Meeting up recently with Ed Bicknell and also hearing that Needler Hall is now no more, had the affect of rekindling that ‘hidden mist’ called nostalgia. Ed and I were inmates of Needler Hall in the late 1960’s….. not that it was a prison….far from it ….. what it was, for most of us, was the first time that we had left home for a sustained period. National service had stopped in 1963 and University education was a far easier option for experiencing life in a new location, for meeting new people and for fending for oneself. It was an era when far flung travel was far less common and apart from two week family holidays, taken in such exotic places as Blackpool or Scarborough, one didn’t normally venture too far away from one’s home area. Back packing hadn’t been invented and the package holiday and ownership of a family car were only just starting to become affordable. In these circumstances a University place, at state expense was a glittering prize and very much a sense of the unknown.
Many at University were the first generation of their families to experience post school education and this was abetted by the local Council grant, based on ones father’s earnings, as most mothers did not work in paid employment at this time. Equality and student loans were still things of the future…..as were mixed halls of residence! I well remember the brochure from Hull University outlining the accommodation options for male students, with its strict segregation. There were ‘formal’ halls of residence, which meant Needler Hall or Ferens Hall or there was the new-fangled Lawns site just coming on tap or there were student houses. The latter two options were cheaper but one didn’t get ones meals cooked or ones rooms cleaned……definitely a consideration for the more inept of us. Thus my choice was Needler Hall and in retrospect, a very good choice it was.
On my first day there I recall being in one of the kitchens where one could make oneself snacks, trying to work out how to prepare a Vesta curry: a popular but dreadful concoction of the time. It comprised of two envelopes; one of dried meat and one of rice to which, one added water and then heated. In walked another student, who was to become a life-long friend (John Marshall) and we jointly decided this was far too complicated for us and adjourned to the Cross Keys, the pub opposite Needler. There were about ten or twelve undergraduates who had also gravitated there on their first day of ‘freedom’ and most have kept in touch to this day, due in no small part to that first chance encounter……birds of a feather flock together etc.
Luckily the need for Vesta curries receded, due to the daily use of the Needler Hall refectory and jolly good it was too. One had to wear a jacket and tie for evening meals but no alcohol was served, except sherry for the Warden and his top table. They consumed this in a room above the refectory, prior to descending in great state, whilst those below the salt’ stood to attention and awaited ‘grace’. This was always the two word Benedictus Benedicat; a tradition started by Philip Larkin when he resided at Needler as sub-warden in the 1950’s. It was the signal for battle to commence. Huge silver tureens of soup appeared for the first course and these were served by the waitress for each table and the bowls were dutifully passed down to each grateful recipient. This was followed by a meat dish and vast quantities of vegetables served in large silver dishes, which were constantly replaced due to the voracious appetite of the undergraduates. Then it was dessert and cheese and biscuits and then over to the Junior Common Room for coffee. In addition one was also served with an ample cooked breakfast each morning and as such ones nutritional needs were well catered for and lunch at the University refectory could be safely missed, with the money saved being used instead for a pint of Hull bitter in the Buttery bar. This was sold at the extortionate price of 1s and 3d per pint (equivalent to about 7p in today’s money). When one considers that a pint in my local is now £4-20p one realises that inflation has been equivalent to that of a South American banana republic. Steady on, I am forgetting that it has been 50 years!
The other memory of my first day at Needler was of a reception for the new students with the various dignitaries from the University and with the students from years 2 and 3. One of the latter, who clearly had an evil sense of humour, informed a freshly arrived first year Singaporean undergraduate that it was the proper British etiquette to address the most important attendees with the words “Hello You Old Bastard”. This was diligently undertaken, to the glee of the said wag and no doubt to the subsequent deterioration of post-colonial Singaporean relations, as the person in question went onto achieve great things, back in his home country.
After one’s initial tentative steps one soon learnt how things worked and one realised that as an undergraduate, one was in a very privileged position. One had freedom without a lot of responsibility and most of one’s needs were adequately catered for. At Needler Hall one’s welfare was in the hands of a Warden, a domestic bursar and a caretaker whilst student affairs were in the hands of an elected Junior Common Room Committee. There was a variety of social activities and an institution at Needler at the time was the indoor games leagues, which were taken incredibly seriously. There was table football, darts, bar billiards and a game I introduced called Tiddly Football. This was played with tiddlywinks, to the rules of football and such a hold it took that specially designed T shirts were printed and a league fixture list published and referees appointed for each match. These were normally scheduled for immediately after the evening meal and partisan crowds were known to roar on their favourite team and some teams even produced programmes for matches, complete with league tables, notes on the opposition and details of previous matches ….how very silly!!
The author appears first on the left, back row
Talking of which there were also the inevitable male undergraduate societies characterised by equal parts of bravado, immaturity and machismo …..oh yes and an excess of drinking. Today’s Chief Medical Officer would not have approved!! The one in Needler was called the Phoenix Society and had an elaborate set of rules which boiled down to the fact that if one consumed ten pints of beer in a single sitting and paid ten shillings one was awarded an emblazoned tie, a pottery mug ( I still have mine….how sad!!) and offered membership to the social programme. This comprised of coach visits to such as the Leeds Varieties (then a mixture of variety and striptease acts); to a country pub at Etton called the Light Dragoon, where the Needler version of the Word Pairs Drinking Championship took place annually and a trip to the real thing, the actual World Drinking Championship. This latter event took place at nearby Bilton Carnival and I recall one year was won by somebody called Lionel Tutt of Dunstable, who drank about 20 pints in an hour…..and seemed unaffected by it!! Incidentally one of the leading lights of the Phoenix Society, who unfortunately is no longer with us, went onto become the Governor of Parkhurst Jail and another became a High Court judge. What that tells us I am not sure.
Our big rivalry was with the other traditional Hall at the time, Ferens and this extended beyond the sports field. There was the annual rag mag selling contest, which Needler usually won and the annual Rag Float contest which is normally lost. We tended to go in for complicated designs, requiring much hard work, such as an American railway engine, complete with cow catcher and dry ice for the steam. We were all dressed up in period costume but to our dismay came nowhere in the judges shortlist. For as some other correspondent has noted, the winner was the Ferens depiction of a giant turd, with all the students dressed as flies. Innovative but they were a crude lot, those Ferens boys! However hats off to one of their stunts, as one night they silently descended on the Needler Hall library and literally filled it with rolled up newspaper. Now the library was not large but again it was not overly small either and how long it took our rivals to conduct their mission is mind blowing and the first we knew about it was the next morning when we couldn’t get in!
Another nocturnal jape that happened at Needler in the summer term of my last year, when I was President, was when the students came down to breakfast and found all the tables and chairs from the refectory laid out ‘al fresco’ on the lawn, with their place settings and cutlery in perfect order. Several people came up to me and congratulated me on my foresight in taking advantage of the good weather……not realising that some wags had spent half the night assembling the tableau. I never found out who were the instigators ……it might even have been Ferens again! It is strange what one most remembers about University; as very little of it seems to do with academia and most seems to involve people and places.
I and I believe thousands of undergraduates will look back on their time at Needler Hall, since its acquisition in 1928, with great affection and with great gratitude. Roger McGough, the poet described it as a ‘four star hotel’ and Philip Larkin was known to have a strong affection and often came back for dinner, after he had left. No doubt it moved appropriately with the times but certainly in the 1960’s it seemed to have just the right balance. There was never anarchy but there were few rules; one could do one’s own thing but not at the expense of good sense. It was mainly a place of fun, friendship and tolerance and I for one will sorely rue its passing.
I am told it is now an Aldi supermarket…………that’s one of the problems with nostalgia.
Stephen Williams (April, 2018)