The Sit In of 68 – Music, Politics and Friendship at the University of Hull in 1968

Joan Walley was brought up in Staffordshire and came to Hull from Stoke in 1967. She graduated in 1970 with a BA (Hons) in Social Administration. After graduating, she worked for an Alcoholics Recovery Project, Swansea City Council, Wandsworth Council and social justice charity NACRO. Between 1987 and 2015 she was Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent North, her hometown.

It is fifty years since Joan came to study at Hull and in this article she shares with us her personal reminiscences, her political awakening at the “Sit in of ‘68”, and the lifelong friendship that she made with Julia Reed.

Joan and Julia July 2016 (1)
Joan Walley and Julia Reed in 2016

Like Joan, Julia was a  fresher in 1967. She graduated with a BA (Hons) in American Studies and Sociology and went on to do an MA in Information Science at Sheffield University. She became a librarian in the civil service and ended her career working with information structure in computer systems.


I’m surrounded by box files brimming with archives spanning my 68 years. Tucked away in one is a very faded, dog-eared copy of the Hull Daily Mail dated June 4th 1968. And there I am on the front page sitting next to Julia in the “SIT IN of 68” at the end of our first year at Hull.

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She and I met on our very first day. My accent was so strong she could barely understand a word I said. Both freshers, she hailed from Loughton Girls Grammar school whereas I was the first in my family ever to go to University.

Together we braved the freezing bedroom in the digs allocated to us. In the days before central heating and duvets if the cold didn’t keep us awake, the intermittent fog horns from the Humber did.

It is 50 years ago since we left school and launched upon our opportunity of a lifetime. In my case university was only possible thanks to student fees being met by local education authorities as well as a full means tested grant.

Coming from Stoke on Trent (shortlisted for 2020 City of Culture bid) there were many similarities. Hull was not exactly a place that people passed through. You only ever went there if you had a purpose and mine was to get a degree in a subject I cared about – Social Administration.

In contrast Julia’s course, like her, was much more sophisticated –American Studies and Sociology. She buried herself in American literature and politics. Together we embraced all that the university environment had to offer.

So it was inevitable really as the tidal wave of protest spread across Europe and reached Hull that it would engulf us.

Hull University sit-in 1968 (2)

It was the sixties. Times were changing. Young people wanted a voice. Students including Tom Fawthrop had actually been to Paris and were returning with stories to tell of growing unrest there. The NUS was organising. Higher education was undemocratic. Our eight-point charter in Hull related to campus issues – student welfare, the cost of living, examination policies and a greater say in how the university should be run through representation on university bodies. The Hull Daily Mail reports that Brynmor Jones asked students to exercise restraint but my most vivid recollection is of the boost to our campaign when the telegram of support from Bertrand Russell was read out.

How many of our demands were actually taken on board by the senate in the following academic year I don’t recall. It was left to student leaders to buckle down to the painstaking negotiations of securing a greater say for students in the running of the university. But we had put democracy first.

Hull University sit-in 1968 (4)

By the second year Julia and I had moved on from digs to a shared house in Cranbrook Avenue. We went on to long, all night, alcohol fueled academic discussions about the meaning of politics with students who didn’t know what the inside of a factory looked like. On to a  non-stop social and academic life, ranging from seminars in Salmon Grove, poetry readings from Philip Larkin, concerts (classical and modern including the University’s very own Humber Jug ); to the delights of Nellie’s, Newland Avenue (there was a chip shop we used to frequent there, we think it was called Monica’s). On to the vibrant  Hessle Road,  the anti-slavery historical tradition,  Hull Fair, outings to Spurn Head,  trips by steam boat and hovercraft across to Lincolnshire (these were pre Humber Bridge days). They were also the days of Mary Hopkin’s hit that went to number 2 in the charts behind Hey Jude. Days that to us seemed like they’d never end.

But end they did. We attended convocation and off we went.

Julia in fact stayed on at the University to do an MA and in true Hull tradition was active in the anti-apartheid protests and action in 1972.

In my case Hull gave me a grounding in higher education that lives on. The whole experience was, and still is, an anchor for what came/comes next.  It cemented a strong belief in our democracy, welfare state and commitment to social justice. My days at Hull led me to the next steps in my career. A career that spanned local government, the voluntary sector, twenty-eight years as a member of parliament for my beloved home city of Stoke on Trent and five years as chairman of the Environmental Audit Select Committee.

There is no doubt that City of Culture status has changed perceptions for the better amongst a lot of people who had no inkling of what Hull has to offer. It is wonderful to see Hull’s reputation restored and with it its local economy.

For those of us who chose to study there back in 1967 it changed our lives. It was simply transformational. It couldn’t have been better.

Hull University Ball
Joan (far left) and Julia (far right) at the University Ball

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