Highfield Campus 100: 1940s

The Second World War was a period of both anxiety and opportunity for University College, Southampton. The decision not to evacuate the Highfield site allowed the College to play a full part in wartime training and education, and to undertake research related to the war effort but meant that students and staff were potentially at risk from enemy action.

Above Bar, looking south. December 1940 [Cope photograph SOU 91.5 ABO ph2809]

Lying on the outskirts of Southampton, the College escaped the destruction seen in the town centre and port area, where approximately 2,630 bombs and 31,000 incendiaries killed 631 people and wounded a further 1,882. At Highfield, precautions against enemy attack included nine air raid shelters, blast walls and several static water tanks, with a fire truck standing by for the twenty-four hour fire patrol. Inevitably, the College suffered some damage; in 1940 an incendiary bomb set fire to one of the First World War huts, Highfield Hall received widespread blast damage on two occasions in 1941, South Stoneham House was damaged when bombs fell nearby and on 15 May 1944 the most serious damage was caused when a bomb landed close to the Zoology and Geology Building. Rumour had it that the exhibits from the Geology Museum were swept up with the rest of the rubble.

University College, Southampton A.R.P. Handbook (1941) [Univ. Coll. LF 785.8]

The war saw the College expand. It was urged to take as many undergraduates in science and engineering as possible, courses being reduced to two years, the maximum period of deferment prior to call-up and the period for which new Government bursaries were awarded. At the same time the number of technical students taking certificate and diploma courses also increased. The marine engineering courses and those of the new School of Radio-Telegraphy, which supplied engineers and wireless operators to the Merchant Navy, were particularly important in the war effort. Officers, British and Polish were trained at the Department of Navigation, based at South Stoneham House. In a new departure, training was also provided for the armed services, 2,146 trainees having participated in courses by July 1942. The College was also one of only four university institutions to host intensive six month cadet courses for the Royal Air Force.

Teaching a three year course in two years placed a heavy burden on staff in some departments but in others student numbers fell, with Law and Theology closing. A demand for adult education kept many staff busy. The bulk of the work, undertaken alongside the Workers’ Educational Association, proved to be in providing lectures, short courses and classes on a range of subjects to members of the armed forces stationed locally. By 1943/44 the combined number of extra-mural civilian and service students reached 2,864.

Key members of staff were seconded to the war effort, including Professor Betts of History who advised the BBC on Czech broadcasting, Professor Cave-Browne-Cave of Engineering who went to the Ministry of Home Security as Director of Camouflage, whilst Dr Zepler of Physics moved to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge. Research directly related to the war continued, including methods of water recovery for desert vehicles, design of assault bridges, equipment for testing gyro navigation instruments and investigations related to poison gases and defence against their use.

New Engineering Building [MS1/Phot/ 22/5/1 p.14]

With all this activity, pressure on space increased and the College was fortunate in having been allowed to complete the new Engineering Building in 1939 and the Union and Refectory in 1940. Wartime spirit saw temporary accommodation offered to others, including the Southampton Food Office and staff from Supermarine, who were housed briefly in the old Refectory and the Geography Hut when the Woolston factory was bombed in September 1940. Halls of residence welcomed, amongst others, French soldiers after Dunkirk, students from University College, London and nurses bombed out of the Royal South Hants Hospital.

The new Union and Refectory Building c.1941 [MS1/Phot/11/4]

For students, the war brought intensive study and a more restricted life. Male students on full-time courses were required to join the Senior Training Corps or the University Air Squadron, the teaching day being extended to accommodate the STC’s daily lunchtime parade. Pressure on time led some student societies to close, whilst travel difficulties affected sporting fixtures. One unforeseen effect of the war was the sanctioning of the first mixed hall of residence, when shortage of space saw men admitted to the women’s Highfield Hall.

Entertainments continued as far as possible, although the Annual Report of 1941 noted ‘considerable feeling’ in the Union about dances ending at 8.30. Presumably this did not apply to the dance held to mark the end of the war which Senate ‘very kindly consented to  … as the most pleasant way of celebration.’

Senior Training Corps on parade outside the Union [MS1/2/4/11]

Many students had contributed directly to the war effort by working with the A.R.P., the Women’s Voluntary Service and Southampton Information Service, where they acted as messengers, drivers, typists and loud-speaker van announcers. Students had also raised funds for the International Student Service which was engaged in relief work with refugee students and prisoners of war. Some twenty-three refugee students had received free tuition at the College, a Committee having been set up in February 1939 to provide assistance to refugee scholars.

Sixty-eight of those who passed through the College prior to armed service lost their lives in the conflict. They are commemorated on the War Memorial Tablet, unveiled by Sir Samuel Gurney-Dixon, Chairman of Council,  on 7th November 1948.

Sir Samuel Gurney-Dixon unveiling the War Memorial Tablet,  University of Southampton Press Cuttings v.2 [Rare Books Univ. Coll. LF 787.62]

As an institution, University College, Southampton had had ‘a good war’ and was certainly in a better financial  position in 1945 than it had been in 1939. Revenue from student fees, a bequest from Professor Lyttel of History and an increase in the County Council grant meant that at the end of war its deficit had decreased from a pre-war figure of £39,000 to £14,000.

The College’s post-war success owed much to forward planning. A 1942 publication, Looking Forward Looking Back, spoke of its aspirations as an educational institution – the importance of independent work in laboratory and library, the need to avoid increases in tuition fees and of promoting a ‘corporate life’ based on knowledge and understanding of the aims and objects of the College. In contrast, The Needs of University College Southampton in the Post-War Period (1944) gave a list of objectives, costed and divided into three phases. The first would see a general strengthening of academic departments, the acquisition of land, extensions to existing buildings, a new Assembly Hall and new Chemistry building, and would require capital expenditure of £258,110. Later phases would bring additional staff, further development of the Highfield site and more halls of residence.

With these ambitious plans, the College found itself pushing against an open door in terms of Government support. There was a scheme of further education for ex-service personnel, a policy of increasing the number of graduates, especially in science and engineering, and financial support available for such activities.

Sir Robert Wood  [MS1/Phot/39/ph 3125]

In 1946 the Principal, Kenneth Vickers, retired and was replaced by Sir Robert Wood, a civil servant, whose skills were well suited to the new era. When the University Grants Committee (which on a visit had commented on the poor accommodation and extremely low academic salaries) requested a statement of needs and proposals, the College was ready with its plan. The number of full-time undergraduates would increase to 1,000 to 1,300 (the current figure being 586) and the related building programme would require £650,000-£700,000 in capital expenditure.

The proposals ultimately proved too ambitious in post-war Britain, but during the next three years the College did receive around £360,000 in capital grants allowing it to achieve many of its goals. It acquired the disused brickfield behind the Union and Refectory Building and the Glen Eyre Estate at Bassett, earmarked for halls of residence. The new Assembly Hall was completed by March 1949, the Institute of Education Building being finished later the same year as were the first student houses at Glen Eyre. The new Chemistry Building was opened in stages between 1948 and 1952.

View of Glen Eyre Wessex News (1st November, 1949) [Univ. Coll. per LF 789.9]

Steps were taken to improve academic departments in part by reducing the number of technical courses and freeing staff time for university work. From the session of 1947/48 basic courses were transferred to Southampton Education Authority, leading to a reduction in number of technical students, which in 1946/7 had stood at almost 3,000 compared with 586 undergraduates.

The College had received a special commendation for its contribution to the war effort in terms of electronics and radio-technology and in 1947 Electronics was recognised as a department in its own right. In 1949, Dr Zepler, who returned from Cambridge after the war, became the department’s first Professor. Both Philosophy and Geography became independent departments, whilst those of Law and Theology were revived. The social sciences faculty envisaged by Professor Percy Ford came closer to realisation with the introduction of courses in public administration, accountancy and social work. The College also became home to the new Institute of Education which was to provide for the organisation of the teacher training in the area, in cooperation with the local education authorities and training colleges.

Institute of Education Building [MS/1/ Phot/22/5/1 p.16]

By 1948, the number of undergraduates had grown from a pre-war figure of 325 to 892. Despite South Stoneham reverting to a men’s hall of residence on the Department of Navigation’s move to Warsash, the College could no longer accommodate its students and by 1947 appeals for approved lodgings for 300 students had to be made in the local press.

Student societies thrived, the Dramatic and Choral being two of the most successful. The session of 1948/49 saw the new Assembly Hall in use for a production of Twelfth Night, as a venue for the Debating Society and for badminton, gym and boxing. Wessex News, which had ceased publication in June 1944, was revived in 1946 carrying all the news of student life.

1947/48 brought the revival of the College Rag – suspended in 1930 for being too riotous. The Rag Procession of around 700 students took place on 10 February 1948, other highlights being the ‘Gaslight Gaieties’ show on the Royal Pier, a Rag Ball and the Goblio, a rag magazine, full of jokes which have not necessarily stood the test of time. After this, Rag once again became a regular event.

Goblio (1949) [Univ. Coll. per LF 789.9]

Goblio (1948) [Univ. Coll. per LF 789.9]

At the end of 1940s the College’s past lingered in the ‘shanty-town’ of First World War huts which remained at Highfield but the new redbrick buildings were a sign of progress. In June 1949 Sir Robert Wood achieved a major breakthrough in the quest for independent University status, when London University agreed to a ‘special relationship’ between the two institutions. This allowed College staff, appointed by London, to cooperate in setting and marking exams in order to establish academic standards prior to Southampton awarding its own degrees. Following the agreement, degrees were conferred for the first time, not in London but in Southampton, at the Presentation Day held at the Guildhall on 5 November 1949.

Find out how ‘the College’ became ‘the University’ next month as we reach the 1950s.

Article on the importance of Presentation Day by Sir Robert Wood Wessex News 1st November 1949 [Univ. Coll. per LF 789.9]

Many digitised sources for the history of the University are available at Internet Archive

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