Going Co-Ed

In 1965, 100 controversial students enrolled at Royal Holloway College; the very first male undergraduates. The decision to change from a female-only to co-educational student population was not an easy one, and required an amendment to the College’s official deed. But, was the transition easier for the students themselves?

Our oral history project, interviewing alumni from Royal Holloway College and Bedford College (which also accepted male undergraduates in 1965) provides us with a prime opportunity to explore the impact of the change to co-education, and the student’s feelings towards studying in a changing and expanding university. Did the female students already studying at Royal Holloway accept their male colleges with open arms? Or did they resent- or even fear- their presence?

As Royal Holloway college expanded in response to the Robbins report, its appearance and make-up was altered- but it will be interesting to ask if the feel and atmosphere of the college changed as well. Did Royal Holloway still feel safe? – and, interestingly, would the female alumni still have chosen to come to their college if they have known that male undergraduates would be introduced?

I am aware that the number of alumni participating in our interviews that experienced the colleges as both single-sex and co-educational will be relatively small. However, students who attended the colleges before or after the change can also provide us with important insight; did the mix of men and women (or lack of) influence their choice to come to Royal Holloway or Bedford?

Although our oral history project is unique to Royal Holloway and Bedford Colleges, the revolution in higher education that occurred in the 1960s was a nationwide trend, and our interviews offer an invaluable opportunity to explore the personal impact of a wider and more open education experience.


Class change?

The Alumni Oral History project is especially of interest to me as a Modern British Historian. I am intrigued by the social change that the 20th Century brought with its many political developments. The 1960s is a vital decade for social change as Britain settles itself down after the Second World War and the developments this brought. I have a particular interest in upward social mobility owing to my own families change in circumstances.

The particular area in regards to the Alumni project I would be intrigued to investigate further, are those who came from a working class background and if their enrolment was shocking. I am the first one in my family to go to university, something that my extended family are incredibly proud of. My grandmother still speaks of how proud she was that she passed the 11 Plus exam giving her access to better schooling; my attendance at university within her life time is something she never thought she would see.

I would imagine, that during the 1960s the majority of attendees at Royal Holloway were from a middle to upper class background. In a decade of such social upheaval nationally, and change within the university admitting undergraduate men for the first time, investigating class change within this at Royal Holloway could provide illuminating insights to British society.


Oral history within the family

I would like to explore my family’s history through an interview with my 96 year old great aunt. Although physically frail she is still a great storyteller, and an insightful interpreter of her own life and how it relates to the present.

One of 6 children born into a poor Jewish family in Manchester, at a young age (younger than 10 I believe) she was orphaned and living in a household headed by her 14 year old sister. They survived through the hard graft of the children, and the kindness and help of neighbours – who can’t have had a lot to spare themselves. She has never talked to me about the racial aspects of her childhood, but I have heard (not directly from my great aunt) that my grandmother was unofficially adopted by childless non-Jewish neighbours and lived with them for some years. As a consequence my grandmother doesn’t seem to have considered herself Jewish, which I’m sure had consequences for relationships between the siblings.

The Second World War seems to have been liberating for her personally. She’s never quite said how this came about – possibly I’ve never asked – but at some point during the 1940s she spent time in Egypt. I don’t know if this was during or after the war. What can she have been doing there? She has some great pictures of her perched nervously on a furious-looking camel. After the war she pitched up in London on her own (!) and met her future husband at a literary evening. They were both avid readers, and together became involved in left-wing politics. Shortly after Israel was founded they went to live on a Kibbutz, which she hated (I’m not sure if this was to do with politics, lifestyle or both). Returning to London they opened a bookshop in Finchley, which was eventually very successful but they had many years of financial struggle. They had one son, and as there were no nurseries at that time she describes an incredibly difficult juggling act as a working mother. The family ended up pillars of the local community, to her lasting amusement (and secret delight, I suspect).

I am intrigued by the ellipses in family history – my great aunt has shared some compelling vignettes from her life but I’m not sure of the chronology or how they relate to each other. The Holocaust seems to be a taboo subject – I have no idea how it affected the extended family. Perhaps she doesn’t know either; I don’t get the impression she or her siblings were in touch with any wider family after their parents died. But perhaps I have this wrong.  I have often wondered if these gaps are because she wants to be in control of what she reveals or because I just haven’t asked the right questions or listened carefully enough. There are a number of themes I would like to explore through this interview, among them: my great aunt’s relationship both with her siblings and her Jewish identity; experiences of anti-semitism (she has never mentioned it); the liberating impact of the war; the significance of Israel to her; being a working woman (and especially wife and mother) in 1950s London; class and social mobility. I think this interview could shed light on these aspects of 20th century history through one person’s experience. It would also be an opportunity to reflect on the ethics and methodology of interviewing someone with whom one has a close emotional relationship within the context of a tight-knit family.

I have several concerns about this interview – some practical, some relational, some ethical – which I’ll explore in my next post, but the main area is whether she will feel she needs to ‘protect’ me from some of her more difficult experiences. I will also want to protect her, as I have no desire to cause her distress or bring traumatic memories to the surface. She might also just feel some of the things I’m interested in are none of my business – and I’m sure she will say so! She has honed her story so much in the retelling over the years I think I’ll probably hear a well-rehearsed version; entertaining, but guarded. Given her high status as the most senior member of the family it could be difficult for me to interogate this as I might wish.