Higher education postcard goes to the movies: the Titfield Thunderbolt

This week’s card from Hugh Jones’s postbag takes us to the movies!

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

If you’re a fan of older films you might recall The Titfield Thunderbolt.

One of the classic Ealing comedies, it tells a tale of post-war change. A home counties village loses its branch line with the Beeching cuts; eccentric (and, I dare say, plucky) villagers keep the line going as a private concern. There’s a rivalry with a bus firm, sabotage shenanigans with a Sid James-driven steamroller, and a crisis when, the day before the inspection by the Ministry of Transport, they find themselves short of an engine. An antique locomotive is taken from a museum at night, gets to the line and, despite mishaps, saves the day.

Here’s the scene where the locomotive (the eponymous Thunderbolt) is taken from the museum.

And this is where higher education postcard gets a look in – the scene was filmed at the Imperial Institute, London, depicted on the card. This was the one-time home of Imperial College (about which I have blogged previously) and also, for a while, of the University of London itself.

The Imperial Institute was established using funds raised by public subscription. A collection sponsored by the Prince of Wales to commemorate the then Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee raised money to establish an institute to hold collections of industrial and commercial products from across the British Empire, to promote technical and commercial education, and, it seems to further the interests of the empire.

The buildings were opened in 1893 but proved to be too big for the institute’s needs. Space was leased to the University of London, which occupied the buildings from 1900 to 1937, after which it moved to Senate House.

The Imperial Institute buildings were almost all demolished in 1957 to allow Imperial College to expand onto its site. The only remaining feature of the original buildings is the Queen’s Tower, saved from the wholesale demolition of the old buildings, and substantially underpinned to allow it to stand free. The Queen’s Tower is the white tower to the right of the card, not the red brick one more centrally.

The card itself was sent on 8 December 1904 to Miss Legge in Plymouth.

Dear Lizzie, I expect you will think it most unkind of me for not answering your letter but this last few weeks I have been rather upset. As I expect you know Fred’s ship [h]as returned to Devonport and poor Fred is left behind at the hospital very ill so you may guess how we are all feeling but when I get better news I will be able to st down and write letters again. With love, Louise

There’s quite a few films which have used universities or colleges for their sets. I’ll be revisiting these from time to time – if you have a favourite to include, do let me know!

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