Higher education postcard: Goldsmiths’ College

This week’s card from Hugh Jones postbag takes us to a college with a tricksy apostrophe

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

Greetings from southeast London!

Just along the Old Kent Road, near Deptford market and the New Den, here’s a very particular higher education institution with a very peculiar backstory. It’s also a place close to my heart – five years, all of them odd, as Registrar and Secretary from 2007 to 2012. There’s lots of good tales which bear the telling, so consider this a downpayment on future postcards.

It’s hard to beat the institutional biography held at Aim25. I’ll not plagiarise, but let me summarise.

Firstly, the building – the large one by the field, with the white columns in the centre. This was built in 1844 for the Royal Naval School, and was designed by the architect John Shaw. This was a boarding school for the sons of Royal Navy and Royal Marines officers, and although no longer used for the purpose has a cell which was the brig (while from a registrarial perspective I can see the benefits of this, I am not wholly convinced that modern universities should have their own prisons).

The Royal Naval School moved to Mottingham in 1889, but didn’t take the building with them. It was purchased by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths – one of the city livery companies – for £25,000 (about £2.6m today). The company established a college – the Goldsmiths’ Company’s Technical and Recreative Institute, known more generally as the Goldsmiths’ Institute, which worked “for the promotion of technical skill, knowledge, health and general well-being among young men and women of the industrial, working and artisan classes.”

The institute was governed by the wardens of the Goldsmiths’ Company (hence today’s title for the head of the college, the warden). It offered certificates from the City and Guilds Institute (which the Goldsmiths’ also had a hand in establishing), and by 1900 there were over 7000 students enrolled on courses. And then legislative changes meant that things got a bit complicated.

Parliament legislated to enable local authorities to fund schools and to give additional powers to school boards. This created opportunity and risk for the Goldsmiths’ company. The opportunity was that local authorities in London might provide funding for the Goldsmiths’ institute; the risk was that if they did so, the Goldsmiths’ company would be constrained by the local authorities’ decision-making. And this was something which no livery company would gladly accept.

The solution eventually arrived at was to gift the institute to the University of London, and so in 1905 Goldsmiths’ College opened as part of the University of London. Part of, but not like the other parts. It was not an autonomous school like, for example, UCL or King’s College: it was owned by the university itself, accountable (via the delightfully-named Goldsmiths delegacy) to the university senate. And it was funded partly by local authorities, and partly by direct government funding.

The college at that time focused mainly on teacher education – at one point being the largest teacher training institution in the UK – but also had an art school (which focused on higher education rather than technical and design education) and an evening department, which subsumed the institute’s science and engineering activities. By 1907 it had become an institution having recognised teachers (an IRT – a peculiar University of London category which enabled academics at institutions which were not schools of the university to participate in university academic governance) and students read for University of London degrees, sometimes as external students.

The college’s first Warden was William Loring. A Cambridge classicist who had carried out archaeological digs in Greece, he was also a soldier, decorated for service in the British Army in the Boer War.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, Loring re-enlisted, and died on a hospital ship off Gallipoli, at the age of 50, from infected wounds. I believe him to be the only vice chancellor or equivalent in the UK to have died on active military service, but if you know differently please say!

In the second world war, the college was evacuated to the University of Nottingham, and the main building – the one shown – was hit by a bomb. The front of the building, which you can’t directly see on the card, was badly damaged.

The 1960s saw considerable growth in the college, and buildings galore. The side of the playing fields nearest the camera, and the adjoining end opposite the main college buildings, both saw new builds. Other areas we also developed as the college bought the houses in the surrounding roads. It didn’t all happen in the 1960s, but the houses to the side of the main building now host a tower block (former residences, now academic departments), the students’ union, the education building and the library. Being directly funded by the government, rather than via the University Grants Committee (UGC, the forerunner to HEFCE), purchasing property was a way to keep surpluses in house, so to speak.

In the 1980s, momentously, Goldsmiths’ was finally admitted as a school of the university, albeit not without pain – part of the deal was that it must focus on strengths, so some science provision and elements of education moved to the then Thames Polytechnic. The college was also moved within the UGC funding ambit.

There’s much more to say about Goldsmiths’ another time – the art department, student radicalism, YBAs and BritPop – but for now let me recognise another Goldsmiths’ person: Spike Milligan. A student in the evening department of the college as a young man in the 1930s, Goldsmiths’ helped Milligan develop his musical skills, which was the start of his career in comedy and entertainment.

And before I go, that apostrophe. It recognises that the college is that of the company of Goldsmiths, hence the placing after the s, but it was a source of perpetual error and embarrassment as folk put it, greengrocer style, between the h and the s. The college removed it from its branding in the 1990s, and I regret that I never sought when registrar to have it reinstated. For my sin of omission to the gods of grammar, I apologise.

The card was sent on 4 November 1925, seemingly by a student of the college living at Pentland House, one of the halls.

Dear Mum, what am I to wear at the dance this Friday, everyone has a dance frock, but I’m simply stranded. My supply of candles has run out; also food. The election has been going on up here – didn’t hear much of it except some shouting. Tell Audrey she might send me her bracelet to wear. Yours with love, Marjorie PS Did you give May her scent spray on her birthday?

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