I arrived at the Women’s College in 1962. Having lived with two quiet adults, I now had to adjust to slamming doors, loud radios, and heavy footsteps down corridors.
Freshers settled in during Orientation Week, but when the older students returned, the Fresher System came into play. As the junior residents, freshers were expected to answer phones—there were four phones for the use of students in Bourne and Philp Wings, and when one rang, the shout, “Phone, Fresher” would be heard. Each year had its turn at answering phones.
At Formal dinner, Monday to Friday, and midday Sunday, when we all wore academic gowns, freshers served at the table, ideally two freshers per table. Academic gowns often ended up with smears of gravy. (This matched up with the dusting of talc on the inside of the gown, frequently used as a dressing gown.)
Each week, a list of students appeared on the notice board of who would be dining at High Table, and on which night. In my first year, the Principal, Miss Nixon, carefully devised a mix of years and faculties, and often invited interesting guests we could meet later in the Senior Common Room. Miss Nixon, a psychologist, used to invite willing students to the Cottage to be subjects in psych experiments, such as perception experiments. One evening she had a recording of Leonard Bernstein talking about jazz, and invited interested students to come and listen.
The return of the older students also meant initiations, an unedifying practice, which I hope has died out. At least at Women’s, these were rather silly and harmless, but the men were tougher on their freshers, especially those deemed to need taking down a peg.
There was Freshers’ Welcome, a dance at Cloudland where freshers from colleges went out in distinctive costumes—my year were draped in bed sheets, a sort of toga effect. One of the men’s colleges had their freshers in evening wear, but without trousers.
During that first week, Women’s College freshers would be awoken at 5am and marched over to stand in front of Duchesne College to sing “Early One Morning”, and they would reciprocate with Irish songs on St Patrick’s Day.
Also during first term, St John’s would stage a race meeting on the circular drive, with freshers competing in events named after college principals, notably the Mackindoe Memorial Stakes, the Nixon Novice, and later, the Budtz-Olsen Breeders’ Handicap.
St John’s and St Leo’s, separated by a driveway, notoriously used to fight pitched battles across that road. The John’s men were very proud of a number of brass fireman’s helmets, allegedly stolen when a tender attended a grass fire on campus. These helmets were worn during the confrontations. Sadly, the battles began to get out of hand, with missiles supplemented by fireworks. When one lad lost an eye to a rocket, sanity had to be restored.
Of course, there were raids by college men, usually noisy and harmless.
Another phenomenon of college life was inter-college athletics, which I think were also known as Colympics. There were probably races that were taken seriously, but the events I remember included a broom-throwing contest for girls, and the Chariot Race, in which the chariot was made of three men, and the charioteer was a girl riding on their shoulders. One year, the event was graced by the attendance of The Very Reverend Dean Baddeley aka the Racing Dean.
Male visitors could be entertained in the common room, but they could legally venture no further. In the mid sixties, the college council decreed that a girl could entertain a male friend in her room on Sunday afternoons, but the door must remain open. The sixties did not quite swing for the girls at Women’s College.
This was the era before calculators (engineers used slide rules), computers, and mobile phones. We went to and from the bus at night by the Feeder Bus (a security vehicle). No one wore slacks, jeans or shorts to lectures; girls instead wore a nice dress or skirt, and blouse, and stockings, while the boys wore long trousers or tailored shorts and long socks and ties.
Many students were at university on Commonwealth Scholarships, so if one lived frugally, there was not the imperative to hold down a part-time job. An hour or two between lectures would find people in the refectory, arguing, discussing the previous lecture or the latest film or play.
The Avalon—which is now decidedly shabby—was a modest little theatre on Sir Fred Schonell Drive, presumably once a local cinema. By the sixties, it was becoming the centre of university theatrical life. While some productions were still mounted in the old GP Hut, notably Scoop Revues, as well as some plays, the Avalon gradually came to dominate, offering more space and better facilities.
The Avalon saw Dram Soc productions, Kings-Women’s plays, Gilbert and Sullivan staged by the College Players led by Bryan Nason, and cheeky Architects’ Revues: High on a Hot Banana and Young Robert Zimmerman. A later revue was Pucker up, Here Comes a Big Red Kiss.
One Kings-Women’s play was Life of the Insects, the cast including Penny and Robert Wensley inter alia. David Clendinning’s production of Rhinoceros was remarkable for its professionalism. A memorable production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was semi-professional, I think.
The policy in the English Department at the time was that third year students of drama should be involved in a play—and naturally it was in the Avalon. Student productions included contemporary drama (then ‘contemporary’ was the Theatre of the Absurd), but also included Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.
When they were not performing at the old Twelfth Night Theatre in Wickham Terrace, the Staff Players also graced the Avalon—memorably, Eunice Hanger, Denis Pryor, and most of the English staff. In a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a young Jack Thompson appeared as Ferdinand, dressed in pink satin, as befitted a noble youth.
Dram Soc, which later morphed into UniQue, produced actors like Jane Harders, Shane Porteous, David Clendinning, Richard Fotheringham, Bille Brown, and Geoffrey Rush. Actors who were on their way to becoming lawyers included the notable Her Honour Ros Atkinson.
When no play was being staged, the Students’ Union showed films for a very modest entry price. The Avalon was even the venue for a Book Fair.
The new Schonell Theatre gradually elbowed out the Avalon, but I think the ethos has also changed: there seems to be less leisure time in an increasingly busy world. No doubt there are groups producing plays in a variety of venues, but somehow the flurry of activity around the Avalon and its energy feel to the nostalgic among us like a golden era.
We did work hard, but there was time for leisure, for fun, for student life.
Svyetlana Hadgraft, (nee Yakimoff), B. A. Hons, 1966.