A Victorian Valentine – Balconies and Beau’s
Posted on: 14 February 2022 by Kim Fisher, Visitor Services Team in 2022
It’s the month of February and love is all around! If you look at our tiles, the majority are still in pristine condition after almost 130 years but there’s one particular section of the building where some worn tiles can tell us a Victorian love story.
Along the first-floor balcony you may notice that the edge of the tiles along the bottom of the balcony rail are very worn and the ceramic glaze has come away because over the years many students have stood here to make conversation. It is thanks to many memoirs recorded in the publication ‘Arts, letters, society: a miscellany commemorating the centenary of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Liverpool’ that we have a record of some of the student experiences during the early years of the University of Liverpool.
Songs and Scandals
Edna Rideout studied Modern History in the building between 1912-1915 and stated the following:
‘…a man came up from Victoria Hall and conversed with a woman leaning on the balcony rail at the foot of the stairs to the Tate. It was scandal making and not done by the best people.’
Illustration of a male & female student walking along the balcony by Michael Alexander White, 2022.
The female students had their common room and reading room directly above that of the male students and although classes were mixed, they had segregated areas for private study and socialising. Some articles in the student magazine hint that private conversations in the Tate Library were interrupted by the head librarian and so students had to be inventive and conversations had to be held somewhere equally as private but where talking was permitted - such as on balconies and on the wide staircases.
“In my student days in the early 1900s I was having a little flirtation in one of the niches of the Tate when the University librarian Sampson, appeared like an avenging angel and drove me out of my paradise.” - William Garmon Jones
Evening social events held in the building such as the student soiree’s and ‘At Home’ events enabled both sexes to mix freely and yet during the day time, it appears that conversations between men and women were frowned upon by some of the more conservative members of the faculty. But however scandalous it may have been, it was still a popular pastime for many of the students within the Victoria Building and it’s thanks to a songbook that we know a little bit more.
A sketch showing the staircase and balcony area on the second floor of the Victoria Building at a social event where male and female students could mix freely (Special Collections & Archives, GHR 1/1/16 - programme for `At Home' - 19 January 1897).
From 1893 onwards, the students set up their own songbook committee and songs were sent to the student magazine for consideration with both staff and students collaborating on the project. Many popular songs of the day had their lyrics changed to fit in with student experiences and one such example of a song is based on the balcony in our building and appears in the 1913 student’s songbook.
A popular Italian song was given an English translation and repeated these words "If I meet you on the balcony, please will you cast a glance my way, kindly glance this way?”
The songs were performed enthusiastically at suppers, smoking concerts and student events which alludes to the fact this was a frequent occurrence in the Victoria Building.
The balcony song, set to Italian music which appears in the 1913 Student Songbook, from University of Liverpool Special Collections & Archives, PUB 3/4
Elsie Kneale who studied English between 1912-1916 recalled in her memoir that the gallery around the hall was common ground for the male and female students and that the niche framed by the ceiling, two columns and a balustrade was a surprisingly convenient for private conversation.
We are lucky to also have a student songbook that was owned by Elsie in the University’s Special Collections and archives and as was custom, the book is signed by fellow students and friends.
PUB/3/4/2 from the University of Liverpool’s Special Collections and Archives shows one of the 1913 versions of the Student Song Books that belonged to Elsie Kneale with her signature at the top of the opening page.
Don’t Judge a Songbook by its Cover
We also have two songbooks in the archives that belonged to Chemistry students Robert Dickinson and Florence O’Brien from around 1921. Robert’s book was signed by many of his fellow students and includes Florence’s signature on the inside cover. A few years after graduating from the university, Florence and Robert married and although it is unclear whether they met on the balcony in the Victoria Building, it is more than likely that they sang the love song.
D181/48 – University of Liverpool Song book belonging to R. Dickinson and signed by F. O’Brien.
However, another couple who did actually meet on our balcony in the 1920s were William and Margaret Killen. William stated in his memoir that they both fondly remembered the balcony in the Victoria Building where they had many an interesting chat. They later married in 1935 and became teachers and so it is likely that our balcony brought together many couples over the years.
“We'll always be indebted to our University which launched us into long successful careers, and a happy married life” – William Killen
Alex & Lauren pose on the balcony rail and staircase, following in the footsteps of other couples who met in the Victoria Building over 100 years ago.
Today, in the Victoria Gallery and Museum, we hold weddings in our beautiful building and couples can have their photographs taken in these historic areas. Alex and Lauren had many photographs taken using the balconies and staircases where many other young couples had met over a hundred years earlier while they were ‘balconising’.
So, although some of our tiles are worn and no longer in pristine condition, this wear and tear is important as it also tells a story - and in this case it is a love story. Objects and buildings can have a hidden history and it is thanks to memoirs and student accounts in the archives that we can piece these together to create a much richer history of student life over the years.
Our stunning architecture is a perfect background for modern love stories too and we hope there are many more to come. Do you have a VG&M love story you’d like to share with us? Please do let us know as we’d love to hear them.
Keywords: Valentine's Day, Victorian Valentine, University of Liverpool History, The Victoria Building, Love stories, Burmantofts Tiles, Love songs, Student life, Weddings.