Feature: UoB during World War I – End Game | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Feature: UoB during World War I – End Game

In his third and final instalment, Peter Vessey reveals how the University adapted to the world after World War One

Quite some time before the war even looked like ending, the University, and the Government, were planning for the eventual return of the demobilised, and various schemes were proposed.  In their 1916 - 1917 Prospectus, the Birmingham University and Workers’ Education Association were advertising a wide-ranging course of lectures entitled After War Problems.   Five months later, in March 1917, the Ministry of Labour called a conference to conceive a policy over college and university placements for discharged officers.  Many of these were men who had already been invalided out.   Three months later the Faculty of Commerce was asking whether it would be possible to arrange for convalescent service personnel to attend university classes in the 1917 - 1918 session?    And a few months later still, Senate was discussing adjustments to the degree regulations for returnees.   Early in 1918, this was given new impetus by the arrival of a proposed set of degree conditions, for a new Ph.D. research degree, being promoted and circulated by the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool & Leeds.

The first convalescent officer applied for University admission in July 1918; Frederick Brown was admitted to study for a science degree without fees.   In the winter of 1918-19, the government announced the funding they were putting in place for the demobilised up to £50 in fees and up to £175 a year for maintenance grants.   As the University was to find out, this scheme had consequences for the academic staff; they had to submit termly reports on each beneficiary.

Professor Gisbert Kapp was making known his feelings about post-war engineering training

By the Autumn of 1919 the University had received 822 applications from men released from service and they had processed and accepted 620 of these, rejected 157, with 45 still to be looked at.   They also had accepted 70 Americans, for whom the American government was paying £300 each in fees and support, and five new Zealanders.   With financial support from the Kitchener Fund, the University had also accepted two Australians and a Canadian.   Because most of these would be students were joining partway through the academic year, the university was running supplementary courses at weekends and in vacation time to allow them to catch up.

As an internal matter, Professor Gisbert Kapp was making known his feelings about post-war engineering training.  In a letter to the Senate dated November 1916, he sets out his ideas for ‘practical engineers’.  They should, he states, have more extensive practical experience as, otherwise, they are not great assets to an employer for at least their first year.  The University should develop sandwich courses involving the current seven months a year of campus-based studies backed up with four months a year of industrial or commercial placement.

The Faculty of Medicine came up with their own plan for returnees.  They proposed that blanket alterations to the Degree Regulations should not be made, but that the Dean of Medicine and the relevant Professors should be allowed to judge each case on its merits.

The Chancellor’s inaugural address was on the role that the proposed League of Nations could play in making future wars impossible
In July 1914, our first Chancellor, Joseph Chamberlain, had died and the University functioned for some time without anybody in post.  Eventually, in 1918 they invited Lord Robert Gascoyne-Cecil to assume the position.   At the October 1918 Senate meeting they chose the date for his installation: the 12th November.   Little did they guess that it would be overshadowed by the events of the preceding day.  Possibly with optimism, the Chancellor’s inaugural address was on the role that the proposed League of Nations could play in making future wars impossible.  Gascoyne-Cecil was one of the prime movers and supporters for the League of Nations., and this led to him being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1937.  In 1928, he wrote The Way of Peace, and 5 years later ‘The League as a Road to Peace', a chapter in The Intelligent Man's Way to Avoid  War.  He was one of those who thought that Hitler should be appeased.

In 1919, in anticipation of the institution of the National Armistice Day/Remembrance Day, the University Senate decided that a memorial service would be held in the Great Hall on 12th October 1919 at 3 o’clock.   Confusingly, this is contradicted a few months later, as having been held on Sunday the 2nd November 1919 which, that year, happened to be All Soul’s Day, with Revs. Sidney Berry, and Lloyd Thorne, Rev. Professor Lofthouse, and the Lord Bishop of Birmingham all in attendance.   The service opened with the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, the National Anthem and the hymn O God our help in ages past.  After various prayers, the choir sang Purcell’s setting of Psalm 130, De Profundis.  The Vice Chancellor read out the names of the one hundred and sixty-four known dead at that time.  Then followed Handel’s Dead March from Saul, and the choir sang the Orthodox Church’s Kontakion for the Dead (Give rest, O Christ) to the Kieff Melody.  After the Bishop’s address, they sang Abide with me, Last Post was sounded and the service finished with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

Without adequate and competent Academics, the University would cease to have any standing, and could even collapse

Towards the end of the war, the University had set up a ‘Salaries Committee’ to look at current remuneration problems, and to set out recommendations.  They reported back just after the end of the war, in December 1918.  During the war, the cost of living had increased to slightly more than double the pre-war rates, mainly in the cost of food, and it was unlikely to reduce by much.  The University Council had done little to ameliorate this, except by offering the aforementioned annual ‘bonuses’ which ranged between ten and twenty per cent; the University Council, the Salaries Committee said, was apathetic!  They went on to warn that without serious revisions to their wages and stipends, the employees together with both the junior staff, and more seriously the senior staff, would have to seek employment elsewhere.  It would also be impossible to recruit new lecturers of any rank and status.  Without adequate and competent Academics, the University would cease to have any standing, and could even collapse.

The University also set up the ‘Sites Committee’ to consider the future use of its physical resources.  They too reported to the Senate in December 1918.  Their prime concern was the recovery, and refurbishment, of Bournbrook.  This was carried out by Messrs. Rowbothams, the original builders, under the guidance of Messrs. Webb and Bell, but it was not completed till Easter 1920 at an overall cost to the Government of around £75,000.

Block A (now R4) was declared no longer suitable for its original use for Mechanical Engineering, as it was not structurally robust enough to take the constant vibrations of the post-war modern machinery now needed in its workshops.  It was proposed to rehouse both Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering in a ‘factory style’ building that would be cheap to build and flexible enough to cope with future changes.

It was intended to use Block A to house Geology, which still occupies it, with the cross block on the end (currently the Lapworth Museum) occupied by the Civil Engineering Department which, pre-war, had been housed in Block B (R5) with the Electrical Engineers in its cross block.

The Committee admitted that Chemistry and Physics were likely to be seriously overcrowded with the expected post-war rush.  It was proposed that Chemistry, housed in the current R2 (Psychology), should also occupy a new radial building (never built) sited between their current home and Block A (R4), and also spread into the ‘curtain’ building between Blocks A and B. It was also proposed that, at some undecided date, a Department of Applied Chemistry should be established in another ‘factory’ building sited near the redundant Power Station.  Physics, originally occupying what is now R9 was to expand into the adjacent “curtain” building and into a new block (R8).

The University was not sure how to finance all these buildings
They also proposed to build a long new block, linking Chemistry and the Harding Library, to house the Departments of Botany and Zoology (currently R1, Law) split either side of a set of arches.  In addition, they also proposed to extend the Harding Library, and to move the Faculty of Commerce to Bournbrook, in a building mirroring Botany and Zoology: again, never built.  Mining and Metallurgy would both move back into their original home, Block C (R7).

The University would also need to acquire the land to the north of University Road, which was still held by the Calthorpe Estate and ear-marked by them for up-market domestic tenancies.   The acquisition of this area, by their donation, took another ten years to complete.   The University was not sure how to finance all these buildings as the resources of the assorted private and commercial donors, on whom they had previously relied, had shrunk drastically during the war, and the Government was deeply in debt to the Americans.

The Great War might be over and won: the battles of academia were to continue for a long time further.

This is the first of a three-part series on UoB during WWI. The next instalment will be online next Monday.

That was the final instalment of a three-part series on UoB during WWI. Part one and part two are also available online.



Published

30th July 2018 at 9:00 am

Last Updated

29th July 2018 at 11:19 pm



Images from

Library of Birmingham



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