Exhibition recalls four days of student protest that shook the University

Thirty years ago the administration of the University of Leeds was brought to a standstill when hundreds of students staged a four-day sit-in at the Parkinson Building. The era of student protest had arrived in Leeds with a vengeance. Playing a central role in the occupation was the then President of the Students’ Union, Jack Straw.

Three decades on, Jack Straw is Home Secretary, and the University Archive is marking the anniversary of the 1968 protests with an exhibition in the Parkinson Building itself and a virtual exhibition on the World Wide Web.

Not that student activism can be confined entirely to the archives, of course. The recent occupation of the Roger Stevens Lecture Theatre, by around 100 students objecting to tuition fees, rekindled memories of the 1968 events.

But student protest just isn’t what it used to be, as can be seen from the wealth of material on display in the exhibition. If Leeds wasn’t exactly at the centre of student unrest in the 1960s, the University was certainly caught up in the spirit of the times as activism swept Europe. Whereas today’s student protests tend to focus on material issues such as grants and fees, the sixties generation had their eye on wider issues.

The Leeds disturbances kicked off on 3 May 1968, when right-wing Tory MP Patrick Wall addressed a meeting of the Conservative Association in the Students’ Union. The meeting attracted around 400 protestors who objected to the MP’s views on race, his support for the white regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and his backing for the US war effort in Vietnam.

According to press reports at the time, Patrick Wall was spat on as he left the meeting, while his wife Sheila was allegedly kicked and knocked to the ground. “I put the whole thing down to pre-exam nerves and damned bad manners,” said Mrs Wall afterwards.

Jack Straw dancing with HRH the Dutchess of Kent
Dancing days: President of the Leeds University Union, Jack Straw, and the University's current Chancellor, Her Royal Highness the Dutchess of Kent, at a Union dinner and ball in 1968. (click to enlarge)

"On one occasion the students came along and complained about the house of one of the rebels being spied on by two men in raincoats under a tree. They turned out to be from the trams department, checking the times of trams."

University security staff were set the task of identifying the ‘suspected spitter’ and the ‘alleged kicker’. During the course of these enquiries, allegations surfaced about students being interrogated on their political beliefs. This provoked further unrest.

Emeritus Professor Maurice Beresford recalls the allegations that the flying around at the time. “The big issue was what was in the files that were being kept on students. On one occasion the students came along and complained about the house of one of the rebels being spied on by two men in raincoats under a tree. They turned out to be from the trams department, checking the times of trams.”

Following an attempted sit-in by the newly formed militant May 3rd Committee, on 25 June members of the Students’ Union voted by 386 to 48 to occupy the Parkinson Building, then the administrative heart of the University. They demanded a public inquiry into the actions of the University’s security staff, and put up a notice which read: “The Vice-Chancellor’s office, the Registrar’s office and the Bursar’s office are closed indefinitely. By order of LUU Action Committee.”

In response, a special meeting of the University Senate authorised Vice-Chancellor Sir Roger Stevens to call-off all meetings with the Union until the occupation ended.

Hundreds of students joined the rota to keep the sit-in going 24-hours-a-day, and various committees were formed to organise security, food and entertainment. Leeds Trades Union Council sent up its banner in support, and the students listened to speakers from other universities in the UK and even France.

At the time, Maurice Kirk was a Social Studies lecturer and a member of Senate. He describes the atmosphere: “I clearly recall in the Parkinson Building there were groups of serious-minded students trying to run their own tutorials and seminars, in what was a noisy marketplace atmosphere. The other thing that stuck in my mind was seeing a girl walking up Woodhouse Lane carrying the black and red banner of the Sorbonne anarchists, because the Leeds students were very taken up with the troubles on the streets of Paris in May 1968.”

Unlike the May 3 demonstration against Patrick Wall, the Leeds sit-in was fully supported by the Students’ Union and President Jack Straw. After the future Home Secretary stood on a table to address a 500-strong meeting in the Parkinson Court, he was given a standing ovation which lasted ten minutes.

Not everyone was impressed, however. A young political studies student by the name of Clare Short - now a Cabinet colleague of Jack Straw - recalls: “There were sit-ins going on everywhere. I went and had a look, and Jack was reading all these telegrams of support from across the country. I remember thinking ‘this is very silly’.”

“Like many academic staff at the time, I really couldn’t make out what the students wanted,” says Maurice Kirk. “The whole atmosphere of 1968 started in France and Germany, and I think the students just wanted to make a noise.”

After four days the sit-in ended on the evening of Friday 28 June with a march to the Union building. The University refused the students’ demands for a public inquiry. And then came the summer holidays.

The exhibition, ‘Student Protest in Leeds, May-June 1968’, is running until further notice in the Parkinson Building. The parallel virtual exhibition, which contains many full texts of the exhibits, can be visited at: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/reporter/may68

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