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Life as a geology student in the 1950s

Geology laboratory (1950s)

Geology laboratory in the 1950s

Entrance to the geology department

The entrance to the department

Geology students on Mount Snowdon

Students on Mount Snowdon

10 July 2015

This weekend, alumni will enjoy a tour of the School of Earth Sciences as part of the Best of Bristol: Alumni Weekend. Here, Malcolm Anderson (BSc 1956) shares a few anecdotal stories of life as a geology student at Bristol in the 1950s.

Born and bred in the flatlands of Norfolk, and with travel restricted by WW2 during early schooling, I was 14 years old before, on a study tour to the Peak District, I saw real hills and rocks for the first time. I was fascinated. Four years later, in 1953, benefiting from the attention of excellent teachers, I passed my A-level in geology and embarked upon a degree course at Bristol. Fees for the course were £48 per year, which seemed expensive at the time!

The course involved 22 hours of lab work and lectures per week, including an early one on Saturday mornings plus weekend field excursions. Somehow, I managed to keep pace with a formidable workload of reading, research and essay writing but struggled with the sheer volume of factual and scientific information emanating from the curriculum. I joined the University Geological Society which also arranged field trips – few undergraduates at Bristol had the opportunity or need to travel as much as geology and geography students but this undoubtedly imposed constraints upon other free-time activities.

I was one of a small group of first-year students, small enough to be close friends because of the time we inevitably spent together indoors and out. There was the mature and studious Fred Holwill, mountaineer Mike Harvey (who lost his life in a climbing accident in Snowdonia not long after graduating), Brian Kelly, Malcolm Mitchison, George Woodward, Tony Stockdale, Alan Wright and the only lady on the course, Rita Buxton. Rita developed a strong character as she stood up for herself in such male chauvinist company and seemed to revel in getting as wet and muddy as the rest of us during field studies.

Fieldwork in North Wales

There was a four-week break in March and April but the greater part of this was taken up with a lengthy and intensive geological field course in North Wales, based at the hall of residence at University College at Neuadd Reichel at Bangor. This course had to be followed by the writing of a fully detailed and illustrated report recording our observations of the huge range of rocks and structural complexity ranging from the Precambrian to the Lower Carboniferous horizons in the Bangor, Portmadoc, Criccieth, Capel Curig, Llanrhychwyn, Conway, Denbighshire Moors and Anglesey areas.

A particularly arduous day was spent climbing and cross-sectioning Mount Snowdon in very cold and wet weather. Protective clothing was not of the quality to be found today. As we came off the mountain at dusk, laden with rock specimens, we were so saturated with mud and peat, and so cold, that almost total immersion in the edge of a lake to clean ourselves went unnoticed. We were taken aback when, seeing us standing and dripping by the roadside, our driver decided we were too wet to climb aboard his bus!

Upon our late return to our hall, which we were sharing with a party of geological students from Cambridge University, we found there was very little dinner remaining. Our revenge was taken on their last day when they went to the drying room ready for departure to discover that the laces had been removed from all their walking boots, dampened, and tied into one enormous knotted ball.

Fellow students

The 'heads down and working' atmosphere of the geology laboratory was enlivened by some of my fellow students. One who retains a particular place in my memory was the son of a Ceylon tea planter. Though obviously intelligent, he was slightly scatterbrained and eccentric, and not too particular about his dress and his eating habits. He was funded at the University by his father and seemed forever on a tight budget, a position which had perhaps to some degree been compounded by his decision upon arrival to purchase a car – a rarity for students in those days. But this was no ordinary car. It was a large, pre-war Lagonda sports coupé with a substantial thirst for fuel and of very doubtful reliability.

Possessing a car was however a considerable social asset and he was in regular demand for taxi duties to student parties when drink sometimes got the better of him. On numerous occasions he had to abandon the car because he was either too inebriated to remember where he had parked it or it had broken down or run out of petrol. In a moment of enlightenment he decided to sell it and purchase a small fleet of pre-war Austin 7s in its place. He bought at least three, maybe five – at the time, they were available at ten a penny as their owners traded up to modern post-war designs. His reasoning was that they were cheap to run, could be abandoned if they suffered a major breakdown, could be lent to friends and with so many parked around the streets of central Bristol there was bound to be one not far away when he needed it.

These little cars were not without their foibles and it was not unknown for him to strip down parts of engines and gearboxes on his geology lab bench. His jovial demeanour and eccentricity struck a chord with our only female geology student and the two would sometimes depart at weekends to distant destinations inone of the little cars. On an excursion to Start Point in South Devon his flamboyant driving style led to a collision with a lorry travelling in the opposite direction on a narrow road, the contact neatly removing the entire bodywork of the little car leaving him and the young lady unharmed and still sitting in their seats on the open chassis.

He was also different from most other people in that he preferred smoking tea to tobacco, perhaps out of token support of his father’s livelihood. In the laboratory tea leaves would be dampened with a solution of saltpetre, allowed to dry and then used to refill his tobacco pouch. When he lit his pipe the smell was appalling so it was fortunate for us that his lethal and spluttering concoction was generally smoked outdoors.

On the field trip to North Wales we queued patiently in a village shop for our supply of snacks, drinks and cigarettes and the shopkeeper was dumbstruck when he asked for a quarter of Brooke Bond, filled his pipe and emptied the rest into his tobacco pouch.

More field studies

The autumn term of 1954 was a busy one with a very full programme of lectures and practical work and a number of field excursions which included the Chesil Bank in Dorset, the Jurassic horizons of Swindon, the Cretaceous Sponge Gravels of Faringdon, the Ordovician, Silurian and Devonian rocks of the Tortworth Inlier on the northern margin of the Bristol Coalfield, the Carboniferous Limestone of the Mendips and the Carboniferous and Triassic rocks of the Wick Inlier.

Field trips during the spring term of 1955 took us to the Carboniferous and Triassic rocks of Chipping Sodbury and Yate in January and to Dursley, Beachley and Aust in February, and there were geographical visits in February and March to Portishead power station, the Sherborne area, Worcester and Ledbury and the Brendon area of Exmoor in North Devon. At the time Lynmouth was still recovering from the flood disaster of 1952. The Geographical Society also held its annual dinner which set me back the princely sum of 8s 6d: about 35p in today’s money!

During the Easter vacation I joined the Geological Department’s compulsory intensive field course studying the igneous rocks and metalliferous zones of southwest Cornwall, based at the Praa Sands Hotel (where my bill amounted to eight guineas for ten days!). 

Though I didn’t realise it at the time, this was to be the last major geological field course that I was to attend. At the end of my second year, I passed the geology examinations at what qualified as ordinary degree level, took a greater interest in mapping, left Bristol the next year with an honours degree in geography, spent the next 20 years in Africa and the rest of my life as a surveyor.

Revisiting old haunts with one of my former fellow students in 1959, we drank coffee at the Berkeley, ate at the University refectory and visited the Union Bar at the Victoria Rooms. We spent three days in Bristol and visited the Geology and Geography Departments and met five of our old lecturers. I had brought a special present for Frank Walker. In his lectures he had enthused about the tribes that roamed the Sahara Desert, talked of their camel trains and the commodities they traded across the desert. Kano was for centuries famous for its production of a heavy deep blue indigo dyed cloth, which was a favoured head covering for the wanderers and thus found its way to the markets of Morocco and the Mediterranean coast. I had purchased a length of it from the area of the Kano dye pits as a special gift for Frank.