In Memory of Jessie Durbidge, B.A. (1905-1927)

Jessie Durbidge was a former student of University College, Reading and a teacher at Alfred Sutton Primary School. She died tragically of influenza in 1927 at the age of 21.

Jessie became a focus of interest as a result of recent research conducted by Professor Yota Dimitriadi and others into the burials in Reading Old Cemetery. Unfortunately, Jessie’s grave is unmarked and the precise location is unknown at present.

Jessie’s short life was recently commemorated on the cemetery website by Dr Rhi Smith of Reading University’s Museums and Special Collections Services. Dr Smith’s biography of Jessie can be found here.

Some additional information about her is contained in the University’s Special Collections and in the archives of Kendrick School.

Reading’s Special collections

Details of Jessie’s time as a student are fairly sparse – the annual report of the University College for 1923-24 states that she passed the Intermediate Arts Examination of the University of London in July 1924. And the Proceedings of the University for 1926-27 shows her degree from the University of London as ‘B.A., November, 1926. Pass, Division II.’

Jessie belonged to one of the last cohorts of students at Reading who were  entered for external degrees because their enrolment preceded the granting of the Royal Charter in 1926.

The short obituary below was published in the Old Student News in April 1927, part of a list that shows she wasn’t the only former student who failed to recover from an attack of influenza.

Old Students obit
Death notice published in Reading’s Old Student News.
Kendrick school

The archives of Kendrick School are a richer source of information thanks to the preservation of copies of the Kendrick Girls’ Magazine and the records of those leaving the school.

example of the magazine
School magazine from 1922 (the archives of Kendrick School)

Under the heading ‘Prefects’ Notes’, Jessie’s appointment as the new Head Girl was recorded in the Summer 1922 issue. A few pages later there appears an enthusiastic review of a charity concert written by a J. Durbidge. The event had taken place in St John’s Hall and had raised £15 in aid of the East Reading Day Nursery.

In Autumn 1923, a paragraph in the magazine’s editorial recorded Jessie’s move into higher education:

‘We are pleased to have good news of our former head girl… Jessie Durbidge is working for Intermediate Arts at University College, Reading, her subjects being English, History, Latin and Mathematics… we send our best wishes for the coming year.’

The same opening page documents Jessie’s success in the Oxford and Cambridge Higher Certificate and contains the following ‘Prefects’ Notes’:

‘We were very sorry to lose, at the end of last term, our Head Girl, Jessie Durbidge, and our Deputy Head Girl, Muriel Beasley, both of whom held office for five terms.’

Jessie’s final leaving record is shown below. It shows that she was a day-scholar who progressed to Kendrick in the Autumn of 1916 from Battle Primary School. Before her success in the Oxford and Cambridge Higher Certificate noted above, she had achieved Class I Honours in the Senior Oxford Examination in 1921.

Edited final record

Following her death, this obituary was published in the school magazine in the summer of 1927:

‘On March 25th, at Marlborough Nursing Home, Jessie Durbidge, B. A., of 16, Gloucester Road, aged 21.

It is with the deepest regret that we record the passing of Jessie Durbidge, who had been so helpful to the School as a Prefect and Head Girl prior to 1923, and from 1923-1926 was a Student at Reading University. In November last she had graduated as B.A., and had been appointed to Alfred Sutton Junior School.

Jessie had served on the Old Kendrick’s Committee since January 1924, and a wreath was sent in the name of O.K.G.A. friends and committee, in memory of one who had served the Association so happily and helpfully.’

It was not possible to identify Jessie on a school photograph of the time, but the enlarged section of an image from 1919 below shows how she and her fellow pupils might have looked during that period.

Detail of school photo
From the archives of Kendrick School
Thanks to:

Dr Emma Duncan of Kendrick School who searched the school archives for references to Jessie, and to the School for permission to quote from these sources and reproduce them here;

Dr Rhianedd Smith, Director of Academic Learning and Engagement, University Museums and Special Collections Services, University of Reading;

Professor Yota Dimitriadi of the Institute of Education, University of Reading. A book edited by Yota about Reading Old Cemetery is due to be published soon by Two Rivers Press. The provisional title is ‘Beyond the Arch’.


Kendrick School. Kendrick Girls’ Magazine, Summer Term 1922.

Kendrick School. Kendrick Girls’ Magazine, Autumn Term 1923.

Kendrick School. Kendrick Girls’ Magazine, Summer Term 1927.

The University, Reading. Old Student News, No. 13, April 1927.

University College, Reading. Accounts & Reports, 1923-24.

University of Reading. Proceedings of the University, 1926-27.

Every Woman’s Encyclopædia and Fine Arts at Reading

‘The notion that an art student is a reckless creature, unable to handle any implement other than a pencil or brush, is sternly discouraged.’ (Article about Fine Arts at University College, Reading, Every Woman’s Encyclopædia, 1910, p. 2838)

This blog recently described the buildings and location  of the Department of the Fine Arts on the London Road Campus. At times, it has also mentioned members of the Fine Arts Department such as Robert Gibbings, the celebrated wood engraver, underwater artist and travel writer, and Allen W. Seaby.

This post looks at the Department in 1910 when Seaby was still a lecturer. though he was soon to become Director of the Department and eventually Professor of Fine Art. A product of the Department himself, having obtained his Diploma in 1903, he made an  impressive contribution to the culture of the College and University. Previous posts have referred to Seaby’s design of the bookplate for St Andrew’s Hall, his early educational research, the picture of the Great Hall by moonlight, sketches of the grebes on Whiteknights Lake and his participation in the Farm School.

An Encyclopaedia Entry

In 1910, Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia published a four-page entry about Reading’s Fine Arts Department.


The article must have been a triumph of publicity for both the College and the Department. Information was provided about fees, hostels for women students (‘the dietary is under medical inspection’) and staffing of the Department. There was  praise for the well-stocked library and attention was drawn to the athletic ground and the common room where art students socialised with those studying a wide range of other subjects. The way that Fine Arts was successfully integrated within a well-developed higher education programme was described as ‘unique’.

One advantage of this was that art students had access to classes in other subjects. It also supplied them with a wide variety of subjects to draw and paint. Horticulture and Botany, for example, provided facilities for the flower painter and, ‘The animal painter … has access to the zoology professor and his museum’ (p. 2839; i.e. the Cole Museum).

Students making botanical drawings ‘direct from Nature’. (p. 2839)

Using animals, even horses, as subjects obviously formed a highly significant part of the Department’s work:

‘The study of animal painting and modelling from life is another branch of the training. A collection of small animals and a number of birds are kept specially on the premises to act as models. They are placed in pens on the grass in the centre of the class on sunny days, and, in bad weather or in winter time, in cages in one of the studios.’ (p. 2840)

‘Special arrangements are made to provide horse models’ (p. 2839). I am fairly sure that the man with his back to the camera, standing, is Allen Seaby

The curriculum included life classes that used professional models from London, and there was an emphasis on drawing from memory. One drawing-based craft such at etching, illuminating or colour printing was compulsory. Apparently, Reading was one of the rare institutions that taught colour printing using wood blocks. Other crafts included stained-glass work, artistic metalwork, leather work, wood carving, bookbinding and embroidery.

The ‘Life Room’ at London Road, c. 1910

One thing that seems strange is that allowing students to use colour rather than just drawing in black and white was apparently rather daring:

‘The more elementary students are often allowed to express their ideas of objects placed before them in colour, and as is now slowly being recognised, such colour exercises keenly stimulate their sense of form.’ (p. 2839)

Of particular importance was the fact that the Department was recognised by the Board of Education as a centre for teacher training. As well as the Department’s own Diploma,  therefore, students could qualify as art teachers in primary or secondary schools. It also gave them access to prizes and scholarships offered by the Board.

The entry provides a broad and entirely positive overview of the Department. There are inaccuracies, however – a minor but understandable error is the confusion between the University Extension College (formed in 1892) and University College, Reading (1902). What must have been more annoying at the time is the misspelling of Allen Seaby’s name as ‘Sealy’.

One discrepancy that I can’t explain is that Seaby, rather than Professor Collingwood, was described as Director of Fine Arts. According to the annual report for 1910-11, however, Seaby was not appointed Director until Collingwood’s resignation at Easter, 1911. All the other members of the Department who were listed in that year’s Calendar were mentioned in the article, including Walter Crane the Visiting Examiner.

Staff of the Department of the Fine Arts (University College, Reading Calendar, 1910-11)

The Curriculum as Presented in the College Calendar (1910-11)

The Calendar contains details of the scheme of work, the classes available, and regulations for the Diploma in Fine Art and Certicates in the various Crafts.

The curriculum was organised under groups of studies:

      • Drawing, Painting and Modelling.
      • Architecture.
      • The Artistic Handicrafts.
      • Design.
      • Methods of Teaching.

To qualify for the Diploma, students had to follow courses for no less than nine terms and perform satisfactorily in three out of five of the following: Drawing, Modelling, Painting, Design and Composition. In addition, they had to pass an examination in one subject from the Associate Examination in Letters and Science which they attended for one session.

Certificates courses lasted one session and were available in Metalwork, Wood Carving, Emboidery and Leather Work.

The School of Art’s New premises in 2023

In 1910 Fine Art was located in Building L4 at London Road, where Art Education can still be found today.

In the mean time, the University of Reading’s School of Art has come a long way from the original Department of Fine Arts. In 2023 it moved from Earley Gate to purpose-built premises close to the Pepper Lane entrance to the Campus.

The School of Art, January 2024

Distant, front



To Richard Keefe for passing on the extract from Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia.


University College, Reading: the Fine Arts Department. Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia, Vol. 4, 1910, pp. 2838-2841.

University College, Reading. Calendars, 1909-10 to 1911-12.

University College, Reading. Report to Council, 1911.

Elspeth Huxley and Reading: fact versus fiction

‘Writers must learn pretty quickly to disguise what they’re doing if they don’t want to end up in the libel courts.’ (Val McDermid, 2023)

My previous post about Elspeth Huxley dealt with her time at Reading as it was portrayed in the book, Love among the Daughters’. Her description of Reading and the London Road Campus was far from flattering.

The reviews and notices of the work label it ‘non-fiction’ even though it bears many characteristics of a novel. In the Evening News of 26th Sept. 1968 it was already listed fourth in the non-fiction best sellers; the following month it was ranked first, ahead of Kim Philby’s ‘My Silent War: the Autobiography of a Spy’ (there are those who claim that this contained elements of fiction, too). And in an interview with The Times on 16th September 1968, Huxley described it as autobiography. Nevertheless, it is generally regarded as an example of ‘fictionalised autobiography’, a genre in which changes to details of real people, places and events do not detract from the authenticity of the account.

There are several reasons to question the accuracy of the narrative:

    • a gap of over 40 years between the events described and publication;
    • changes calculated to avoid offending people who were still alive;
    • exaggeration and caricature for comic effect (the humour is a recurring theme of the book reviews; Christine Nichols, Huxley’s biographer, regarded it as one of her wittiest books);
    • Huxley’s own statements about her recollections;
    • discrepancies with historical records.

In August 1968 Huxley was interviewed on BBC Woman’s Hour by Marjorie Anderson. Here she gave a far more nuanced explanation of ‘autobiography’ than in her Times interview:

‘Well, it’s an autobiography in a sense, but it’s more of a recreation, more of a reconstruction of the period and of the impressions one had of life at that age than it is a chronological series of actual events. I don’t pretend to remember conversations which one had forty years ago, so one recreates the conversations, trying to make them true to the people one was conversing with – I mean one tries to create the atmosphere, but it’s much more of a creation of atmosphere than a chronicle.’ (Recorded 9th August 1968; broadcast 18th September 1968).

She further revealed that she never kept a diary but did have some notes that she made at Cornell and some old photographs.

Huxley’s Family

Elspeth stayed with her aunt, uncle and cousins on arrival in England and during the vacations. Although these periods have little relevance to her time in Reading, the treatment of her relatives illustrates her approach.

Gertrude, Kate and Joanna are the children of Aunt Madge and Uncle Jack. They are Elspeth’s cousins and ‘the daughters’ of the book’s title. All the above names are  pseudonyms, as is the case with other relatives and acquaintances.

Cousin Gertrude is a superficial 1920s flapper; Kate got herself expelled from her convent school for various crimes such as running a book on racehorses; Joanna, the youngest, attends a ‘smart’ school in Suffolk; Aunt Madge descends into weeks-long silent sulks; and the idiosyncratic, bigoted Uncle Jack seems angry, disapproving and withdrawn except when reminiscing about his regiment.

These caricatures are accompanied by other family members such as Aunt Lilli and Uncle Rufus (a less well-suited couple it is hardly possible to imagine), not to mention the bottom-pinching Lord Fulbright who insists on taking young women skating, and the withered Russian countess with a constipated parrot that attacks people’s ankles.

It is in such stereotypes, and those of some of the personalities at Reading, that much of the humour lies. It must be said, however, that some of the witty features that thrilled the critics of 1968 are far less hilarious for the modern reader – Lord Fulbright comes across as a sinister predator rather than an amiable eccentric; the casual racism and antisemitism in language and attitudes, the snobbery and patronising colonial attitudes, even if they accurately reflect and satirise the views of a particular section of society in the 1920s, can still come as a shock.

In Elspeth Huxley: a biography, Christine Nicholls documents the extent to which changes had to be made to avoid offending  living family members. In particular, the real-life Joanna didn’t want her daughter to know about her youthful indiscretions. Joanna’s adventurous character was therefore transferred to Kate, and references to drugs, illegitimacy and an abortion were deleted.

Reading and the College/University

In his master’s thesis, Richard Keefe confirms some details in the book, but also notes factual errors: the number of Women’s halls of residence, the size of the student population and the ratio of male to female students. Huxley claimed that ‘Girls were in the fortunate position of being heavily outnumbered by men’ (p. 48), whereas in fact the opposite was true. This misconception, which was perpetuated in the book reviews, and even her biography, must have resulted from Huxley’s experience among predominantly male Agriculture students.

Elspeth’s gloomy perception of the campus and its buildings contrasts sharply with that of Edith Morley (‘These extensive and beautifully laid out grounds’, 1944/2016, p. 111) and with the ambition of W. M. Childs, Reading’s first Vice-Chancellor, ‘to make a place of sojourn for impressionable youth’ (1933, p. 51). In his history of the first 50 years of Reading University, J. C. Holt (1977) concludes that Huxley’s views could be neither ignored nor dismissed – an objective judgement was impossible.

However, in the BBC interview, when Marjorie Anderson queried the dreariness of Reading and the wisdom of educating young people in dreary surroundings, Huxley appeared to attribute this to the town rather than the University:

‘Oh I don’t think I found it dreary myself. I thoroughly enjoyed it.’

Huxley’s Fellow Students

The pseudonyms of the students who figure most centrally are: 

    • Dando: female, a Dairying student who played lacrosse;
    • Thomas: male ‘an athlete and a hockey star’, Dando’s friend;
    • Snugg: female, a third-year student, housemate of Huxley;
    • Turner: male, Rugger Captain, Snugg’s friend;
    •  Corbett: male, Cricket Captain;
    • Viney: male, captain in the Officers Training Corps, and member of the University’s rowing eight;
    • Swift: female, Fine Arts student, housemate of Huxley;
    • Abdul: male, studying Commerce, Swift’s friend, described as ‘a swarthy, sleek-haired Oriental of some kind’, p. 59); the only foreign student, and the only student referred to by his first name;
    • Nash: male, member of the Dramatic Society and Labour Club – an outsider because of his politics and background.

Thomas, Turner, Corbett and Viney made up the self-styled Philosophers Club, an all-male clique who ‘sat together in the Buttery, drank together in the pub, … shared a boat on the river, [went on] jaunts to London to see a show.’ (p. 53).

Following a careful analysis of student records and having spotted how Huxley transposed letters in people’s names, Richard Keefe is confident that he has identified the students on which the characters of Snugg and Turner were based.

Of Snugg, Huxley writes that she:

‘… gave herself airs, and was apt to introduce into conversations topics like hunt balls, point-to-points, first nights, presentations at court and cousins in the Foreign Office’ (p. 51).

All of which was greeted with scepticism because she came from Birmingham. Richard Keefe suggests that the real Snugg was Marjorie Hope Scutt, born in 1906, a student of Fine Art (Diploma), Embroidery (Certificate) and Leatherwork (Certificate).

Huxley sums up Turner as:

‘… not only lord of the [Rugby] Fifteen but he was reading agriculture, had a job lined up in the colonies, held office in the Students’ Union, and was said to drink a lot of beer ; so he was one of the social princes. (p. 50).

Turner was due to spend the next year in Trinidad as training for the Colonial Service and is identified by Keefe as George R. Parker, a Wantage Hall student (1924-26).

Turner’s intended career seems typical of what Huxley claims for the majority of agriculture students at Reading – they would never dirty their hands ploughing or hoeing, but would join local authorities or become agricultural officers and District Commissioners somewhere in the Empire, enjoying the benefits of servants, plenty of leave, good pay and a generous pension after only 25 years.

The Academic Staff

While it takes detective work to identify the students in the book, Huxley’s lecturers in the Agriculture Department are immediately recognisable. One, Professor Sidney Pennington, is even mentioned by his real name – there was no need for a pseudonym because she held him in high regard –  he was a practical person who could turn his hand to real farm work. This should not surprise us as, before his promotion, the College had appointed him farm manager in 1914.

One observation that finds an echo in the University’s Photographic Collection is that ‘the professor was accompanied everywhere by a small and shaggy white terrier’ (p. 69).

Shows the dog
Prof Sidney Pennington with his West Highland terrier on Lane End Farm, Shinfield (University of Reading Special Collections)

Huxley’s other lecturer was ‘Our Dean’, unnamed but obviously H. A. D. Neville, professor of Agricultural Chemistry and Dean of Agriculture since 1920. He is not named in the book, presumably because his description is less complimentary:

‘… a small, squat, ugly, rather savage Midlander who taught biochemistry, spitting out the formulae  as if they had been so many oaths …’ (p. 116).

Prof H. A. D. Neville (University of Reading Special Collections)

The Intermingling of Fact and Fiction

According to Huxley’s biographer, the detail in Love among the Daughters’ cannot be entirely trusted:

‘What Elspeth did was to portray locations accurately, but conceal the truth about events and people who were still alive. She would often transfer a remembered incident to a different time, and always amalgamated or distorted characters so that there was no danger of libel.’ (Nichols, 2002, p. 82)

Nevertheless, as Antonia Fraser suggested in the Sunday Times (22nd September 1968), Huxley skilfully negotiated the blending of fact and fiction such that the reader understood far more of the social history of the period than through academic study.


The BBC copyright content is reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

Thanks also to Penguin Random House for permission to access the Review File for ‘Love among the Daughters’ and to use the quotations from the Woman’s Hour interview.

Many thanks to Richard Keefe for giving me a copy of his master’s thesis.


Childs, W. M. (1933). Making a university: an account of the university movement at Reading. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.

Holt, J. C. (1977). The University of Reading: the first fifty years. Reading: University of Reading Press.

Huxley, E. J. (1968). Love among the daughters. London: Chatto & Windus.

Keefe, R. (2022). History, Big Data and changes in the University of Reading / University College Reading’s Student Population over time (1908-1972). Unpublished Master’s Thesis, University of Reading.

McDermid, V. (2023). Past lying. London: Sphere.

Morley, E. J. (2016). Before and after: reminiscences of a working life (original text of 1944 edited by Barbara Morris). Reading: Two Rivers Press.

Nichols, C. S. (2002). Elspeth Huxley: a biography. London: Harper Collins.

University College Reading, Calendar, 1925-6.

University of Reading, Calendars, 1926-27 & 1927-28.

University of Reading Special Collections. Review file for ‘Love among the Daughters’ by Elspeth Huxley. Reference number: CW R/4/40 [also containing interviews with the author and BBC broadcasts – BBC copyright content is reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved].

University of Reading Special Collections. University History MS 5305 Photographs – Portraits Boxes 1 & 2.

Marianne Grünfeld: Reading University Student and Victim of the Holocaust

This post for Holocaust Memorial Day was suggested by Richard Keefe as a tribute to Marianne Grünfeld.  Richard sent me the article from ‘Reading Reading’ on which much of the post is based.

Marianne Grünfeld was a Horticulture Student at Reading in the 1930s. She had been born into a German family in Katowice, Poland in 1912 and referred to herself as an ‘Upper Silesian’.

She had relatives in England and arrived here in about  1936 to study for the Diploma in Horticulture at the University of Reading. There are some discrepancies over  exact dates but, according to the University Calendars of the 1930s, diplomas were usually two-year courses unless a student stayed on for an extra year for a distinction. Records of degree results show Marianne passing her Diploma (Division II) in 1938. I have found no record of further study.

degree result
Marianne’s degree result in the Proceedings of the University, 1937-38


Following her graduation, Marianne answered an advertisement in an agricultural journal and went to work on the Duvaux Farm at St Sampson on the island of Guernsey in 1940.

Her family and her employer were aware that she was exposing herself to danger by doing so, but she was happy there and never took the opportunity to return to England before the German invasion of the Channel Islands in June 1940.

Marianne had not declared that she was Jewish when she registered for an identity card, but one way or another, the authorities found out, and she was interrogated in 1941 and again in April 1942. Although her employer, Edwin Ogier, tried to intercede on her behalf he was unable to protect her. Together with two other Jewish women, Therese Steiner and Auguste Spitz, she was deported to Laval in the north of France where she was formally arrested and removed to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in July 1942.

None of the three women survived, although details of their deaths are not known.

‘Remember Marianne?’

In 1988 Marianne was remembered in an article in ‘Reading Reading’, the magazine of the University of Reading Society and the Friends of the University.

Cropped close-up
Image of Marianne, centre of middle row, with fellow students, 1939 (published in Reading Reading, Autumn 1968, p. 11 – University of Reading Special Collections)

The tribute had the title ‘Remember Marianne?’ and it recalled that she had lived in St Andrew’s Hall and been given the nickname ‘Grundie’. Her contemporaries described her as being:

‘… rather reserved – a strong character, who seemed to enjoy student life in her own quiet way, going to meetings of societies which interested her and generally just being one of the crowd.’


Carr, G. Marianne Ilse Hanna Grunfeld. The Frank Falla Archive, Guernsey. Retrieved 19 January 2024:

University of Reading. Calendar, 1937-38.

University of Reading. Proceedings of the University, 1937-38.

Wither, R. (1988). Remember Marianne? Reading Reading, Autumn 1988, p.11.

A Book Fair, a Children’s Author and a Map of the Campus

On the 7th July 1977, the University of Reading hosted the William Smith’s Children’s Book Fair. The venue was the Great Hall on the London Road Campus.

Details of this can be found in the archive of Christine Pullein-Thompson in the University’s Special Collections. Christine, together with her twin sister Diane and older sister Josephine was a children’s author, renowned for her popular pony stories. The Pullein-Thompson sisters were local to the area, having grown up in the village of Peppard in Oxfordshire where they lived in a house with its own stables. They were riding horses and writing stories about them from an early age.

Christine lived from 1925 to 2005 and was the most prolific of the three sisters, producing over 100 books with translations into 12 languages.

The Book Fair

On 12th May 1977 Granada Publishing Ltd., Christine’s publisher, wrote to her address in Middle Assendon, Henley. They had arranged for her to attend the Children’s Book Fair in Reading in July, and enclosed maps of the location of the University and the position of the Great Hall at London Road.

She was to conduct a ‘guess the weight of the pony articles’ competition, with Granada supplying 50 of her books as prizes. There would also be ‘further stock available for direct sale.’

header only
University of Reading Special Collections

The Map of the Campus

The plan of the London Road Campus in 1977 was new to me. I find it interesting because it is a previously missing link between the pre-Whiteknights maps of the 1930s and ’40s and my own memories of the site from when I joined the School of Education in 1987.

unedited original
Plan of the London Road Campus adapted for the Children’s Book Fair of July 1977 (University of Reading Special Collections)

This is also the first map I have seen that includes numbered buildings. And most of them bear the same numbers as today (L16, L19, L22, L33, etc.). This original numerical system counted in a roughly clockwise direction beginning with the Works Department in the top right hand corner and ending with Acacias (L43, the Senior/Staff Common Room), and L44, commonly known as ‘The Dolls’ House’.

If this numbering system seems less obvious now it is because many buildings no longer exist or are no longer occupied by the University – the Buttery (Building 34 between the Great Hall and L33) burnt down in 1982 and along London Road, the Old Red Building and Portland place have become private accommodation.

The ‘New’ Buttery that burnt down in 1982 (University of Reading Special Collections)

Some other adjustments had to be made too. For example, Fine Art Buildings 4.1, 6 and 7 are now, in 2024, occupied by Art Education and bear the single designation, L4.

Detail of the eastern side of the site. Today, Art Education is housed in Buildings 4, 4.1 & 7 (now L4)

In earlier maps of the 1930s and 40s, Buildings 4 and 7 had been separated by a garden and labelled Fine Art and Zoology respectively; building 4.1 that linked them had yet to be constructed. Buildings 3, 5 and 8 on the map have all disappeared.

L4 today
Art Education (L4), situated at the northern end of the East Cloister, January 2024

Other notable absences from today’s campus that must be especially salient for members of the Institute of Education are the two Food Science buildings between L16 and L19, and the Fine Art block between L16 and L22. The full extent of demolitions can be seen below.

marked in blue
The buildings marked in blue have since been demolished

Consequences of the move to Whiteknights

The purchase of Whiteknights Park by the University had been completed in 1947. Building on the site began in 1954 and in 1957 Queen Elizabeth II performed the official opening of the Faculty of Letters, now the Edith Morley Building.

The effect of the gradual migration of departments from London Road to the new campus can be visualised in the version below of the 1977 map. The site was now dominated by five departments:  The School of Education, Fine Art, Food Science, Microbiology and Soil Science.

coloured version
A version of the 1977 plan showing occupation by a small number of departments following completion of buildings at Whiteknights

The School of Education had been founded in 1969 through the amalgamation of the regional Institute of Education, established in 1948, and the University’s Department of Education. It is possible that at least one of the buildings labelled Fine Art was, in fact, devoted to Art Education. This was certainly the case in 1987 when part of the ground floor of L16 was occupied by Fraser Smith and his fellow Art Education colleagues James Hall and Richard Hickman.


Gillet, C. R. E. (1949). Reading Institute of Education. In H. C. Barnard (Ed.), The Education Department through fifty years (pp. 45-47). University of Reading.

Holt, J. C. (1977). The University of Reading: the first fifty years. Reading: University of Reading Press.

University of Reading Special Collections. Christine Pullein-Thompson Collection, Correspondence with Publishers, Granada: MS 5078/107.

Elspeth Huxley at Reading

‘It seemed to rain a great deal in Reading.’ (Elspeth Huxley, ‘Love among the Daughters’, p. 58)

Elspeth Huxley, born Elspeth Grant in 1907, was an agriculture student at Reading in the 1920s. Earlier posts on this blog have mentioned her ‘approved lodgings’ and her description of the Great Hall as ‘a sort of outsize garden shed’.

There are so many facets to Huxley’s life that it is hard to sum her up. She was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, travel-writer, journalist, broadcaster, agriculturist and environmentalist. She was esteemed as an expert on African affairs and was invited onto the Monckton Commission which reviewed the constitution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1960.

Huxley in Kenya
Elspeth Huxley plays a mancala game with two Kikuyu men at Njoro, Kenya in the 1930s (British Empire & Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives: BECC 1995/076/1/2/27)

In 1925 at the age of 18 she left her parents’ coffee plantation in Kenya and headed for England to begin two years as a student of Agriculture at Reading. She arrived during the period when the University College was being transformed into the University of Reading but, as far as I can tell, she made no mention of this in her writing or later interviews.

The University’s official record of her is sparse but there are two relevant entries in the University’s annual report for 1926-27: she was awarded the Diploma in Agriculture, Division I (‘Subject to completion of farm work’) and was the recipient of the Leonard Sutton Prize for Agriculture.

In an interview for the Bristol Museum in 1994, nearly 70 years later, the period at Reading was dismissed with no more than a cursory mention:

‘I left [Kenya] when I was 18 to get a bit of education as they thought, because I hadn’t had any to note.’ 

Nevertheless, it was a sufficiently important landmark in her life that she devoted six chapters to it in her autobiographical narrative ‘Love among the Daughters’.

‘Love among the Daughters’

This was Huxley’s 26th book. published in 1968 and serialised on BBC’s Woman’s Hour the following year. It was the third autobiographical volume recounting her early life and followed ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’ (1959) and ‘The Mottled Lizard’ (1962), accounts of her childhood in Africa. ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’ was made into a seven-part series by Thames TV in 1981.

The daughters of the title are Elspeth’s cousins, given the pseudonyms Gertrude, Kate and Joanna. They are the children of her ‘Aunt Madge’ and ‘Uncle Jack’ with whom she stayed on arrival in the UK and during the vacations.

The book is a chronological account of her time at Reading followed by a year at Cornell University in the USA. It is interspersed with witty descriptions of her eccentric relatives and their acquaintances. Huxley, newly arrived from the colonies, is the naive outsider, like an anthropologist observing the customs of a remote tribe, delicately negotiating English society with its house parties, fox hunting and intimidating servants. The same sense of puzzlement imbues her academic life – Reading was ‘honeycombed with subtle snobberies’ – while her first weeks at Cornell with its sororities and complex course structures were a bewildering sequence of events over which she appeared to have little control.

An interesting feature is her perspective on the relative merits of university life in England and the USA. Although she enjoyed her time at Cornell and appreciated closer relationships with professors and lecturers, she was less impressed by the academic culture – her courses were like an assembly line. They were were hard work – intensive and highly structured, and the examinations were memory tests:

‘Facts were black and white, not grey. The fuzziness was gone. The English ambiguity had annoyed me but now I missed it… The aim here was to answer questions; there [at Reading] to ask them.’ (p. 167).

The theme of university life in the States is one she had originally addressed in an article submitted to Tamesis, the College Magazine, in autumn 1927 – these were still her earliest impressions and focused on the size of the institution, the social life, fraternities, football games and the diversity of subjects on offer. Nevertheless, she had already made up her mind that:

‘Education slavishly follows set lines: whereas personal freedom is almost unlimited, intellectual bondage is complete.’ (Huxley, 1927, p. 12)

The Depiction of Reading in ‘Love among the Daughters’

The town of Reading with its ‘unpretentious’ College/University was always destined to be a disappointment.

‘No one would believe [Reading] had a university.’ (pp. 24-5)

Elspeth’s dream had been Oxford or Cambridge but a lack of Latin gave her little choice:

‘no one would be at Reading if he could possibly have got a place at Oxford’ (p. 60)

Some of her first impressions of the campus and its surroundings are recorded on page 47:

    • ‘London Road was not as squalid as some of the neighbouring streets… little dwellings dark with grime’;
    • Close by was ‘the Royal Berkshire Hospital, which looked more like a university than that establishment itself.’;
    • The campus sported ‘an ugly clock tower’;
    • ‘The whole place had a newly spawned and makeshift appearance and lacked dignity, coherence or style.’;
    • The lobby was ‘much less imposing than the booking hall of any small country station.’.

Elsewhere she refers to ‘the dark back-streets of Reading wet with drizzle’ (p. 122) and contemplates the rumour that Reading was the second most immoral city in England (second only to Nottingham!).

On a lighter note, she writes of college dances, learning the tango, walks by the Thames, teas in Sonning and the Henley Regatta. She provides pen portraits of her lecturers and fellow students. Despite the alleged immorality of the town, relationships between female and male students were chaste, not for moral or religious reasons but simply because of a ‘lack of facilities’:

‘What could we do on a muddy tow-path in a wet gale on a Sunday Evening swathed in macs and blue with cold, even when strengthened by iced cakes?’ (p. 64)

Her academic studies centred on the biological sciences combined with practical farm work:

‘we spent many wet, cold and inconclusive afternoons trudging round the university farm learning how to mark out a field for ploughing, to distinguish Yorkshire fog from cocksfoot and sainfoin from broad red clover, to master the show points of bulls, cows, pigs and fat bullocks, and to calculate the areas of fields.’ (p. 117)

Studying the natural sciences was a new experience for her, and something of a revelation. She seems barely able to contain her enthusiasm for areas of biology, zoology and bacteriology such as the life of the liver fluke or the structure of a stamen.

The Book Reviews

The University of Reading’s Special Collections holds 35 pages of press cuttings containing reviews, publisher’s announcements and interviews with the author, all relating to ‘Love among the Daughters’.

The reviews tend to focus on the eccentricities of Huxley’s relatives and acquaintances and upper-class rural life spent hunting and shooting. Those that deal in any depth with Reading University echo the drabness and gloom of Huxley’s description, the petty bourgeois snobbery and student poverty.

Huxley’s time at Cornell receives far less attention, except from reviews in The New York Times and The Irish Times; a BBC Radio 4 broadcast on ‘Today from the South and West’ cut the whole section on Elspeth’s time in the US from the original script.

Several reviewers mention, or deplore, the role of students in helping to break the General Strike of 1926 believing that they were saving the nation. It was an event that Huxley herself looks back on with embarrassment at the political naivety of herself and her friends: ‘overnight the students became a reservoir of scabs’ (p. 138).

Huxley’s biographer, Christine Nicholls, claims that the critics were unanimous in their praise of the book, and while it is true that the response was overwhelmingly positive, there were a few reservations. Christopher Wordsworth in The Observer (29/9/68) suggested that the comedy was overdone. Others questioned the accuracy of Huxley’s memory and disputed the amount of rain that fell on the town.

A future post will address some of the aspects of ‘Love among the Daughters’ that may leave modern readers feeling distinctly uncomfortable, and consider the historical accuracy of a work that was written some four decades after the events depicted.


To Thomas Birkhead at the Penguin Random House archive for permission to access the Review File for ‘Love among the daughters’ and to Jayne Pucknell, Senior Archivist at the Bristol Archives, for the transcript of Huxley’s 1994 interview and the photograph of her in Kenya.


Bristol Archives. Interview with Mrs Elspeth Huxley in Oaksey on 7th March 1994. Reference: BECC OH 0114.

Huxley, E. J. (1927). I’ll tell the world! Impressions of an American university. Tamesis: The Official Organ of the Students’ Union of the University of Reading, Vol. XXVI, Autumn Term, No. 1, pp. 11-13.

Huxley, E. J. (1968). Love among the daughters. London: Chatto & Windus.

Nicholls, C. S. (2002). Elspeth Huxley: a biography. London: Harper Collins.

University College Reading, Calendar, 1925-6.

University of Reading, Calendars, 1926-27 & 1927-28.

University of Reading. Proceedings of the University, 1926-27.

University of Reading Special Collections. Review file for ‘Love among the Daughters’ by Elspeth Huxley. Reference number: CW R/4/40.

The Wilderness and an Anniversary

      • ‘Originally, the word “wilderness” was a compound of wild and deer; it was any place where wild animals roamed free. But wild-deer-ness was always more than just a place; it was a state of mind.’ (Nick Hayes, ‘The Book of Trespass’).

edited mapThe University Campus showing the side entrance to the Wilderness.

Every Monday morning a group of mostly retired local residents enter the campus via Wilderness Road. They are members of the walking groups that have been enjoying the grounds for the past 15 years, originally under the aegis of Reading Borough Council but now supported by the University.

When all the walkers have gathered, and there will be as many as 60, they will join one of four different walks graded according to difficulty, each led by an experienced guide. The 15th anniversary of the first walk is on Monday 23rd October, 2023.

Dec 2009
The Wilderness Road entrance, December 2009

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that at the height of the Covid lockdowns the ‘permissive’ paths through the Wilderness and the rest of the Whiteknights Campus offered a lifeline, a welcome sanctuary, a safe space to take exercise and savour the surroundings and wildlife.

The Wilderness extends from the Philip Lyle Building along the boundary of the Harris Garden and the eastern edge of the campus to Earley Gate. It covers some 11 hectares. A survey of 2011 recorded over 100 species of plant in the woodland areas and numerous species of broad-leaved and coniferous trees are listed in the University’s management plan, some of which are notable exotic specimens.

The Wilderness: footpath bordering the Harris Garden, June 2009
Some Campus history

In 1798 Whiteknights Park became the property of George Spencer-Churchill (an ancestor of Winston Churchill) who held the title Marquess of Blandford and later became the 5th Duke of Marlborough. Before his bankruptcy in 1819 and subsequent departure to Blenheim Palace, he made extensive changes to the estate, landscaping the parkland, designing botanic gardens, re-shaping the lake, creating paths and planting trees.

Thomas Hofland, A View of White Knights from the Park with a Lady Sketching, c.1816, oil on canvas. University of Reading Art Collection, UAC/10236.
The woods

Most of the land now occupied by the Harris Garden and the Wilderness was originally just known as ‘the Woods’. During the Marquess of Blandford’s ownership these were described in detail by Barbara Hofland in her account of the ‘Mansion and Gardens of White-knights’, published in 1819. The text is accompanied by 23 engravings by her husband, Thomas, who also painted the landscape above.

Unfortunately, because of the Duke’s debts the Hoflands were never paid for their book despite the flattery of their patron in this quotation about the Woods:

The beautiful walks, velvet lawns, exotic plantations, flowery arcades, rural bowers, and gay pavillions which now embellish them, owe their existence to the taste and spirit of their Noble Possessor’.

There follows an itemised and, at times, lyrical description of the features of the Woods including the paths, trees, seats, fountains and flower gardens. Some outstanding items were:

    • the Acacia Bower (600 feet long); the Laburnum Bower (1200 feet);
    • the Rustic Orchestra, a hexagonal space for concerts, ‘large enough to accommodate his Grace’s complete band’;
    • the Chantilly Gardens, ‘laid out in the French taste’;
    • the Vineyard and Swiss Cottage;
    • the Rosary, ‘containing every possible variety of the Rose (the queen of flowers) which modern improvement has furnished.’;
    • the Juniper Lawn, ‘of the softest turf’;
    • the Pavillion, an octagon-shaped summer-house.
    • the Antique Vase on the ‘Catalpa Walk’, ‘of the finest Grecian form and most beautiful workmanship’.

Two further highlights, the Grotto and the Rustic Bridge, are worth a little more attention.

The Grotto

‘This charming retreat appears like a rocky cavern, and closes the flowery valley with an object of the utmost interest and beauty ….  and if ever a scene on earth could be conceived the abode of Genii and Fairies, this must be deemed the spot dedicated to their choicest revels.’ (Barbara Hofland, p. 99).

The interior was said to be lavishly decorated with varieties of seaweed, coral and sea shells:

‘Conchs of glowing pink, or bold black and white, are seen on every side, and large masses of glittering spar of rich violet hue or shining white, chrystals, ores, nautili and ear shells, give variety to the internal decorations, while at the entrance many noble clams and conchs are scattered around.’ (Barbara Hofland, p. 99).

Engraving of the Grotto by Thomas Hofland published in 1819. Image reproduced with permission of the University of Reading Special Collections (Reserve Collection)

The Grotto was restored in 1985 but, sadly, its former romance has all but disappeared, together with its interior decorations.

Grotto today
The Grotto today, October 2023
The Rustic Bridge

An unusual construction was situated close to the Grotto:

‘This beautiful Bridge is supported and formed entirely of roots and branches of trees in their natural state, combined in the most simple yet ingenious manner it is possible to conceive : the whole is entwined and covered with Ivy, and forms a most beautiful object from whatever point of view it meets the eye’ (Barbara Hofland, pp. 97-8).

name changed
Engraving of the Rustic Bridge by Thomas Hofland published in 1819.Image reproduced with permission of the University of Reading Special Collections (Reserve Collection)

Today’s bridge is less ingenious and less rustic, but probably more robust. From the right angle and in the best light it can also be an object of beauty.

modern version
Bridge opposite the Grotto, December 2009

Following a period of relative neglect the Wilderness had become almost completely overgrown by the 1980s. In 2011, however, it became subject to a formal management plan. The priorities identified in 2021 were ‘hazard remediation, clearance of weed species and creation of planting opportunities’, the overall aim being to perpetuate the woodland and historic trees’ .

It is worth noting that as well as an area for recreation and well-being, it is also a resource for teaching and research.

Student research project, June 2021

The Management Plan identifies a number of ‘Injurious Agencies’: disease, animals, fire and human damage. The latter is rare and confined to relatively minor incidents of vandalism, graffiti, camp building, and the construction of cycle tracks. Also mentioned are ‘”Art” installations’, presumably the result of the proximity of the Earley Gate entrance to the old School of Art buildings.

Nevertheless, while any litter or damage is to be deplored, some of the installations have given pleasure to passers-by and have certainly been a talking point. No doubt we have now seen the last of them thanks to the School of Art’s move to the centre of the campus.

Art Installation, Summer 2006
February 2009
June 2009
Thanks to:
    • Sue Brickell, walking group leader, for information about the walkers’ groups;
    • Dr Hannah Lyons, Curator of the Reading University Art Collection, for permission to use the painting by Thomas Hofland;
    • Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian, for permission to reproduce the engravings by Thomas Hofland;
    • Chris Morris for recommending the book by Nick Hayes and lending me his copy.

Hayes, N. (2021). The book of trespass: crossing the lines that divide us. London: Bloomsbury.

Hofland, B. (1819. A descriptive account of the mansion and gardens of White-knights, a seat of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough. Illustrated with twenty-three engravings, from pictures taken on the spot by T. C. Hofland. London: Printed for His Grace the Duke of Marlborough, by W. Wilson.

Hylton, S. (2007). A history of Reading. Chichester: Phillimore.The Friends of the University of Reading. University Heritage: Whiteknights Park 1798-1819.

University of Reading (January 2021). Woodland management plan for the Wilderness, Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading.

Edith Morley, Hockey and the College Magazine

According to The Economist ‘the Lionesses are national heroines’ (19 August 2023). When they roared at the Euros in 2022 and again at the World Cup this summer, we were repeatedly reminded how the Football Association had banned women from their pitches in spite (or perhaps because of) the fact that women’s football was flourishing during the years following World War I. The FA’s justification was that football was ‘quite unsuitable for females’.

Edith Morley and Sport at Reading

Reading University’s archives contain similar views about competitive rowing, even though in 1894 Women’s Sculling was the first sports club to be established at the College. Edith Morley was its Secretary from 1904 to 1907.  It was only natural therefore that in 1917 she would be co-opted onto a committee that investigated whether boat racing was an appropriate activity for women. A letter to the Principal from Sir Isambard Owen, Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University, contained the following opinion:

‘Shall I be out of place in adding my opinion, as a physician, that rowing in races is not a suitable form of exercise for young girls?’ (Special Collections, UHC AA-SA 8).

In addition to sculling, the young Edith Morley’s sporting interests had included hockey and cycling. She had been given a bicycle for her 21st birthday but her father was wary of letting her ride it:

‘A few women had begun to ride a year or so before when safety bicycles first came into use, but in 1896 bicycling was still so unusual a proceeding for girls, that my father took counsel with various medical friends to find out whether there was any likelihood of my injuring myself permanently if he allowed me to accept the preferred gift.’ (Morley, 2016, p. 65).

The description of her cycling escapades that follows is further evidence of Morley’s spirit of adventure and sense of humour. She is, however, also making a serious point:

‘The acceptance of that bicycle marks an epoch in my life for it brought me, as it brought many other girls, hitherto undreamed-of freedom and emancipation. The bicycle meant a speedy end of chaperonage, the power to go on long expeditions on one’s own, the means of locomotion and enterprise previously denied women.’ (Morley, 2016, p. 65).


As a hockey player, Morley claimed to be enthusiastic rather than talented, but she did have the distinction in 1901 of being a member of the first English women’s team to play in Holland. These were not official internationals, but Morley’s team won all their matches, one of which was attended by Queen Wilhelmina.

Earlier, Morley had  joined the King’s College Hockey Club, one of the earliest London clubs for women. They had to play in skirts that hung exactly six inches above the ground, checked with a tape measure by the team captain. As skirts of this length were considered to be ‘indecently short’, players never wore them other than on the hockey pitch. Even so, the sight of a woman carrying a hockey stick in public brought forth cries of ‘new woman’ from bus conductors or passers-by.

Worse mockery can be found in Reading’s College Magazine in its second issue in 1901:

‘The Athletic Club Ground presents a sight every Thursday afternoon which is by turns sad and amusing. A seemingly numberless host of girls are closely packed together on a very small section of the hockey ground. All are armed with hockey sticks which they use unceasingly to belabour any large or small object within their reach. At long intervals a ball appears, which, as soon as a fair player discovers, she promptly sits down upon it. This is an extremely healthy method of taking exercise, and one which we can sincerely recommend to all our lady readers.’ (College Notes, Reading College Magazine, 1901, Vol. II, pp. 11-12).

Magazine V2
Front cover of the second issue of the Reading College Magazine, 1901 (University of Reading Special Collections)

In the next issue, a letter to the Editor retaliated with comparable sarcasm:

‘Dear Editor, – It is a pity that those who don’t take a prominent part in Athletics should make fun of those who do. They probably, however, make up for it by longsightedness, as this is essential for a person who sees what is going on at the Athletic Ground while “stewing” in the College Library, instead of taking healthy exercise; or perhaps they borrowed Kosmos Telescope. A Hockey Player.’ (Reading College Magazine, 1901, Vol. III, p. 32).

We need to remember that in 1901 Reading College, as it was known then, was still based in Valpy Street next to the Town Hall. Kosmos was the College Science Club – perhaps the ‘Hockey Player’ suspected the identity of the original writer.

The first mention of women’s hockey in the College calendars is in the issue for 1899-1900 where a Miss Gaynor was the ‘Lady Captain’. As for photographs, the earliest I have found is of the St Andrew’s team of 1906-7, mentioned in a previous post; and the Special Collections also hold a postcard of the College Team taken the following year:

The Women’s Hockey Team, 1908 (University of Reading Special Collections)

The reverse shows eight names, handwritten and not always easy to decipher:

(University of Reading Special Collections)

Some information about the women named can be found in examination results, in the College Annual Reports and copies of the Gazette, and in the Calendars’ lists of sports club committees:

    • ‘Nell’ Plumley was probably Eleanor L. Plumley who passed the final examination for the Diploma in Letters in 1909.
    • ‘Kitty’ Green was Lady Captain of Hockey, 1908-9 and 1909-10. I assume she was Kate Green who was awarded the BA of the University of London (Pass, Division II) in 1909.
    • Nora A. Curtis studied science receiving her BSc Pass Degree, Division II, in 1910.
    • Winfred M. Spain studied Arts and Education (distinction for years 1 and 2), and was awarded 1st Class Honours in Modern European History in the University of London Examinations of 1909.
    • Gertrude S. Black was Lady Captain, 1907-8. If I have identified her correctly, she studied Horticulture, obtaining Class I in the Royal Horticultural Society Examinations in 1908 and the Associateship in Horticulture in 1909.
    • Elsie S. Metcalf was Lady Secretary, 1908-9. She won the College Prize for University Students in the Faculty of Letters and the University College Scholarship for Singing in 1909.
    • Maude G. Scott obtained the Diploma in Letters in the 1909 final examinations with a Distinction in Philosophy; in the same year she received the ‘Recognition of Teachers for Elementary Schools’.
    • Edith Elliott was Deputy Ladies Captain, 1908-9. She passed the Year 1 Associate Examination in Philosophy and History in 1908.

The contrast between the image above and those of more recent students couldn’t be more conspicuous:

Reading Hockey
University of Reading Ladies Hockey team in action on the astroturf at Whiteknights. March 2011 (University of Reading Imagebank)
Jolly Hockey Sticks

Nevertheless, for a long time a combination of gender and social class connotations persisted, encapsulated in the phrase ‘jolly hockey stick(s)’. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of this is from the character actress and comedienne Beryl Reid who used it in her comic portrayal of a schoolgirl in 1953.

The full OED entry attests to three closely related meanings: as an interjection; as an adjective; and as a noun. The definition of the first of these reads as follows:

‘Used in representations or imitations of upper or upper-middle-class speech associated with a type of English public schoolgirl, esp. to express (mock) boisterous enthusiasm, excitement, exuberance, etc.’

Descriptions like this seem amateurishly remote from the 21st Century. There may be hockey sticks here, but there’s certainly nothing jolly about them!

Hockey 2
Whiteknights, March 2011 (University of Reading Imagebank)
Post Script

With support from The Friends of the University, ‘A History of Sport at University of Reading’ was published in 2021. This was a collaborative project involving Iain Akhurst, Director of Sport from 2004 to 2019, Dr Margaret Houlbrooke, Professor Cedric Brown, and Chris Lewis (Department of Typography).



To Sharon Maxwell, Archivist at the Museum of English Rural Life/Special Collections Service, for finding the original references to hockey in the College Magazine.


Anonymous contribution to College Notes. Reading College Magazine, 1901, Vol. II, pp. 11-12.

Letter to the Editor. Reading College Magazine, 1901, Vol. III, p. 32.

Lionesses of the future. A game-changer for domestic football. (2023, August 19). The Economist, p. 26.

Morley, E. J. (2016). Before and after: reminiscences of a working life (original text of 1944 edited by Barbara Morris). Reading: Two Rivers Press.

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “jolly hockey sticks, int., adj., & n., Forms”, July 2023. <>

Reading College. Calendar, 1899-1900.

University College, Reading, Annual Report, 1908-09.

University College, Reading, Calendar, 1907-08 to 1909-10.

University College, Reading, Official Gazette, No. 51. Vol. V. July 3, 1907.

University College, Reading, Official Gazette, No. 52. Vol. V. November 25, 1907.

University College, Reading, Official Gazette, No. 55. Vol. VI. December 15, 1908.

University College, Reading, Official Gazette, No. 56. Vol. VII. October 25, 1909.

University of Reading (2021). A history of sport at University of Reading 1892-2018.

University of Reading Special Collections, Uncatalogued papers including correspondence about Boat Racing, Reference UHC AA-SA 8.

University of Reading Special Collections, MS 5305: University History, Photographs – Groups Box 1.

Robert Gibbings (1889-1959): Wood Engraver & Underwater Artist

The artist Robert Gibbings accepted the post of Sessional Lecturer in Typography and Book Production at Reading University’s School of Art in 1936. He stayed until some time during the academic year of 1942-43.

I was searching the Enterprise Catalogue for one of Gibbings’s travel books when I came across an unusual entry – a self-portrait in the University’s Special Collections that had ‘Accompanied a returned library book’.

Screenshot from the Enterprise Catalogue showing the entry for Gibbings’s self-portrait.

During Gibbings’s time at Reading, the University Library was located in what is now the Architecture Building (L46) on the London Road Campus. Staff loans were recorded on ‘tickets’ that had to be filled in by the borrower.

Staff library ticket, 1930s or 1940s (University of Reading Special Collections)

It appears that Gibbings had quickly sketched a self-portrait on the back of one of these and handed it in with the book he was returning.

University of Reading Special Collections, reprinted by permission of the Estate of Robert Gibbings and the Heather Chalcroft Literary Agency.

I knew little about Robert Gibbings, but I was aware of the eight wood engravings of river life, birds and plants, that are on display in the ground-floor corridor of Acacias at London Road. The first of these, on the right as one enters from the foyer and walks towards the Common Room, is another self-portrait showing him rowing on the River Seine.

Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Robert Gibbings and the Heather Chalcroft Literary Agency.

Martin Andrews, Gibbings’s biographer, dates the original engraving as circa 1951 (Andrews, 2003, p.328) . In this reproduction it has been supplemented by biographical notes, information about the Gibbings Collection, and a photograph of Gibbings at work.

Enlarged panel from the previous image (Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Robert Gibbings and the Heather Chalcroft Literary Agency).
Robert Gibbings at the University of Reading

Although the image above claims that Gibbings was appointed Senior Lecturer in 1936, I can find no evidence of this level of seniority in the University Calendars or Annual Reports. They show that he was recruited as a sessional tutor to the School of Art by Professor Betts in 1936, but was not awarded a full Lectureship until the following year. There is no mention of further promotion.

In the preface to a collection of his engravings edited by Patience Empson, Gibbings describes his time at the University:

‘They had invited me to teach wood engraving in their art school and I, on the understanding that I might teach with one eye always cocked  on typography, had accepted. There was time for thought even in term time, and there were long vacations, and both suited me well.’ (Empson, 1959, p. xliii)

Those long vacations were put to good use for trips to Bermuda and the Red Sea. He claimed to have travelled over 50,000 miles over the oceans before exploring his beloved River Thames and other favourite rivers in his ‘home-made’ flat bottomed boat. The latter, named ‘The Willow’, was built in the woodwork section of the School of Art by Gibbings’s colleagues Hubert Davis and Norman Howard, with Gibbings and his son Patrick as ‘unskilled assistants’ (Gibbings, 1941, p. x).

Gibbings was obviously a popular figure at Reading:

‘Everybody knew Gibbings and Gibbings talked to everybody, or played bowls with them or lured them into exercise with the medicine ball, for he was a mountain of a man.’ (Holt, 1977, p. 99)

Underwater Art

Gibbings was multi-talented as an engraver, sculptor, printer and publisher. He was also a naturalist, travel writer and broadcaster (this video from British Pathé titled ‘Robert Gibbings Artist (1945)’ shows him at work at home and by the Thames).

Less well known, however, is his pioneering work as an underwater artist. By the end of the 1930s he had already developed an extensive knowledge of marine life but became dissatisfied with making inferior depictions of dead specimens, or fish swimming about in a container:

‘… it was my ambition to get on closer terms with the fish, and to meet them on their own level … to make drawings under the water’ (Gibbings, 1938, p.32).

The main technical problems were finding a drawing surface that would accept pencil marks under the sea, constructing some kind of breathing apparatus and manoeuvring safely around the seabed. These and their solutions are described in Gibbings’s Pelican Special paperback ‘Blue Angels and Whales’ (1938).

The first solution was provided by his colleague Cyril Pearce, Lecturer in Design and Composition:

‘… he suggested that I should try working on sheets of xylonite, a waterproof substance not unlike celluloid, which when roughened with sandpaper takes a pencil as pleasantly as paper. I had therefore brought a supply of this material with me [to Bermuda], as well as some thick sticks of graphite, which are usually supplied as refills for sketching pencils, but instead of their normal wooden casing, which would have come to pieces in the water, fitted them into rubber tubing, so that my hands would remain clean and smudges on the drawings be avoided.’ (Gibbings, 1938, pp. 32-3).

The solution to the breathing issue took the form of a rectangular metal helmet which, far from being watertight, was open at the bottom. A hose at the top of the helmet connected to a pump on the accompanying boat. The pump provided sufficient air pressure to prevent the helmet from filling with water, excess air escaping from the bottom of the helmet around his shoulders. This arrangement enabled him to breathe easily.

The third problem remained, however; even thought the weight of the helmet reduced buoyancy, he was unable to keep his footing at 20 feet below the surface. Eventually, the addition of 20 pounds of lead piping and, later, 12 yards of anchor chain round his waist solved this problem too and Gibbings was able to spend periods of 15 to 20 minutes making accurate sketches that could be fleshed out on dry land.

Examples of Gibbings’s underwaterscapes can be found on the website of Iconic Edinburgh.


Andrews, M. J. (2003). The life and work of Robert Gibbings. Bicester: Primrose Hill Press.

Empson, P. (Ed.) (1959). The wood engravings of Robert Gibbings with some recollections by the artist. London: J. M. Dent.

Garrett, A. (1980). British wood engraving of the 20th Century: a personal view. London: Scholar Press.

Gibbings, R. (1938). Blue angels and whales: a record of personal experiences below and above water. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Gibbings, R. (1941). Sweet Thames run softly. London: Readers Union Limited.

Gibbings, R. (1953). Coming down the Seine. London : J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.

Holt, J. C. (1977). The University of Reading: the first fifty years. Reading: University of Reading Press.

University of Reading. Calendar, 1936-37 to 1942-43.

University of Reading. Proceedings of the University, 1937-38, 1942-43.

Walker, S. & Andrews, M. (1974). Robert Gibbings and the ‘Willow’. University of Reading.


Caroline Herford and Laura Herford: Family Connections

Flier for Dr Lyons’s presentation (image from the University of Reading Art Collection)

On Wednesday 12th July, Dr Hannah Lyons, Curator of Art at Reading University, gave a talk with the title ‘Art Unlocked: University of Reading Art Collection’. The presentation was hosted by Art UK in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Anatomical drawings by Minnie Jane Hardman (University of Reading Art Collection)

During an analysis of the drawings of Minnie Jane Hardman (1862-1952), of which there are about 125 in the Reading collection, Dr Lyons pointed out that Hardman had enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art barely more than 20 years after first woman had been accepted there.

Laura Herford

The woman in question was Laura Herford (1831-1870) and she gained admission to the Royal Academy in 1860 by giving her name simply as L. Herford; it was assumed that she was a man.

The name Herford has previously appeared in four posts on this blog, and it occurred to me that Laura Herford might have been related to Caroline Herford who had been appointed to University College, Reading in 1909 as the College’s first Lecturer in Secondary Education.

John Herford(1789-1855) & Sara Smith Herford (c. 1818-1870)

To establish the family connection we need to go back to John Herford, a Coventry businessman who married the landscape artist and educationalist Sarah Smith Herford. They moved to Altrincham, Cheshire (now part of Trafford), in 1822 where Sarah founded the Unitarian Boarding School for Girls, and John set himself up as a wine and spirit wholesaler in Manchester. John appears to have had a varied career that also included stockbroking, insurance, pharmacy and membership of the Manchester Town Council.

Of their surviving children the most relevant here are William Henry Herford (1820-1908) (see below) and, of course, Laura Herford (1831-1870) who, as already noted, was the first woman to be enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art. Tragically, Sara died giving birth to Laura.

Another daughter of William and Sara was Mary Chance Herford, the mother of Helen Allingham a gifted watercolour painter. Thus, three generations of women (Sara Smith Herford, Laura Herford and Helen Allingham) achieved distinction as artists. Charles Herford, the nephew and biographer of William Herford commented thus:

‘…the distinguished career of Laura Herford (who first obtained the opening of the Academy Schools to women), and in the next generation, of her niece, Mrs. Allingham, indicate a strain of not inconsiderable artistic endowment in the family. (Herford, C. H., 1916, p. 30).

William Henry Herford (1820-1908

William, the older brother of Laura Herford, was an innovative educationalist and clergyman. He founded Lady Barn House School in Fallowfield, Manchester in 1873, a co-educational day school for pupils aged from seven to thirteen. William’s approach to running his school was strongly influenced by the ideas of Froebel and Pestalozzi. His espousal of co-education and experiential learning with the child at its centre was controversial at the time and produced shock in some quarters.

William Henry Herford, Brother of Laura and Father of Caroline (image obtained from Lady Barn House School)
Caroline Herford (1860-1945)

William Herford retired in 1886 at the age of 67 and passed on the headship to his second daughter Caroline who continued to run the school according to her father’s ideals.

This continued until 1907 when she gave up the headship to care for her father in his old age. A year after William’s death in 1908 she accepted the post of Lecturer in Secondary Education at University College, Reading.

C. Herford
Caroline Herford, daughter of William Henry Herford (image Courtesy of the Manchester Art Gallery)

So there is indeed a family connection between Caroline and Laura Herford; Caroline was Laura’s niece and the cousin of Helen Allingham.


To Dr Hannah Lyons for permission to use the image from her presentation.

To Dan Slade, Deputy Head of Lady Barn House School, for information, documents and his Powerpoint presentations about the Herford family.


Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography: Brooke Herford.

Herford, C. H. (1916). A memoir of W. H. Herford. In W. H. Herford, The student’s Froebel (revised edition). Bath: Isaac Pitman.

Lady Barn House School website:

Sadler, M. E. (revised by Curthoys, M. C.) (2004). Herford, William Henry. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: OUP.