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«Sixty years of Academic Life in Bristol A. M. Tyndall [The following talk was given to the Forum of the Senior Common Room of the University of ...»

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Sixty years of Academic Life in


A. M. Tyndall

[The following talk was given to the Forum of the Senior Common Room of the University

of Bristol on 10 March 1958 by the late A. M. Tyndall, who was at that time Professor

Emeritus of Physics, having joined the staff in 1903, been Professor of Physics from 1919 to

1948, and acting Vice-Chancellor 1945—46. The text appeared, in slightly shortened form, in

'University and Community', edited by McQueen and Taylor, 1976: a collection of essays produced to mark the centenary of the founding of University College, Bristol. The Editors were then extremely grateful to Dr Anne Cole for providing a transcript of a tape-recording of the talk; and so are we.] I thought this was going to be a conversation piece to a small group of intimate friends! As I look at the audience, I realise that I joined the Staff of University College, Bristol at a time when few of the men and, of course, none of the women were born! 1 was a student before that and in fact it will be sixty years next October since I first entered the doors of University College with the intention of studying for a degree of the University of London in a scientific subject. I was one of about 220 students in the University College at that time, of whom 60 were in what was really an affiliated institution called the Day Training College for Women Teachers. The income of the College was then a little under £5,000 a year. There was, of course, no Students' Union and no Common Room worth speaking of. There were rooms where the men and women students were segregated. I never entered the Women's Common Room, but the Men's Common Room consisted of a dozen cane chairs and a couple of card tables. Any really intimate life with other students in a cultural sense occurred at a little cafe somewhere about where Boots the Chemists is now. It was a rather dirty little place kept by an Italian called Giacomelli, where we ate poached eggs on toast on tablecloths which were changed once in a month. We played sport on Durdham Downs.

But I would like to go back to a still earlier period of which I know only by hearsay and by such records as remain. My first illustration (fig.1) is adapted from an Ordnance Survey Map of the district in 1881. The first part of the College to be built was at the upper part of the Car Park which has its entrance in University Road, which was then Museum Road and which went up as far as the Grammar School but no further. The present Geography building, also with its entrance in University Road, was then a pre-clinical medical school and is shown on the map below the College. The Chemistry [now Biology] Building is in what was then a field — part of Tyndall's Park. A Blind Asylum, which I shall mention later in my talk, was on the site of the present Main Building [now the Wills Memorial Building]. Tyndall's Park at that time extended out to Priory Road. Still earlier it went right out to Cotham Hill and down to Whiteladies Road. The map shows the Royal Fort House (right centre) with stables occupying the present site of the Physics Theatre wing, and a drive with gates leading from the Park into the top of Queen's Avenue.

–  –  –

To go back to the period when I first joined the College, the next illustration (fig.3) is a photograph of the staff of University College, Bristol in 1902, although there may be one or two missing. Even a couple of years later when I joined the staff, we could all get in the drawing-room of the Principal's house together with our wives, although actually I was not married until 1908. The Principal — Lloyd Morgan — is seen in the centre of the group. He was an eminent scientist, a man of dignity and charm, with a beard which led us as students to wonder whether he bothered to put on a tie for evening functions, and which would blow sideways in a wind. He was quite a well-known figure on his bicycle in the streets of Bristol and around the Downs, with his beard perhaps being blown over his shoulder - a man not without his own propaganda value to a struggling institution. But he was a man for whom we all had a great affection. The group includes the first woman tutor, Miss Rosamund Earle, and George Hare Leonard, for whom there is a memorial lecture. He was a study in brown and green home-spun clothes from the Somersetshire weavers with a green tie and green band to a broad-brimmed hat and a green scarf thrown over his shoulder; quite a character with a clientele of extramural students which was very widespread throughout the whole of Bristol. The group also includes my own chief, Chattock, who had such an influence on my life. It's impossible to describe him in one sentence and therefore I won't talk about him at all.

The one who seems to be missing is Brooks, Lecturer in those days but shortly afterwards Professor of Classics. He really was a charming character — a courtly, prim, proper, precise gentleman with a keen sense of humour who, when he came to Bristol must, I think, have been rather surprised to find that one of his earliest and best friends, Chattock, was a scientist.

I remember Brooks for many interesting remarks, but particularly perhaps for his farewell speech on retirement in which he said: 'I remember when I first came to Bristol I asked my good friend Chattock "What is physics, or alternatively, what are physics?" He then went on to say with delightful ambiguity: 'In my view every University should have one professor like me, though no doubt Bristol could not afford to have two'.


–  –  –

Now we all know how misleading and useless statistics can be in the hands of unskilled people. I am not therefore going to pretend to you that it is in any way significant that when young Tyndall joined the staff in 1903, the situation immediately improved and later accelerated! There is a far better reason for the slight rise in the graph starting about 1903 because that was the period in which the movement for provincial universities was becoming widespread in this country. I am afraid I don't know the dates, but certainly Birmingham came into existence about then - just after 1900, I think. There was also the Victoria University of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds from which by 1902 Liverpool was breaking away so that it divided shortly afterwards into three separate universities. So the conception of provincial universities was really in the air and bearing fruit at that time. Its reactions were, of course, felt everywhere. Bristol itself was perhaps a little slow off the mark, but a move was made in 1899 by the establishment of a society for the promotion of a university in Bristol. It was called the University College Colston Society. In order to explain how the name Colston came into this I will diverge for a moment.

This time was a period of strain and struggle partly in Bristol University College itself, but also because there was another institution in science and engineering in the Merchant Venturers' Technical College and the divided loyalties amongst prominent citizens in Bristol led to a bitter rivalry. This division was, no doubt, partly political in origin. Those of you who know Bristol well, know there are still Colston Societies in Bristol. Among them are the Dolphin Society and the Anchor Society and, whatever the case now, in the early days these had definite political roots. The Dolphin was a Conservative Society and the Anchorites were Liberals. The Dolphins built the Victoria Rooms and the Anchorites built the Colston Hall for their meetings and annual dinner at which they had a speaker from their own particular political party. The Merchants were definitely Dolphinites and, in fact the dolphin is in the University arms as it is in the Merchant Venturers' arms as a symbol of that connection. On the other hand, the University College supporters included, of course, the Fry family who were Quakers and also Henry Hobhouse. J.W..Arrowsmith, head of the firm of Arrowsmith the printers, too was prominent in University College days and was a life-long liberal.

So there was just that political cleavage which may have started the rivalry which remained and affected the growth of University College. Ultimately, heads were knocked together and there came an agreement which led to a union between the two bodies and the promotion of the Charter. Prominent in bringing this about was the University College Colston Society started by people who adopted the attitude 'Let's get away from this party background and form another philanthropic society on non-party lines to promote a university in Bristol'.

There was a notable speech made in 1902 at the Society's annual dinner by Richard Haldane, who ultimately became Viscount Haldane and Chancellor of the University. He was a great supporter of the provincial university movement and throughout his life was one of the few politicians who had a profound belief in university education and did an enormous amount to promote the movement. In his speech at the Colston Dinner in 1902 he advocated a Federal University Scheme consisting of University College, Bristol, the Merchant Venturers' Technical College, Exeter and Southampton. Five years later, however, he said he'd completely changed his mind; the days of federal universities, he said, were over and he advocated that Bristol should aim for a University of Bristol instead of a University of the West.

Bristol was, however, a little slow in getting going and it still needed a catalyzer. This, in my view, came with the appointment to the staff of the College of a most vigorous and energetic young scientist - Morris Travers - a man 32 years of age who had done some brilliant physical chemical work at Ramsay's laboratory and had been elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society at this very early age. He came to Bristol and I met him about half an hour after his appointment when he was brought to see the Physics Department. I am told that I said to my colleagues after he had gone: "Well, that's like a breath of fresh air". My metaphor, however, was quite wrong — it should have been a tornado! He was a wonderful spring cleaner, but by Jove, he broke some crockery in the process! Yet in the 3¾ years in which he was in Bristol, the whole situation was transformed. I have been told that the following sort of conversation took place and, getting to know Travers quite intimately later,

I can well believe it:

'What are your plans for a University?' 'Oh well, you know we haven't got any money yet.' 'I said what are your plans?' 'Well, you know it's no good making plans until you know how much money you're going to get.' 'Stuff and nonsense, I've never heard such rubbish' (and he could say that to a man he'd just met for the first time) — 'you will never get any money until you make some plans.' Whereupon he sat down and drew up a pamphlet, which he discussed with his colleagues, on the immediate requirements of a University. He then went to members of Council and finally a definite committee was formed to promote a university in Bristol and the committee published the pamphlet that Travers had first brought out.

–  –  –

institutions, X and Y, on the same line so that if X was making a call and Y happened to lift his receiver, he could listen in to the conversation. It happened that University College, Bristol and the Blind Asylum were on the same line and when Travers lifted the telephone one day he heard the Blind Asylum authorities discussing the sale of their property. Travers, with all the instincts of the Secret Service, listened and got all the tit-bits and then rushed off to Lewis Fry and said: 'Look here, we must buy that property'. Lewis Fry, with no money behind him, was rather hesitant about it, but Travers said: 'Well, go to the bank and get the money' and, one way and another they secured the property. So much for Travers.

At the same time negotiations were going on with the Society of Merchant Venturers until eventually the Merchants decided to join a petition for a Charter. But we were told that we wouldn't get a Charter from the Privy Council unless we could find another £100,000. And then, 50 years ago on 14 January 1908, came a dinner of the University College Colston Society at which I was present. Mr George A. Wills was the President and he got up after the dinner and said he would like to make an announcement. He had a letter from his father which he would like to read. It said: 'I should be glad to offer a sum of £100,000 for the establishment of a University in Bristol, provided a Charter is obtained within the next two years'. Well, of course, today £100,000 is, shall we say, a 10% instalment of £1,000,000 from an impersonal State for some particular department in the University. But picture the atmosphere of that dinner. I was probably the youngest person there and certainly one of the few in their twenties and there were men present who had struggled to create University College and who had helped in keeping it alive. The atmosphere, therefore, on the announcement of this gift of what seemed a complete fortune was electric. We all stood up, waved our napkins and proceeded recklessly to order champagne at 7/6d per bottle!

–  –  –

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