Caps and Gowns

In a post of 19th June 2022,  I referred to documents from 1921 and 1926 that stressed the rule that women students should wear academic dress on and off campus. Later in the same decade this was again a cause of dissent.

As can be seen from the images below, caps and gowns were a long-standing tradition at Reading.

Shows academic dress
Staff and Students outside The Acacias, c. 1906.
Advert for Academic Dress
Advertisement for academic dress in the ‘University College Magazine’, 1908.

In 1927, however, the year following the granting of the Royal Charter, a flurry of items appeared in Tamesis, the official magazine of the University that raised gender issues. Two of these mention academic dress; and both appear under pseudonyms.

An article by ‘senex’, lent term 1927

The first item, with the title ‘Gowns, Schoolgirls–and Others’ was published in the Lent Term issue. It was a lengthy, and semi-humorous diatribe, that accused the student body, both male and female, of submitting too readily to petty rules and regulations, particularly with regard to academic dress.

The arguments ran as follows: gowns were an anachronism in a recently-established university like Reading; the only reason for using them as a marker of status was sheer snobbery; they were of no other practical use; they were an impediment when raising one’s glass at the bar; they were ‘drab, monotonous and unbeautiful’ – gowns and caps masked the attractiveness of one’s clothes and hairstyle, especially for women.

The writer also points out that the rule about wearing cap and gown “down town” applied to women only, and their acquiescence is criticised:

‘But, mark you, no such drastic ordinance was issued to the men. O, sisters, fie, for shame! Where is your feminine independence, to allow without protest such disgraceful discrimination against your sex?’ (p. 180).

The article concludes with an appeal to all students to:

‘refuse any longer to insult your aesthetic tastes by obeying the antiquarian dictates of the older generation.’ (p. 181).

The signature (‘Yours in sorrow’) is of SENEX (a wise old man): presumably a male, possibly a mature or postgraduate student, or maybe even a member of academic staff. Who knows?

A letter from ‘Felicissimus’, Summer Term 1927

The second item is a letter to the Editor of Tamesis. It addresses equal rights and the restrictions on women students’ freedom of movement and dress code. Such constraints are felt to be inappropriate for ‘a modern University’, yet:

‘Our seven hundred odd women servilely accept the most tyrannous restraints, whilst the small band of men are heartily amused … A woman must wear cap and gown at all times – lucky man !’ (p. 225).

While complaining of expectations that women should always behave like ladies (except on the sports field!), ‘Felicissimus’ also appears to be critical of pressures from academia to reject marriage and motherhood.

The historical Felicissimus was a male who led an uprising in Ancient Rome. I assume that, here, a female student is using it as a badge of her revolutionary credentials.

Postscript on the language used by senex
    1. At one point in the article, Senex refers to women students disparagingly as ‘undiegraduettes’. I have come across this word several times in issues of Tamesis during this period. The usage is patronising, misogynistic and offensive. I don’t know whether the coinage is unique to Reading, but I have been unable to find any citation elsewhere, whether through Google or in the Oxford English Dictionary.
    2. I was surprised to find the phrase ‘down town’, even placed between introverted commas and written as separate words. I had regarded it as a much more recent import from North American English, becoming more mainstream as the title of a popular song in 1964. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, includes a British citation in Parliamentary Papers from as early as 1901.

‘Felicissimus’ (1927). Letter to the Editor, 7th June. Tamesis, Vol. XXV. Summer Term. No. 10, p. 225.

‘Senex’ (1927). Gowns, Schoolgirls–and Others. Tamesis, Vol. XXV. Lent Term. No. 9. pp. 180-81.

University College Magazine, 1908, Vol. VIII. Autumn Term, No. 1 (unnumbered pages of advertisements).

University of Reading Special Collections. University History MS 5305 Photographs – Groups, Whiteknights Aerial, Halls, Agri – land – aerial – horticulture/farming.

‘The Rattler’

Following the previous post by Professor Viv Edwards about Rag Week,  Reading University’s Rag Magazines deserved a mention. They appeared under a number of different titles between 1927 and 2000; copies can be accessed from the University Library’s off-site store.

The earliest issues (1927-1931) went under the title of ‘The Rattler. The Unofficial Organ of the Students’ Union’. It sold for 6d and was easily recognisable from the colourful design on the cover. There may have been an issue of a rag magazine in 1926 when the rag started, but no copies are available.

Cover of Rattler

Judging by an editorial inTamesis (the official organ of the Students’ Union) The Rattler was ‘an undeniable success’ (Autumn 1927, p. 2) and achieved a circulation of over 20,000 in 1927. No doubt this made a substantial contribution to the increase in receipts in comparison with the previous year.

Shows takings

The University’s annual report for 1925-26 recorded that all the takings were donated to the Royal Berkshire Hospital which is still a major beneficiary today.

Content of The Rattler

By today’s standards, the jokes, cartoons, poems and articles seem rather feeble (see below) and sometimes almost incomprehensible. In their day, they might have been more amusing; it was certainly an achievement to sell so many copies!

example of cartoon
Cartoon reproduced in Tamesis, Autumn 1927, p. 6.
Example of poem and cartoon
Limerick reproduced in Tamesis, Autumn 1927, p. 5.

More interesting is an item that was included in October 1930 (p. 13) in the form of a letter from an apparently working-class student called Dave to his friend Bill.  Allegedly Dave, despite having no qualifications, had accidentally obtained a scholarship to Reading University and a place in Wantage Hall after meeting someone at the Black Boy pub.

This one-page satire of university life attempts to represent imagined differences in language and everyday experience of the academically less privileged. Here’s part of how Dave describes the experience:

‘Seeing’ ‘as ‘ow there wornt nothin’ ter pay, up I goes. Yer never see such a daft show in orl yer life. They expects yer to ‘ang a yard or two o’ black clorth on yer shoulders an’ calls it a gown – as if yer wudent catch yer deff o’ chill if yer did wear it a’ nights. An’ Lumme Bill, yer did orter see the ‘ats – Morter Bords they call ’em – gawd knows why – cos ther ain’t no morter in ’em, nor bords neither. I don’t arf look a mug in mine …. Then there’s wot they calls Leckchures – you all sits in a room and an old bloke torks away like a plaguey millstream …’

Presumably, some of the revenue from the rag came from advertisements at the back of magazine. Sometimes the businesses who had paid for these entered into the spirit of things:



For all the emphasis on academic lectures and caps and gowns in the spoof letter above, the new University was far from being an ivory tower. It continued to offer the technical and practical courses and training that had once been a central part of the work of the College. This was in addition to its joint commitment  with the Workers’ Educational Association to provide tutorial classes, to which Prof Edith Morley and her colleagues were enthusiastic contributors (see Morley, 2016. pp 124-8, for an inspiring account of her personal experiences).

The first Annual Report published by the University (1925-26) recorded 710 Evening Students whose most popular courses were in commercial subjects and fine art. Their occupations varied widely, some of the most common being engineers and draughtsmen, carpenters and joiners, clerks, shop assistants, shorthand-typists, grocers, printers, gas fitters, teachers, gardeners and domestic servants. At this stage of the University’s history, Evening Students still outnumbered those studying for degrees, certificates or diplomas (see Holt, 1977, pp. 23-5).


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.

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

Tamesis, Vol. XXVI. Autumn Term, 1927. No. 1.

The Rattler, the Unofficial Organ of the Students’ Union. Issues from 1927 to 1931.

University of Reading. Proceedings of the University, 1925-26.

Recollections of Rag Week by Professor Viv Edwards

The previously mentioned rag stunt claiming a discovery of diamonds in the local Thames gravels appeared in The Times on February 14th 1959, exactly 64 years ago today. It was not the only stunt to hit the headlines around that time, however.

First prize should probably go to the tongue-in-cheek petition delivered to 10 Downing Street in 1953 after male students reportedly invited French women to add glamour to that year’s procession. The full story can be seen here on Pathé News.

Of course, Reading rags predate the 1950s. The first photograph I have been able to locate was an event in aid of the Royal Berkshire Hospital in 1926. A total of £650 was raised that year.

The Reading Chronicle is a good source for subsequent rags. Photos of processions through town, such as these from 1970, and accounts of money raised leave no doubt that these events were an important feature in the Reading calendar.

Personal Memories

Like most people, I suspect, it is the stunts rather than the processions that stick in my mind. The first and possibly the most memorable was in the spring of 1969 when I was a first-year student in Bridges Hall. When the fire alarm went off in the early hours of the morning, the nonchalant reaction of second- and third-year students – a few shrugs of the shoulders and a resigned ‘Oh, sheep night again!’ – made no sense. Having gone back to bed, I was reawakened at 7am when, in the words of Alice, things just got curiouser and curiouser. My room overlooked a central green where a land rover advanced to the strains of ‘Sheep may safely graze’; they even had a bleating lamb in tow.

Further conversations over the next day helped to make sense of what I’d seen. The warden of Wantage Hall had boasted in 1928 that, when the gates were closed at 10am, nobody could enter or leave before the next morning. Who could resist the challenge?  Most residents at the time were students of Agriculture with access to livestock. Using their ingenuity, they passed sheep through a ground floor bathroom window and the warden awoke to a small flock safely grazing on the quad lawn.

sheep night
Wantage Hall’s first Sheep Night, 1928

Inevitably, it was going to be difficult to equal the theatricality of 1969. The following year, instead of live bleating, Bridges collaborators opened fire doors so that Wantage warriors could stick cardboard cut-outs of sheep to windows as they advanced through the building. In a reversal of historical roles, Miss Poole, the sub-warden, clearly alert to what was happening, set off in hot pursuit, pulling the sheep outlines down as quickly as they went up.

Bruised Wantage egos were not to be outdone. Sometime later, while Bridges residents were at a formal dinner, they entered the building with the mission to remove as many toilet rolls as possible while the meal was in progress. It fell to the president of the JCR, one Sheila Chipchase, to sheepishly break the news to Miss Poole who instructed her to undertake a survey of the building and report back. On receiving the news that only 4 rolls remained, Miss Poole, totally unfazed, replied: ‘Well, make arrangements for distribution!’

The RAG today

Since the 1960s, rag week as we knew it has been rebranded and events take place throughout the year. According to the Students’ Union website:

‘Reading Raising And Giving (RAG) is the official fundraising body at The University of Reading. As a student-orientated society, we work to fundraise for a variety of charities, locally and globally, as well as engaging widely with the local community. To do this, we provide students with exciting events and experiences, from themed union nights to hitching across the country and into Europe.’

So, the same emphasis on charity and fun, but marked differences in format. Who knows what tales there will be in years to come!

Wantage Hall Quadrangle (without sheep), published in Childes (1929).

Viv Edwards is Professor Emerita of Language and Education at the University of Reading where she was a student in the Department of Linguistic Science between 1968 and 1976.


Childs, W. M. (1929). A note on the University of Reading. (University of Reading Special Collections, History Collection).

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

The Rattler, the Unofficial Organ of the Students’ Union, October 1930. University of Reading.

‘The Acacias Road’

The present-day Acacia Road lies opposite the Royal Berkshire Hospital towards the bottom of Redlands Road. It serves the rear entrances to the London Road Campus and the Abbey School, and the side access to the Museum of English Rural Life. It is a cul-de-sac, but a footpath at the far end leads to Kendrick Road.

The Acacias Road

The 1904 map below is the earliest University College map I’ve found that names the road. Subsequent plans before the purchase of Whiteknights always refer to ‘The Acacias Road’ or ‘Acacias Road’ rather than the present form.

Extract from 1904 map
Detail from a plan of the land and buildings donated by Alfred Palmer (from the Official Gazette, Feb 1904, p. 6)

In the image below, St Andrew’s Hall is on the immediate left, the Dairy Department (British Dairy Institute) on the far right, and the ‘Commerce and Technical Block’ (later, in 1926, described as ‘Geography, Technical, Domestic & Technical Subjects’) is in the centre.

Just as today, it was a parking area.  In 1987 when I joined the University, signs on the wall of St Andrew’s urged drivers to avoid reversing into parking spaces so that exhaust fumes wouldn’t penetrate students’ rooms.

Early image of Acacia Rd
Undated image of ‘Acacias Road’ (University of Reading Special Collections).

The  gate on the right was the ‘Southern Entrance’ and was referred to in the Vice-Chancellor’s 1928 report on new buildings as being ‘recently closed to all except service traffic (chiefly coal carts), on account of its inconvenience and unsuitability’ (pp. 13-15).

Plans for a new entrance complete with porters’ lodge further along the road were published but never materialised.

Photographs of students wheeling milk churns along the road are displayed in today’s Dairy and published elsewhere. The one here shows students packing French-style cheeses in 1934:

Indoor shot of the Dairy
The British Dairy Institute, October 1934: students packing Pont l’Évêque and Coulommier cheeses (University of Reading Special Collections, ref. P FS PH1/K6181).

Not that English cheeses were neglected! An early College report shows that a wide range  was produced:

Shows cheese varieties
Data submitted to the Board of Agriculture, 1903 (Official Gazette, 1903, p. 206).

One of the cheese presses from the Dairying Department can still be seen in the Museum of English Rural Life in its ‘Forces for Change Gallery’ on the ground floor.

MERL today
The corner of Redlands Road and Acacia Road: the entrance to The Museum of English Rural Life, January 2023.
Acacia Road Today
Modern version
Acacia Road, November 2018; on the left are the ‘ReadyBikes’ (a scheme that was was abandoned in 2019.

St Andrew’s Hall was closed (to protests!) in 2001 and the Museum of English Rural Life and Special Collections Services moved onto the site three years later.

side entrance to MERL
Acacia Road, December 2022: Fred van de Beer (in blue), Collections Care Manager at the MERL, oversees the return of a wagon that had been away on loan.

The Dairy is still called ‘The Dairy’ and is now one of the University’s catering venues.

The former Domestic and Technical Building is now L19, and accommodates Institute of Education staff, Campus Reception and Support Services. Before the re-location of Education to the Bulmershe Campus in 1989, L19 housed Art Education, Modern Languages and the Reading Centre run in those days by Betty Root.

As can be seen from a comparison of the two views of Acacia Road, L19 would still be recognisable to previous generations of staff and students despite the loss of a chimney and  windows.

L19 Comparison
L19 and the Dairy then and now.

Brown, C. C. (2006). Four score and more: a chronological celebration of the University of Reading on the occasion of its eightieth birthday. Reading: University of Reading.

Childs, W. M. (1928). Report on New Buildings, submitted to the Council of the University by the Vice-Chancellor in January 1928 (Ref.:  UHC CM GOV 8).

University College, Reading. Official Gazette. No. 27. Vol. II, July 4, 1903.

University College, Reading. Official Gazette. No 34. Vol. IIi. 22nd February, 1904.

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, 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:

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.

More about London Road’s Missing South Cloister

An earlier post dealing with the period from 1905 to 1926 showed that a South Cloister had been planned from earliest days of the London Road Campus. A further post covering 1926 to 1947 showed how these plans changed over time and were never carried out. The purchase of Whiteknights in 1947 put paid to further developments.

In the meantime Sharon Maxwell, Special Collections Archivist, has found three items that fill some of the gaps and provide more clarity:

    • Notes dated 1907 by the Architects, W. Ravenscroft and C. S. Smith, on the New Hall and Buildings (Ref.:  UHC Box 1466).
    • A Report on New Buildings, submitted to the Council of the University by the Vice-Chancellor in January 1928 (Ref.:  UHC CM GOV 8).
    • A full-sized original plan of the site that includes proposals for a new South Entrance, a South Cloister and the West Cloister, dated 1929 (Ref.:  UHC – PLANS Box 1).
The site plan of 1929
large plan
Plan of 1929 (University of Reading Special Collections).

The plan shows how the route of a proposed South Cloister is linked to the creation of a new South Entrance on Acacias Road. It is similar to other plans of 1926 and 1929 except that its large size allows additional detail. One interesting feature that weren’t on the other maps is the inclusion of a ‘creeping way for pipes’ running from the East Cloister to the West Cloister and eventually turning south to link with the Agricultural Chemistry and Botany Building (now L22).

Detail from the  above plan. ‘Chemistry’ is now L19; ‘Commercial and Technical Subjects’ is L16; ‘Agricultural Machinery’ is a parking area.
The Architects’ Notes dated 1907

This wasn’t the only mention of  a ‘creeping way’, however ; the Architects’ Notes of 1907 found by Sharon Maxwell mentions them in the context of both the Great Hall and the East Cloister:

‘A creeping way has been formed under the whole length of the Cloister, in which all pipes, both hot water, gas, and cold water supply are laid. Here are also all the electric cables, for supplying both these one-storey buildings and the new Hall. Thus periodical inspection is made a simple matter, and any future extensions or improvements are facilitated.’ (p. 6).

Architects’ notes from 1907 (University of Reading Special Collections).
The Vice-Chancellor’s Report on New Buildings, 1928

The relevance of the proposed new creeping way is that its course had also been considered (and rejected!) as a possible route for the South Cloister. This is made clear from the third document located by Sharon Maxwell:  the Vice-Chancellor’s 1928 report to Council.

This report makes the case for a new ‘southern entrance gateway’ complete with porters’ lodge (possibly residential) on the grounds that, with halls of residence and homes of staff mainly to the south of the site, Acacia Road had become the main means of access. The gateway would be linked to the South Cloister, as shown in the above plans.

As can be seen, however, one problem was that the cloister would have needed to cut through the spur of the Chemistry Building (now L19).

August 2022: looking towards the Dairy from L22; in the foreground is the L19 spur; on the right is L16.

Nevertheless, it was concluded that no other route was feasible, the route following the course of the proposed creeping way having been ruled out:

‘It was suggested formerly that the link from Long Cloister to long cloister might pass immediately to the north of Chemistry (East). This route, however, would mean (1) obstruction to the lighting of these chemical laboratories, (2) a serious diminution of the Library Quadrangle, and (3) the destruction of one, probably more than one, of the trees which form a beautiful group to the north-west of Chemistry (East). These trees are a yew, a walnut, a cedar, and a lime. Their preservation from age to age should be a matter of duty to all who care for the amenities of the University.’ (Vice-Chancellor’s 1928 report to Council, p. 14).

The position of the four trees can be seen clearly in the enlarged area of the 1929 plan (see above). The image below shows the same area today but I don’t know whether any of the trees are the same.

December 2022: on the left is the former Chemistry Building (now L19); in the background behind the trees is the former Agricultural Chemistry Building (now L22).

The South Cloister and the new entrance never came to pass. Fortunately, neither did a suggestion in the same report to improve the North Entrance on London Road by demolishing Green Bank and the School of Music.


Many thanks to Sharon Maxwell and the Reading Room team for all their help.

From College Garden to Bee Meadow: History Repeating itself

Walking along the West Cloister at London Road, you will notice signs stating that grass has been left to grow between Buildings L24 (The Learning Hub) and L27 (Global Recruitment), as well as between L27 and L29 (Music).

London Road, November 2022.
Pollinator lawn
Garden area between L27 & L29, November 2022.

Further along the cloister, towards the north, between L29 and L33 (ICT & Modern Languages), is the Bee Meadow. This was officially opened on World Bee Day, 20th May 2022, together with the unveiling of a Bee Hotel whose construction had been assisted by local primary school children in a design competition on the theme of ‘Save Britain’s Pollinators’.

Alice & Robin
May 2022. The official opening of the Bee Meadow:  Robin Dean (Bee Expert) with the Bee Hotel; Alice Williams (Institute of Education) provides shelter.

The Bee Meadow Project is directed by Dr Jo Anna Reed Johnson, Director of Climate and Sustainability Education at the Institute of Education. It is funded by the Friends of the University of Reading. The project engages trainee teachers who will encourage young people to consider climate change through the perspective of bees.

With the help of the University’s Teaching and Learning Fund, the project is beginning to co-create teaching and learning activities and resources through a collaborative process, which reflects the pedagogical approach for education for sustainable development.

The History of this Part of the Campus

That the area along the West Cloister should become the focus of bees and pollination seems particularly appropriate given its history.

As I showed in my post about the missing South Cloister, it wasn’t until 1927-8 that plans for the West Cloister and its buildings were finally approved by Council.  Before that, early maps in College publications label the land as:

    • ‘The College Garden (for horticultural teaching and practice)’ (1902);
    • ‘Horticultural Ground’ (1903);
    • ‘Horticultural Department University College’ (1904);
    • ‘Horticultural Gardens’ (1906);
    • ‘Part of Horticultural Garden and Glasshouses’ (1907);
    • ‘Reserved for building’ (1926).
Detail from a ‘Sketch Plan of Reading Shewing University College’, published in the College Calendar, 1906-7.

By the time the College moved from Valpy Street to London Road in 1905, the land on the west side of the campus was already being leased from the Palmer family as a practical area for students in the Department of Horticulture.

potting shed
Undated image of horticultural students at London Road (University of Reading Special Collections).

The glasshouses mentioned above must have been heated through the winter as the Garden’s expenditure accounts (see below) include fairly large sums for coal and coke.

The glasshouses with the Great Hall in the background, can be seen in these two images:

Undated photograph:  notes on the back suggest it was taken at some time between 1909 and 1913 (University of Reading Special Collections).
Undated photograph (University of Reading Special Collections). The glasshouses were demolished in 1917.

These plots were much more than a location for staff to demonstrate and for students to practise; it was a commercial enterprise. Some of the College’s earliest financial reports contain separate details of income and expenditure for the College Garden.

In this statement for the academic year 1903-4, the income from selling produce amounted to more than two-thirds of the net value of fees from Horticulture students.

College Garden Income, 1903-4.

The next photograph has the following inscription on the back:

‘Crop of Tomatoes in newly-planted Vinery – variety : Winter Beauty Horticultural Gardens at the College, London Road (c.1907)’.

tomatoes indoors
Winter Beauties c.1907 (University of Reading Special Collections).

I believe the greenhouse below to be the Vinery – you can just make out the tomatoes, but I am not sure where it was located. The foreground looks like the original rose garden, in which case this might be near where the Peace Garden is now. There is no date or description on the back.

vinery exterior
The Vinery (University of Reading Special Collections).

In 1917 Horticulture left the Campus and moved to Shinfield. As the next photographs show, the gardens were grassed over before construction started on the West Cloister. These images were taken after the New Library was completed in 1923. It can be seen on the right and now houses Architecture:


2nd view
Undated images, taken at some time between 1923 and 1929 (University of Reading Special Collections). The Great Hall is in the background on the left.
But What about the Bees?

Before I discovered the financial accounts referred to above, I had wondered whether beekeeping had been part of the Horticulture Department’s activities.

I’d noticed from lists of examination results that insects were on the syllabus:  annual reports from Reading College between 1899 and 1901 include Entomology in the Certificate in Horticulture; there were also Certificate Examinations in Entomology and Associate Examinations in Agricultural Entomology.

The first mention of bees was for the academic year 1903-4:   the University College Gardens Accounts record that £4 16s 1d was spent on bees (nearly as much was spent on insecticides!):

College Garden Expenditure, 1903-4.

There are further references in the accounts for 1905-6 and 1906-7, now under the general heading of ‘apiculture’ rather than just ‘bees’. By 1907 the amount spent on apiculture had increased to £7 5s 5d.

There are no further mentions of bees or apiculture in these records. That doesn’t necessarily mean that apiculture had ceased, simply that the accounts were presented differently and in less detail in the Annual Reports. In addition, the accounts for 1906-7 are joint accounts for London Rd and the Fruit Station at Shinfield. So it is possible that some of this activity had moved there.

Nevertheless, there is clear evidence that apiculture did take place on the London Road Campus at the beginning of the 20th Century; in 2023 when the flowers bloom, the bees will have turned full circle!


To Dr Jo Anna Reed Johnson for help with details of the Bee Meadow Project.


Giles, A. K. (2000). From ‘Cow College’ to Life Sciences: a chronicle in celebration of seventy-five years and a new name for The University of Reading’s Agricultural Faculty. The Faculty of Agriculture and Food (Life Sciences), University of Reading.

Reading College. Annual Reports and Accounts from 1899-1900 to 1901-2.

Reading College. Calendar from 1899-1900 to 1901-2.

University College, Reading. Annual Reports and Accounts  from 1903-04 to 1907-08.

University College, Reading. Calendars from 1902-3 to 1925-26.

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

University of Reading Special Collections. Report on New Buildings submitted to Council of the University by the Vice-Chancellor, February 1928 (UHC CM GOV 8).

University of Reading Special Collections. University History MS 5305 Photographs – Groups, Whiteknights Aerial, Halls, Agri – land – aerial – horticulture/farming.

University of Reading Special Collections. University History MS 5305 Photographs – London Road.

Stoking the Boilers

The clocks have gone back; December will soon be here; the nights are getting chilly; at London Road the heating has been on for a while now.

Spare a thought for those who once stoked the campus boilers!

University of Reading Special Collections.

This image, dated c.1915, was taken in one of the Boiler Rooms at London Road. A note on the back describes these two men as the ‘Engineers’:  they are Edward J. Godden and Frederick T. Millard and, apparently, the photo was taken shortly before the latter’s call-up to serve in the armed forces during WW1.

Edward Godden had started as a porter in 1907 before becoming Engineer in 1910, a post he retained until 1926. Frederick Millard returned as his assistant at the end of the war and also remained until 1926.

I don’t know the location of this particular Boiler Room but architects’ notes of 1907 state that:

‘Messrs. Perkins, Warner, and Pfeiderer, of London, installed the heating apparatus in the Old Red Building’ (p. 2).

There were also three independent boilers ‘in a basement’ to heat the buildings along the East Cloister (see map of 1907). Ventilation was improved by electric exhaust fans to remove foul air. Coal for the boilers was delivered via the south entrance in Acacias (now Acacia) Road between the dairy and the present-day L16.

Site plan published in the Students’ Handbook of 1907-8.

I am not sure whether there was a boiler under the Great Hall which is described as being heated and ventilated by hot water and air:

‘A creeping way beneath the floor gives access to every part of the heating arrangements, and a large fan in the basement, worked by an electric motor, drives fresh air into the Hall over the radiators, the air being first washed by a water screen.’ (1907, p. 4).

The tone of these notes shows how proud the architects were of the facilities across the campus. No doubt ventilation was particularly important in buildings such as Fine Arts {now L4: Art Education) which were still lit by incandescent gas burners.

Those with electric light could suffer power cuts, however. The Great Hall had electric lighting but always kept a single gas jet burning during events in case a power outage should result in panic.


University College, Reading. Calendars 1907-8 to 1925-6.

University College, Reading (1907). Notes by the Architects (W. Ravenscroft and C. S. Smith) on the New Hall and Buildings.

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

University of Reading Special Collections. University History MS5305 Photographs – Portraits Box 1.