Stephen Williams: “There was never anarchy but there were few rules” – Needler Hall in the Late 1960s

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… 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!!

Stephen 2The 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)

Aldi - Cottingham


13 thoughts on “Stephen Williams: “There was never anarchy but there were few rules” – Needler Hall in the Late 1960s

  1. Thank you so much for your article. I was at Needler from 1979 – 82 and a few things had changed – the food was self service, no jacket and tie, but the rest, the feeling of freedom and great fun was just like you described. Probably some of the happiest few years of my life. The rivalry with Ferens was still there so imagine my ‘shame’ when my daughter went to Hull in 2012 and ended up in Ferens!


    1. Mark I have just been passed this article by Dave Gillon whose son also had Ferens issues. Are you in touch with anyone from our era? I am meeting up with Ian Cutler, Andy Moulton, Al Faulkner, Richard Chapman and a few others for a Hullites reunion in September. Google Hullites 7 to check out some more Needler photos.


    1. Hi Judith
      1966/7 was my first year in Needler . I am glad you are able to confirm that segregation in the men’s halls was not as bad as that in the formal women’s hall of Cleminson and the other one, whose name I forget. There were stories of Alsatian dogs in the grounds and a nightly curfew. I am not sure how true as I never had the chance to find out. Perhaps the ladies who resided there can tell us.


      1. Hi,
        The “other Hall” was Thwaite Hall! Not as terrifying really, The porter had one lovely female Alsation (German Shepherd) who I doubt would have actually attacked even a mouse!


  2. Another at Needler during 1968. Enjoyed the friendship, food and surrounds. Amazing it is now a Aldi!!!
    Recall having some exploits there which were not allowedin those days. How different now at Uni!!!

    Maurice Barnes Physics later President of Student Union.


  3. I was in Cleminson Hall 67/69. There was a curfew of sorts as the night porter took your name if you were in after 10:00 by which all men must be out. If too late then it would be an an interview with Miss Pinthus. Don’t remember any Alsation dogs but ground floor windows were fixed so you couldn’t climb in or out.
    My memory was McEwans Export was 2/1d a pint which was sufficient for lunch if you got up intime for breakfast.
    Pam Smart nee Zalasinski


  4. “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.”

    Hmm. I was there 72-76. By then the food was self-service and pretty disappointing. I recall the experimental use of early forms of artificial meat that looked like lumps of discarded chewing gum, used to supplement the meagre supply of the real thing.

    I sometimes got 15p meal tickets from the hall to use at the refectory on campus, and though the refectory meals were not covered by this as they cost 35p, they were of excellent quality. (And of course there was always the Lawns, up the road, for burger & beans & chips.)

    I lucked out on one occasion, when I had flu, and the cook Mrs Gravestock turned up at my room with an enormous piece of fresh chicken and scrambled egg. First she enquired as to whether I had been vomiting due to the flu or due to alcohol. When I confirmed that it was flu, she handed the plate to me. Looking at the scrambled egg reminded me too much of my vomiting, so in the bin it went, but that chicken was marvellous.


  5. I was at Southlands 65-68 next to Thawite Hall, a pretty strict place!
    Mrs Crabtree ran it as I recall.
    Many escapes from Thwaite out of my girl friends window as the place was locked up at 11pm. Amazing eh!!


  6. I was a contemporary of Mark Jakeway (’79-’82), and the rivalry with Ferens was almost as intense. I remember Ferens carried away one or more of the ‘park’ benches from the Needler grounds. The retaliation was cutting the plug off Ferens’ common room TV and stealing their pool table cue-ball. Needler also had a mascot, as I remember, it was a stuffed puffer-fish in a glass tank. The food quality had certainly declined by our time, epitomised by the Cornish pasty, or ‘Cornish nasty’ as it was known. An almost concrete-like pastry shell, containing a shrivelled greyish blob, not unlike the brain of some particularly moronic creature – I shudder in recollection!


  7. About the Ladies Halls ……as I remember it was *men out * at 11pm , but ground floor windows provided a convenient escape route in particular being the designated exit to avoid disturbing others …

    Getting back to Thwaite had a limit of 4am where the Alsatian Dog and its keeper saw the numerous errant females back in before locking up .

    In early spring 1970 it was the walk back through the empty streets at 3.45 past the church and the *dawn chorus *after a romantic night in the new wing at Needler escorting the *wife to be * safely back student cars in those days ….Really happy days ..Needler was certainly the right choice for me anyway …..

    I missed out on the Beer drinking activities though ….and don’t seem to remember them at all . Bruce


  8. Only just seen this – brought back many happy memories. I was in Needler 1967-69 and am in the soccer team, bottom row second left. Life in Needler was great – Steve’s tiddly football league was vigorously contested – table tennis too. The evening meal brought everyone together. Some great musicians in the hall at that time and some terrific late evening sessions. Coming from a rural grammar school, like many the first of a family to go to university, the community at Needler was a great support.

    Ian Wright Modern History and Politics, Hull 1967-70.


  9. Hi Stephen, A few days ago I read your 2018 recollections of life at Needler Hall in the late 60’s and I can relate to everything you say. I was a resident of the hall from 64 (being one of the very first occupants of the new block) to 67. I can remember you as one of the livelier freshers in my final year. You and I both went by nicknames when at Hull, I was Tom and you were always referred to as “Springs”. About half the people in your football team photo are recognisable to me so I imagine that is the 68 team. We had a very strong football team in my 2nd year with a number of us having played for the university 1st team. The match with Ferens was no problem that year.
    Why can’t I remember the famous Ed Bicknell?! I was vice president in 65/66, was followed by Mal Haigh and then I presume Ed took the role. Mal, like Ed, was Chair of the University Entertainment Committee for a while. In my 3rd year, when I had an old mini in Hull, Mal would sometimes have me squeezing the members of major pop groups in my car to ferry them between their hotels and the concert venues.
    I remember your tiddlywink football league -I am amazed that I can even remember the name of my team in that competition. And the good food in the dining hall. The kitchen staff always excelled themselves at the big dances we held each term (the main organisational task of the vp) although I remember at a dance in my first year coming upon a tremendous snowball fight in a corridor in the new block which was using some of the meringues from the buffet as ammunition. The warden was not amused.
    Needler rag floats in the 60’s were, as you say, significant engineering achievements. I have photos of the 65,66,67 productions; a submarine, a galleon and a gypsy caravan and I can see you on the caravan.
    I learnt about the Aldi development recently whilst using Google Earth. There was a large grey rectangle, the supermarket roof, where I expected Needler buildings. Examination at ground level revealed what a mess the remaining section of the old Georgian building now is, a bricked up wreck lying between the supermarket and new retirement apartments. These have been built over the old block and the large lawn where we used to have amazingly competitive games of football. It is sad to see but at least we have a few old photos and a lot of wonderful memories.
    All the best
    Graham (Tom)


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