ConGRADulations–Graduations at The University of Liverpool
Posted on: 18 July 2022 by Kim Fisher, VG&M Visitor Services in 2022
It’s July which can mean only one thing – Graduation! In this blog we take a closer look at some of the Graduation ceremonies over the past 130 years.
The Early Years - The Victoria University and The University of Liverpool
In the University of Liverpool’s Special Collections and Archives, we are lucky to have a series of graduation photographs dating back to the late 1880s and very early days of University College Liverpool. We also have items on display in Gallery 3 ‘The Victoria Building: More than Bricks and Mortar’ at the VG&M and part of the exhibition focuses on one of the first female students, Elizabeth Beckett.
Elizabeth Beckett in her graduation gown, 1888
Elizabeth began her first degree in 1887 and graduated the following year aged 17 which was unusual for the time as most women started studying for their degrees at 19.
She took many subjects including Greek, Latin, Ancient History and Psychology and comments from her professors show that she was an exceptional student who tended to overwork herself. She married James Ker in 1889 and then later returned to her studies in 1903 while also having two children at home.
The archives also hold examples of early examination papers and student thesis which show us what the early students had to complete in order to graduate.
1896 examination paper from the Elizabeth Beckett collection.
In Elizabeth Beckett’s Order of Proceedings for Degree Day 1888, we can see that her degree was granted by The Victoria University which consisted of Owens College Manchester, Yorkshire College Leeds and University College Liverpool. It wasn’t until 1903 that University College Liverpool was granted a Royal Charter with the right to confer its own degrees and thus becoming The University of Liverpool.
Extract from Liverpool Weekly Courier, 3 November 1888.
The graduation was held in Owen’s College, Manchester. Out of the 56 graduates listed from the three colleges, only five came from University College Liverpool and four of these were women: Elizabeth Becket, Jessie Auld, Sarah Birch and Elizabeth Jane Owens.
Elizabeth Beckett’s Order of Proceedings for Degree Day 1888.
Adolphus William Ward was the Vice Chancellor of the Victoria University in 1888 and conferred the degrees to Elizabeth and her fellow students. From 1891-1895, Gerald Rendall who was Principal of University College Liverpool and also Elizabeth’s Greek Professor, took the role as Vice Chancellor for the Victoria University. It appears this was a role undertaken by each of the three College Principals up until it disbanded in 1903.
Sculpture on the exterior of the Victoria Building - The Victoria University Coat of Arms representing the three northern colleges (left crest) and the University of Liverpool crest on the right.
The ceremony programme is relatively short in comparison to later years with a formal procession of the university officials entering the hall, followed by the 56 graduates receiving their degrees in alphabetical order. In comparison, for July 2022 at The University of Liverpool, 5,387 will graduate during a week-long celebration and 13 ceremonies in the Philharmonic Hall.
Left - Owen's College Manchester and Right - The Victoria Building, both part of The Victoria University & designed by Alfred Waterhouse.
Elizabeth’s graduation in 1888 was held in Owen’s College, Manchester which was also designed by Alfred Waterhouse but when Elizabeth graduated, the Victoria Building was only at the planning stage. She would have spent most of her studies in Liverpool in the old converted asylum building and so her Graduation would have been in a much grander college building than she was used to. When she graduated with her second degree in 1904 however, she would have studied in Waterhouse’s iconic Victoria Building, had her degree ceremony in Liverpool’s St George’s Hall and would be a graduate of The University of Liverpool.
Elizabeth never went on to paid employment after her graduation but remained a well-educated housewife ensuring that her children went on to study at University too.
Charles Albert Sadler, 1905
The 1905 photograph of Charles William Sadler is one of the earliest University of Liverpool graduation photographs of a male student held in the archives.
Sadler began as a physics student at University College Liverpool, graduating B.Sc., with honours in Physics in 1905; M.Sc., in 1906; and D.Sc., in July 1910 when we had become the University of Liverpool.
He was an assistant Lecturer at the University and worked with Nobel Prize Winner Charles Barkla on scientific experiments until leaving in 1911, when he was appointed Lecturer in Physics at University College, Reading.
During the First World War he assisted in organizing a training centre for engineering work under the Ministry of Munitions. In 1919 he became chief metallurgist to the firm of Allen and Simmonds but sadly died in 1920 aged 39.
Gowns, Gags and Graduations
In the years following the Royal Charter, graduations took place in various locations including The Victoria Building, St George’s Hall and the Philharmonic Hall. Smaller departmental degrees were held in the Victoria Building in what is now known as the Leggate Theatre which originally had seating for up to 500 people.
A Medical School Graduation Ceremony held in the Arts Theatre, (now Leggate Theatre) in the Victoria Building, December 1936.
For the larger graduation ceremonies, St George’s Hall and the Philharmonic Hall were used instead and this year, the university will use both the Philharmonic Hall and the newly built Tung Auditorium in July 2022.
In fact, many of the items on a graduate’s itinerary in 2022 were the same in the 1950s – get your graduation robes, have official photographs taken and then go for a celebratory meal with friends and family. One memoir comes from a geography student who studied at the end of the 1940s and provides an idea of what her day was like:
“Graduation at the Philharmonic Hall was an occasion. Wonderful to have that authorisation to enter the carpeted dignity of Ravenscroft & Willis to be fitted with a gown. Women graduates wore their mortar boards. The men tucked theirs under their left arm. Consequently, there was always a chance of exchange with a male colleague if one’s cap wouldn’t balance or seemed to come over one’s ears. Afterwards there were the usual photo sessions before repairing to the Kardomah in Bold Street with family and friends.” Elizabeth Jean Foulds.
Advertisement for Ravenscroft & Willis gowns in the 1938 Sphinx Student Magazine.
The later ceremonies themselves also included a bit more humour than in the very early days. Included in the Conferment of Degree records held at the University of Liverpool’s Special Collections and Archives, we have numerous additions of ‘Gag Programmes’ that were performed during the ceremony.
It appears that certain graduates and honorary graduates were selected to be included in short, witty songs set to popular tunes. The songs would be performed by the students once a particular person had received their degree and was returning to their seat.
Left – the 1923 Gag songs for students Edna M Lind and J.R Griffiths and right – the degree ceremony lists John Robert Griffiths as a Bachelor of Medicine/Bachelor of Surgery.
Even the officials presiding over the ceremony were not missed out of the Gag Programme as verses with an ‘A’ marked by them were to be sung when the procession entered St George’s Hall and verses marked ‘B’ when the procession left.
The gags were a way for the students to honour their friends and fellow students as well as other officials and dignitaries and have something light hearted at the ceremonies.
Honorary Graduates were also included in the gags and in May 1928, Miss Emma Georgina Holt was honoured with the following song when she received her Honorary Doctor of Laws degree at St George’s Hall:
Miss Emma Georgina Holt, 1928 by René le Brun, Comte de L'Hôpital (1877–1929) in the VG&M collection.
Miss Holt was a benefactress and part of a family of women who has connections to the university over many years. The Holt family wealth stemmed from their merchant and shipping businesses. Eva Melly, Emma Holt and Jane Brandreth Holt, were all patrons of the University in its early years and the trio used their privileged position to support study at the University, especially for women. Emma Holt provided a Hall for the women students and this was mentioned in both the student gag and the official address.
It’s unclear what year the gags ceased to be part of the graduation ceremonies but records in the university archives start from the 1920s and continues up until the 1940s.
Photograph of graduates on the steps of St. George’s Hall, Liverpool, on Degree Day - 1 July 1939
Degrees, Dinners and Distinguished Guests
While many graduates went to celebrate in the Kardomah Café in the 1940s or on Hope Street and Bold Street today, the Honorary Graduates usually attend something a little more grandiose. In 1950 for example after the Honorary Degree for Sir Henry Cohen, a six-course dinner was arranged at the Adelphi Hotel and today we hold many Honorary Graduate Dinners in the VG&M.
Left - Honorary Degree Dinner Menu held at the Adelphi Hotel, 1950. Right – VG&M Dinner
The conferment of Honorary degrees has been a staple of graduations since 1903 and prompts the attending graduates at the ceremony to reflect upon what they can achieve in the not so distant future. Many distinguished figures such as Winston Churchill (19 May 1949), HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (7 July 1958), L S Lowry (25 November 1975), Yoko Ono Lennon (2001) and David Olusoga (2017) have all received Honorary degrees from The University of Liverpool over the years.
Left - H M Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, 1958 centre – Yoko Ono Lennon, 2001 and right – David Olusoga, 2017
"Thank you for this great honour. You have no idea what this means to me, for this is not any city, this is Liverpool….You are now going out on your own to test your brain power but remember your heartbeat…No matter how far you go, remember our heartbeats, remember our love, remember that you are always together and strong.” Yoko Ono Lennon, 2001.
John Higgins is a Liverpool-born artist who found global success as a comic book artist and writer for 2000AD, DC and Marvel, working on such diverse characters as Judge Dredd and Batman. In 2017 John worked with the University’s Victoria Gallery & Museum on a retrospective exhibition of his work and was nominated for an honorary degree by the VG&M curatorial team who accompanied him on the day.
VG&M Staff who nominated John Higgins for the 2018 Honorary Degree.
Do Degree Day Your Way
Today, many students like to celebrate on campus with photographs inside and outside the VG&M, purchasing merchandise, attending departmental receptions and going out for a dinner with family and friends.
But not all students have attended their graduations as one student from the late 70s recalled:
“I didn’t go to my graduation. I liked the idea of being a rebel and decided it was all to twee – I was making a stand against paying out the exorbitant £10 fee for the hire of the Graduation gown. I think it’s one of the things in my life I do regret. I popped in for the afternoon tea on the day of the ceremony and saw all my friends dressed up to the nines, with their parents wearing hats and suits and I wished mine was there too, to shake hands with my Prof. and look proud. They told me afterwards they would have liked to have gone. And it means there’s no important looking photograph on the mantelpiece.” Kate Murphy
Graduates celebrate inside and outside the VG&M, photos shared with us on social media.
This year, we hope that all of our Graduates enjoy their celebrations in whichever way they choose, to mark all of their hard work and achievements. Congratulations to you all and in the words of the ‘Graduates Leaving Song’ from 1903, “Adieu.”
If you have any photographs of your Graduation, the VG&M or your celebrations that you would like to share with us, please email the VG&M.
The Graduate’s leaving song from The University of Liverpool Student Songbook 1903.