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Fifty years on, the first Leicester graduate remembers

Mrs Wendy Hickling, OBE, JP, DL holds a unique place in the history of the University of Leicester. Not only has she devoted her time unstintingly to the University for many years, but – in 1958 – she was the first ever Leicester graduate.

Wendy Hickling (nee Baldwin) was the first graduate of the University of Leicester when it awarded its own degrees for the first time in 1958. That year, HM The Queen also visited the University to open the Percy Gee Building, which houses the Students' Union. Wendy is pictured speaking with The Queen. As the University celebrates its Golden Jubilee, Wendy Hickling is still closely associated with the University of Leicester.

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Wendy Baldwin, now Wendy Hickling, speaks with the Queen in 1958. Mrs Wendy Hickling is still closely associated with the University of Leicester.

The University still holds a very special place in her affections, a sentiment which is reciprocated. In 1998, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Laws and in 2008, a Distinguished Honorary Fellowship – the highest honour that the University can bestow.

Within the University Wendy served for 16 years on Convocation (the Leicester graduates’ association), which she chaired twice. She was a member of the University’s Council for 20 years, served on and chaired a number of committees, and is a life member of the University Court.

It was by chance that she became the first Leicester graduate. “We went on to the platform in alphabetical order and my maiden name was Baldwin, so I happened to be the first to receive the new Leicester degree which was established in 1958.

"I had come to Leicester in 1955 as a student of English to read for a London external degree – which was what the University College offered at that time. When the University College achieved full university status in 1957, I wasn’t conscious of any pressure to opt for the new Leicester degree; it was just a decision that some 80 of us made. I remember Professor Humphreys pointing out that here was a chance to break new ground and be adventurous.

“The University was very different in those days. In 1958, there were only about 800 of us, although the University was beginning to expand. However, there was then no School of Medicine, no Law School, no School of Management, no Engineering, no Genetics, no space-flight technology, no computers and no distance-learning. But, some ten years earlier, University College Leicester had appointed a small group of excellent professors – including the highly respected and much loved Arthur Humphreys, who taught me. They were the strong foundation upon which this now internationally renowned University has been built.

Much of student life was based on the two single-sex halls of residence. College Hall, for women, was on the University Road campus and Beaumont Hall, for men, and its satellite houses on Stoughton Drive South and Manor Road, was just inside Oadby. College Hall was a former temporary residence for nurses, long past its use-by date and its study bedrooms were small and Spartan.

“In our rooms, with outstretched arms you could touch each wall. You were allowed five items on your dressing table and nothing on the radiator. If you contravened this rule your surplus items were confiscated and you had to pay to get them back. We were awoken by a rising bell at 7.30 during the week, and at 8.00 at weekends. Women students had to be in hall by 10.30 pm.”

In the 1950s, there was still a dress code for women, who were obliged to wear skirts or dresses to lectures, except on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Members of staff wore academic gowns when teaching.

“Of course, there was no Students’ Union building in my day. The Percy Gee Building was completed in 1957, but it was for the general use of both staff and students. The principal meeting area was the Crush Hall (most appropriately named) in the Fielding Johnson Building. All the clubs and societies displayed their notices there and we had coffee there on Saturday mornings, instead of in the refectory.

“Our main social event was the Saturday night hop in the exam hall. Twice a term it had a bar, but other than that there was no alcohol on the premises. Sport filled a large social role in many students’ lives, without necessarily demanding great skill from the participants. I played in the netball team and coxed for the boat club in training sessions. In those days, the Amateur Rowing Association had just forbidden women to cox male crews in actual races!

“In the Students’ Union, sabbatical officers were still a thing of the future; Presidents and other officers were expected to complete their degree courses in the normal period. Union meetings were generally well-attended and were held in the Council Room.

“We were not militant then,” Wendy recalls, “except when food was involved. In 1955, when I came to Leicester, World War Two had ended only ten years before and there were still food shortages. Sometimes our food was dreadful, and we did grumble from time to time. Our catering manager was Maurice Bann. During one demonstration, students carried notices which said on one side, ‘Ban the Bomb’ and on the other, ‘Bomb the Bann’! In 1958, we boycotted the coffee shop when the price of a cup of coffee rose by 25%, from just over a penny to a penny and a half!

“In the 1950s, student welfare services were non-existent, their place taken when necessary by academic or hall staff. There was also no health centre; just the front room of a local GP, who treated many of the students, and a sick bay at Beaumont Hall. It was in the mid-fifties that the then Bishop of Leicester invited the Rev’d Arthur Widdess to become the Church of England’s first chaplain to the university and designated the Church of St Nicholas to be the University Church.”

One highlight of Wendy’s student years was when the Queen visited the University Road campus in 1958 to open Queen’s Hall in the newly completed Percy Gee Building and stopped to speak to Wendy, who had just completed her year as student President of College Hall.

Wendy Hickling voiced her feelings about the University at the time she received the Distinguished Honorary Fellowship, the highest honour that the University can bestow.

“Those of us who trusted our Professors and tutors in 1958 and opted for the Leicester degree certainly made the right decision. For me, it has been a wonderful experience helping our University to grow and develop over the last fifty years.

“The University’s Latin motto is ‘Ut Vitam Habeant’, ‘that they may have life’. Leicester certainly gave me life; a country girl from a farm cottage in a tiny Lincolnshire village who was able to become a teacher, a school governor, a charity worker, a magistrate, a Deputy Lieutenant of Leicestershire and chairman of three large National Health Service trusts, and who received an honorary doctorate from this university and also an OBE. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to give something back.”

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