The History of Eliot College

By Elle Summers

18th April 2021

Cast your minds back to your own Freshers’ experience, the excitement you felt when entering for the first time into the accommodation that you would call home for a year. With anticipation rising through you of what was to come, who you were to meet and the memories you were to make over your time at the University of Kent. Now let me take you back to October 1965, when 500 students arrived on the campus for the very first time. While I’m sure they felt similar feelings to the Fresher versions of ourselves, there was one major difference; they were the very first set of students to arrive at Kent and their decisions still impact all of us today. Through the creation of traditions, societies and academic advances, we have the campus we know and love now. While these first few students may not have realised it at the time, they have become part of our history, part of our legacy as students at the University of Kent.

Upon arrival, these students were shown the accommodation they would be able to call home, the first and oldest of our halls of residence – Eliot College.

Designed by William Holford & Partners, the architects faced the challenge of creating a space that allowed for a couple of hundred bedrooms and several large areas for teaching. They also needed to incorporate a common room, dining halls and kitchens to cater for the students. In order to include all these different things in one space, a cruciform layout was decided upon. This innovative thinking produced the compact building we see today.

The college is named after the poet T. S. Eliot, who died in 1965, the same year the University was formally established. Another link between the poet and the city of Canterbury is through his play ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ which details the events that led to the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170. The connection to the Eliot family was a strong one, with the University of Kent holding a lecture series in memory of T.S. Eliot, and through the involvement of his widow. Valerie Eliot’s generosity led to an annually held poetry competition here at Kent, where students could enter a selection of up to five poems, with the chance of winning twenty guineas if crowned the winner.

Standing the test of time (unlike Cornwallis which decided to sink in 1974) Eliot College remains today, for the most part unchanged. The maze of a structure has confused students for years, leaving them wondering which way to turn and often making them late for seminars; even I found myself slightly lost when taking photos for this very article!

The Great Hall that offers the wonderful view down the hill and over the City, including stunning scenes of the Cathedral, has seen so much of the University’s history, and I’m sure if walls could talk, there would be many stories to tell! It was here that the students crammed themselves in for the first ever welcome talk, with the Vice Chancellor at the time standing above them on the walkways to address them.

In 1965, the Cloisters that now house our seminar rooms used to be just like a cloister in which students and members of staff could walk around behind the arches, looking out on the garden in the centre. The architect set out to use this space to create a mix between a castle and monastery. I could see the monastery vibe when I visited the cloister garden recently to gain inspiration for this article. With less being held on campus due to Covid-19, the area was completely empty and quiet, with the sun just peeping over the side of the building and picking up the golden flecks of Autumn;the place oozed peace.

1968 saw the first undergraduate graduation ceremony take place, in Eliot’s very own Great Hall. Now-a-days, we have the luxury of graduating in the Cathedral, a tad of a grander setting! Photos from the day show how Princess Marina of Kent was present when conferring the degrees. The Princess was the first of our Chancellors – perhaps a little more glamorous than today! On a sadder note, she died later that year in August 1968. Another death to add to the history of people connected to Eliot - I’ll leave it for you to speculate whether this is a bad omen or not! Following the ceremony, a Graduation Ball was held for the students where they could enjoy a buffet menu consisting of smoked ham, chicken casserole and fillet of beef wellington – sorry veggies. The dancing programme that followed included tunes I’m sure a little different to those blared out by the Venue DJs! With a dress code of Black or White Tie or Lounge Suit, I’m sure the evening was a lot classier than the nights out the students of Kent of the recent years are used to. However, Eliot College did not hold back, with celebrations continuing until 3am.

Jump forward to 1977 and there is outrage spreading across the campus! With the Government demanding an increase in University fees, the £182 asked from for students is increasing to £500. A bit of a steep jump but pennies compared to what we have to pay today! The students decided to fight back against this decision, holding a series of occupations across the campus including in the telephone exchange, cutting the University off from the outside world, the Registry and Eliot’s own senior common room. The Master of Eliot College at the time (D.M. Taylor) posted the following message in response to such an occupation: ‘On behalf of the University I give notice that you have no right to be in occupation in the Eliot senior common room and I ask you leave quietly and forthwith’. Of course, this request was not listened to and eventually the University had to take steeper action, getting their solicitors and the courts involved to restore peace to the campus once more.

It is safe to say that, although the Eliot structure may not have altered all that much since the opening of the campus in 1965, the times surely have! When reading over the Eliot Information and Regulations pamphlet in the Special Collections and Archives reading room, it was interesting to see the initial rules concerning conduct in the college. For example, while a guest could visit, ‘residents may not accommodate other persons for the night in their study-bedrooms’, perhaps providing the perfect excuse to kick an unwanted date out! Fancy a house party? Well I’m afraid to say ‘evening parties of more than ten persons cannot be accommodated in a College study-bedroom’. Finally, there were even curfews with ‘the main college gate… locked between midnight and 7am.’ Perhaps Eliot was living up to its reputation of being designed like a prison!

I hope you have enjoyed discovering snippets of Eliot’s history with me in this précised overlook into our oldest college! Though the years have gone by, it is always nice to discover the ancestry of your own college, giving you a greater insight into the bigger picture that you are part of here at the University of Kent!

Images courtesy of Elle Summers, University of Kent, and Eliot College Facebook Page.

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