Campus capers, 1970 style

Strange things happened over half a century ago at Keele University. Paul Greatrix has the details.

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Strange things sometimes happen in universities and we’ve reported plenty of them here over the years. From hauntings and strange happenings to animal action and of course true crime events on campus.

But this event which recently caught my eye is one of the oddest I’ve noticed lately. It all happened just over half a century ago at Keele University. Those were turbulent times as the world transitioned out of the end of the heady 60s era into a very different decade.

There was a lot in the way of protest going on too, much of it linked to the anti-Vietnam war movement in the US as well as the very energetic student-led activities in 1968 in continental Europe.  The spirit of that time in the US was captured extremely well in a recent movie, The Chicago Seven – which recounts the trial of seven (or eight in reality) individuals arrested as part of the range of protest activities surrounding the 1968 Democrat convention in Chicago.

Among those involved were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin who had in October 1967 been part of in an anti-Vietnam protest which involved a march on the Pentagon. Unsurprisingly, they were prevented from getting close to the building by a military barricade but their next step was extraordinary – led by Abbie Hoffman and supported by Allen Ginsburg delivering Tibetan chants, they sought to levitate the Pentagon.

Views differ on the success of the endeavour but the protest ended badly with hundreds of protestors arrested and many injured. You can find fuller details of the event here, all of which brings us back to Keele in the autumn of 1970.

This strange story is recounted by many of the participants in a very strange affair and can be found in this report [link] which forms part of Keele’s oral history project but also appears in this archived BBC report which notes

October 28 1970, and Keele University students were staging a political protest against tuition fees, when they began to get restless and bored.

That was when student Peter Sykes came up with the idea to make the Clock House and Vice-Chancellors building ‘levitate’.

They decided by joining hands, chanting and dancing around the the building that they could raise it off the ground.

It was all captured on tape by a reporter for BBC Radio Stoke called Gerry Northam, who was told by Peter Sykes that they wanted to make it float 300 feet into the air so people could see it from the motorway.

The then vice-Chancellor W A Campbell-Stewart can be heard on the report in the background telling students if they want to levitate the Clock Tower, “it must be done silently”!

There are some really entertaining recollections by students at the time.

The Keele Clock Tower

One student was a little dismissive:

There was probably some pseudo-political rationale for this caper, but it was certainly spurious – a lot of nonsense was generally spouted to justify the pranks that went on, which often seemed to involve students scuttling through the woods pursued by porters. I have to report that, sadly, the building remained safely on terra firma.

Another, as with many student demos since time immemorial, blamed the turnout:

“I was one of the students who joined in a crowd encircling the Vice-Chancellor’s building to try to levitate it. Our levitation was not successful. We blamed the fact that there were not enough of us to join hands completely to encircle the building.”

At least it was entertaining though:

“I seem to remember I was there, with many others, after the word got around that it was to happen. There was no visible movement of the VC’s building, or at least not visible without the help of scientific equipment which probably didn’t exist at the time. But I didn’t go away disappointed – attending the failed attempt by instigators unknown to me or forgotten now was a worthy way to spend the evening and well in keeping with the times. I certainly had nothing better to do that night.”

And in a further twist

“I seem to remember the attempt at levitation was following a gig by the Edgar Broughton Band – a progressive rock band – at the Union in 1969 or 1970 in the summer.  Edgar stirred us all up to revolution!  A crowd of us ran outside and tried to levitate some huts as a revolutionary act before moving on to greater things!  I think Edgar got us chanting about raising the buildings.

“My recollection is that the general consensus was that the Clock House rose about six inches, give or take about six inches. The instigators were the usual crowd, I would suspect and pretty much everyone I knew was involved. What is more certain is that this was a copycat event based on the actions of US radical students, who had recently attempted to levitate the Pentagon – an altogether more challenging and even hazardous undertaking. Compared to Nixon, even the most hard-line Keele activist would agree that Vice Chancellor Stewart wasn’t in that league. The principal complaint was Stewart’s persistent refusal to allow students to see their own records – now illegal as a stance, thanks to the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act – victory! The process, though, was the same: to encircle the building, focusing (I use the word lightly) the mind on the task in hand, whilst chanting “Out Demons, Out!”

So it does seem, unfortunately, that the evidence points firmly to no levitation taking place. The good news is though that there were no sightings of any demons either.

Is anyone aware of any other attempted levitation of university buildings, successful or otherwise? Or is the Keele experience completely unique in the rich history of UK higher education student activism?

2 responses to “Campus capers, 1970 style

  1. In 1958 Cambridge Uni students put an Austin 7 van on the roof of senate house. Im also pretty sure that in the 1960s Sussex Uni students put an original Mini on the roof of Arts A block building, but I can’t find any reference to it now.

  2. Great fun article. Although I wasn’t alive at this time I did have daily visits to the Clocktower when at Keele as the Music Department is based there along with the VC’s house. I’m sure my all night studio sessions disrupted the VC’s sleep around that time!

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