On 11 February, during a sit-in at Warwick University, a student thumbing through a file on ‘Student- University Relations’ in an unlocked cabinet, came across a disturbing document that revealed the University had been keeping files on the political activities of left-wing students and staff. Copies of the files were made and rapidly circulated to universities around the country, including Liverpool. The effect was electric: the issue of secret files became, for the next two months, a prime focus of student protests.
At Liverpool The 24 February issue of Guild Gazette carried a report on developments at Warwick University, and at a mass meeting later that day a motion was put by Socialist Society that formed the basis of the fourth demand of the occupation: an independent public inquiry into files kept on staff and students by the University.
EP Thompson, then Reader in the History of Labour at the university, explained the origins and development of the Warwick protests:
…during the second term of the 1970 academic year students, including a number from the Centre for the Study of Social History, occupied the vice-chancellor’s office and the main building of university administration, the Registry. The sit-in followed three years of protests concerning control of the student building, segregation of the informal space afforded students and the barren utilitarianism of the learning environment. In the course of this student-led occupation, which was driven by awareness that powerful capitalist interests associated with Rootes Motors Ltd, long a vital player in the funding and governance of Warwick University,were stonewalling on the issue of student buildings and student autonomy. Minor discontents opened up into a larger critique of the tight connective links between capitalist industry and academic institutions. This original occupation lasted twenty-four hours. When nothing substantial in the way of change occurred, a second, indefinite occupation, emerging spontaneously out of a mass meeting of students, occurred on 11 February 1970. The militants agreed that there would be no damage to university property and the secretarial staff vacated their offices,leaving all doors open. Hours later a student, thumbing through a file on ‘Student- University Relations’ in an unlocked cabinet, came across a disturbing document.
Marked ‘strictly confidential’, it was addressed to the University Vice-Chancellor, indicating that Gilbert Hunt, a Director of Rootes Motors, member of the University Council and chairman of its Building Committee, had sent his corporate Director of Legal Affairs, accompanied by a security officer, to a meeting of the Coventry Labour Party addressed by Dr David Montgomery, an American working working-class historian visiting Warwick’s Centre for
the Study of Social History for two years. The object of this surveillance was apparently to ascertain if Montgomery’s talk provided grounds for prosecution under the 1919 Aliens Restriction Act.
Montgomery had no doubt come to Hunt’s attention precisely because he appeared to be a unique blend of academic and activist. He himself had once been a machinist, and his scholarship was distinguished, but he ventured outside universities to establish relations with trade unionists and workers on a regular basis. In Coventry he had advised a group of striking Pakistani workers on the mechanics of securing union recognition, and he regularly spoke to political and trade union gatherings on matters such as automation. In the eyes of the industrial magnates, he was a man to monitor. Such spying contravened university assurances that no political information was ever kept on faculty, students or staff. It prompted the students to do a larger, disciplined search of other confidential files, and in the process cabinets were carefully opened with a minimum of physical force.
Other objectionable material came to light but the weight of damaging confidential correspondence was hardly overwhelming. The political cat was now out of the proverbial bag, however, with earnest debate sweeping the University about the validity of invading ‘private’ communications and student assessments.
EP Thompson also wrote a detailed critique of the University in a New Statesman article on 19 February, the week after the discovery of the ‘secret files’, The Business University. This critique was later expanded into book-length form, as the Penguin Special, Warwick University Limited.
The blog, Dissident Warwick, added this to the story in a post in April 2009:
Professor Alex Callinicos, visiting the Warwick PPE Society, gave a talk about the neoliberalisation of higher education, and warned of the dangers inherent in ‘the systematic subordination of higher education to competition’. ..Whilst this debate has become more prominent in the current economic climate, it has been at the very centre of the University of Warwick’s history and identity from its foundation in 1965.
Only five years into its life, the university was the subject of a damning critique in a book entitled Warwick University Ltd, edited by one of the most prominent academics ever to work here – the historian Edward Thompson. The book demonstrated how the interests of business and industry had driven the direction and development of the university from its inception, with several unsavoury side effects. The provision of an appropriate social space within which an academic community could flourish was constantly rejected by the controlling powers; manipulation of the committee system served to limit the role staff and students could play in the decision-making processes of a supposedly democratic institution; and, most disconcertingly of all, the political activities and affiliations of staff and students were monitored and, in at least one case, used as grounds to reject admission to the university. Many contemporary students and staff were well aware that these issues were part of much broader problem: ‘What was wrong was the whole concept and structure of the University. The ideals of academic excellence and the pursuit of knowledge had to be reasserted over the aims of the “Business University”’.
There is, however, another history to be told. Running alongside the university’s reputation as the ‘Business University’ is a history of radicalism and protest. In 1970 students responded to the university’s neglect of their interests with direct action, staging a famous sit-in at the Registry. Edward Thompson was a member of the academic staff at the time, and a supporter of the actions of the students as well as a radical in his own right, combining academic research with committed activism, especially within the CND. His research also left a radical legacy, and his work on the history of popular protest launched a generation of historians prepared to challenge established – and often elitist – academic orthodoxies. And this alternative history and identity of Warwick, like its ‘Business University’ counterpart, continues to be reflected on campus today. It is memorialised in the painting of Kevin Gately, who died at a protest opposing the National Front in 1974, and persists in events such as the Gaza sit-in, the campaign against the arms trade, and even, perhaps, in the award of the Warwick Prize for Writing to Naomi Klein. All these count as examples of the continuing vibrancy of this alternative identity of Warwick as a centre of protest and radicalism.
These two contrasting trends in Warwick’s history are summed up in a question posed by Thompson in 1970:
‘Is it inevitable that the university will be reduced to the function of providing, with increasingly authoritarian efficiency, pre-packed intellectual commodities which meet the requirements of management? Or can we by our efforts transform it into a centre of free discussion and action, tolerating and even encouraging “subversive” thought and activity, for a dynamic renewal of the whole society within which it operates?’
The Warwick Registry files
The following documents are those circulated to campuses across the country following their discovery in the Registry at Warwick. This copy of the documents came into the possession of Ian Rathbone, editor of Guild Gazette at the time.
UNIVERSITY OF WARWICK: A Selection of Documents Extracted from Registry Files
- Section One: William Ellis School
- Section Two: Abbey High School
- Section Three: David Montgomery
- Section Four: Automative Products
- Section Five: Courtaulds
- Section Six: Max Beloff
Original documents or photocopies will be handed to a public committee of enquiry when one is established.
Document 1: Letter to JB Butterworth, Esq, Vice-Chancellor, The University of Warwick, Coventry
William Ellis School, Highgate Road, London NW5
17th February 1969
re: Course No. 37220, Molecular Science
I write to you concerning the application for entry in 1969 of ……. of this School. I find it necessary to add to the comments made on the UCCA entry form concerning his preoccupation with student politics. He is now a committee member of the London Schools Action Group, engaged in the organising of protests and demonstrations concerning School Government, etc. His name appeared in the Times Educational Supplement of the 10th January, expressing his intention to embark on militant action when necessary.
I felt that it was important that you should be aware of this in making your decision. I would prefer this communication to be treated very confidentially, and should be pleased to receive your comments.
(signed) Sydney L Baxter, Headmaster.
(WRITTEN AT FOOT OF THE LETTER: REJECT THIS MAN. J.B.B. )
Document 2: Reply from The Registrar, The University of Warwick
4th March 1969
SL. Baxter, MA, Headmaster, William Ellis School, Highgate Road, London, NW5
I am writing to acknowledge your letter of 17th Februay, addressed to the Tutor for Admissions, regarding………..
The Vice Chancellor has asked me to say how very much obliged we were to you for writing in this way. We really are most grateful to you.
You may wish to know – privately – that the course selector has decided not to make an offer in this case. But it will no doubt be a week or two before the candidate hears of this officially through UCCA.
Yours sincerely, Registrar
Document 1: JB Butterworth, Esq, Vice-Chancellor, The University of Warwick
Warwickshire County Council, County Education Office, 22 Northgate Street , Warwick
CJ Chenevix-Trench, MBE, MA, County Education Officer.
Dear Mr. Butterworth,
I enclose a copy of tho paper handed out recently by the three students of the University to pupils coming out from the Abbey High School, Kenilworth. It was dictated to my secretary over the telephone today by Mr Forsyth, and Mr Douty asked me to send it to you.
(NOTE: ALDERMAN DOUTY IS CHAIRMAN OF THE WARWICKSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL EDUCATION COMMITTEE AND A MEMBER OF THE UNIVERSITY COUNCIL.)
Document 2: SAU leaflet
Is your school democratic?
Are you allowed to express your views? Is your future life dependent on the whims of your headmaster and staff (the headmaster must give a report and reference for university, college and first job).
Are school games – especially Rugby – compulsory?Rugby Football is often played just to keep up the school’s reputation.
Is the cane used in your school? Such punishment should be outlawed. It is a barbaric remnant of the brutality of the last century. Only in a few countries in the world are teachers allowed to use it.
Are you victimized for unorthodox appearance? Has your school petty rules about such things as length of hair, length of skirts and coats, the wearing of rings, nail varnish, make-up, style of shoes, the colour of socks and other trivial matters completely unrelated to education?
Are your school Society’s notices, publications and views censored? Must school societies have official approval from the headmaster? Are you allowed to put up notices or posters, even ones connected with school activities, without permission? Does the headmaster censor all material going into the school magazine, the end result being a stereotyped publication? Above all, are you allowed to express your thoughts without risking punishment?
Why is educational expenditure so low? Why are qualified teachers, after years of training, only paid £18 a week? Why do so many classes have over 40 pupils? Why are education cuts being made left, right and centre? We support the teachers strikes.
All over the country Schools Action Union Groups are springing up. These are groups of school students who are interested in pressing for a better more democratic education. If you would like to discuss the nature of education or possibly form a Kenilworth Schools Action Union, come to a meeting at 7.30 pm on Tuesday 2nd December, at ……………………. (address given).
Published by Coventry SAU
Document 3: Letter to DW Dykes, Esq. MA, The Registrar, The University of Warwick
Warwickshire County Council, County Education Office, 22 Northgate Street, Warwick
CJ Chenevix-Trench,MBE,MA, County Education Officer
2nd January 1970
Dear Mr Dykes,
I enclose for your confidential information a copy of the correspondence with Mr Dudley Smith MP, which we discussed today on the telephone, and a copy of my reply to the Clerk of the County Council.
(signed) CJ Chenevix-Trench
Document 4: Letter toRM Willis, Clerk of the Council, Warwickshire County Council
House of Commons, London SW1
23 December 1969
Dear Mr Willis
I enclose a letter which my colleague, Mr Enoch Powell, has sent to me. He received a communication from ………………. of ……………Kenilworth, and her letter and enclosure are included with this letter.
The leaflet, on the face of it, reveals a disturbing state of affairs and I wonder if the Education Department had any knowledge of the campaign being promoted?
(signed) Dudley Smith
Document 5: Letter to Dudley Smith, MP,House of Commons
From: The Rt.Hon J.Enoch Powell, MBE, House of Commons
16th December, 1969.
I agree with the suggestion in this letter from one of your constituents that you would like to see the enclosure. It would be interesting to know who it is, in fact, who lives at the address in question at Kenilworth and what lies behind the whole operation.
Document 6: Letter to Enoch Powell, MP
To The Rt Hon E Powell, MP, 3rd December, 1969
Dear Mr Powell,
You may find the enclosed leaflet of some interest in view of your recent remarks on education. These leaflets were distributed to the schoolchildren of Kenilworth Castle High School as they were leaving school on the 2nd Dec. by the student from (I believe) Warwick University who resides at the address stated on the leaflet.
Perhaps the leaflet could be passed to Mr Dudley Smith who as our local MP may also be interested to see such pernicious nonsense.
Document 7: Letter to Alderman Douty from the Vice-Chancellor
2nd December, 1969
Thank you very much for letting me know so quickly about the distribution of a pamphlet outside the Abbey High School in Kenilworth. I received this morning a copy of the paper which was being handed out. Of the three persons you mention, ……………….. and ………………….are members of the University. I have turned up their records this morning and you may be interested to know that in each case the Headmistress of the girl gave her an absolutely first-class reference. We have no recollection of the third, Julian Herber, having any connection with the University. I am very distressed that this should have happened and have already spoken to the Headmaster. If there are any further instances I hope I shall be informed.
As you may know, universities have no authority over students outside the university. By law they are adult at the age of eighteen and will shortly receive the vote. As I said on the telephone, I am afraid a Vice-Chancellor has now by law no further influence over the outside activities of his students than the Managing Director of Rootes has over the otside activities of his employees. However, I greatly sympathise with the Headmaster. I would like to be kept informed and if I see an opportunity for taking action you may be sure that I will do so.
I notice that the paper which was distributed is alleged to be published by the Coventry SAU. Do you think it would be worthwhile making enquiries in Coventry? There may be more behind this than the action of a few students.
Document 8: Letter from the County Education Officer
Warwickshire County Council, County Education Office, 22 Northgate Street,
From: CJ Chenevix-Trench, MBE, MA, Warwick County Education Officer
To: RM Willis, Esq, Clerk of the Council
2nd January 1970
Kenilworth Castle High School: Distribution of Leaflet
In reference to your letter of the 29th December, the following information will, I hope, enable you to reply to Mr Dudley Smith MP. Councillor Forsyth (Kenilworth Second) drew Alderman Douty’s attention to this incident soon after it happened. He was able to give Mr Douty the names of the three students who were distributing the leaflets, two of whom were undergraduates of the University of Warwick. The students were, according to MrForsyth, not on the school premises but just outside the gates, on the public highway, when they handed out the leaflets.
Mr Douty spoke to the Vice-Chancellor by telephone, and protested at the students’ action. The Vice-Chancellor expressed great concern at the incident, since although the students appeared not to be in breach of the law or the university’s regulations, they were clearly damaging the good name of the university. He promised to consider what action he could take.
The Vice-Chancellor is now in India and it is not possible to ascertain what, if anything, he has felt able to do. It is quite clear, however, that the university authorities are placed in a very difficult position if, as it seems, the students have not placed themselves within reach of formal disciplinary measures. A false step could easily make matters worse.
I think myself that it must be left to the Vice-Chancellor’s judgment what, if anything, can be done about this particular case. It has been made abundantly clear that he is much concerned, and not disposed to dismiss it lightly, for obvious reasons.
I would suggest therefore, that Mr Dudley Smith might be informed that the Chairman of the Education Committee took the matter up personally with the Vice-Chancellor at the time, and was satisfied that the university authorities took a serious view of the incident and would consider how best to deal with it.
There has, so far as we know, been no similar incident since then, involving students of the university. If there had been, we would certainly have heard of it.
I would be grateful for a copy of your reply to Mr Dudley Smith.
(signed) C Chenevix Trench, County Education Officer
Document 9: Minutes of Weekly Meetings of Officers of Council (no dates available)
20. Student Action Group
In the course of the meeting the Vice-Chancellor received a telephone call from Alderman Douty complaining that three girls had distributed leaflets outside the Kenilworth Abbey High School, calling a meeting of a “Schools Action Group”.
The girls, who were thought to be University of Warwick students, were nemed as ……………, ………………… and……………………………. of ………………(address)……….Kenilworth. It appeared that an angry parent had telephoned Mr Forsyth, who was Chairman of the Governors of the Kenilworth Abbey High School. The Vice-Chancellor pointed out that Mr Forsyth had defended the University when the questionof the County Council grant was discussed, and he was anxious that the name of the University should not be brought into disrepute and the goodwill of the County Council lost. Alderman Douty, it was clear, expected some action to be taken. The problem of taking action over an incident outside the university, and not in contravention of University regulations, was discussed. It was thought that the Vice-Chancellor might speak to Poulton about the incident, and possibly also have a word with Mr Forsyth.
9. The Registrar reported on the news from Essex about ……………., theb third person, presumably, to have distributed leaflets outside Kenilworth High School in December; it raised the question of whether he was qualified to take a higher degree at Warwick. It was suggested that candidates from Essex might be carefully screened in future. The VC asked for a note on the whole Kenilworth incident. AVC to talk to police about …………. (address)…… .Kenilworth.
45. The Registrar reported that ………., the third person presumed to have distributed lcaflets outside the Abbey High School, Kenilworth, in December, had now been identified as a graduate student at the University. He had come to Warwick from Essex, but although he had passed his degree examinations at Essex, the University had not permitted him to take his degree because he was in debt to it. The question therefore arose as to whether he was properly qualified for entry to his course at Warwick. The whole matter was therefore being investigated.
Document 1: Letter to the Vice-Chancellor, J B Butterworth, Esq, MA, JP
Bowater House, Knightsbridge, London, SW1
March 18, 1969
J B Butterworth, Esq, MA, JP, The University of Warwick
My dear Jack,
At my request, Mr. N.P. Catchpole, our Director of Legal Affairs, attended a meeting of the Coventry Labour Party on March 3rd, which was being addressed by Dr D Montgomery.
As you will see from the attached notes of the meeting, nothing was said by him which would involve prosecution under the 1919 Aliens Restriction Act, but I felt it would be advisable nevertheless for you to have a copy of these notes for your confidential files.
(NOTE: Bowater House is occupied by Rootes Motors. One of the Directors is Gilbert A Hunt; he is also a co-opted member of the University Council).
Document 2: REPORT ON MEETING HELD ON 3 MARCH 1969
Accompanied by Mr T Norton, Security Officer, Stoke, I duly attended a meeting at the offices of Coventry Labour Party on the evening of Monday 3rd March.
The guest speaker, Dr D Montgomery, spoke for about half an hour to an audience of eight people including the Chair, who incidentally was an ex-Labour Councillor by the name of Edwards. I think one member of the audience may have been Mr Bob Mitchell, 0ne of the left-wing students at Warwick University.
The remainder included a Mr H Finch who I understand is a shop steward at Dunlops.With the exception of a shorthand writer who is on Norton’s staff there were no other Rootes employees present.
Montgomery’s speech was I felt poor in content. He warned the meeting of the dangers of accepting measured day work which he said would remove the negotiating powers of the local shop stewards and, particularly when associated with automation, was entirely contrary to the best interests of the workers. He did not however give any specific examples to justify this allegation but merely referred to the general experience in American industry.
After he had finished three members of the audience, including Mr Finch, paid markedly lukewarm tributes to the speech. These three were strong supporters of the All Trades Union Alliance. They felt that all members of the working community should unite:
- To ‘bring down the Wilson Government and organise a political alternative to fight the Conservatives at the next election’
- That they should organise sympathy strikes to support the Ford workers in their current dispute,and
- That ultimately the only answer was for the workers to seize the factories.
Dr Montgomery was, I felt, particularly careful not to associate himself with any of these suggestions.
My personal conclusions based admittedly on a limited knowledge of the local situation, were as follows:
- Nothing that Montgomery said could involve any question of a prosecution under the Aliens Restriction Act.
- Montgomery’s speech revealed a very definite bias against employers in general. I can only guess from seeing the man that he would be most likely to exhibit a similar bias in his lectures at the University. If this is the case the students would certainly be exposed to a most undesirable indoctrination, as I do not think he would put the other point of view at all.
- The three supporters of the All Trades Union Alliance are dedicated subversives. I am doubtful however if they are sufficiently intelligent to (these words are erased in the original) carry much weight with their fellow employees, by wh0m I would have thought they would be regarded as mere “hot heads”.
Document 3: Letter to the Vice-Chancellor, J B Butterworth, Esq, MA, JP
Devonshire House, Piccadilly, London W1
Jenuary 29, 1968
My dear Jack,
Thanks for the cutting from the Guardian. Read, marked and learned!
Document 4: Letter to the Vice-Chancellor, J B Butterworth, Esq, MA, JP
Bowater House, Knightsbridge, London SW1
February 7, 1969
Attached is a photostat of a leaflet being handed out at our factory gates by some Warwick University students.
I am sending this to your house as I don’t think it ought to go to the University.
Who, by the way, is ………..?
Document 1: Letter to the Vice-Chancellor
AUTOMOTIVE PRODUCTS, LEAZMINGTON SPA
PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL
Dear Vice Chancellor,
Further to our conversation I enclose the documents referred to. The only additional information that I can give is:
- The smaller document was distributod outsidc our Works on tho 31st January by peoplo that we bolievcd to be students of the University.
- We sent a representative to the meeting on the 3rd February at Coundon Road, which was attended by only 28 people.
- The longer document was distributed at that meeting, and (name of lecturer)’s talk was very much in line with its contents.
- We are not proposing to send anyone to the next meeting because we do not wish to draw attontion to our interest in what is going on.
I will, of course, let you know of any further developments that we hear about.
SM PARKER , Deputy Managing Director
(handwritten notes) Please return to VC.
Document 2: reply from Vice-Chancellor
6th February, 1969
Private and confidential
Thank you very nuch for your letter and contents. I am very sorry that it should have happoned but as you know we have no more control over what our peoplo do in their spare time than you have. I shall be grateful, however, if there are any further developments to know about them.
SM Parker, Esq. Deputy Managing Director, Automotive Products Company Limited, Leamington Spa Works.
Document 3: unsigned letter to E. Rosenberg
12th October 1964
I was talking to Mr Kerr-Muir of Courtaulds, who is chairman of our Finance Committee, about some of the problems which we face, and in the course of our discussion he mentioned that Courtaulds now produce a considerable amount of material for carpets. It occurred to him that Courtaulds might be able to help in producing carpet of the kind which we require, particularly if the carpet with some man-made fibre element is proved to have the right kind of durability. At any rate I said I would mention the matter to you.
If the man in your office, who is investigatin the problem of carpets, would get in touch with Mr Kerr-Muir, he would then see that your man met the right people in Courtaulds. Mr Kerr-Muir also mentioned the possibility of their being able to provide curtain material for us.
I am sure I do not need to say that in taking decisions on curtains and carpets we would deal with Courtaulds at arms length. On the other hand they have been so good to us and are one of our public benefactors: we may well find that their prices contain an element favourable to us.
I shall of course be interested to know the outcome of your contact with Courtaulds.
E. Rosenberg Esq., FRIBA , Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall, Greystoke Place, Fetter Lane, EC4
Document 1: unsigned letter to Max Beloff, All Souls, Oxford
8th July 1968
I am very sorry that I have to go to America for three days and that we shall not be meeting until November.
In the meantime, thank you very much for sending me a copy of your homily on universities and vice-chancellors. The real problem, at any rate in modern universities, is that vice-chancellors have responsibility without authority. Under the Charter and Statutes, the decisions are taken by Senates and Councils, and the vice-chancellor who wants to be tough will never get the support that he needs. Under the Statutes of Warwick, and I expect ours are pretty much the same as other universities, Senate is required to regulate matters of discipline. No student can be expelled except by a vote of the Senate. It is therefore almost impossible for a vice-chancellor to act on his own, because he will almost always be repudiated by the Senate, for in the discussion of these matters in Senates, inevitably the liberal-minded always prevail because the academic is always reluctant to act in a crisis.
I very much agree with what you say and would add only one rider, that in most of the universities where serious trouble has occurred, at the moment of crisis the real difficulty is not the students, but the staff who assist, advise, and indeed sometimes direct the activities of the extreme student group.
We are taking legal advice about tenure of staff under the University Statutes. In most universities a member of staff can only be dismissed for good cause which is tightly defined. Moreover, even if conduct of a member of staff can be deemed ‘good cause’ removal must secure in Council a majority of not less than two-thirds of those present and voting. On most Councils, the laymen tend to be less regular attenders than the academics and, in practice, I suspect it will be difficult in any particular instance to get the necessary two-thirds majority. However, let us talk about the whole problem in September, for by then we should have had the benefits of Counsel’s opinion.