Fragments from the archives: reading university committee minutes as a gossip column, 1900-1960s

Helen Fisher, Archivist at the Cadbury Research Library

Helen Fisher, Archivist at the Cadbury Research Library

When other work commitments allow, I return to my main responsibility, to catalogue the institutional records of the University of Birmingham. I’m currently working on the minutes of the university’s major committees, Council and Senate. These are an important source for the study of the university’s core functions and activities and contain significant information about its development during the course of the twentieth century. This development was both in the expansion of university buildings on the Edgbaston campus, and the growth and broadening scope of its research and teaching activities.

Piecing together the history of the institution requires a close reading of the minutes. Most of the content focuses on strategy and policy, which means that items directly about staff and students leap out of the records. These range from items documenting the requirements of academics to assist their working lives in the Senate minutes, to opinions about the student body disclosed in the annual reports of the Student Lodgings Warden to Council.


These items permit us to glimpse aspects of the lives and experiences of staff and students, though viewed through official sources, and I’ve come to look out for these brief fragments and read them almost as you might do a gossip column. Here are a few examples.

Staff comfort was clearly important. Council minutes in March 1913 report a complaint by teaching staff at Edgbaston, then comprising just the Aston Webb building complex, about ‘inadequate arrangements in the Dining Hall’ citing the poor quality of food and ‘inferior preparation’. At the time, staff and students ate together, and the response from the University Club recorded in the minutes in May 1913 dismissed the complaint, claiming that the undergraduate members had no grievances.

Teaching was disrupted during the First World War, with the Edgbaston buildings used as military hospital, and several members of staff on military or government service. In June 1920, the Senate report to Council suggests that staff were keen for a return to some pre-war routines. Staff asked for the repair of furniture in the staff common room at the Edmund Street buildings in the city centre, and for a fire to be lit during the winter. They also wanted writing materials, a cupboard to hang their gowns, a sofa, and a supply of newspapers and journals for the common room. Finally, they wanted to be able to get coffee after lunch, and afternoon tea ‘as before the War’.

In 1937, Professor Cramp of Electrical Engineering complained to Senate that it was difficult for staff in the Faculty of Science to carry out research work at Edgbaston during the summer vacation because the refectory was closed, and the library was closed during the month of August. The university’s response was that it was not financially viable to open the refectory but that staff could get lunch at the Guild of Students building until the end of July, and then again from the 1st September, and that staff could still use the library even though it was officially closed.

If staff were dissatisfied with their working conditions, the situation for women students, particularly in the years before the Second World War, were even worse. The Report of the Senior Tutor to the Women Students, included in Council minutes in March 1926, contains a depressing description of the facilities, with segregated refectories and common rooms. In the women’s common room at Edmund Street ‘evidently quarters were hastily assigned to the women…situated in the worst possible part of the building…not even in summer does the sun penetrate their gloom’.

Efforts to regulate the accommodation rented by students who did not live in university halls of residence can be seen in annual reports of the Lodgings Committee. These are often as revealing about the attitudes of the authors as about the facilities provided. For example, the report of 1931 states that there were several lodgings where the houses are ‘of poor type and without inside sanitation and bathroom, and there was a want of cleanliness’. It goes on to say that one student who had stayed in one of these houses was the son of an agricultural labourer, at the university on a scholarship, and ‘probably he was quite satisfied with the accommodation provided’.


As we move into the 1950s and 1960s we see the Lodgings Warden’s reports providing an insight into the university’s attempts to deal with a rapidly changing student demographic and the different expectations of both students and householders. They summarise landladies’ problems with students in 1956 as involving ‘Freshers’ follies – too much to drink, staying up too late, swollen heads’ in the autumn term, ‘fuel problems, illness and general tiredness, late rising of students’ in the spring term and ‘irritability and rudeness as exams approach, completely unpredictable behaviour after exams’ in the summer term. The report also notes that ‘possession of a motor-cycle, a blasé manner, or a scruffy appearance may make the securing of a vacancy difficult’.

Though international students had studied at the university since its establishment, numbers increased after 1945. The Lodgings Warden acknowledged in 1957 that some householders discriminated against overseas students on grounds of ethnicity, but also due to ‘cultural’ issues relating to diet, and the need for running water in rooms for religious observance. The 1960 report mentions misunderstandings involving students from overseas cooking with garlic, and a recurring theme of reports from the 1960s is the demands of both UK and international students for greater independence in their accommodation, preferring to live in ‘flatlets’ or bedsitting rooms in Moseley and Acocks Green rather than in rented rooms which, although having meals and laundry provided, came with the restrictions of living with a family.

These snippets, and several others, have demonstrated to me that there is more to the university committee minutes than I had first thought. There is definitely scope for research into a number of aspects of experiences of higher education, especially when the minutes are used in conjunction with other record series. As I continue cataloguing, I am sure that more will be revealed.

4 thoughts on “Fragments from the archives: reading university committee minutes as a gossip column, 1900-1960s

  1. Yes indeed Helen. I’m reminded of a mention in the Council Minutes from 1920 when Dr Beatrice Webb (a Birmingham GP, not the social reformer) had a part-time position lecturing on personal health to women students at the university.. Whilst in this role she proposed the appointment of a ‘Woman Tutor’ and this came to fruition; its purpose being to ‘confer with and advise women students … on matters connected with their University life and work’ (University of Birmingham, Council Minutes, 1920, 229). Got to be lots more interesting snippets!

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