principal who served as a professor of English), two assistant teaching staff members, and around 39 students.
The group was representative of fourteen academic departments in total, these being Adult Education, Botany, Chemistry, Classics, English, French, Geography, German, History, Law, Mathematics, Philosophy and Psychology, Physics, and Zoology.
The official opening of the university took place a full year after the first students and staff arrived on campus. Present at the ceremony were Principal Morgan, Thomas R. Ferens, H.R.H. Prince George (later the Duke of Kent), and Benno Pearlman in his role as the Lord Mayor of Hull.
And so the University of Hull was born. Next followed a period of slow though steady expansion. The University College welcomed further local students from the city of Hull and the wider region.
Noteworthy guests came to speak to the students…
Sports teams were formed…
And an active dramatic society was established.
University College Hull was off to a galloping start!
If you’ve enjoyed this, we’ll be exploring more of our past in the future – so keep an eye on the blog!