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Manor Hall

Manor Hall consists of the main building and its annexes, Manor House, Richmond House, Sinclair House, and, a few minutes’ walk away, 30-35 Richmond Terrace and 115 Queen's Road.

The origins of Manor Hall go back to educational reforms following the Cross Commission of 1888, which transformed the system of training elementary school teachers.

In 1890 University College, Bristol, agreed to set up a Day Training Colleges for men and women. By 1892 the women’s college had 30 students enrolled for the two year training course and the formidable Miss Marion Pease had been appointed mistress of method. The college attracted a number of young women from Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire as students. Accommodation was provided for students from these counties from the beginning. Unfortunately owing to the meagre Board of Education grants to the University and for individual student maintenance, the accommodation was of a poor standard and there was consistent over-crowding. The houses used for the purposes of student accommodation were rented, and each establishment was run by a warden, who employed a house- keeper. An example of the inadequacy of these hostels is shown by the fact that in 1903 it was noted at 1, Elton Road a small room had been made for the housekeeper on the basement floor “which had formerly functioned as a coal cellar”. The indications are that it was windowless and lit from the former coal chute!

Food in the hostels was also often inadequate and attracted unfavourable comment. Conditions deteriorated further during the Great War. A medical report for 1917-8 stated that some rooms in the hostels did not “fulfil the sanitary conditions of ventilation and lighting and absence of damp” and made further reference to the unsatisfactory diet of the students, which was largely bread and jam, and even the supply of the latter was felt to be inadequate.

With the establishment of Clifton Hill House as a separate hall of residence for young ladies studying at the University in 1909 invidious comparisons were drawn between it and the sub standard accommodation provided for the women who studied at the Day Training College. A highly critical report by His Majesty’s Inspectors in 1919 highlighted the problem and it was agreed that the disparity in the quality of accommodation for undergraduates and trainee teachers should be gradually eliminated.

In the 1920s there were three residential hostels for female Day Training College students: Elton House, Belgrave House, and Royal Park. Each was presided over by a member of staff of the College. The exception was Belgrave House, whose warden, Mrs Jessie Dewrance Skemp (1882-1961), was the widow of Professor Arthur Skemp, of the department of English, who was killed in the last months of the Great War and left her a widow with three children. A woman of strong character, when the University decided to build Manor Hall, Mrs Skemp was selected as its first warden, with the wardens of the other hostels acting as her deputies, one of whom was the equally redoubtable Miss Fanny Ackers M.B.E., who had been decorated for her work during the war.

Manor Hall, designed by Sir George Oatley (1863-1950) and built between 1927 and 1932, was said at the time to be the last word in design of halls of residence in the country. It was widely admired for the generous use of honey coloured oak; for its imaginative wash basins hidden behind doors; for the arched windows of the dining room and its ceiling, said to have been pegged together by wooden dowels without the use of a nail and fashioned from oak cut from the former Austrian Imperial forests in Bohemia and Moravia felled at the end of the Great War, and the kitchens on the top floor, which were fully equipped and situated in such a position that the smell of boiled cabbage annoyed the local residents in York Place as it was blown over the chimneys of the hall, and not the resident students.

The situation of the hall was much less admired and brought some criticism on the University. The immediate area was thought to be unsavoury with a number of poor lodging houses and slum tenements, and there was a suspicion that one or two of them were “not quite respectable” and in the polite euphemism of the day may have been “houses which were not homes”. Certainly a number of elderly ladies have recounted in recent years that whilst they were students walking back to hall from lectures on autumn or winter evenings it was not uncommon for them to be accosted by “gentlemen” in their cars.

The new building, which owed its funding in part to the generosity of Alderman Henry H. Wills, was soon filled with students from the old hostels, which were closed at the end of the summer term of 1932. Mrs Skemp was kindly, but ruled her hall with a rod of iron, earning for herself the sobriquet of “the Dragon”.

When the gentlemen of Wills raided the hall on Bonfire Night 1932 they were let in through one or more of the ground floor windows by residents. Mrs Skemp was reportedly spotted walking along the corridor lifting the hem of her Edwardian tea gown in the company of one of her deputies amidst the smoke and the explosions. Mysteriously, by the following term railings had been affixed to the ground floor windows.

The residents enjoyed a civilised life style which was in stark contrast to their experience in the old hostels. Not only did they dine off fine china and silver plate, but in the days before the Second World War, afternoon tea was served in the East Common Room each day, and the students had a selection of either bread and butter with jam, or a scone, (but not both), in return for which they would proffer one of the tin tea tokens with which they had been issued. Luncheon was served in hall for the students, and evening meals were always formal with both graduates and undergraduates wearing academic dress. Each corridor had a long wardrobe in which to hang the girls’ evening gowns and next to it was a boot room where the girls’ shoes were cleaned daily by the maids, most of whom were resident on the 4th floor. At evening meals the members of the senior common room were each escorted into dinner by a student, selected by rota, and they sat on top table and were expected to perfect the arts of conversation and listening. Anyone who escorted Miss Ackers into dine was recommended to brush up her knowledge of the life cycle and breeding habits of pigs., on which she was held to be an expert. Grace was in Latin, both at the beginning and the end of the meal, and at the end of dinner the members of the senior common room would withdraw with their guests to their common room to sip coffee in demitasse.

There was a strong Christian ethos in hall. A small chapel (where the 3 East linen room is now to be found) was simply furnished with altar, hassocks, and candlesticks, and morning prayers were held each day in the Reception Room, led by Mrs Skemp. Hall drama began under her aegis and there were gramophone evenings held on Sundays in the Reception Room, which usually ended with “something light by Mozart”, who was one of her favourite composers.

The entrance to the hall was guarded by a porteress, who was often to be found crocheting dressing table sets for those students who were engaged to be married. All residents were expected to be in residence by a certain time and failure to observe the regulations resulted in a fine. Upon arrival in hall each girl was required to change from her outside into her indoor shoes.

Male residents were only admitted into the hall under strict supervision, in the common rooms, where they underwent ocular inspection by the other residents and members of staff. Men, even fathers or brothers, were not permitted to visit the young ladies’ bedrooms.

As the storm clouds gathered over Europe during the 1930s Manor Hall became the home of a number of Jewish refugees, including the late Miss Liselotte Leschke, whose mother and step father(a judge) escaped from Hamburg in Germany partly through the good offices of Mrs Skemp, and later settled in England.

With the outbreak of war, food rationing, air-raid blackout, regular air raid training and gas mask drills, and the evacuation of King’s College, London, to Bristol, many of whose female students came to share rooms in Manor Hall, all created difficulties for the residents. The air raids, which began in earnest on 24th November 1940, often left the hall without electricity, gas or water, occasionally for many days. Water was collected on these occasions in pails from the well at the junction of Jacob’s Wells Road and Constitution Hill and carried up the hill. Male fire watchers, students usually resident in Wills Hall, took up residence with the servants on the 4th floor. On occasions the hall roof was set alight by incendiary bombs; windows were blasted; a small number of rooms on 3 East were gutted, and rehearsals for the hall plays were interrupted.

Not all was gloom during this period of national emergency. The B.B.C. orchestra was evacuated to Bristol in the early years of the war and Dr (later Sir) Adrian Boult, their musical director and conductor, came and gave talks to the residents. He was often accompanied by his hostess in Bristol, Miss Kathleen Beer, who had sung in the London premiere of Rutland Boughton’s Immortal Hour and created the title role in the London premiere of Manuel de Falla’s Master Peter’s Puppet Show.

Following the end of the War the University asked Mrs Skemp to remain as warden until the close of the autumn term. When Mrs Skemp left the hall in December 1945 it was seen as the end of an era.

Her successor, Miss Gladys Morgan (1894-1957), was already well-known and respected in the city as the headmistress of the Colston’s School for Girls. A woman of formidable, yet kindly, personality, and a deep Christian faith, she had served on the council of St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and was regarded as having advanced views on women’s education. She was said to look like George Washington, wore tweeds and brogues and had a deep but musical voice. It is reported that following a quarrel with the director of Education for Bristol she resigned her post as head mistress. He vowed that he would ensure that Miss Morgan would never be employed in any school in the city, and at this point she promptly trumped him by being appointed a special lecturer in Education at the University and warden of Manor Hall. She is still remembered today with affection for her wisdom and humanity and many people view her wardenship from 1946 to 1956 as part of the “golden era” of the hall, which spanned from 1945 to 1968.

The old rivalries which had existed between the residents of Clifton Hill House and Manor Hall in the 1930s remained, with many of the former looking down on the latter as “Board School Girls” whose schools and future careers were bound up with education in the state sector. Their feelings of superiority were reciprocated with some residents of Manor feeling that they had gained an edge on them by their superior domestic arrangements and spacious modern rooms. Whilst the two female halls were divided by an almost arctic tundra the width of Lower Clifton Hill, the relationship between many of the residents with those of Wills Hall was much warmer, often tropical, with numerous romances, fostered by shared activities and particularly drama. Late nights out with boyfriends at dinner-dances or the cinema resulted in frantic attempts to regain entry into the hall, climbing over railings and walls with the help of boyfriends,( both of whom were eager not to spoil the lady’s ball gown), and windows left open due to the collusion and connivance of friends, always ready to ask for a similar indulgence in return. At least one proposal of marriage was made in the dark in the shadow of the heaps of coal used to fire the boiler which were to be found to the right of the main entrance to the hall.

Memories of that decade recall numerous japes, raids by the gentlemen of Wills who on one occasion chained the ladies into the dining room during luncheon, and of retaliatory raids by the ladies to Wills Hall, where pyjamas were seized and the trouser bottoms sewn up(not with the gentlemen inside) and safely returned under pillows to be discovered by their owners later in the evenings. This was the ex-service generation and there were a good deal of good natured high spirits in the University.

Food, which had been unimaginative in the war years, became truly dreadful during the continued post- war rationing. The quality of the food and claims that members of the slug family had found their way into a salad, resulted in the residents going on a days’ food strike, which is said to have brought Miss Morgan to the negotiating table. Before the autumn term of 1947 the hall was found to be structurally unsound, having been built on a fault line, cracks, including one in the fireplace of the East Common Room, which may still be seen, appeared in a number of places in the building. The architects, Oatley and Brentall, recommended the building of a huge retaining wall at the edge of the Strangers’ Burying Ground and the hall. Work began in the summer of 1948 and carried on for eighteen months. The work necessitated the removal of some of the bodies in the cemetery, the destruction of half the memorials, and the pumping of innumerable amounts of concrete into the fissures in the rock before the current cambered wall of cyclopean masonry could be erected.

Miss Morgan became ill during 1955 and she was moved to the then senior common room which was formed into the nucleus of the current wardens’ rooms. Upon her resignation in the following year she was succeeded by Dr Marjorie Tait J.P. (1908-1972), a widow, who was appointed to a special lectureship in Education. Student surveys found her attitudes warm and compassionate and her outlook modern. She was said to have no time for needless rules and red tape and was forthright in her speech. She was also noted for her ability to relate to students who had difficulties in their lives and she regularly entertained those about whom she was concerned with a glass of Madeira, providing opportunities for them to talk with her on a wide range of subjects. Her enlightened rule was compared favourably with the wardenship of her colleague Miss Macleod at Clifton Hill House, who was appointed in 1934 and retained much of the outward gravitas and severity of Mrs Skemp.

Although the Old Students’ Association felt that she was not as supportive to their aims and objectives as her predecessors, Dr Tait carried on a wide-ranging corres- pondence with her former students, in many cases continuing to do so until her death.

The hall was often used as the venue for the annual department of English play, written by Dr Basil Cottle F.S.A. (1917-1994), a former cryptanalyst who had worked breaking German cipher at Bletchley Park. The hall was noted for the quality of its drama and the annual Carol Service which attracted many enthusiastic outside visitors. Whilst the hall continued to have formal dinners, men were allowed to be guests on certain evenings and had conferred upon them an “Adam tie”, which carried the device of an apple with a bite taken out of it. There are still a number of proud wearers of this witty and creative neckwear.

With encouragement from Dr Tait many Manor Hall girls became presidents of the Union and have gone on to achieve great things nationally and internationally. Among the many distinguished former students of the hall from this period are Dr Jennifer Bate, the concert organist and definitive interpreter of the organ works of Mendelssohn and S.S. Wesley; Dr Anne Weyman, the director of the Family Planning Association; and Professor Dame Carol Black, Pro-Chancellor of the University and former president of the Royal College of Physicians.

Dr Tait’s retirement occurred at a time of student unrest, and it was left to her successor, Miss Audrey Rich, a special lecturer in Classics, to meet student demands and to bring the hall into the “swinging sixties”. Of most immediate concern, male visiting hours were extended.

In response to a demand from some students Miss Rich abolished catering in 1973. This decision also provided a short-term solution to the problem of catering at the Students’ Union with its falling receipts and decline in student use. Thereafter students were encouraged to eat at the Union. The hope that closing catering at Manor would boost catering receipts at the Union proved illusory. Without a central meeting place provided by communal eating it proved to be difficult to sustain the community within hall. The last hall play for almost 20 years took place in 1972. Student kitchens were hastily created on each floor by removing the trunk rooms, the wardrobes for holding long dresses, and boot rooms. Subsequently there was a tendency for the hall to function as a series of individual floors and annexes, rather than as a single entity.

The abolition of catering allowed the 5th floor kitchens to be gutted and turned into student accommodation. Following the retirement of long- serving members of staff, such as Miss Kathleen Gregory, who came to the hall as a maid straight from school at the age of 14 in 1932, arriving before the front doors of the hall were hung, and Miss Gladys Young, who between them gave almost 100 years of service to the hall, their accommodation on the 4th floor was also used to house students.

Miss Rich resigned as warden in the summer term of 1974. During her period of office she had been ably assisted by the redoubtable domestic bursar and deputy warden, Miss Betty Francis, who was to serve in the former capacity for 32 years and ruled the hall and the hall’s finances with a firm hand.

The University decided to experiment in the management structure of halls in the 1970s and following Miss Rich’s announcement, Miss Sheila Brennan (1922-2006), the warden of Clifton Hill House and a special lecturer in the School of Education, was appointed warden in her place and asked to continue her other posts as well. Miss Brennan relied heavily on Miss Francis and on a succession of sub wardens and tutors to run the hall. She worked in hall every afternoon.

During her wardenship the first men were admitted to Manor Hall as residents in the autumn of 1979 and confined to the 1 West corridor and Richmond House in the first instance. A bar was created out of the West common room. Very soon the small number of male residents were not only running the bar but dominated the Junior Common Room committee. Table football, pool, and alcohol became an important part of the lives of a number of the residents. Miss Brennan resigned as warden in the summer of 1984, but continued as the advisor to overseas students for a number of years. One of Miss Brennan’s particular interests was in overseas students, an interest which had been partly stimulated by her work in the Gambia in the 1950s. In the 1970s, the British Council devised a partnership scheme with various universities, including Bristol, to provide preferential housing for British Council and Commonwealth scholars. A bomb site and building merchant’s yard between Richmond House and Manor House was selected as a site for a new hall attached to Manor which was built between 1976/7. It was called after a long-standing member of the hall committee, the Rt. Hon. the Lady Sinclair of Cleeve. Sinclair House won a major architectural award in 1977 and accommodates married overseas postgraduate students on the ground floor and undergraduates in the flats in the two floors above. The hall gradually became the focus for the activities of the University’s overseas student societies and this has remained a feature of the hall to this day.

Following Miss Brennan’s retirement, the University appointed the last warden to the post. He was then 26 years of age and the youngest warden to have been appointed. A Bristol graduate and former school master he received much invaluable assistance in his early days as warden from Miss Brennan and his secretaries, Mrs Audrey Biggs, Mrs Mersa Gibbons and Mrs Eileen Haynes.

During the last 24 years there have been many improvements to the hall’s fabric, although they have been limited in scale due to restricted finance. Unfortunately in 2018 the position of warden was abolished in a far reaching pastoral review that also saw the abolition of the hall's Senior Common Room. This had a knock on effect which also saw Manor Amateur Dramatics wind down, although we hope a group of enthusiastic residents will rekindle this. In 2020 the hall bar was closed and the space turned into study space - despite all this it is hoped that the community spirit that made Manor Hall stand out remains.


1927 - 1932


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