Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[107] University


As I clear up the remaining topics I am getting towards some odds and ends. This will be about University life in the sixties but I am going to go back a few years to some more about school. There may be a bit of duplication.
National Curriculum and SATs

The fifties were well before the National Curriculum . Schools had their own curriculum and they got on with it. They certainly did not explain it to the parents and of course the parents didn’t ask. Schools were managed by local authority Education Departments, which were controlled by central government. So, presumably all schools taught the same basic curriculum.

There were tests and exams every year. Reports would show how we did in our particular class at school but there was no national coordination. To be honest, every class could have different exams and we didn’t even coordinate results over the whole year group.

GCE subjects

You will have read about Ilford County High School and my experience was just of Grammar Schools. Most (but not all) were all-boys schools or all-girls schools. Here the curriculum included English, Mathematics (without calculators), Latin, French, History, Geography, Physics and Chemistry.

When we came to GCE ‘O’ Level English Language, English Literature, Mathematics and French were compulsory with options on other subjects – other languages (Latin, Greek, Spanish or German) or sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Biology or General Science) or humanities (History, Geography or Art).

Almost all Grammar School pupils would achieve 5 or 6 “O” Levels with the best passing eight or nine. This was of the order of 20% of the school population at that age. This standard is what they now call GCSE grade AA to C and the expectation now is that 60% of children will achieve this in six subjects. Some might say that teaching has improved, others may think that the standard has been adjusted. I will let you guess where you think I lie in this discussion.

A Level

Those who achieved the required “O” Levels went on to the final two years – then known as the Lower Sixth and the Upper Sixth. They studied for “A” Levels, specializing in three subjects. (The main exception was for Mathematicians who would take Physics, Chemistry, Pure Mathematics and Applied mathematics.)

We were still limited to the same subject choice with perhaps the addition of Music and Art. The aim was to achieve entry to University and almost all Sixth Form students succeeded in this. Those who could not quite make the grades required for University might go into teaching as a career. Teacher training Colleges then did not provide the same degree level education standard as universities.

University Entrance

There were far fewer University places and correspondingly fewer pupils who passed the required GCSE – normally 2 or 3 “A” levels were needed with 5 “O” Levels including Mathematics and English and a modern language.

Subjects at University were largely restricted to the traditional subjects which were still the main options at school as listed above. There were degrees available in Botany or Zoology rather than Biology. There were also some traditional subjects which had never been specific “A” level options – Economics, Statistics, Medicine, Law, Psychology, Geology and Astronomy, and some more narrowly defined options like Medieval English, Italian, Theoretical Physics, Biochemistry, History of Art. There were none of the more modern subjects like Sociology, Media Studies, Theatre, Sports Studies and of course there was nothing even remotely like Computing or Information Technology.

School Careers

In theory schools had Careers departments to advise pupils on their future after school. There were some advisory brochures in the library but these were more or less just those provided by each university to its potential applicants.

We had Mr Rigby, a Mathematics teacher, who covered careers and university applications. I think each pupil had a brief interview with him about which universities to apply to. I remember mine.

Space was limited at school. The Headmaster had an office. The Deputy Head had one – no, he didn’t – he used the Art store cupboard! Yes, he did. Poor Mr Rigby did not have anything. He did his interviews in his car in the school car park.

UCCA form

As a diversion let’s look at UCCA, the Universities Central Council on Admissions, which dealt with university applications in the UK from 1961. [In those days there were things called polytechnics, instituting various diplomas and some degrees, generally considered as of lower status than universities. In parallel with the UCCA scheme there was a scheme for the polytechnics called the Polytechnics Central Admissions System (PCAS). All degrees were supervised by the CNAA, the Council for National Academic Awards. In 1992 CNAA was abolished, all polytechnics became independent universities and UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service was formed by merging UCCA and PCAS. As a resident of Cheltenham I have to point out that UCCA, initially in London, moved to Cheltenham in 1968.]

University Applications

There were two important things about these application forms which we did in the first term of the Upper Sixth.

Firstly there was a section where we all had to write a description of ourselves including hobbies and anything we thought might influence the decision to award a place. So we joined clubs, did jobs, helped with voluntary activities – or at least we said we did. I am sure that some put in comments that were not totally accurate. (Not me of course.)

For the other point you will have to remember how much we were pre-computers. The form was handwritten without automatic spell-checking and correction and it was assumed that the accuracy of our English and the quality of our handwriting were important. This was a fountain pen job and we did it on a piece of paper first to get it right. A lot of time and effort went into it. At the appropriate time we were gathered together in a classroom, allocated time to write it out correctly, supervised and helped. A mistake or a blotted letter could be fatal. There were one or two spare forms but basically we had to get it right the first time.

Student Finances

In the fifties, student grants were provided to all students to cover fees and living expenses. Some students worked either during the holidays or in the evenings during term time and by the end of the year most kept more or less solvent. Grants were means tested with the adjustment of a ‘parental contribution’, and in general parents paid the sums which were expected of them – even though a degree course could take students well over the (then) age of majority of 21. I remember for my first year I was assessed at £305 rather than the full £370. (Yes that’s for a whole year. Dad did not make up the difference so I lived on £305. It wasn’t too difficult. I think that the fees were about £2000 per year but they were transparent. Students had nothing to do with them – it was handled by the grant.)

For many the receipt of a first student grant cheque would represent the first need to arrange their finances and set up a bank account. No students ever had either a credit card or a debit card (- nor did anyone else!) I set up a National Giro account in my first few days at university.

So at the end of a University course few students had acquired significant debts. There simply were not the banking facilities for them to do so! I did some work in the holidays. Two weeks working as a temporary postman before Christmas was a popular job for students.


I won’t say much more about how universities were different then but I will come to life at university later.

Two things about life in general affected the way things were done. Firstly, everything was more formal.

Also, while students were under 21 they were still minors in the eyes of the law, and university and college officials maintained a position of control in loco parentis. They looked after the moral welfare of the students and this continued even when they passed the age of 21. Basically this meant discouraging alcohol and sex. The Universities and Colleges were mostly mixed but halls of residence were all separated by sex. [OK, now we would say by gender.] Oxford and Cambridge colleges were nearly all for men only, with a few for women only.

We had to be back in by in college by 10:00 p.m. and men were strictly forbidden to entertain women guests overnight. (There were, of course, ways round some of these technical restrictions. Although colleges were surrounded by high walls with a Porter’s Lodge controlling access out of hours, there was generally a well-known convenient tree which could be climbed.)


I went to one of the colleges of Cambridge University and studied Mathematics. (I won’t go into the differences between Oxford and Cambridge and other universities, which were more marked in those days. I had to stay another term at school, applied to Cambridge outside the UCCA scheme, took GCE ‘S’ level and Cambridge entrance exams.)

Teaching was effectively lecture based. Each year we chose various topics to study. Lectures ran for the term and for Mathematics the times were 9-10, 10-11, 11-12 and 12-1 on Monday to Saturday. Option choices meant that we each did two each day. For example, one topic might be 10:00 to 11:00 on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. It was generally accepted that the actual times left five minutes each end to walk between the different lecture halls.

There was always the pretentious idea that you said you were ‘reading’ a university subject rather than studying it. At the first lecture of each course the lecturer would supply a list of recommended books, which we would buy at great expense. I always assumed that the lectures defined the course content and only used text books to clarify things from the lecture if necessary.

We each had a Director of Studies and I think the theory was that we met once a week for individual tuition. With increasing numbers it we had groups of two or three and postgraduate students (studying for Ph. D. in Mathematics under the same Director of Studies,) deputized. We were set homework from the text books that we might talk about at the next session – it was never formally assessed.

At the end of each year we had three-hour examinations and these were the only means of assessment. There was no hint of coursework.


You may wonder what part computers played in my Mathematics degree. Well some universities had some computer facilities but Cambridge was not an early user of them in education. There was one small course in our choice of options called something like Computing but it had nothing to do with using computers. It was about numerical analysis, a mathematical technique using iterative methods that was suited to computers. No one studying Mathematics there ever saw a computer.


University Life

Remember here that I am talking a about Pembroke College, Cambridge. The picture above, taken from their web-site now, looks unchanged from when I was there in the late sixties!

  • Eating

The central building was a large Hall which served as the location for our formal evening meal served together to the whole student population at a series of long tables. (We could see the Master and Fellows at High Table at the end.)

I don’t think attendance was actually compulsory but it was included in the overall term boarding costs. It was a three-course meal (with no choice) served by college servants. To us it was quite posh, the sort of thing you might have in restaurants, and there were sometimes more unusual things like Jugged Hare.

Breakfast and lunch were available in the same hall but on an informal basis. They were optional and we queued up and signed in. Some lunches were more popular than others with Egg, Bacon, Sausage and Tomato coming high on the list. Breakfast was virtually unattended.

Often it was cheaper to eat less in our college rooms. There was a shop called the Buttery supplying some basic food on tick. (It went on to the college bill paid at the end of term.) To be honest I can’t remember what I used to eat but mostly I went into Hall for lunch and survived on biscuits.

  • Rooms and Facilities

Rooms did not have much in the way of facilities for cooking. My first room in college was a small bed sitting room. It had a bed, a desk and chair for studying, a small wooden bookcase and presumably one easy chair. It had a gas fire. There was no television – we went to the Junior Common Room (JCR) for that. The JCR was packed for Top of the Pops and Pan’s People.

On a landing with four such rooms we shared a single toilet and two gas rings for cooking. The gas rings were really only used for instant coffee. The usual practice after evening Hall was for large numbers to go back to someone’s room for coffee and chat.

For a telephone we could use the payphone. I think the college had just one.

Baths were in a block the other side of the site – a long walk not taken too often. I probably had a bath every week and shaved every two weeks. Somewhere on the site was our own little laundry facility but clothes could last a long time for students.

In years two and three most students moved to rooms in town in shared flats. I was lucky enough to be allowed to stay in college but moved to another room. I think I brought a small portable TV to my room, which was much the same as the first one.

  • Bedders

The days of individual servants had gone but we were left with ‘bedders’ who came every morning. They may have done a bit of tidying but basically they made the beds. (It was before duvets. We had sheets and blankets.)

I’m not saying anything about my personal life but you had to get on well with yours if you accidentally allowed a girl to stay overnight.

  • Gowns

I think Oxford and Cambridge were behind other universities in abandoning the formal dress requirements but on the first day we had to buy gowns. They were required for four things: in Hall in the evenings; during formal examinations; at the University Library and after dark in town! Yes, we really did need them for this. If you were caught without one you were fined by the Proctors (who had legal rights to police students.)The standard fine was 6s 8d. More serious offences, which usually involved being drunk, could cost 13s 4d (That’s 33.3 pence and 66.7 pence!)

The formal hood that went with the gown was only required at Graduation ceremonies, where it could be hired. (For Graduation you needed the BA Gown, which was not the same as an undergraduate gown.)

  • Dons

We saw little of the dons at University, the Master and Fellows. We all had a Tutor who was in charge of what we might call pastoral care. He was our point of contact for anything. He would try to get to know us by social events. As far as I remember these were always sherry parties – probably before evening Hall. Of course the easy way to persuade students to attend anything was to provide free alcohol and in those days sherry was what people drank. I think there were two or three every term and also occasionally similar soirees with Directors of Studies and even the Master. The Dean, M B Dewey, was a more enigmatic character. He invited small groups to tea parties.

  • Personal

To put my time at university into perspective you have to realise that I was not a typical student. I was and still am very introverted. At university I never got to know even the students in rooms next mine or the others from Pembroke doing Mathematics. And I took the need to study very seriously.

I attended almost all the lectures. Some students didn’t bother. I took copious notes on a large foolscap note pad. Then I went back to my room and copied the notes neatly into exercise books making sure that I understood everything. This might take a couple of hours. When the lecturer said: “It can be easily shown …” I might spend a long time poring through textbooks to make sure I got it right.

I must have visited the JCR a few times every day. As well as providing a television set it was the location of pigeon-holes for incoming mail and internal mail. It would be wrong to suggest that we had junk mail but I think Endsleigh Insurance were always trying to sell Student Insurance. It was a common room full of comfortable chairs and daily papers and magazines were available to read there.

What else did I do? I read a lot of books. I had a transistor radio. I wrote letters to my girlfriend – proper letters on Basildon Bond paper. In the daytime I must have walked around town a little and done some shopping for food. Once or twice I ventured into other colleges but I never ventured out of town. I think once or twice I went to an Indian restaurant on my own. But I never went into a cafe or pub for a drink and I did not make friends. I think most of the students did do a lot of café drinking.

[Don’t worry, I have made up for it in later life. I can manage a coffee and cake almost every day now – sometimes two!]

I am not sure how but I did take up Tenpin Bowling. This was a craze from the USA that spread widely about that time and has since died down a lot. I played for the University and about once a month we travelled to other universities for matches.

Of course I did not have a laptop computer or tablet or mobile phone or any form of computer games machine!

 I survived my three years there and graduated with a B.A in Mathematics.


Marie de St Pol, Countess of Pembroke (1303-1377) widow of the Earl of Pembroke, Aymer de Valence, founded Pembroke College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve 1347 when Edward III granted her the licence for the foundation of a new educational establishment in the young university at Cambridge. The Hall of Valence Mary, as it was originally known, was thus founded to house a body of students and fellows. The college was later renamed Pembroke Hall, and finally became Pembroke College in 1856. There were some instances when individual colleges were identified when Pembroke used the letter V.

The arms of the college shown above are: Barry of ten argent and azure, an orle of martlets gules (for De Valence), dimidiated with, Gules three pales vaire and a chief or with a label of five points azure (for St. Pol). This coat was confirmed to the college at the Visitation of 1684.

I still get a regular magazine called the Martlet. [A martlet is a stylised bird with no legs.]



Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

5 thoughts on “[107] University

  1. Dear Alan:

    I must tell you how very much I enjoy your remembrances. Thank you very much for sharing them. Best, Hilary

    Sent from my iPad



  2. I loved your piece on your experiences at secondary schools and university. I had a much more haphazard education attending a comprehensive school, leaving at 16, going to night school and day release from my job as a local government clerk, going to a College of Education in Manchester, going to the University of British Columbia for summer school, attending the University of Alberta to complete a B.Ed, and then for years and years doing grad work at the University of Alberta. You did it the proper way: You went to Britain’s most admired university–Cambridge.


  3. Pingback: [109] Growing Up | Remembrance of Things Past

  4. Pingback: [113] All Manner of Things Shall be Well | Remembrance of Things Past

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