Fake News in 1959: the Rag Week Diamond Scandal

In November 2022, Tony Hollander who had been a student at Reading in the 1950s contacted the University seeking information about one of his professors. Tony had studied Botany, Zoology, Geology and Education and was writing a memoir. I asked him about student life in the 1950s. There was much interesting material, but what intrigued me most was this extract from one of his emails:

‘A ragwee[k] prank in my time was to reveal the discovery of diamonds in the local Thames gravels. Its support from the geology department appeared in The Times. Further revelations led to the editor writing a lofty piece indicating his wounded pride and declaring the paper’s mistrust of any future work by the university!’ 

the times article

Sure enough, a search of the Times Digital Archive turned up these headlines from the issue of 14th February 1959:







From Our Special Correspondent’

Apparently, three Reading students claimed to have found diamonds in an old gravel pit. Following instructions from the Geology Department they were keeping the location secret to avoid a ‘diamond rush’.

Although the article quoted experts who urged caution, and the Special Correspondent was aware that it was close to the annual rag day, the authenticity of the find was supported by Professor Percival Allen and Phoebe Walder of Reading’s Geology Department. The article was illustrated by two photographs of them examining the stones and subjecting them to tests.

Professor Allen assured The Times that, even though the stones were of industrial quality, he and his colleague were 99% confident that they really were diamonds.

Two days later

The original article had appeared on a Saturday; by the following Monday, it had become obvious that, to their extreme embarrassment, The Times and ‘Our Special Correspondent‘ had fallen for a carefully crafted hoax.

On Monday 16th February, therefore, a Times Editorial under the title ‘QUIS CUSTODIET’ began with an apology to readers and was followed by a vicious attack on Prof Allen. Some choice extracts appear below:

    • ‘a pack of lies, told publicly and in his official capacity, by PROFESSOR ALLEN, who is head of the Geology Department of Reading University.’
    • ‘PROFESOR ALLEN is quite unrepentant. Indeed, he is feeling rather pleased with himself’
    • ‘This sort of thing should remain the prerogative of youth.’
    • ‘Dons should no more indulge in it than they should belong to roof climbing clubs or ‘debag’ one another in the course of celebrations after athletic victories.’
    • ‘Until it [this discreditable affair] is cleared up, the public will be unable to know whether any future statement coming from Reading University is true or not.’

The same issue contained a further article from ‘Our Special Correspondent’ quoting Professor Allen as claiming that it was just ‘A bit of harmless fun in a good cause’, that it was such an obvious hoax that nobody should have been duped, and that scientists shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. Apparently, the originator of the idea had been Dr Roland Goldring, a newly-appointed colleague in the Geology Department, aided and abetted by his wife.

Further Developments

There were letters to the press; there were radio and television interviews; Allen’s failure to apologise caused irritation at The Times and elsewhere. An anonymous letter demanded that he resign and ‘make room for a man with a mature mind.’

A firm of toolmakers in Leeds asked (presumably tongue in cheek) for a quotation for cheap industrial diamonds.

There was a semi-humorous article in the New Scientist suggesting that Allen’s actions resulted from the ‘intellectual isolation’ of working in a ‘small-town’ university. Allen’s response raises a serious point about the dangers of what he referred to as ‘the cult of the expert’:

‘Most people and newspapers appear to have used their common sense about the diamond ‘strike’ and drawn the obvious conclusion. But a few preferred to believe the promulgations of a professor against the run of the remaining (and intentionally available) evidence.’

A surprising aspect of the affair was the apparent failure of the University to engage with it. When The Times asked Sir John Wolfenden, the Vice-Chancellor, whether the University Council had discussed it, he responded that, ‘Presumably … no member of the council thought that any useful purpose would be served by raising it.’ (see Allen, 1982, p.120).

This, of course, was the public face of the University; who knows what went on behind the scenes!

Portrait of Allen
This photograph of Prof Allen hangs in the corridor of the Allen Laboratory.
More about Professor Percy (‘Perce’) Allen

Percival Allen had been a Reading student, registering in the Faculty of  Science in 1936, graduating with first-class honours in 1939 and receiving his PhD in 1943.

In the same year, he became a Demonstrator in the Geology Department and then Assistant Lecturer in 1945. In 1952 he succeeded Prof. Hawkins (his own Professor) as Professor of Geology. He remained in post until 1982, interspersed by a spell as Dean of the Faculty of Science (1963-66).

On the Whiteknights Campus, the Allen Laboratory is named in recognition of his contribution to scientific research and to the University.

Allen Lab
November 2022: the Allen Laboratory.

Clearly, the Diamond episode had done no harm to his career within the University; neither did it damage his wider reputation: he became a Fellow of the Royal Society (1973), was its Vice-President (1977-78 and 1978-79) and was President of the Geological Society of London (1978-80).

In one of his emails, his former student, Tony Hollander, remembers him thus:

‘Prof Allen was highly regarded. He established the Sedimentology section in the Geology department. When I asked him for advice about specialising he said that if I felt I could teach, this was a rare gift and that I should pursue it.’

Who was Phoebe Walder?

Phoebe S. Walder, BSc, was a member of the Geology Department from 1930 until 1965, initially as a Demonstrator and Museum Assistant, and finally as Senior Lecturer.

Phoebe undated
Undated image of Phoebe Walder:  University of Reading Special Collections.

Tony Hollander remembered her well; she had been his ‘moral tutor’:

‘Phoebe Walder was widely seen as an amiable and motherly figure. She made mineralogy an accessible and attractive subject for me and was also assigned as my moral tutor. Both responsibilities were exercised with minimum personal intrusion. Mineralogy probably suffered neglect from this arms length approach. Moral dilemmas, when aired, were treated with kindness and patience.’

Post Script

Periodically, the sign outside the Allen Laboratory is ‘edited’ (presumably by students).

Modern prank
Whiteknights, January 2018

How would Allen have reacted? I doubt whether he would have been offended. In fact, he might have been disappointed by the lack of ambition. In his own words (Allen, 1982, p. 124):

‘I’ve no patience with timidity.’


To Tony Hollander for his reminiscences and permission to quote from his emails.

To Professor Steve Musson, Head of School for Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science, for confirming that I could use the photograph of Prof Allen.


Allen, P. (1982). The great diamond hoax. In C. Y. Craig & E. J. Jones (Eds.), A geological miscellany. Oxford: Orbital Press.

From Our Special Correspondent. “Diamonds Find Near Thames.” Times, 14 Feb. 1959, p. 6. The Times Digital Archive, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CS103504974/TTDA?u=rdg&sid=bookmark-TTDA&xid=49e2cde0. Accessed 20 Nov. 2022.

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

University of Reading. Calendar, 1930-31 to 1964-5.

University of Reading. Proceedings of the University, 1938-9 to 1942-3.

University of Reading Special Collections. University History MS5305 Photographs – Portraits Box 2.

Bee Hotels now in Position!

Further to the earlier post about the Bee Meadow, I can now report that on Monday 9th January 2023, Bee Hotels were placed in their permanent positions on the London Road Campus and in the garden of the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL). They were installed by Robin Dean, bee expert.

Preparing to install the Bee Hotel
London Road, January 2023:  Dr Jo Anna Reed Johnson (Director of Climate and Sustainability Education) and Robin Dean.

At London Road, the hotel is situated on the south wall of L33 (ICT & Modern Languages).

Bee Hotel in position
Permanent site of the Bee Hotel at London Road.

In the MERL gardens, Robin was assisted by Cathy Smith who coordinates volunteering on the garden projects.

Robin, Cathy & Bee Hotel at MERL
Robin Dean and Cathy Smith in the MERL garden.

The Bee Meadow Project is funded by the Friends of the University of Reading and the University’s Teaching and Learning Fund.

Hotel partially filled
Bee Hotel at the MERL, permanently fixed and partially filled.


Women and Higher Education: Praise for University College, Reading

In December 1915, the College Review reported a speech about opportunities for women in which University College, Reading was singled out for a special pat on the back.

The speech was given by Sara Burstall, Head of the Manchester High School for Girls from 1898 to 1924, and the second headmistress of the independent school that had been founded in 1874. As can be seen from the text of her speech below, she was a champion of women’s education. She was also a strong supporter of women’s suffrage. Details of her life and career can be found here in the school’s digital archives.

Opening section of the article in the Reading University College Review, December 1915.

In her address, Miss Burstall stressed that any reduction in the government grant would have a direct impact on women students in the newer universities . She continued:

‘In these centres of higher education women enjoy full rights, and to maintain and increase the efficiency of these institutions is one of the most important needs of women’s education. We have only to study what is being done for women at University College, Reading, to see an example of what is needed, and what deserves public support and credit.’ (pp, 20-21).

These words raise three questions. What was it about Reading that stood out? What was life really like for women students? How did Sara Burstall know so much about University College, Reading?

What was it about Reading that stood out?

Several factors may be relevant:

  • University College, Reading was a pioneer in the provision of student hostels and halls of residence, especially for female students. Even as early as 1907, two such hostels provided for 80 women (Childs, 1933). It seems to have been assumed that  women from outside the area would be provided with accommodation — in the mid-1920s, the novelist Elspeth Huxley had no choice but to accept an ‘approved lodging’ in a hostel, having applied too late for a place in a hall of residence.
  • Wardens of women’s halls and hostels, for example Mary Bolam at St Andrew’s, were very protective of their charges and were concerned with both their personal and academic well-being.
  • Universities and colleges that established a senior position dedicated to the welfare and discipline of female students tended to be favoured by parents and the headteachers of girls’ schools (Dyhouse, 1995). In 1915 this post, officially known as the Censor of Women Students, was occupied by Lucy Ashcroft, herself a former Maths teacher in high schools for girls.
  • The College already had a high proportion of women students, especially in subjects such as dairying, teacher education and horticulture. The trend towards equal numbers of men and women would continue once the College had become a University in 1926 (see Dyhouse, 2006).
  • It was claimed that women and men at Reading had equal access to all classes and College societies (Dyhouse, 1995).
  • In 1908 Edith Morley had been made Professor of English Language, the first woman in the UK to obtain a chair at a university or a college of similar academic standing.

I wondered whether Reading offered funding that was exclusive to women. Thanks to the diligence of Professor Edith Morley, this information is readily available:  Morley’s edited volume ‘Women workers in seven professions’ (1914) contains a table listing details of the first degrees at all universities and university colleges in the UK, together with the availability of scholarships, bursaries and prizes. Those reserved for women are clearly identified.

Illustration of Reading's funding for women only
An example of how Edith Morley collated information about Higher Education costs and funding. The entries in italics were for women only.

Reading was indeed one of the institutions that set aside financial assistance for women, particularly for students in St Andrew’s Hall. However, these were no more generous or numerous than those at many other institutions.

What Was life really like for women students?

With regard to the bullet points above, Reading seems to compare well with other colleges and universities. I have found no accounts of women having to pay for chaperones in order to attend classes, or being unable to attend meetings or access the library such as those reported In Carol Dyhouse’s (1995) history of women in higher education.

Nevertheless, as Dyhouse points out, there was a great deal of separation between male and female students at Reading, as well as a tendency to study different subjects. There were separate students’ unions, common rooms, sporting activities and separate rules of discipline in halls and elsewhere that often placed tighter restrictions on women than on men.

Such divisions were reported by no less a figure than Albert Wolters, the founder of Reading’s Psychology Department. He recalled that, when he was an education student in 1902, the men were outnumbered by two to one, and that:

‘The present-day student would be astonished at the way in which the men and women held to their own communities … We, the small body of men, were completely integrated, and we dominated the student body ruthlessly and objectionably. But at the end of the year we, who would have been the new oligarchy, saw the folly of our ways and threw our strength into the foundation of the Men Students’ Union..” (Wolters, 1949, p. 18).

The pages of Tamesis, the College Magazine, bear witness to   the patronising attitudes, mockery and even contempt to which women were subjected. Some of the articles are quite offensive, but the women showed themselves quite capable of responding in kind.

Probably the most repugnant attack on the female student body was contained in a spoof edition of Tamesis that was compiled (presumably by male students) in 1927. This so-called ‘Scandal Supplement’ with its feeble and sometimes incomprehensible humour includes a poem titled ‘Some Views on Women’ that is declared to be the leading article and dominates the front page. The image below gives an indication of the tone of its content.

enlarged header
Front cover of the  spoof edition of Tamesis (University of Reading Special Collections).  It was damaged and fragile but is now being repaired and protected by Victoria Stevens, Paper Conservator at the University Museums and Special Collections Services.
What was Sara Burstall’s connection to Reading?

I can’t be certain, but I believe the link to be Caroline Herford who has been the subject of two previous posts on this blog (her portrait can be seen below). Born and educated in Manchester and a former headteacher, Herford became Reading’s first Lecturer in Secondary Education in 1909. She left after only six terms, but the notice of her resignation in the College Review is full of praise for her impact on the college and for her expertise and professionalism. She returned to her roots in Manchester in 1910 for a post as Lecturer in Secondary Education at the University where it is likely that she came into contact with Sara Burstall.

It is also likely that they already knew each other as headteachers — when Herford had been the Head of Lady Barn House School, the period of her headship overlapped with that of Burstall:  Herford’s from 1886 to 1907, and Burstall’s from 1898 to 1924.

Manchester High School for Girls would almost certainly have been a destination for at least some of the girls leaving Lady Barn House, just as it still was in September 2022!

Archivists at the Manchester High School for Girls have found three mentions of the Herfords in their paper records. The first refers to May Herford who taught Classics from 1915 to 1916;  the second is Charles Herford, Caroline’s cousin, who was Professor of English at Manchester University and whose tribute to a former teacher at the school was published in the School Magazine in 1917; the third refers again to Charles Herford who, as well as Sara Burstall, attended the funeral of Margaret Gaskell (daughter of Elizabeth Gaskell), one of the school’s founders. I think, therefore, that we can be confident of a connection between the school and the Herford family.

A third point of contact could have been the Lancashire Red Cross during World War I. According to the digital archives of Manchester High School for Girls, Sara Burstall was on holiday when the war broke out in 1914, but returned immediately and, with advice from the Red Cross, set up a Centre for making clothes and hospital supplies at the school.

At the same time, and in addition to her academic duties, Caroline Herford was a Commandant of the Lancashire Red Cross, a position she held until 1918 and for which she was awarded the MBE. It’s sheer speculation, of course, but could it have been Caroline Herford who advised Sara Burstall on establishing the centre at the High School?

Commandant Miss Caroline Herford MBE, Voluntary Aid Detachments (© Imperial War Museum).

The back of the photograph of Caroline Herford contains the following handwritten details of the work of her students and colleagues in Manchester:

‘Squads of University Students met Ambulance Trains at all hours of the night, and gave hot tea & coffee to the wounded, which were prepared in the Porters’ Room. Between 11 May 1915 and 11 May 1919 they met & [illegible word] 866 trains.’


To the Imperial War Museum for permission to use the image of Caroline Herford.

A very special thanks to Gwen Hobson and Pam Roberts, archivists at the Manchester High School for Girls who searched School Magazines, School Reports, Governors’ Minutes, letters and newspaper articles for references to the Herford family and to Sara Burstall’s talk.

Another special thank-you to Dan Slade, Deputy Head of Lady Barn House School, for further information and documentation about the Herfords.


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

Dyhouse, C. (1995). No distinction of sex? Women in British universities, 1870-1939. London: UCL Press.

Dyhouse, C. (2006). Students: a gendered history. Abingdon: Routledge.

Herford, C. H. (1917). Annie Adamson. In S. A. Burstall (Ed.), Memorial Number of the Manchester High School for Girls (pp. 18-22) [Originally published in the Modern Language Quarterly].

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

Morley, E. J. (Ed.). (2014). Women workers in seven professions: a survey of their economic conditions and prospects (pp. 11-24). London: Routledge. [Edited for the Studies Committee of the Fabian Women’s Group].

Manchester High School for Girls Digital Archives: https://www.mhsgarchive.org

Oxford University Press (2004). Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford: OUP.

Reading College Magazine, 1901-2.Tamesis, Winter Term, Vol II, 1901, pp. 11-12 [anonymous criticism of women’s hockey].

Tamesis, Spring Term, Vol III, 1901, p. 32 [anonymous counter-attack by ‘A Hockey Player’].

Tamesis Scandal Supplement, Reading, June 1927, University of Reading Special Collections.

The Reading University College Review, Dec 1910, Vol III, No. 7, p.24. [Notice of Herford’s resignation].

The Reading University College Review, Dec. 1915, Vol. VIII, No. 22, pp. 20-21. [Miss Burstall on women’s education].

Wolters, A. W. (1949). Early days. In H. C. Barnard (Ed.), The Education Department through fifty years (pp. 18-20). Reading: University of Reading.