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Changing gear (Nonesuch spring 2015)

Tony Byers

15 May 2015

In March, students and staff celebrated the completion of a £30 million refurbishment to the Richmond Building, home to the Students’ Union since 1965. Economics graduate, Tony Byers (BSc 1970), reflects on a turbulent time in student politics.

It’s not just memories that are triggered by the photos I took for Nonesuch in the late 1960s. There’s an overall impression of change: Bristol at a turning point. The students are in revolt: demonstrations, sit-ins, resignations, attacks on buildings, and hours of debate, all marking the end of an old order.

On the surface, the annual traditions continued: RAG Queen crownings, RAG processions, sport at Coombe Dingle. But the effect of the 1960s is also apparent. The RAG Ball, a black-tie event, brought Marsha Hunt, fresh from the love-rock musical Hair with its West End nudity. Groups that would become international superstars blasted the Anson Rooms with mega-decibels: The Who, The Nice, Joe Cocker. Pink Floyd played the Vic Rooms. No sign of security or bouncers as the students crowded round.

For student politicians, the emphasis switched to democracy and equality: campaigns against cuts in student grants, protestors picketing Enoch Powell, opposition to the war in Vietnam and support for Biafra. Tariq Ali, Edward Heath, Shirley Williams, Lord Caradon, Dr Benjamin Spock, the Archbishop of Canterbury – all helped stimulate debate.

On home ground, there were moves to open up the new Students’ Union (the Richmond Building) to students from other colleges.

In June 1968, a long debate was followed by a sit-in. After darkness fell, there was a sudden flare of light outside. Several of us went out and found the remains of what looked like a petrol bomb. Whether it was aimed at the wall or the window wasn’t clear.

From memory, this photo is the morning after the sit-in. People went out to get the Sunday papers, and sat around reading them. I’m not sure how it ended. The summer holidays lay ahead so presumably people just drifted home. They even cleared up their rubbish.

As man prepared to walk on the moon, slowly Bristol’s bureaucracy took note. Discussion picked up again in the autumn term, culminating in a march on Senate House and the better-known sit-in there. Eventually University staff admitted they needed to be more transparent, and take more notice of student opinion. National media picked up the story: all part of a wind of change that was disrupting Britain’s post-war establishment.

The photographs may be just snapshots in time, but somehow the collection captures more than that: the old being replaced by the new, and fresh faces preparing for what lay ahead.

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Further information

You can enjoy an exclusive tour of the newly refurbished Students’ Union on Friday 10 July as part of the Best of Bristol Alumni Weekend 2015.

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