Hippies and wild horses: RHUL grad spills the beans on what uni was like in the 70s
How did they survive without VKs?
In a few days another set of freshers will arrive on campus, as they have every year for over a century. To find out what life at our uni used to be like, we spoke to former Royal Holloway College student Jon Cutter who studied here in the early 1970s.
What did you study during your time at Royal Holloway College?
I studied Maths and Computer Science starting in 1970. At the time computer science was a very new subject – studying it was, in a word, bizarre. We had one computer on campus, and even then it took a lot of time to get it to do anything. I never really felt I learned much as a student – I learned more in the first few weeks of my graduate program than in my four years at university. You find most of it is of no use to you later in life.
What are your early memories of Royal Holloway?
Firstly, the two days I spent there while having my interview. I remember it because it was the first time I saw Founder’s in the snow. At the time, future students were given a room in Founder’s during the Christmas break while being interviewed. When I arrived for first year, I was given a room in Kingswood – I remember there being a huge sense of community as we all lived and ate together.
In the first few weeks we kept getting ourselves lost on the way to campus as it was mostly parkland in those days – we had wild horses roaming around and soon after the Bourne Laboratory was built one of the horses fell through the roof!
What was the atmosphere on campus like during the 1970s?
Royal Holloway was far more relaxed back then. The idea of strict rules and campus security seems quite alien. The “security” was more like a mate who would turn up if someone got a bit carried away while drinking. Drinking shots and spirits didn’t really happen in those days so an SU night would consist of good music and a couple of beers.
What was the social scene like?
The Student Union building was where the Founder’s laundry building is now. They ran two disco nights (STOMP and HEAD) – one was more disco pop and the other more progressive music. Entry was free and the bar staff were unpaid student volunteers (who might get some free drinks during their shift as payment). Anyone could sign up for DJ slots where you could choose the music for an hour or so.
On a night out you would get 50-100 people which wasn’t bad considering Royal Holloway only had about 1000 students. We occasionally would go to The Happy Man pub but local pubs often charged twice the price of SU drinks.
What was the accommodation like at the time?
Very bad by modern standards but they were all we needed. Founders was used as a female hall and the gas fires in the rooms worked nicely for heating crumpets. There weren’t many kitchen areas as two of your meals were included in the price of your room (£63 per term).
Fridges weren’t available so a popular way of keeping milk cold was to hang it in a plastic bag outside your window (not so good in summer). I was in Kingswood for two years and then spent my last year in the old Williamson hall (the first mixed gender hall). The walls were made of concrete blocks so we would cover the walls in posters and magazine clippings to make the rooms more bearable.
You mentioned meeting your wife. Was it common for people to marry their partners from uni?
Yes, actually it turned out the only reason we met was because I failed my second year. She started in 1973 studying English. By spending four years at uni I was able to meet her. I’m not really sure how we met – it just happened.
Many people ended up marrying their partners from university. There weren’t many students and there weren’t many places to go off campus so everyone got to know each other. I was lucky to get a place on a graduate scheme in the local area so I got to visit her a lot.
Are you still in contact with your university friends?
That’s actually the reason I started the alumni group, I had lost contact with so many people. In the 70’s the only way of staying in contact was through letter writing or if you knew their parents’ home phone number – phones were rarely used. There were a few call boxes on campus but the limited contact made it easy for people to drift apart.
When it came to graduating we would agree to keep in touch but you knew there were some faces you would never see again once they changed addresses and went off to start families. The alumni events are a great way to get back in touch. There are many people who I hadn’t seen in 40 years.
The 70’s were full of important political events, how did these affect uni life and yourself personally?
We were at uni during a time of rolling blackouts due to miner strikes, the three day working week, apartheid in South Africa, the Vietnam War, IRA bomb threats in London and moon landings. I remember eight of us going down to London in the back of our friend’s van to protest outside the American embassy during the Vietnam War. There was also a protest outside Barclays bank in Egham associated with apartheid, something to do with bank accounts held in South Africa.
It’s amazing how little you remember of what was very important to you at the time. Inflation was a big issue, we had 20 per cent inflation which had a big impact on us. As Royal Holloway was so isolated you found yourself in a bubble. Many of us were quite politically naive and unaware of what was truly going on in the outside world, but there was a general growing awareness.
How helpful was Royal Holloway for your career and later life?
In the 70’s only about 10 per cent of people went to uni. Because of this your degree bore almost no relation to your career and you really didn’t really need a degree to get a job. At the college there was no concept of career advice from staff. We were all just so lucky to be students, it was a great time for it as most of us left without any debt – I’ve had to see my children struggling in ways we never had to.
Your generation has far more disposable income than we ever did, but we really had no need for it – the idea for going out for a meal was quite alien. If you knew a friend with money they would often pay for everything, there wasn’t a hell of a lot else you could do with it – there wasn’t much to spend it on (The Oxford shop was the fashion emporium of Egham).
Lastly, looking at the uni now, how do you think Royal Holloway has changed?
The academic atmosphere was way more relaxed in my day. The staff numbers were low and there was no real concept of discipline. It’s so weird to come back for reunions and see everyone, the 40 years which have passed almost vanish. Walking around campus makes you slip straight back into that late-teens mentality of not feeling grown up.