“Fate ensured that I left Hull with a magnificent partner for life” – Mike Smith remembers Hull in the 50s

In this article Mike Smith (Economics, 1960) recalls life on campus during the 1950s, meeting his wife at Hull, and all of the opportunities that came his way. From Nissan Huts to Ferens Hall, a grand tour of Southern Europe, and life in the RAF as an Education Officer.

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 >>


Having read Jenny Cumming’s reflections on her time at the University, it finally persuaded me to put finger to key and share my memories. Later you will see that I regularly returned to the university as part of my jobs and thus when my wife and I attended the Festival 39! weekend the changes were not as great as some of the others who attended experienced.

Throughout my life there have been a number of significant events, probably the same for you, that have laid the future path. With the family moving to Lincoln in my early teens I joined my second grammar school.  Not being a highflyer, I plodded along and only began to spark in the sixth form. The last period on Friday’s was devoted to activities. I participated in a few but things changed when our next-door neighbour, who taught German and was one of the staff heavily involved in the school orchestra, suggested that I might like to join to play the double bass. I took to this and often went into the school cellar to practice at lunch time. I even bought my own instrument and played in a local group – the headmaster was not impressed when I played at a public Christmas Dance that he attended. 

I was of the age to be called up for National Service and even tried to join early so that I could start the first term at a teacher training college in Leeds.  Asked what I wanted to do, I quickly said motor transport or secretarial thinking that such RAF training would be of value later in life. My plan went askew when, I had 2 minor operations in a military hospital. Probably to my surprise, I passed all 3 A level subjects. This made me think, why not go to university? Without an Ordinary level foreign language, having dropped the subject before the 5th for, my choice was limited to Hull or Leicester. Without visiting either, I applied and had an offer from both to read Economics.  Fortunately, Hull won.   

The big BUT was that the Local Authority staff said that since I had not applied for a grant prior to my A levels they would not sponsor me and I would have to return to school for another year and repeat my A levels.

Travelling from Lincoln to Hull, initially by train the final part of the journey was in a paddle steamer across the Humber. Another school member travelled, ending our journey by bus to Cottingham.  We were then offered a lift in the car of someone who lived near to Camp Hall/ Ferens Hall. The former had the remnants of Nissan Huts and I was allocated to one of these.  We ate in Ferens and had a pass for lunch in the university refectory. I settled in well and got on well with the other occupants. At the Fresher’s Fair I must have said that I played the double bass and was approached to join the university jazz band. They we so enthusiastic that they even paid for the return trip to Hull with the instrument. My trips home, infrequently, involved hitch hiking, often with a multitude of lifts. 

Attending the university to sign in, four of us ignored the advice not to have Geography as our choice of subject.  This meant that in addition we had to attend all Economics and associated subjects and also the Geography lectures, we were not, however, required to do the practical work. In my case I also went on the vacation residential course as Whitby, Londonderry and South Wales and a few day trips.  I do not know the circumstances, but the 3 others, Catherine a local lass, Mike from Enfield and another male from Nigeria, who had not taken the advice on subjects, did not take the same finals as me.   

Going into the common room on the first day in the Union Building was interesting, since there were card tables.  One of the participants left after his first week, having lost his grant at the table. Later I lived with a maths student who considered that he lived on his winnings at cards and horse racing.   

Life at university, both academically and socially, was enjoyable often playing in the union on Saturday evenings.  A tradition in Ferens was to have a Smoker in the first term, a name for various entertainment acts and I played in this. The bombshell arrived towards the end of the first term, when we were told that the Nissen Huts would not be used from the following January. I was told that with my participation in the Smoker I could move to Ferens Hall. I opted not to do so, thinking that moving into lodgings could be cheaper than in the Hall. Wrong! The Local Authority reduced my already meagre grant.

The occupants of Thwaite, Cleminson Halls and Holtby House were not ignored, but there was no serious involvement. I was even invited to the formal dance at Clem by the senior student, possibly the first time I wore my DJ at the university. 

Prior to the end of the first year, a number of us decorated a float, and I performed on the bass. Needless to say, it was not without rain.  During the first long vacation I spent a small donation that grandparents had given to all their grandchildren. This was against my earlier decision not to become a motorcyclist, having lost a close friend and school contact in 2 motorcycle accidents. From then on, no need to hitch home and gave greater mobility both in Hull and the environs and later Europe. 

During the first term of the second year, I played most Saturday evenings in the union but on one evening found that we were not booked.  Having gained entry, I had saved 2/6p and remained! Another turning point since, although not a great dancer, I occasionally went on the dance floor, and was accepted by a young lady, who was to become my wife in March 1962 with a reception at the hotel on Cottingham Road opposite the university, attended by my PGCE assessor ‘Gas’ Bunker and his wife. 

I continued playing at the union and was permitted to participate in the last dance. Gill’s parents decreed that she was not to travel on my motorcycle. This was accepted for a time, eventually she agreed to be pillion, but on the first occasion we were stopped by the police. No traffic infringement, but the stand was occasionally sparking on the ground. Fortunately, this did not discourage her. 

Wednesday afternoon was devoted to badminton, the venue off Cottingham Road. In the Certificate year I was introduced to squash, tennis did not feature, significant pre -uni ,in the 4 years, but both did in the RAF, adding rugby. The university fencing classes were not subsequently pursued. 

The mobility extended to a grand tour of southern Europe, including going over the Gothard Pass, before the tunnel was built. Not bad, for a 150cc Bantam with 2 of us. The passenger a chemistry student from South Wales who I picked up at Reading Railway station. During the second year I also purchased a 1948 BSA combination and in the next long vacation took another school friend, from Leeds University, on a tour of Northern Europe. I could write a book on our experiences. Whilst awaiting my degree results Gill and I went to the Isle of Man, not on the motorcycle, which by co-incidence was when the Manx TT was taking place. We were thus able to see the races and still both tend to watch motorcycling races on the TV. 

During the third year I had a few interviews for non-teaching jobs but they did not appeal. I applied, and was accepted for a PGCE at Hull. However, the idea emerged in joining the RAF, to this day I cannot say why. After graduation I was invited for selection by the RAF and was accepted for entry after my course. I decided that the beard had to be sacrificed for the interview which I had had for much of my time, even with a goatee in my graduation photograph. 

The final year, living in a multi occupied flat and with the school friend from Leeds University, arranged, by my, to be Mum in Law to be, was very satisfying with teaching practice, in Geography and History at a Grammar School in Cleethorpes. It made me realise that the decision to enter the RAF as an Education Officer was correct, offering more variety. I did not waste my Economics and during some lunch times introduced interested Six Formers to this. 

Prior to entering the RAF Gill and I travelled to Spain, via France in an old Ford Anglia that I purchased from my parents. Here another potential story since it ended its days in Aden 5 years later.   

Preparing these comments has made me look back at my time at the university and compare it with the many RAF sponsored university students that I monitored and helped during a posting of over 2 years in the RAF in the 80’s and nearly a decade later as a Retired Officer.  My parish was Southampton to Aberdeen and involved interviewing tutors in any discipline, most enjoyable but required me to be able to talk with some knowledge on all subjects from Archaeology, not to zoology but including Fire Engineering and medicine. I discussed the student’s progress and dealt with general problems, which they did not wish to discuss with the staff of the University Air Squadrons. If I had been one of these students, my equivalent would have been unable to talk to a tutor about my progress. The four geography students had a post grad student as a tutor in the first year and I remember completing an essay. After that I must have had a personal tutor but cannot remember much involvement apart from asking him for more information on my degree grade, which he was unable or unwilling to reveal. I had no tutor in the Economics department.  

The lectures were generally good to excellent within each department, with the exception of one, who used to lean on his desk and read from a book and another who finished early, queried this, and noticed that she had missed a page in her notes. We did not have any assessed work, few examinations, and no mock finals (6 or 7 examinations), advice or sight of past papers. In retrospect I could probably have asked for these but that only comes from a mature view. When the Brynmor Jones library was opened, I soon found an empty room and took in my typewriter and was never challenged. Subsequently the most valuable subjects were Business Studies and Statistics.

The PGCE year was different, with a tutor, set essays and a long essay which in my case was on Comprehensive Education. Towards the end of the course, I mentioned to my tutor that I had another essay to complete, and he said ‘do not bother’ – perhaps an indication that my completed ones were good. They may well have been part of the final assessment which ended with examinations.    

I was very fortunate after meeting Gill in that I was very well looked after by her family throughout and benefitted from their hospitality. 

In summary my time at Hull was generally very enjoyable most of the 4 years, gave me a degree that ensured entry into the RAF with a year credit and another for what was then judged to be a good degree, and gave me an opportunity to develop and gain valuable life lessons.  More significantly, fate ensured that I left Hull with a magnificent partner for life. 

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