Life as an undergraduate – in the 1950s

Posted by pt91 at Jan 15, 2014 02:10 PM |
Exhibition reveals the reality of studying in the 1950s, from coffee price hikes to chilly halls
Life as an undergraduate – in the 1950s

Sylvia Dowling and a friend at a student RAG, 1956.

Through a collage of photographs, letters, news articles, examination papers, prospectuses and even boarding payment receipts, our latest Special Collections exhibition in the David Wilson Library explores what the University was like in the 1950s,  just before and at the time when it became a University in its own right.

The exhibition traces the student experience of Sylvia Dowling, who graduated in June 1959. One of 750 students enrolled during her ‘fresher’ year, Sylvia proclaimed in a letter to her parents "I settled as soon as I got here and I love it". A few weeks later however she did have a little grumble about the strict Registrar who controlled the central heating in her halls of residence, saying that he “refuses to turn the central heating on until he notices that everyone has a cold!”

Alongside Sylvia's letters are a number of other items that give a glimpse into life as a fifties undergraduate at Leicester.

University of Leicester students await the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II to open the Percy Gee Building on 9 May 1958.Among the newspaper headlines that students of the time may recall, headlines ‘Students stage a strike over 4d cups of coffee’ in the Leicester Mercury may raise a smile. This refers to the coffee riot of 1958 when the student body were not consulted over the price increase of a cup of coffee on campus. Student newspaper ‘The Ripple’, still in print today, also reported on this upheaval, claiming that students were “shocked and startled” by the coffee refectory’s rash decision.

With 16 sports clubs and 36 academic and social clubs, the Students’ Union was a vibrant centre of talent. One of the most popular student events at the time was RAG day, which saw an array of ‘decorated floats touring the streets of the city’. Alongside the lively procession, students also produced the ‘Lucifer’ magazine for this event, proceeds of which were donated to a number of local charities.

Two PhD students from the University’s School of Museum Studies volunteered to curate the exhibition and worked with the archivists in the Special Collections to gather the fascinating memorabilia. Sylvia donated her letters to the University in 2002. Intrigued by the experiences she shared, curators Ryan Nutting and Maria-Anna Tseliou began correspondence with Sylvia by post. Sylvia was delighted to hear about the exhibition and eager to provide further details about her life as a student.

Visit the exhibition on the Basement Floor of the David Wilson Library.

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