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Hull University Archives University history

Fire! Air Raid Precautions at the University in the Second World War

Every now and again we uncover a small collection of records at Hull University Archives that really bring life to years gone by. One such discovery was made in 2019 whilst staff were preparing an exhibition and source guide on Second World War records. Amongst the early records created by the University of Hull, we found a series of Second World War firewatchers’ report books with associated papers.

Firewatchers report books [UA PARCEL 26]

These records give us a fascinating glimpse into some of the air raid precautions that were taken by the University.

A fire-watching scheme

The University initiated a scheme for fire-watching in February 1941. The need for such a scheme was driven by heavy bombing raids on the city. These bombing raids often caused fires to spread in areas where bombs fell.

Description of a bombing raid observed by the firewatchers on duty at the Science Building (Cohen), May 1941

Willing volunteers

75 staff and students signed up for the scheme in the initial months, indicating a clear enthusiasm at the University to support Civil Defence efforts. This, however, was not enough to ensure that each volunteer only worked the maximum 48 hours per month suggested by the government’s Fire Prevention (Business Premises) Order 1941. The average number of hours worked by fire-watchers at the University was 63 per month. By 1942 staff and student numbers were depleted as a result of enlistment. It was only possible to continue the fire-watching scheme because many men carried out both fire-watching and other civil defence duties. Female students stepped into the gap, undertaking fire-watching duties at the Needler Hall accommodation building.

Entry recording shortage of firewatchers at the Science Building (Cohen) and a need to use female students from Needler Hall to fill the gaps

Equipment

The University provided equipment for the use of firewatchers on duty, along with instructions for what to do:

‘If a fire bomb has lodged above ground, use the rake to pull it down to the floor, then apply sand’; and ‘Dustbin lids are to be used as shields when dealing with incendiary bombs’.

Excerpt from instructions given to firewatchers by the University
Air raid precaution equipment given to firewatchers by the University

Fire-watching posts

Staff established fire-watching posts on top of the Science and Arts Buildings. Fire-watching duties included raising the alarm if a fire was spotted, as well as making a record of any air raid alerts, plane sightings, anti-aircraft activity, and all clear sirens.

Entry recording an air raid alert, several bursts of anti-aircraft fire, and the all clear being given

Maintaining morale

Shifts were long, lasting from 6pm to 9am the following morning. Four fire-watchers were on duty each night. The four fire-watchers were to consist of one staff member and three students. At least one individual had to be on look out at all times.

Request made by firewatchers for supplies to make the shifts more tolerable!

It is unclear as to whether the above suggestions were granted…probably not! To pass the time more soberly the fire-watchers played games:

Entry recording a game of chess played to pass the time whilst on duty

Blackout duties

In addition to their duties as fire-watchers, the volunteers also served as blackout officers. If any light could be seen emanating from windows or doors, the University buildings might become a target for enemy planes flying overhead. Blackout infractions are detailed in the fire-watchers’ report books:

Report book entry relating to blackout measures

Provisions

The volunteers were provided with meals and hot drinks by the University. Comments entered into the report books show that provisions weren’t always considered ‘up to scratch’ by those on duty:

Entry recording a firewatcher’s thoughts on the dinner provided by the University
A description of the lasting memory of the ‘chocolate mould’ referred to in the former entry

But we must remember that there was a war on and supplies were short, although this doesn’t appear to have prevented the volunteers from complaining:

Entry requesting that some sugar be provided to mask the taste of the coffee

Close but no cigar

Other than a few near misses and a bit of superficial damage, the report books show that the University campus escaped any major incidents during the Hull Blitz of 1941-1942.

Entry noting fires observed in Hull which were caused by incendiary explosives
Statement that two craters had been made in the sports fields on campus by a falling bomb
Note recording near misses around the University campus

Unbroken spirit

Fire-watching at the University continued throughout the war, only finishing on 24 March 1945. However, the report books show that the initial enthusiasm for volunteering had worn off by late 1942. After this time, we find various notes indicating that fire-watchers were turning up late or not at all for their registered duty. However, given the difficulties faced by fire-watchers we can perhaps understand a dip in levels of enthusiasm. Volunteers were having to contend with faulty equipment, lack of food, loss of vacation time. By 1942, the situation was no longer novel. War-weariness had set in and the initial excitement of something quite out of the ordinary had warn off. Fire-watching had become a dull task, made worse by the drudgery of having to repeat it month after month.

One firewatcher’s musings on the night sky, and another’s comments on those musings

These books offer us a valuable opportunity to examine the experiences of those who remained behind during the Second World War. The descriptions recorded in their pages help us to understand how the city must have looked, sounded and smelled during an air raid. And the comments made by the fire-watchers give us a glimpse at their personalities.

Check out our guide, to find out more about Second World War records at Hull History Centre.

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Hull University Archives University history

Torches and Bonfires

With November the 5th coming up, here at Hull University Archives we thought a warming wander through student bonfire nights past might be a nice diversion.

So we turned to the University of Hull’s student newspapers for inspiration. And it was only then that the serendipity of the situation struck us – the first student magazine was aptly (for our purpose) named The Torch!

Front cover of the first issue of The Torch, Dec 1928

Lighting the Torch

First issued in December 1928, it has gone through several iterations, initially as The Torch, then as Torchlight, and it continues to this day as HullFire. These names draw inspiration from the University’s motto:

Extract from the Third Annual Report of the University College of Hull, 1928-29

From the Latin for ‘Bearing the torch’, our motto is a play on the name of the University’s first benefactor, Thomas R. Ferens.

At the beginning of the first issue of The Torch is a foreword written by the University’s principal. This sets the tone and highlights the hopes of those involved for the future of the University:

Extract from the Foreword of the first issue of The Torch, Dec 1928

The Principal’s message is echoed in a short poem included at the end of the first issue:

Poem from the first issue of The Torch, Dec 1928

And so The Torch was lit. But back to our original purpose…

Remember, remember the 5th of November

In the third issue of The Torch we find our first reference to bonfire night. A report describes the events:

The Torch, Dec 1929 – Report ‘The Fifth of November’

With such fun to be enjoyed, and perhaps a late night dancing, the following morning appears to have been a bit of a come down. The very next piece in the issue seems to have been inspired by a ‘morning after…’ type feeling in one of the magazine contributors:

The Torch, Dec 1929 – Short story ‘Please to Remember’ (part 1)
The Torch, Dec 1929 – Short story ‘Please to Remember’ (part 2)

Skipping a few years, we find that celebrations have moved on and now include a torchlight procession through the village of Cottingham:

Torchlight, 21 Nov 1958 – photograph of students carrying torches

Though a nice idea in principle, the sight of a large group of students boldly parading through the streets seems to have inspired a town and gown type rivalry with the local youth:

Torchlight, 21 Nov 1958 – report ‘Damp squibs during the procession’

But a year on and things seem to have calmed down, with no mention of any such unpleasantness being repeated:

Torchlight, 17 Nov 1959 – ‘Festivities on Fifth of November’

If you’ve enjoyed this brief spotlight on our early student magazines look out for further Hull University Archives posts on the Library blog!

Categories
Hull University Archives University history

Where it all began…

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.

If you prefer to access this content via video you can do that using the following link:

Still with us? Good, then read on!

Ferens and his £250,000

We start with a man (points if you spot the connection to our University motto)…

Portrait of T.R. Ferens, commissioned by the University shortly after his death

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 House
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
I am
Sincerely yours
Thos. R. Ferens

Letter from T.R. Ferens to A.D. Willoughby

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.

Surviving evidence

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.

Minutes of the first meeting of the Organising Board, 1925 [U REG/2/1]

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…

First photograph album of the University of Hull, 1920s-1950s [U PHO]

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.

Aerial photograph, c.1927, marked up to show the outline of land to be used to construct a university campus [U PHO]

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.

University College of Hull foundation stone laying ceremony, held 28 April 1928 [U PHO]
The Duke of York laying the foundation stone, 28 April 1928 [U PHO]

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.

The Science Building (now known as Cohen) under construction in 1928 [U PHO]
The Arts Building (now known as Venn) following completion in 1928 [U PHO]

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.

Needler Hall, c.1929 [U PHO]
Thwaite Hall, c.1929 [U PHO]

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.

Needler Hall dining room, c.1929 [U PHO]
The common room at Thwaite Hall, c.1929 [U PHO]

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.

Guildhall on Lowgate in Hull, 1920s [UDX336/34/4]

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.

Workers Educational Association Rally held at on campus, June 1928 [U PHO]

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.

Extra Mural Students’ Rally, 1929 [U PHO]

Campus opens

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.

Academic staff and students with Principal Morgan at the centre of the group, 1928 [U PHO]

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.

Zoology lab, c.1929 [U PHO]
Advanced Physics lab, c.1929 [U PHO]
Zoology lecture theatre, c.1929 [U PHO]
Fisheries lab, c.1929 [U PHO]
Geography room, c.1929 [U PHO]

Official opening

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.

Official Opening of the University College of Hull, 10 October 1929 [U PHO]

Early activities

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.

Staff and students, June 1935 [U PHO]

Noteworthy guests came to speak to the students…

Students, Lt Comm Kenworthy and Mr Arthur Henderson (Foreign Secretary) [U PHO]

Sports teams were formed…

The University College Association Football Team, 1929 [U PHO]

And an active dramatic society was established.

Early members of the Dramatic Society, 1930 [U PHO]

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!