Legends from a Golden Age

Undergraduate memories, 1953-1957

…a community of scholars; small enough to allow the most junior member to feel valued, yet able to attract world leaders in a wide range of studies.

Since those days the world has changed in so many ways-not all for the better. The changes pose the question; In our expansion of Higher Education to “Degree Factories” have we lost something of great value in the student experience of present day Undergraduates who find themselves with enormous debts on graduation?

In our day, all my University tuition and residential fees were paid by the state and in addition I received £70 per year expenses. Without this support there is no way we could aspire to a University Education.

Reviewing the undergraduate lives of myself and the class of 1953, we were indeed fortunate to experience an almost “Ruritanian” ideal. First of all consider the change in size. The Chemistry intake of 1953 was about twenty students. Current assessments would consider this to be far too small to be viable. We new students were allocated a place in one of the Colleges and prior to entry we were all assessed by the University and College authorities. In my case I was interviewed for the Chemistry Department by Dr. George Christie. The interview was all about the later String Quartets of Beethoven, not a single Chemistry related topic was discussed. The Principal of St. Cuthbert’s, Emile de Groot, an eminent Historian, questioned me on the validity of a historian writing on the History of Science. I remember being arrogant enough to propose that only a competent scientist should write a history of his subject. The Principal was generous enough to let me get away with this even though it was obvious he strongly disagreed!

Having satisfied the interviews and obtained the required A level certificates, we joined the university in October with a week of induction classes where our expected behaviour was clearly defined, e.g. academic dress had to be worn for all lectures and around Durham City after dusk. The definition of dusk was hotly debated throughout my time at Durham, but with the single exception of laboratory classes academic dress was de rigeur at all times. We undergraduates with our plain black gowns had it easy. Senior members were often seen with exotic fur hoods saturated with the incessant rain. But it has to be admitted that this dress code did significantly enhance the academic ambience about the town and university.

The compact structure of Durham in those days, with both the senior and junior members of the university working and living in close proximity allowed gossip, now elevated to the status of legend by five decades of time, to make an indelible impact on us new students. There were many members of the academic staff whose behaviour was considered somewhat eccentric. An aged tiny man in a scarlet red opera cape could be found shuffling up the Bailey. We understood he had made important contributions to Mathematics but was concerned that in his later years his mental powers were in decline. It was said that he set his large gold hunter pocket watch to the BBC time signal at precisely midnight on New Years Eve, and for the next year calculated the time knowing the precision of the watch mechanism. It was something of a sport by undergraduates to ask him the time and check his response on their own modern watches. Much to his credit he was never found to be wrong.

As we walked along Quarryheads Lane on our way to the Science Buildings we passed the homes of many academics. The Professor of Music at the time was strongly of the opinion that electronic reproduction and amplification was distorting the musical experience. He would have none of it. Accordingly, he had the most enormous acoustic horn attached to a mechanical reproduction system involving fibre needles and plastic discs. Often on a summer's morning we would see him clad in a thick dressing gown sitting on his front lawn, with the French windows of his lounge wide open transported to another planet by the music from the horn which flooded the entire vicinity.

His near neighbour was the Professor of Geology, Kingsley Charles Dunham, destined to become Sir Kingsley, who lived in a neat futuristic designed house Charlie Croft. In a competition to find the best dressed University Professor he would be a likely winner, as he strode out immaculate in his three-piece suit and polished black shoes each morning.

At the opposite end of any such scale of sartorial excellence was one of our Physical Chemistry lecturers Dr. C.W.Gibby, who had worked with the Nobel Prize winner Lord Bragg on the development of X-ray diffraction methods, but by this time his chief interest was in keeping goats. He would often come to the lecture theatre from feeding his goats dressed in a khaki ex army coat and dirty black wellingtons. Those of us with a sensitive well-developed sense of smell wisely occupied the back row of the lecture room!

My college tutor was Dr. Fred Stewart, another one destined to be a knight of the realm, but then lecturer in Geology. Tutors who didn’t live in College invited their tutees to their homes from time to time. It was on such occasion that Mrs. Stewart, the future Lady Mary Stewart, world-renowned novelist, somewhat indiscreetly regaled us with stories about our tutor, “Some men sit and think, Fred just sits!” And again on how she had tried to gain an introduction to her future husband. Knowing that the eligible Dr. Stewart walked to the science labs each morning along the river bank at the same time, she hatched a scheme to take out a rowing boat and deliberately capsize as Fred was level on the bank. All went well with the plan, she capsized and floundered in the water screaming for help, but Fred, instead of leaping in the river to save her, walked on by deep in thought, without any response at all! Nevertheless their eventual marriage lasted to find Mary Stewart a world famous and millionaire author and Fred, Sir Fred, Professor at Edinburgh, President of the Royal Geological Society and FRS.

These domestic occasions were a revelation to us undergraduates. The generous hospitality of the Stewarts was our first exposure to such delights as green Chartreuses, malt whiskies and fine wines. To our palates, whose previous alcoholic exposure was limited to the rare light ale this was a revelation. Little is remembered on how we returned to our respective rooms after these tutorials! Our Head of Chemistry was Professor G.E. Coates who at 36 years of age must have been one of the youngest Professors in the UK. Much to his credit he was still personally active in research. I was much honoured to be invited to carry out my final year project in the Professorial Laboratory. He constantly told us that the current small scale experiments in vogue were a mistake. Consequently his own preparations were on a rather large size. One evening he had left an ether solution to evaporate overnight in a fume cupboard. Unaware that there had been a power failure shutting down the fans, the following morning he pushed up the front of the fume cupboard now full of ether vapour and lit the Bunsen Burner. The subsequent explosion blew out all the windows and the Professor out into the corridor with the Lab door on top of him. The Professor of Physics, Wagstaff, a small highly disciplined man with an Edwardian moustache, was passing by as Coates and the door landed. It is reported he looked down at the situation and simply remarked “Really Coates, you must be more careful, you might have hurt me!” The press reported that “Professor Coates had been hurt in a serious explosion when a fume cupboard, on which he is a world authority, exploded.” For a long time after that Coates was asked for his opinion on recent fume cupboard developments! College life generated its own fund of legends. Formal Dinners in Hall introduced us to many distinguished guests, including H.C. Urey who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1934 for his discovery of the heavy isotopes of hydrogen. And Robert Frost the poet, who read some of his work on a balmy afternoon in St. Cuthbert’s Garden. Perhaps needless to say students generated a fund of legends themselves. St Cuthbert’s had a very fine broad wooden staircase running up three floors, presenting an irresistible challenge. The Authorities made it quite clear that they would take serious action on any student caught sliding down this banister, which of course made the attraction even greater. Considerable prestige was confirmed on any student who had been seen to successfully negotiate this challenge. One of our associates was goaded to attempt this slide on what was thought to be a quiet afternoon. He mounted the banister on the third floor at right angle to his proposed direction of travel. The banister was newly polished so diminishing his control of speed of descent. By the time he was approaching the final stretch leading to the ground floor he was travelling at quite a pace. His right angle configuration seriously reduced his vision of the staircase itself, and so he had no time to avoid the Professor of Divinity, a future Archbishop of Canterbury, slowly ascending carrying a large pile of books. The inevitable collision scattered the books and the two men themselves. When the student recovered and realised the enormity of his crime he yelled, “Oh! My God!” To which the future head of the Anglican Church, dusting himself down responded, “Incognito, of course.” No more was said of the incident, and the expected expulsion, or fire and brimstone at least, never materialised.

There were many magical occasions. One of the most memorable was a performance of The Messiah in the Cathedral at Christmas with most of the University in attendance in full academic dress. A pure delight.

But to return to our original question, is it possible to define the essential quality of our undergraduate experience that we so value it more than half a century later? It certainly wasn’t the quality of the taught courses, which were sometimes very casual. I still have my final year Lecture Notes showing that the Head of Chemistry lecturing to his final year students had a lapse of memory when discussing the preparation of a specific compound. My notes simply show “Preparation:- You get it from a bottle!!”

Perhaps the essential feature is to provide an environment where knowledge itself is valued above all else, and this philosophy is transmitted by a diffusion process into others. Perhaps how to learn is all we can teach. The details of any subject is then taught by the student himself.

Yes, Durham University more than half a century ago was indeed a very special place. It is to be hoped in adapting to present day situations, that the University is able to retain some of the features that my generation enjoyed and which endowed us with such life enhancing times. Thank you and very best wishes for the future.

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