14 and 15 September 2010
11 Bedford Square, Royal Holloway (Central London)
Inhabiting Institutions in Britain, 1700-1950
Living in Institutions
William Whyte (St John’s College, Oxford)
‘An essential part of the best kind of University training’: Halls of Residence at the Civic Universities, 1900-1950
In the first half of the twentieth century, the hall of residence became a distinctive and important element in student life at the ‘Redbrick’ universities. It became, in fact, ‘An essential part of the best kind of University training’. Hall life, it was argued, would help create community, foster academic excellence, and instil a proper university spirit. This paper will explore the halls and the debate they engendered. It will counter those writers who have seen in the halls nothing more than a fruitless imitation of Oxbridge, arguing instead that the halls of residence were part of a distinctive Redbrick university life. It will examine the rules and regulations of the halls – and especially their design, looking at the ways in which those who built them and ran them sought to inspire occupants with a sense of university community. It will also attempt to assess how students responded to these ideals.
Although neglected or disparaged by most other writers, I hope to show that these establishments provide a unique insight into civic university life in this period. The hall of residence was, on one hand, a marginal place: it was not central to the actual process of studying at university; it had to negotiate the difficult balancing act of being distinctive but not separate from a unified institution. On the other hand, the hall was seen as a vital component of university life: the solution to many of Redbrick’s problems. The tensions and opportunities that this ambivalence created will not only illuminate the halls themselves but also shed light on the wider question of what inhabiting institutions actually means.