“In the 1950s students were not considered adult until the age of 21” – Jenny Cumming remembers campus life in the 50s

In this article Jenny Cumming (nee Brace, Botany, 1960) remembers life on campus in the 1950s. This article is part of our series bringing alumni memories of life on campus through the decades to life. You can read more in the following posts:

The 1950s In Your Words: Campus life as remembered by alumni >>

The 1960s In Your Words: Campus life as remembered by alumni >>

The 1970s In Your Words: Campus life as remembered by alumni >>


In 1957 I was 18 years old and a beneficiary of the 1944 Education Act whereby a student who, as a result of examination success, had been accepted by a university and was supported to study for a degree. This was a new privilege that had been in operation for only a few years. In the past, only children of well to do families who could pay the tuition fees and living expenses could expect to go. The number of scholarships that would enable poorer children to go was small indeed. At that time only about one third of students were girls, since their education was not considered as important as that for boys as it was thought they would likely get married and not use it.

Great was the excitement in my family when in August I was told I had a place at the University of Kingston Upon Hull. There was no question of making a visit to Hull beforehand. The cost of the rail fair and accommodation would have been too great and like many others we had no car. I lived on the Wirral peninsula so early in the morning my parents came with me on the underground to Liverpool Lime Street Station and saw me onto the train across the Pennines to Hull. This was a steam train of course, and took several hours. I had a packed lunch and drink for the journey and sat by the window to see more of England passing by than I had ever seen before. Before this I had not travelled further than North Wales to the south and Lancashire to the north. As advised by the University, my bicycle was sent on ahead by luggage train. On arrival at Paragon station I managed to find some other students to share a taxi to Cottingham & the Halls of Residence. I had been allocated to Cleminson Hall where I found 2 second year students who had volunteered to help me settle in. In fact I was placed in Holtby House, an annexe across the road and was to share a room with another first year on the same course. By the time I had found my room and deposited my luggage it was time for the evening meal.

Our meals were served in the Cleminson dining room – breakfast and evening meal during the week and all meals at the weekend. Except on Sundays, breakfast was at a set time each morning and was a hot meal brought to the table – no self-service. At the evening meal there was a High Table for staff and selected guests. One of these would say Grace in Latin before we could begin. There was a comfortable Common Room in Cleminson where I remember enjoying musical evenings. In my second year I helped to run this, taking requests for recordings to the Central Library in Hull, then carrying the heavy vinyl records back on the bus and playing them on the Hall record player. There was no radio or television. Unless attending various clubs & societies we spent our evenings in Hall. When not studying we would make ourselves a hot drink (no kitchen) and have long discussions with our friends. Since only about 5% of young people at that time attended University we were possibly more studious than students today. In the 1950s students were not considered adult until the age of 21. Therefore most female undergraduates were in the care of the University – ‘in loco parentis’. The most obvious concern was protection for females as pregnancy would reflect badly on the reputation of the authorities. Therefore male and female students were in separate Halls and no men were allowed in female student’s rooms at any time. Anyone wishing to return to Hall later than 10.00 pm. had to get permission. Contrary to the hilarious stories one reads about students involving climbing over walls and up or down drainpipes neither I nor my friends managed this. Things were somewhat different for the men. Most of them were two years older than us having spent the time on National Service – post-war compulsory military training and service in those parts of the world still under British occupation. Nevertheless, most of them stayed in the mens’ Halls. Due to the shortage of female undergraduates, a popular place for them to visit was the teachers’ training college next door. There was a gap in the hedge to allow this.

Most students stayed a year or two in Hall before moving on to approved lodgings. Our bed linen was laundered for us and we washed our smalls by hand. There was a spin dryer in the laundry room and a large airing annexe for final drying. No-one had yet seen a washing machine or electric tumble dryer. 

In due course we first years got used to the 2 mile cycle ride from Cottingham to the university. At one side of the main entrance was the large Arts building and matching it on the other was the Science building. There was a large empty quadrangle in the centre of each. My course was Joint Honours Botany and Zoology. The Botany department was at the top of the Arts building and the Zoology department at the top of the Science building. So many a time we had to race down the stairs of one, across the path and up the other in the 5 minutes between lectures. Directly behind these two buildings on either side of the path there were large grassed-over depressions we called the ‘soup bowls’ which were designated as future building sites. At the back of the campus was the Students Union building where we could use the cafeteria to buy lunch, use the bar if we had spare cash (not me) or read newspapers provided in the lounge. To one side were a few wooden huts. One of these was the library and another the reading room.

Hull had not long been a University in its own right. Before this students were awarded external degrees from the University of London. We have to remember that in 1957 the country was still recovering from the Second World War. During my time there a great deal of building work took place. First, the Chemistry building, in front of the Students Union, and of course the famous Library. One of the men’s halls in Cottingham was located in a collection of Nissen huts left over from the War.

In my third year I went into lodgings nearer to the University. My landlady looked after me well except that, being a widow she struggled to provide me with a warm room to study in the evenings. So I took the short walk to the reading room on campus. In the evenings it was full of law students from Ghana and Nigeria, preparing for the imminent independence of their countries. No doubt they, also, were there for the warmth.

To attend lectures we were expected to wear undergraduate gowns which were available second-hand at a reasonable price. Science students wore white lab. coats for practical work. Towards the end of my course things were beginning to relax a little but one day we arrived at the Botany lab. to find a notice on the door: 

WILL LADIES PLEASE REFRAIN FROM WEARING TROUSERS IN THE LABORATORY

I don’t remember having much spare time between lectures and practicals during the week but there were societies to join. One that I tried was judo. In the vacation I made my own outfit. In rag week in the summer I had fun dressing up in this. At weekends we went on cycle rides and explored the countryside. The roads were almost empty of cars. The only time they were busy was at rush hour, when hundreds of cyclists travelled to & from work. Occasionally I took the bus into town and visited Hammond’s Department Store. On Sunday mornings most of us attended Church. For this we wore our special Sunday outfits. I had a tweed suit and a little green hat. We arrived by bike, of course. Some family members of the congregations favoured by students took a good deal of trouble to befriend them and made them welcome in their homes.

Alongside the main road from Cottingham, between the pavement and gardens of the houses, were clear water drains. In the spring they were full of pond weed, little fish and thousands of tadpoles. To reach each house was a large paving slab which acted as a bridge. On week days there was much clanking and digging as these open drains were slowly replaced by underground pipes. So they had largely disappeared by the time I left. No more tadpoles.

Both of my subjects involved field work. They each organised week-long visits during the summer vacation. I remember going to Juniper Hall Field Studies Centre with the Botany Department. We also went to the Isle of Cumbray in the Firth estuary. From there we took steamers to other islands to view the sea weeds as well as making an early visit to the beach at low tide in our wellingtons. We collected specimens to study in the lab. facilities at the centre. With the Zoology Department we found fossils in the rocks at Robin Hood’s Bay and plant fossils of the Caytoniales at Cayton Bay.

The third year was our Honours year for those who had reached the required standard in exams. In my third year there was a new head of the Botany Department. He organised a long weekend coach trip for us final year students. We visited the Rothamstead Experimental Station and on to London for the museums. That was a highlight of our final year. The head of the Zoology Department organised ‘tea parties’ for research students & final year undergraduates. There would be tea and a bun while we listened to a guest speaker. It was there that we learned of a new discovery, DNA, which was not yet in the syllabus. However, the speaker whose talk lingered in my mind was from Ireland. He told us with great passion that the greatest threat to humanity was VIRUSES. How right he was!

The Honours subject in Botany was Genetics: Mendel’s work, not Watson & Crick. Nevertheless, it was a good beginning and a topic I have followed with much interest ever since. In Zoology we studied embryology and also a topic we could choose. Two of us chose Parasitology. That, also, began a continuing interest – in diseases and health generally. Years later I fulfilled a lifetime ambition and visited a tropical rainforest on the Malay Peninsula. As a result of my knowledge of parasites I was more afraid of mosquitos than of large animals. I was thrilled as well to see many of the tropical plants I had seen only as black and white drawings before. Also years later when my son took me to a new glasshouse at Kew Gardens I exclaimed at the walk through reconstructions of giant fossil plants, the world as yet silent of birdsong but with the chirping of insects. ‘Dinosaurs come next,’ I said, just as we noticed some big 3-toed ‘footprints’ in the floor.

After our final exams we stayed on for another 2 weeks or so for the results. During this time a group of friends volunteered to do some home visiting for a local church. As well as calling at rows of terraced houses we tackled the first high rise tower block. An old lady whose flat was at the top took us in to show us the view. We were as thrilled as she was to see so much of the city laid out before us. It was as a break from these home visits that we called in for our very first experience of a Chinese restaurant – a chop suey.

Towards the end of my time as an undergraduate my parents came into a legacy and were able to install a telephone & buy their first car. This meant that for the first time I was able to phone home to let them know I’d passed my finals. They came in the new car to witness the degree ceremony at Holy Trinity Church. They had a long journey through the roads of Lancashire and Yorkshire and over the Pennines (no motorway). Making a very early start, they saw mill girls going to work in clogs. They bought me my own degree gown, hood & mortar board as my 21st. birthday present which was in a few days’ time. 

I returned to Hull for a further year to train as a teacher. For the second term I lived in lodgings in Pickering, North Yorkshire, quite a journey from Hull, as there were not enough local schools to give us the experience we needed. The gown came in useful straight away as we expected to wear them on the school hall platform for assembly each morning. One of the pupils at the school had the same lodgings as me, just going home at weekends to an isolated farm. It was at these lodgings that I was shown how to make genuine plate-sized Yorkshire puddings as the first course for Sunday roast dinners.

One optional course that I took in that Education year was Child Development, an aspect of Developmental Psychology. We were introduced to the latest research, which I found fascinating. This turned out to be yet another aspect of learning at Hull which proved useful in later life.

A quarter of a century later, after many adventures, I returned to Hull. This time I was head teacher at a primary school on Bransholme, a large council estate housing 30,000 people. On my cycling map of the ’50s the area was marked as marshy farmland. Now it was the size of a small town, ‘the size of Bridlington’ with 2 secondary schools, several primary schools and a large shopping and amenity centre. The estate was built in the 1970s to re-house people from crowded areas in the city where the fishing industry was no more. There were plans to provide local work for the residents but it didn’t all materialise. I very much enjoyed working with the children and their families there. I bought a house in Cottingham, just a short drive away. In the autumn, once I had settled in, I took a look at the University on the way home. The two large buildings were still facing me at the front of the campus. I walked into the quad of the one I remembered as the Science Building and was shocked to find mature trees growing in the empty space I remembered. I nearly got lost among all the buildings in the main campus and was so overwhelmed I had to go home.

My final job was as senior lecturer on Primary Science Education at the University of Sunderland While there I gained a PhD in science learning in young children from Durham Uni. On retirement I moved over to Northern Ireland to live near my married daughter and 2 grandchildren. A few years later, some 20 years since leaving Hull for the second time, I took a trip in my campervan to look up old haunts. In Cottingham I saw that Holtby House, the ancestral home of the author, Winifred Holtby, and friend of author Vera Brittain, had reverted to private ownership. Across the road, Cleminson Hall was in the process of demolition with large building works afoot to replace it.

Overall, my time at the University of Hull proved to be the foundation for a rewarding and successful career giving me many friends and happy memories.

3 thoughts on ““In the 1950s students were not considered adult until the age of 21” – Jenny Cumming remembers campus life in the 50s

  1. Fascinating account. Sad that so little of the Cottingham accommodation still exists. I had a year in Holtby House three decades later when it had become an all male second years and above house

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  2. An elegiac and rather poignant account of happy times remembered. I enjoyed reading it. I was at Hull between 1979 and 1982. I started out at Needler Hall, then (with two other students) bought a small house for £1,000. I have since returned to the City twice; once with my mother-in-law (on account of our shared love for Larkin’s poetry) and secondly, to walk the Wolds Way, commencing at the Humber Bridge ending in Filey.

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