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THIS RADICAL LIFE

THIS RADICAL LIFE

Students have been making the streets of Bloomsbury their own since UCL was founded. Alumni from across the decades share their memories of what makes UCL so special.

Words Wiliam Ham Bevan

Doodlebugs. Lyons Corner House. The Union. Bedford Square. The Academical Bar. The Small Gym. And of course, countless parties in Ramsey. Students have been making the streets of Bloomsbury their own since UCL was founded. But while every generation sits on the steps of the Portico and revises in Bedford Square, UCL’s students have been witness to huge change to Bloomsbury – and to student life.

Attending UCL during the Second World War was an uncertain business. Suffering greater bomb damage than any other British university, UCL’s Great Hall and the library’s dome were destroyed. Libraries, lecture theatres and laboratories were razed. Consequently, for their first term in autumn 1944, Tom Whiskerd (UCL Special Physics 1947) and Sylvia Whiskerd (née Jones, UCL Mathematics and Physics 1947) found themselves evacuated to the University College of North Wales, now Bangor University.

When their departments returned to Bloomsbury in January 1945, the Nazi threat had not entirely passed. London had already taken a beating from V-1 “doodlebugs”, but was now under assault from V-2 rockets, as Tom Whiskerd remembers: “If you were in the lecture room and you heard the bang, it had missed you,” says Tom. “Flying bombs you could hear, but not the rockets. There was no warning. You just had to accept they were on the way.”

There were a couple of lunchtime haunts in bomb-scarred Bloomsbury that were popular with students. Sylvia says: “There was an Express Dairy coffee shop and a Lyons Corner House at the corner of Tottenham Court Road. Those were the only two places we could afford on our grant. But as far as drinking was concerned, that was confined to half a pint in the Union bar.”

“If you weren’t going there, you could go to the lunchtime hop at the Slade and practise dancing,” says Tom. And this was where he was introduced to Sylvia in January 1945. Five years later, after National Service, the couple were married.

UCL still bore obvious war damage on the arrival of John Gregory (UCL Chemistry 1959). “The quad, dome and so on had all been rebuilt, but there was much evidence of temporary buildings: huts around the place which housed things like the refectory. Some of these remained for many years, although I think they were originally only erected as temporary structures.”

Despite these disfigurements, Gregory remembers the Wilkins Building as once again presenting an imposing frontage to the world. “You’d see people walking down Gower Street, looking through the (now removed) gates and wondering, ‘What is this place?’” he remembers. For the majority of students social life in UCL centred on the College Union and the nearby University of London Union. Like Tom Whiskerd, Gregory met his future wife – recently graduated from Royal Holloway College – at a UCL dance.

“We often used to sit in the UCL basement bar and it was a very congenial place,” says Gregory. “I remember bridge players who would sometimes be there all night: I’d see a game going on in the evening, and if I popped in before lectures the next morning they were still there.”

For entertainment in the West End beyond Bloomsbury, there was a ready supply of free tickets for plays and concerts, thanks to the shady practice among theatre promoters of “papering the house”. “If a play wasn’t doing very well, the theatre would send out these free tickets for students, just to fill the seats,” he says. “I got to see some pretty awful plays. Most were on their last legs and about to close, but at least you got them for free.”

A half-decade later, Alan Roberts (UCL Economics 1966) was discouraged from applying to UCL by a careers master who warned him that London was “a wicked city” – but he found Bloomsbury to be a magical place.

“Coming from a Northern industrial background, I thought the architecture around the squares was glorious,” he says. “My brother, who was at UCL four years earlier, arranged accommodation for my first year just around the corner from the Union, in Taviton Street.”

Economics students would frequent the Duke of Wellington – since renamed the Jeremy Bentham – on University Street, but for the most part UCL was a city within a city. “I don’t think I interacted with anyone outside the University, to be honest,” he says. “And there was certainly no ‘town and gown’ type situation that you might get in a place like Durham. UCL was quite self-contained so I tended to stay within the bounds.”

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A selection of contributions to UCL’s #loveucl instagram competition.
Left: Shafiq Azid, Middle: Jun Hao Chan, Right: Markos Volikas

For students in the early 1960s, the Union fulfilled both a social and academic role. “It was the centre of all activity,” says Roberts. “There was a shop where you bought all your stationery, there were quiet rooms where you could work, they had a bar, TV room, snack bar where we’d go for lunch… Then there were spaces where they’d have the hops and dances. I got into trouble for giving my Union card to someone else to get into a dance, and somehow got caught!”

Nonetheless, though comprehensive, Union facilities could be somewhat basic. Diana Cox (UCL Biochemistry 1974) remembers a shortage of seats in the main bar, obliging most people to sit on the sticky floor to eat their lunch. “But there would always be a jukebox playing in the corner, and on Sunday nights we had the free disco run by the Ents committee – the highlight of my life for three years, really. There weren’t student nights at nightclubs or anything like that.”

There was a more salubrious option. On another floor of the Union building was the Academical Bar, so named because some lecturing staff used to drink there as well, but the smarter surroundings came at a price: two pence on each pint of beer. “As for drinking in local bars, I just didn’t have the funds to do that very much,” says Rosemary Gale (UCL Biochemistry 1974), now Professor of Haematology at UCL’s Cancer Institute. “Entertainment was generally home-grown and cost-limited.”

Renewal and development plans were under way and were much needed; by the 1970s, parts of the Bloomsbury campus were becoming threadbare and dilapidated. “There was a building in the engineering block called the Small Gym, and we did exams there,” says Cox. “There was a hole in the roof so they’d bring in buckets to catch the rain. But it didn’t stand out; in the early Seventies a lot of inner London was very run down.”

Deborah Gill (UCL Medicine 1990) began her studies at Middlesex Hospital Medical School, which became part of UCL in 1987. As director of the present-day Medical School, she has noticed profound changes in the site – not least in the transformation of the old University College Hospital into the Cruciform Building, the result of substantial grants from funding bodies such as the Wolfson Foundation – and its wider surroundings.

“Bloomsbury has become much more wealthy,” she says. “It was quite seedy, especially on the other side of Tottenham Court Road. That could be a dangerous place. But of course staff and students can’t afford to live here now. When I was a student, I lived on New Cavendish Street.”

Local hang-outs in the 1980s included Gigs for fish and chips, the King and Queen pub and the nearby Agra Indian restaurant, just over the putative border between Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia. However, on every night other than Wednesday, when ULU hosted its weekly cocktail bash, the Union remained the focus of medical students’ life.

“It was an absolute dive – really unpleasant, dirty and smelly,” says Gill, jealously comparing it to today’s vibrant and sparkling new Richard Mully Basement Bar and George Farha Café Bar, the results of generous donations. “Back then it smelt of beer, cigarettes and sweat from the sports facilities below. It was bizarre that we went there, except that snakebite was £1.05 a pint!”

For David Appleton (UCL Bartlett 1993), the 1990s was a time of warehouse parties in King’s Cross, refurbishment programmes at UCL – “All white paint and designer furniture in the Union bar, which soon fell apart due to student antics” – and profound change in London’s built environment. “We saw the pyramid lowered into place on the Canary Wharf tower – it was still just a building site,” he says.

As an architecture student, he would often have to work through the weekend. He says: “Bloomsbury would become very quiet. To get food, we’d go to the [Indian] YMCA just the other side of Tottenham Court Road, which was very cheap. Also, there was a weekly student paper that would have coupons for one of the UCL refectories. We had a term’s worth of those piled up in our studio.”

James Eades (UCL Bartlett 1997), who arrived later in the decade to start his architectural studies, says: “I have this sense of Bloomsbury around then that revolves around the Bartlett, the Union opposite and the Bloomsbury Theatre. It felt like the rear of UCL rather than the front, and that you were always fighting to get through a rear warren of spaces; very different to arriving in Bloomsbury from the Gower Street side. It felt like we were on the edge of the campus.”

This is set to change. Today, Eades is the partner at Nicholas Hare Architects, with responsibility for the New Student Centre that will open on Gordon Street in 2018 – part of the blueprint for the 21st-century university. Eighty years after bombs destroyed parts of UCL, and reduced the Gordon Street site to such a state of rubble and shingle that it became known as the “beach site”, the process of fulfilling UCL’s objective to represent a truly welcoming and inclusive environment goes on.

“This, along with what’s planned for Wates House [the new Bartlett, opening in 2016], will allow the sense of student ownership to grow and flourish, and make the campus feel more publicly accessible,” says Eades. “It represents a redefining of UCL’s presence in Bloomsbury.”

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  • Alumni Network launchAlumni Network launch
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  • Extra CurricularExtra Curricular
  • CloisteredCloistered
  • Life, the Universe and EverythingLife, the Universe and Everything
  • This Radical LifeThis Radical Life
  • Paper ChasePaper Chase
  • Beautiful BacteriaBeautiful Bacteria
  • CitiesCities
  • Hello London!Hello London!
  • Lessons for lifeLessons for life
  • In Bentham’s footstepsIn Bentham’s footsteps
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  • London  vs  WorldLondon vs World
Portico Issue 2. 2015/16
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