Dale Hall, Liverpool, December 1959
I was very sad to read in 2014 that Liverpool University’s Dale Hall of Residence was to be closed, and even sadder at the news that it had become derelict and succumbed to a fierce fire (believed to be arson) in December 2017. It has now been demolished and is being replaced by private homes, no doubt much needed, and probably very desirable residences. But there’s yet another milestone in my life that has disappeared.
I was one of the very first to live there, and it was my home-from-home from October 1959 to July 1962, the place where I made some really important friendships. It holds many cherished memories for me.
I came up to Liverpool to read French as an immature eighteen-year-old in October 1959. University policy was, as far as possible, to accommodate in Hall those female undergraduates unable to live at home. Few students had their own transport in those days and in general, buses were our only means of getting about. We would catch the number 80 bus at 8. 45 in order to get to lectures at 9.30, and then again around 5.30 in the evening to ensure we were back for dinner. Most of my lectures were in the Victoria Building, which was handy for the Students’ Union and the Cohen Library, so apart from the odd foray down Brownlow Hill and across Lime Street to Lewis’s and the City Library, I didn’t see much of Liverpool and led a very cloistered existence compared to today’s students.
Dale Hall was a brand new hall of residence generally known as the Virgins’ Retreat, stuck out in the rather posh suburbs of Mossley Hill, with very little in the way of temptation to lead a dissolute student life, or opportunity to indulge whatever temptation there was. My social life tended to be enacted in Hall, where it was easier to stay in our “prison” than to go out. There was a pub in Mossley Hill, where it might have been possible to meet people, especially male students, with the men’s hall only a mile or so away, but that cost money and we were very hard up.
I made friends in Hall in the first few weeks, as we ate our meals at tables of 9 that formed the nucleus of a number of cliques. Our group was quite lively, and although Hall regulations and lack of funds prevented us from going out often, we spent many hours in one another’s rooms putting the world to rights until the early hours of the morning.
We were the very first intake of students to inhabit Dale Hall, and we felt very privileged when we compared our living conditions to those of the other halls of residence, which were mostly converted Victorian villas where 2, 3 or even 4 girls had to share a room and there were battles for the bathroom.
Everything was brand new, clean, fresh, and contemporary in style. We had centrally-heated, brightly decorated individual study bedrooms, with a bathroom between 2, containing lavatory, hand basin and bath plus a tin of Gumption to clean it with (but no shower), and there was a shared kitchen with 2 gas rings and a grill at the end of each corridor. There was also a laundry room next to the kitchen, where you could wash out clothes by hand and spread them to dry on wooden racks, together with an iron and ironing board. In a room at the far end of a ground-floor corridor was a manual sewing machine that anyone could use. Electrical appliances had to be approved, so although there were a few hairdryers allowed, no radios, record players or tape recorders disturbed the hallowed silence.
Breakfast and evening meal were provided, and in addition we had weekly and monthly rations: ¼ lb of tea or instant coffee and ¼ lb of sugar per month plus 2 oz of butter per week, and we could help ourselves to 2 slices of bread daily from the couple of loaves provided in the kitchen – it was a matter of honour not to take more, as you would be depriving someone else if you did, but we would sneak down to the kitchen in the late evening and take any extra slices left over, for toast, which we made on the electric fires in our rooms, a practice forbidden and a bit risky.
Breakfast was served from a hatch in the dining room and was available from 7.30 to 9 am. There was always something hot, though it may have been simply one lone sausage, or a fried egg with one rasher of bacon, and as much cereal, tea, coffee, toast, butter and marmalade as we could stuff into ourselves. Dinner at 6.30 pm was formal except on Wednesday and Saturday evenings, as was Sunday lunch. This meant wearing our well-ironed undergraduate gowns over a respectable afternoon dress (definitely not trousers), and a prompt start all together as the Warden and her entourage swept in to take their places at High Table, with grace sung in Latin before and after the meal. There may have been wine at High Table, but we undergraduates had to be content with plain tap water.
Woe betide anyone who arrived late for formal dinner: you then stood just inside the door until you caught the Warden’s eye, whereupon she eventually nodded majestically as permission to enter and take your seat. If you needed to leave during dinner, there was a similar procedure: you stood and waited until she graciously nodded to you. During my second year, I was afflicted with frequent nosebleeds, which were triggered sometimes by the steam rising from the soup in my bowl. Clutching a blood-soaked hanky to my face, I would stand for several long seconds before she noticed me and allowed me to leave, and of course, as I wasn’t going to face the humiliating process of going back into the dining hall, I thus missed my dinner.
The Warden, Miss Leese, was an ex-WREN and a formidable character, trailed everywhere except to formal dinner by her pet pug dog Toby. We were in awe of her, but she really had a very kind heart and if a girl genuinely needed support, she could be relied on to give good sensible advice and make things happen. She and her staff were in loco parentis, since we didn’t come of age until we were 21, which accounts for the strictness of the system. A room at the end of each corridor was occupied by a spinster lecturer, who was our Hall Tutor. I’m not sure exactly what her brief was, but she would invite us for coffee now and then. She certainly didn’t interfere in our lives in any way. Perhaps some girls went to her for advice.
We were always addressed by the Warden and staff as “Miss + Surname”. If there were two or more girls with the same surname, the first name would be added, thus my two friends named Smith were Miss Elaine Smith and Miss Gwen Smith. I was Miss Catherine Williams to distinguish me from Miss Eirlys Williams.
Miss Leese’s aim was to make young ladies out of us, so she would invite 2 or 3 girls to High Table at each formal dinner, to act as hostess to visiting lecturers who, we thought, came under duress or just to get a free dinner. The invitation to High Table included mandatory attendance at a 15-minute sherry party beforehand, where we learnt to sip our sherry (it was considered rather sophisticated to ask for dry sherry, which nobody really liked) and balance canapés, peanuts and twiglets or a cigarette in the other hand while making small talk to people with strings of degrees who overawed us immensely. After dinner, each girl had to take her assigned guest back to her room for coffee (Nescafé), which meant assembling as many of your friends as possible for moral support during the ordeal of continuing the small talk.
My assigned guest was Dr Faithfull, head of the Italian department and father of Marianne, who was still a schoolgirl at that time. He looked like a tramp, had no small talk, and nobody I knew was reading Italian, so conversation was very hard and it was really quite a relief to all concerned when he drained his Nescafe and left. Maybe other girls were more adept at this game, or had more sympathetic and cooperative guests, but I think Dr Faithfull felt just as awkward as we did and was possibly a shy man.
At that time, mixed halls of residence were unheard of, and the draconian rules imposed on us were fiercely enforced as far as it was possible to do so. There was a very hypocritical attitude towards the sex life of female students at that time, at the dawn of the swinging sixties. The official word was “lock up your daughters” (and locked up we were from 10 pm to 7 am), and although in general we all acted as if butter wouldn’t melt in our mouths, blind eyes were turned so long as our behaviour wasn’t too openly provocative. But the sexual revolution had begun, and was quietly making inroads. Thus, one 18-year-old girl who arrived with us in October 1959 from a strict girls’ boarding school, wearing white ankle socks and accompanied by a bodyguard of beefy brothers, was boasting by the end of her first year that she had managed to sleep with over 30 different men. None of us were quite sure how she had managed this feat, but nobody doubted its veracity, and she reaped grudging respect for brazenly admitting it. She was studying Physics, which was unusual for a girl at that time, so had plenty of opportunity for meeting potential partners. But on the whole, we tended to keep quiet about what went on in our intimate relationships and few admitted openly to having lost their virginity.
We had to sign in every evening after dinner on a register at the Portress’s Lodge, and failure to do so by 10 pm would result in the night porter flinging open your door and switching on the light at around midnight (assuming you were in bed by then). I think he hoped to catch someone in a compromising situation or a state of undress, but doubt if he ever did, and we complained about this behaviour. He was subsequently removed from his post and we had quiet, undisturbed nights.
If you wanted to go out in the evening, you had to apply to the Warden in person for late leave before breakfast, giving your reasons and saying when you would be back. She was usually agreeable as long as you didn’t stay out too many evenings in the week, and it was OK to go to the University hops on a Saturday night, provided you were back by midnight. As Christmas approached, she also relaxed a little in giving permission to go to Christmas parties. Another queue in the morning outside the Warden’s office was to obtain permission for weekend home leave, and she insisted on our having a valid reason. The drawback to this system from our point of view was that the Warden only allocated about 15 minutes for this, so it was a matter of first come, first served. If you weren’t among the first dozen or so girls outside her door, there was no point in waiting. From the Warden’s point of view, of course, it meant she didn’t have to worry too much about us gadding off!
Men were not allowed beyond the Junior Common Room, just inside the main entrance, except on Wednesdays and Sundays from 2 to 4, and Saturdays from 2 to 6. These “men hours” were extended to 10 pm for senior students in their third year, who were usually 21 and thus no longer minors to be protected. In our first year we were issued with keys to our rooms, and on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons many rooms were seen to have their curtains drawn and the doors locked. In our second year, the keys were no longer issued to us, but it was just as easy to jam a magazine under the door if you really didn’t want to be disturbed.
The speciousness of this system was revealed by the case of a girl who smuggled her boyfriend in all night one Saturday. He would have gone unnoticed except that he left his motorbike parked outside. Only one girl in Hall had a car at this time, so the motorbike was highly conspicuous in the otherwise empty car park. The girl who had blatantly violated the rules was severely reprimanded and sent down for the remainder of the term. We all felt sorry for her – there but for the grace of God go I – but on the other hand we felt the boyfriend had been a bit stupid about the motorbike!
How times have changed! Dale Hall was extended to accommodate over 250 students, both male and female, and as they were all of age there was no need for a “dragon” to guard their moral welfare. Now it is no more, and probably many of its earliest inhabitants have gone the way of all flesh, but thankfully I can still treasure my memories. Gaudeamus, igniter, iuvenes dum sumus!