Introduction

You cannot involve the whole university in a personal emotion

– H.B. Chrimes, Liverpool University Treasurer, on opposition to apartheid, 9 March 1970

The rain had been catching their hair and the wind had been rapping at their overcoats now for just on thirty minutes.  The wait was almost over. It would not be long.

A red banner caught in the wind as a black car came sliding through the rain haze. The crowd surged forward over the rough pavement and the slippery road. It swirled past in a curtain of spray and vanished up a ramp. Cheers, claps, and a few boos broke the gloom. People fidgeted.  She had come and that was that.

Three hours later, the gathering quietly melted into the afternoon sun, and the slums and streets of Liverpool 8 gently faded into the shadows. They would vaguely remember a royal blessing.

One thousand workers, tenants and students had witnessed the arrival of Princess Alexandra. It was 2:15 p.m. the afternoon of May 15th, 1969.  The Senate House was born…
– Dave Robertson, Sphinx magazine, summer 1970

This blog  documents the student occupation of the Senate House of Liverpool University in March 1970 in a protest which centred on the University’s links with the apartheid regime in South Africa, and called for the Chancellor, Lord Salisbury – notorious for his racist views – to resign.

The blog traces a sequence of events that began with an exposé of the University as the owner of slum housing in which families experienced dreadful living conditions; that brought tenants and students together to protest at the official opening by Princess Alexandra of the new Senate House in May 1969; that led to growing tensions between students and the university authorities, and which came to a head with the occupation of Senate House in March 1970.

As a blog, the material here is organised as if, back in 1970, the Internet had existed and an eyewitness and participant in these events had maintained a regular blog, posting notes on key events, extracts from newspaper reports, documents and photos. Posts, backdated to the date of a particular event or source material, therefore appear in reverse chronological order, most recent posts at the top of a page, earlier ones below.

The events chronicled here culminated in the disciplinary hearings which led to nine students being suspended and one expelled.

pete-and-vc
After two decades of lobbying, Pete Cresswell is awarded an honorary degree by Vice-Chancellor Janet Beer

If you’re here because of the news that Pete Cresswell – the one student expelled 46 years ago – was finally awarded an honorary degree by Liverpool University on 8 December 2016, take a look at our Facebook page, Survivors of the 1970 Liverpool University sit-in for photos of the ceremony. The Guardian report is here. The University video stream of the ceremony honouring Pete and Phil Scraton can be watched here (the award of Pete’s honorary degree begins at 17:27; the award of Phil Scraton’s honorary degree at 62 minutes).

For a detailed survey of these events, download the essay, An Emotional Involvement (pdf).

The main events

The first significant student protest at Liverpool University (in the period under scrutiny) occurs with the joint tenant-student demonstration on the occasion of the formal opening of Senate House by Princess Alexandra in May 1969.

However, there had been earlier signs of the growing radicalisation of sections of the student body, such as the sit-in at the Social Sciences building in solidarity with anti-racialist protests at the LSE and the Presidential election campaign fought by Dave Robertson (February/March 1969). And Liverpool students did, of course, participate in national protests, such as the VSC demonstration against the Vietnam War in London in October 1968.

But it was the start of the spring term in January 1970 that marked the beginning of a period of intense political activity among students at the university, as the issues that eventually became ‘The Five Demands‘ emerged, leading eventually to the occupation of Senate House in March. All this against the backdrop of the collapse of Guild government and fierce debates about the nature of democracy in the Union.

What united the Liverpool actions – from the protest over University-owned slum housing to the issue of the racist beliefs of the Chancellor and the questions about University investments  – was a critical questioning of the nature of a university, its relationship and responsibilities to the wider world.

After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride: more

12 thoughts on “Introduction”

  1. Gerry,
    This is a magnificent contribution.
    Like Nev Bann, I was a first year politics student. I was stuck out in digs in Bootle and paid over £5 5 shillings each week for full board so the opportunity to occupy the Senate was not just a political act but an amazing social opportunity girls, dope, music.
    I particularly remember hearing ‘Volunteers’ by Jefferson Airplane for the first time. Later, in June that year I saw them at Bath Festival. Hot Ratz was another biggie at that time. I remember being on a rota to call the Vice Chancellor throughout the night. Don’t know whether it was official action but it must have wound him up.
    I remember looking up at the stars from the roof at night (Wow Maaan, far out! etc) I was pleased to see my face cross legged on the floor in the photo published in Jon Snow’s book ‘Shooting History’ a few years back.
    I still feel shame faced that I slunk off at the end of term and didn’t see it through.

  2. Now, I wasn’t a Uni student back in 1970, but I was a delegate of the MSSF, Merseyside Socialist Students Federation, and occupied some floor space during the occupation. Who set MSSF up? Floor was comfortable. No orgies as I recall.
    Prior to that I’d been flogging ‘Freedom’ around the pubs of Liverpool on a sort of anarchist sponsored crawl and attending meetings at Pete Duke’s flat on Catherine St. Anyone remember Pete Duke? Anyone remember his botanical array?
    Also did some squatting in Birkenhead with the Anarcho-Syndicalists, putting a homeless family in empty accommodation and protecting them from the evil fascists. Ring a bell?
    I remember Ian very well; he’s always been a bit of a rum chap. I went to see his showing of the Battleship Potemkin, a homo-erotic film about revolting sailors, which was meant to radicalise the proletarian student masses. I also remember Paul, who shared a taste of the hirsute with Ian.
    Likewise there was Nigel Varley, the IS organiser; whatever happened to him?
    It’s now 40 years ago. For the youth of today that’s how 1930 was to us. Times, and our regard on the world, have obviously developed and yet, here in France, Cohn-Bendit has become a cherished icon of not only the 60s but also of today. The mish-mash of radical thought, often distorted through a dark prism of ideology, is still with us and still valid.
    Pete would be a national hero amongst our Gallic friends and, even though he did brandish a toy Luger his auntie gave him, everyone knows he wouldn’t hurt a fly except on match days. Offer him a degree….after all they’re giving them away now. At least it would show that Liverpool Uni uphold the liberal values they apparently adhere to.
    Looking forward to meeting all you retirement home revolutionaries.
    Roy Bartley
    PS Have you perused the Communist Party of Great Britain Marxist Leninist’s website? It makes scary reading!

    1. I remember Pete Duke – I used to visit him regularly during my first year in Liverpool. I thought that he lived in Huskisson Street but I could be wrong. I was introduced to Pete by John Cowan, who also used to sell Freedom. I remember selling quite a few copies of Freedom on the Anarchist stall during the occupation.

  3. I too, was a politics first year student in digs in Thomas lane, feeling a bit lost and lonely. Thinking of giving up and going back to Nottingham. My first experience of a critique of the university and in particular of one member of the politics dept. staff was reading the graffiti on the toilet walls -“Kilroy-Silk is a careerist”. Who was the prophet who wrote that? Sadly I could not repeat the present level of graffiti on the Union toiet walls.
    The campaign that winter and the occupation gave me inspiration both personal and political. Without forgetting the great sacrifices made by people like Pete, I’m glad someone else has been honest enough to admit, like Andy Lowe, that it was an “amazing social opportunity girls dope,music etc” aswell as a politicising experience. I too shamefacedly went home at easter, I can’t remember when exactly.
    I think that it shaped my views and education so that hopefully (unlike many of us as we age) my politics moved further left as my hair thinned.

    The Senate was warmer and more comfortable than my digs also.

  4. I too was there. ! attended that meeting in the Student’s Union with the Vice-Chancellor. I made a rousing speesh in response to what he said. I remarked that on ethical issues the University cannot and should not be neutral. ! quoted a former Director of the BBC, Sir Hugh Green, who once said that the BBC cannot be neutral on Apatheid. After I sat down (to thuderous student applause) the VC declined to reply. Pandemonium was unleashed and the students rushed to occupy Senate House. If ever there was a reference to An African student in that meeting that student was me!
    Those were beautiful times. Can any one arrange a reunion?

    Abdel-Malik M. Abdel-Rahman
    Ph.D. Applied Math Student at Liverpool (1967-1971) (Known then as Malik)
    Professor of Applied Mathematics & Former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Khartoum-Sudan

  5. I’m puzzled how a first year undergraduate like Major both managed to attend lectures whilst having full board “out in Bootle”. Surely either he was gulled into paying for lunches off Camus he would never get to eat, or he chose eating to attending lectures. Which was it? Or did he mean half board which at over £5 per week was remarkably expensive my digs in Rusholme Manchester cost £2 2s 6d per week?

  6. I am currently a first year history at the University of Liverpool, and we are currently working on a group project concentrating on the student protest. We were wondering if it would be possible to talk to any past students as to what the attitude was towards the protest, and possibly get a first hand account of the event.

    Please feel free to contact us through email if that is more suited. My email address is hsjhowes@liverpool.ac.uk
    Any help that you can give would be brilliant.
    Jessica Howes

    1. Jessica – I’ve responded by email. It’s good that you’re taking an interest in ancient history (a historical episode that’s probably slipped off Gove’s curriculum) and I appreciate your reading the blog. We like to think that this is one of the best-documented British student protests of the period – read everything here and you’ll know more than we knew at the time!

  7. I am also a first year student at the University of Liverpool, and our group is also looking at the student protest. As a group, we would be hugely grateful if any past students could give a first hand account and any thoughts that you have on the protest now.
    My email address is s.spender@student.liverpool.ac.uk
    Any help would be appreciated.
    Thanks,
    Stacey Spender

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