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Your Memories - 1950s

Peter Collins (BA History, 1951)


I joined the University of Birmingham from the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, in October 1948. In those days only a very small proportion of school-leavers went on to university. In any case, so shortly after the end of the Second World War, university places were at a premium.


Precedence was understandably given to ex-servicemen whose education had been interrupted by military service. All fit 18-year old males were required to do National Service for two years unless they were exempted by occupation or had been granted an immediate place at university. So I counted myself fortunate to have been offered a place at Birmingham to read History straight from school.

At that time the Arts Faculty was located in the centre of Birmingham in the old Josiah Mason College buildings in Edmund Street. No vestige of it survives today. The area around City Hall where it stood was bull-dozed and built over with the development of the city centre in the late twentieth century. It was a veritable warren filled with lecture halls, tutorial rooms and offices connected by innumerable passageways which posed significant navigation problems for the uninitiated. At the rear of the building was the Guild Club, the Edmund Street version of the much more splendid Students' Union at Edgbaston. This contained the Founder's Room, where most social functions took place, the refectory, various games rooms and, of course, the bar. This was presided over by the barmaid, Daisy, a formidable, stout, grey-haired lady with the forearms of a navvy. She stood no nonsense from anyone and no student dared to defy her! She served a very palatable pint of Mitchells and Butlers Best Bitter to which many of us became quite partial, not to say addicted.

As now (I imagine), extra-curricular activities played a large part in student life. The main event in the Christmas term was Carnival, the student Rag Week. Our target - regularly achieved- was to raise £10,000 for local charities, an enormous sum in those days. The week culminated in a procession of decorated floats through the city centre led, I remember, by a tall student wearing policeman's uniform - minus trouseers! The social highlight of the week was the Carnival Ball held in the Great Hall at Edgbaston: full formal dress of course (a first for many of us), a top-flight dance band and celebrity guest star for the cabaret.


The Guild Theatre Group was into Gilbert and Sullivan in a big way and I took part in The Mikado and the Gondoliers, in the course of which I met the girl who was to become my wife (now sadly deceased). One of my contemporaries was Brian Priestley who later became a successful journalist with, I think, The Birmingham Post. He had a quirky sense of humour and he conceived the idea of forming 'The Seal Society', ostensibly with the aim of training a seal to swim the English Channel, smashing the existing record! Needless to say, no seal was ever acquired, nor was there any intention to do so. It was merely an excuse for some of the more outrageous and irresponsible escapades that students used to get up to. (Do they still? I hope so.) We attracted wide support throughout the Edmund Street community and the Seal Society events and activities were avidly followed and semi-seriously reported in Guild News, the student newspaper. Much beer was consumed.

In the course of my first year I had joined the University Air Squadron, attracted more by the annual bounty of £35 than by any aspiration to make the Royal Air Force my career. It was, after all, around 15% of my total student grant! We flew at that time from the old grass airfield at Castle Bromwich to the east of the city at the end of a tram route. I learned to fly on the Tiger Moth, an ancient biplane type, later replaced by the Chipmunk which had the benefit of an enclosed cockpit. I fear that I did not take it very seriously but it meant that after graduation I began my National Service as an Acting-Pilot Officer (on probation) and went straight on to advanced flying training on the Harvard.


I never looked back from then on, eventually securing a permanent commission, logging over 3000 hours as a fast-jet fighter pilot and retiring in 1985 after 34 years, in the rank of Air Vice-Marshal.


I greatly enjoyed my time at Birmingham. A fine education is never wasted and I acquired skills which served me well in a succession of staff appointments as well as widening my cultural horizons. I also gained a wife who gave me four children and 47 amazing years of married life. I look back on my three years at the university with undiluted pleasure.


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