The Great Hall: ‘a handsome building’ or an ‘outsize garden shed’

The Times report of the grand opening of the Great Hall described it as ‘a handsome building‘. It is  just as handsome today. It has been well maintained and beautifully preserved, and has been a Grade II listed building since 1987.

Now & Then
The Great Hall in 2019 and 1907 (Students’ Handbook) looking towards the North Window

Architectural details can be found on the Historic England website. Here’s how the College Principal, W. M. Childs described it in his memoir:

A hall was built large enough to seat a thousand people. Externally, it was of a certain solidity; internally, the oak panelling, and the sweeping curves of the roof gave it a handsome and cheerful dignity. It answered its purpose as a rallying centre of life. Speakers and musicians praised it. Examinees found it comfortable and airy; for festivities it was first-rate; and its floor was very perfectly constructed for dancing.‘ (p. 56)

The dances have been described by several past students. Professor Holt reports an interview with Dr Adela Erith who had been a student in St Andrew’s Hall in 1913. According to Dr Erith the Warden, Miss Bolam, monitored the suitability of the men her charges wished to take to the summer ball:  Were they gentlemen? Did they own a dinner suit?

She [Miss Bolam] would not countenance any unseemly behaviour and would not allow the men to swing the women off their feet when dancing the Lancers.‘ (Holt, 1977, p. 66)

Writing in 1949 Ernest Allwood, who had obtained the Diploma in Letters in 1920, wondered nostalgically:

‘How many present-day students can envisage a dance in the Great Hall with men in tails and white gloves and the women students being escorted by their duennas from their Hall of Residence in approved crocodile formation?’ (p. 26)

The one sour note about the Great Hall comes from the author and journalist Elspeth Huxley who arrived at Reading in 1925 to study agriculture. In her fictionalised autobiography, ‘Love among the Daughters‘, she describes the Hall as ‘a sort of outsize garden shed where dances, examinations and assemblies were held.‘ (p. 47).

This is just one of the many barbs she directs at the College and University, its campus and the area round London Road. She too reflects on the dancing and recalls her first Students’ Union dance at the beginning of the academic year. It is a sharp contrast to Childs’s description:

Tickets, so far as I remember, were three-and-six, including supper in the Buttery. The dances themselves were held in the outsize garden shed. The deal floor, rough and splintered and marked with ink stains from the pens of agonized examinees, was sprinkled for the occasion with french chalk which formed treacherous patches on which you were liable to slip and twist an ankle….Between dances, you walked about in cloisters swept by gusts of icy wind that wrecked you hair-do and chilled your bones.’ (Huxley, 1968, p. 51)

She didn’t think much of the supper in the Buttery either! Nevertheless, even the hard-to-please Elspeth Huxley had fond memories of such occasions: ‘And yet, we did enjoy those dances…. At eighteen, they had magic. God knows what one would think of them now.’ (pp. 51-2)

More evocative of my own experience of evening concerts in the Hall is ‘The Hall by Moonlight‘ by Allen Seaby. It was published in Tamesis, the College magazine in 1910. At the time he was Lecturer in Fine Art but became Director of the department in 1911 and Professor in 1920. He was a distinguished and prolific artist, author and ornithologist whose sketches and designs can be found in issues of the College Magazine, the College Review and other publications of the College and University. Further examples of Professor Seaby’s work will be featured in  future posts.

Sketch
‘The Hall by Moonlight’ by Allen Seaby, 1910
2021

The references above mention dances, examinations, festivities, assemblies and concerts. But who would have predicted its deployment as a COVID-19 testing station?

Covid
The Great Hall, January 2021
Post Script

I shall return to Elspeth Huxley’s semi-fictionalised account of her time at Reading in a future post.

Thanks

I am grateful to Emily Gillmor for permission to reproduce ‘The Hall by Moonlight‘.

Sources

Allwood, E. F. (1949). 1919-1920. In H. C. Barnard (Ed.), The Education Department through fifty years (pp. 26-7). University of Reading.

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

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1248715?section=official-listing

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

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

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

Seaby, A. W. (1910). The Hall by moonlight [Sketch]. Tamesis, Vol. X., Autumn Term, 1910. No. 1, between pp. 19 & 20.

University College, Reading. Speech by Mr Haldane. (1906, October 29). The Times, p. 3.

University College Reading (1908). Students’ handbook. Second issue: 1908-9. Reading: UCR.

University of Reading Special Collections, MS 5383/1-12 (Postcards): University Buildings, early 20th Century.

The Great Hall: The Opening Ceremony

Lord Haldane, Secretary of State for War, performed the official opening of the Great Hall on the 27th October 1906. Most women were banned from attending for fear of disruption by suffragettes.

In an account  of women’s suffrage, The Fabian Society and her own feminism, Edith Morley explains her position on acts of violence and illegality. While she disliked these on principle, she concedes that, without them, the struggle would have taken much longer. She points out that the violence was not one-sided and that  women ‘suffered much worse than they inflicted or could inflict‘ (‘Reminiscences, p. 142).

Having dealt with serious matters of such significance, it seems strange that the following paragraph labels her exclusion from the opening ceremony of the Great Hall as one of ‘Several lighter incidents‘ instead of railing against the injustice of it. This is all she has to say on the topic:

In the thirty-nine years of my active connection  with Reading College and University, once – and only once – was I absent on an important ceremonial occasion. This was when Lord Haldane, the Secretary for War, came to open the Hall in October 1906. He consented to officiate on condition that no woman, whether staff or student, was present at the ceremony; for no Minister at that time felt safe from suffragette interruptions.‘ (p. 142).

In fact, not all women were excluded, but those who did attend belonged to a certain level in society or were connected by marriage to the college – among others:  Lady Wantage, Lady Saye,  Lady Elliott, Mrs G. W. Palmer and Mrs Childs. A lowly English lecturer, or run-of-the mill members of staff or the student body were clearly too much of a threat!

Extract
Extract from a  map published in the Students’ Handbook (1907-8) showing the location of the Hall

The occasion was reported at length in The Times in an article that runs to well over 2,000 words. Haldane’s speech praised the College, the Hall and the new London Road site. Much of it was reproduced verbatim. Major themes were the inter-relationships between science and industry, wealth and the humanities. Speaking as a Minister of the State, he was concerned with the ‘Educational Needs of the Army‘.

Following his speech Haldane was presented with an inscribed silver inkstand by the architects, Messrs Ravenscroft and C. S, Smith. This was followed by a vote of thanks from the Principal, W. M. Childs, during which he announced to cheers that Lady Wantage had agreed to supply a Hall of Residence for male students.

This is how the article refers to the Great Hall:

The scheme of the new college embraces buildings both old and new. The principal feature of the new buildings is the great hall, the foundation-stone of which was laid by Lord Goschen last year. It was in this hall that the ceremony took place on Saturday. It is a handsome building, and will hold 1,000 people. A range of seven cloister buildings, which will later on be connected with the hall by other buildings, has also been erected.’

South side
The south side of the Great Hall (University of Reading Imagebank)

Two things are missing from The Times report – any mention of the exclusion of women, and Haldane’s predication that in fourteen years time the College would become the University of Reading.

Notes

1.  Wantage Hall was opened in 1908 and provided accommodation for 76 male students. In their book ‘Reading’s Influential Women‘ Terry Dixon and Linda Saul inform us that Lady Harriet Wantage was ‘a prominent anti-suffragist, active as president of the North Berks Anti-Suffrage League.‘ Of Lady Wantage and Edith Morley they note that, ‘We assume they weren’t friends.‘ (p. 16).

2.  This wasn’t Haldane’s only visit to the campus. He returned on 30 April 1909 in his official capacity as Secretary of State for War in order to address the male students about forming a College branch of the Officer Training Corps (more about this in a future post).

Sources

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

Dixon, T. & Saul, L. (2020). Reading’s influential women. Reading: Two Rivers Press.

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

The Reading University College Review, Vol. I, 1908-9, pp. 154-7.

University College Reading,  Annual Report and Accounts, 1905-6.

University College, Reading. Calendar, 1910-11.

University College, Reading. Speech by Mr Haldane. (1906, October 29). The Times, p. 3.

University College Reading (1907). Students’ handbook. First issue: 1907-8. Reading: UCR.

Building the Great Hall

In November 1905, just over five months after the foundation stone had been ‘well and truly laid‘, the College Gazette reported:

The work of erecting the Hall is proceeding satisfactorily.‘ (p. 129).

The previous May, the New Buildings Committee had reported that the cost of the Hall would be £8,143 with an additional £550 for heat and light. This did not include the cost of the ‘heating chamber’. By November, however, the estimated total total had risen to £10,000.

What I find extraordinary is the speed with which the project progressed from the laying of the foundation stone on June 7th 1905 to the grand opening on October 27th 1906. – and all, apparently, without JCBs, sophisticated cranes or much in the way of mechanical assistance.

In a photograph that probably dates from early 1906, the construction team can be seen below.

Builders
University of Reading, Special Collections

I suspect that the figure at the front on the right, wearing what looks like a bowler hat, is the foreman. He also appears in a lesser known image from the same period:

Full frame
University of Reading, Special Collections

He is easy to miss, but in close-up you can make him out perched precariously on a narrow plank.

Close-up
University of Reading, Special Collections (edited extract)

The perilous nature of the construction of the roof becomes clear from the next image of tiny figures silhouetted against the sky.

Shows skeleton of roof
University of Reading, Special Collections

Ropes and pulleys, rickety scaffolding and stepladders, and a head for heights were the order of the day. As far as safety is concerned, there is no evidence of hard hats or safety railings, let alone hi-vis vests or jackets. One hopes that there was no human cost to the Hall’s completion.

Sources

University College, Reading. Official Gazette. No. 42. Vol. IV. 27th May, 1905.

University College, Reading. Official Gazette. No. 44. Vol. IV. 14th November, 1905.

University of Reading, Special Collections. Photographs relating to the History of the University, Box MS5305 (Halls, Great Hall).

The Great Hall: Laying the Foundation Stone

On the 7th June 1905 Viscount Goschen, Chancellor of Oxford University, laid the foundation stone of the Great Hall. The event was attended by the dignitaries of the town as well as the Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire and the High Sheriff. It is no exaggeration to describe the ceremony as an extravaganza.

It is also possibly the first event of the College or University that involved the use of electric vehicles!

Why start the new campus with the hall?

Resources had been limited when the move from Valpy Street to London Road began. There were ambitious plans for the site (see Architects’ sketch below), but the Principal gave priority to building a ‘hearth and home‘ in the form of the Great Hall. His reasoning was as follows:

Should it [the hall] be built now or later? The answer depended upon our conception of our undertaking. If the College was to be no more than a mechanism to produce teaching and research, it could do without a hall. If it meant to be a real society, an association of comrades, a hall was a necessity.‘ (Childs, 1933, p. 56)

The decision was not universally popular, as shown by Edith Morley’s account:

Money was, as always, very short, and it was necessary to balance conflicting claims. To many it was an unexpected decision to begin with a Great Hall which could become a central meeting place for the whole college. There were many criticisms from disgruntled teachers in cramped and unsuitable quarters, but there can be little doubt that the plan of campaign adopted showed strategic wisdom.‘ (Morley, 2016, p. 109)

Shows ambitious plan for campus
The architects’ ambitious concept of the future campus including a driveway for carriages opening onto London Rd
The Order of Proceedings

The booklet containing the programme for the ceremony was in keeping with the extravagance of the occasion itself.

Front cover

Among its contents were:

    • The architects’ drawing shown above.
    • A map of the best route from Valpy Street to the new site.
    • A detailed plan of the seating arrangements.
    • The programme of events.
    • A note on the buildings, the Palmer family and the design of the Hall.
    • Train timetables to and from Reading.
The Sequence of Events

In total, activities lasted for over four hours. They were planned with military precision, beginning with the arrival of Viscount Goschen:

    • 1.08:  Official reception at the railway station.
    • 1.00-1.30:  Reception in the town hall.
    • 1.30:  Luncheon at the invitation of the Mayor and Mayoress accompanied by a programme of musical items performed by the Scarlet Viennese Band (Conductor R. S. Coates). Toasts and speeches follow.
    • Following luncheon, guests progress to Broad Street where ‘special Electric Cars‘ are waiting to take them to London Road.
    • 3.30-3.55:  THE ASSEMBLY – Guests take their places according to the colour of their tickets.
        • 3.55:  Procession of the dignitaries from the Main Entrance to the Academic Platform.
        • Trumpets.
    • 4.00:  THE CEREMONY
        • Speeches.
        • The architects (Messrs.Ravenscroft & Smith) hand the Chancellor the Trowel and Mallet.
        • The Registrar reads out the inscription on the stone.
        • The College Treasurer deposits a vessel containing Records.
        • As the stone is lowered, the Students’ Choir sings ‘O God, our help in ages past‘ (conducted by J. C. B. Tirbutt).
        • The cement is borne by the builders (Messrs. T. H. Kingerlee & Sons).
        • The Chancellor sets the stone, ‘testing it with the Level and Plumb Rule‘.
        • The Chancellor declares ‘the Stone to be well and truly laid.’
        • Prayers, speeches, signing of the Record of Proceedings.
        • The Chancellor and his Procession leave.
        • Trumpets.
    • 4.45-5.15:  THE GARDEN PARTY
        • Reception on the lawn of the College Garden.
        • The Reading Temperance Prize Band performs a selection of music.
        • GOD SAVE THE KING
        • Guests are invited to view the Horticultural Gardens, the College Library in the Acacias Building, and the Old Red Building.
Show the Assembly
The Ceremony (University of Reading, Special Collections)

Did all this go according to plan? I was only able to find one eye-witness account of the ceremony – an anonymous article in the College Magazine.  In spite of bad weather, the ceremony was clearly a success and a milestone for the College:

When Viscount Goschen laid the foundation stone of our new buildings he did not merely inaugurate a new home for the College, but also wrote the opening words of a new chapter in its history.’ (p. 4)

And:

The heavy stone was raised to allow of the mortar being spread beneath it, then re-lowered to the place it is to occupy for so long, covering and guarding the vessel containing the records of the ceremony. Lord Goschen tested it and declared it to be “well and truly laid.”‘ (p. 6)

Shows stone today
The foundation stone on the north wall in 2022

While preparing this post I couldn’t help reflecting on the contrast between the magnificence of this event – the obvious importance of the College to the town of Reading – and Edith Morley’s comment about the College on arriving for her interview at Valpy Street:

When I arrived at the station no-one was able to direct me to the College, so insignificant and unknown it still was to the man in the street.‘ (p. 97)

So either the College had come a long way in the four years since Morley’s arrival, or her account was tainted by the embarrassment of arriving late for her interview. Maybe a little of both. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that when the extension to the buildings in Valpy Street were completed in 1898, they had been opened by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) to the accompaniment of much street decoration and flag waving.

Post Script

The booklet of the Order of Proceedings is held by the University Library. It is available on request from the off-site store (R.U. RESERVE–378.4229-UNI).

Sources
Childs, W. M. (1933). Making a university: an account of the university movement at Reading. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.
Morley, E. J. (2016). Before and after: reminiscences of a working life (original text of 1944 edited by Barbara Morris). Reading: Two Rivers Press.

Smith, S. & Bott, M. (1992). One hundred years of university education in Reading: a pictorial history. Reading: University of Reading.

University College, Reading. The Magazine. 1905, Vol IV, Spring Term. no. 3.

University College, Reading (1905). Order of the proceedings at the laying of the foundation stone of the new buildings of University College, Reading, by the Right Hon. Viscount Goschen, D.C.L., F.R.S., Chancellor of the University of Oxford, 7 June, 1905. Reading: Holybrook Press.

A Day at the Seaside

During part of the 1920s, the Employee Social Club made an annual outing to Brighton by charabanc. Here are members outside the Great Hall on the morning of one of their excursions:

University of Reading Special Collections

I have seen several versions of this image in boxes of photographs in the Special Collections. The labelling on the back is inconsistent, but there is no doubt that the person reclining on the grass at the front is what was known as ‘the letter boy’ (he is variously referred to as Vandenburg, Vandenberg and R. Wallace). 

Maybe ‘boy’ reflected his status rather than his age, but there’s no doubt that before the days of email and the internet, his would have been an indispensable role, delivering the mail, telegrams, memos and parcels across the campus.

The image below, taken on arrival at Brighton sea front, is dated 1927. There’s no explanation as to why a police officer is in attendance.

University of Reading Special Collections

Book early for the next excursion!

SOURCES

University of Reading Special Collections, Photographic Archives.