Historical anecdotes from the University of Canterbury

6 June 2018 | #article#university

Last week whilst procrastinating an assignment I stumbled across an interesting gem of a website on the University of Canterbury: ‘Learning by Design: Building Canterbury College in the City 1873–1973’.

Screenshot of the Canterbury College website

Assembled by the Macmillan Brown Library team around 2013, it presents an insight into the fascinating history of the then-Canterbury College in the city. Amongst the more scholastic information, there were a number of anecdotes that I found fascinating, either for historical value (they did what?) or showing how students haven’t changed at all. Below is a collection of my favourites.


On Transport

  • In 1955 the Student Union was given a bill for £10 after the college had to get the fire brigade to come and remove a bicycle that had appeared on the spire of the Engineering School as a graduation capping gag. A sign next to the bicycle apparently read ‘No bicycles allowed past this point.’
  • By the 1960s the Geography Department had a mini bus, named ‘The Elephant’. In the 1970s staff member Dave Harrowfield recalled accidentally backing the Elephant into the Vice Chancellor’s car. Rather than confess, he quickly ran to the geography building to find his head of department, and they inspected the damage from a safe distance through binoculars, venturing out only once the coast was clear.
  • Parking has been an issue for the university since at least 1952!
  • Men and women were provided with separate bicycle racks until at least the 1940s.

On buildings

  • Students of the 1930s complained that they didn’t go into the School of Engineering because if they did they would get lost in the ‘rabbit warren’.
  • The buildings were so cold that in the 1920s chemistry students were known for choosing their experiments based on the heat they would create. One experiment required the heating of a compound in a sealed tube, with one over-enthusiastic student managing to shoot a tube out of the chemistry lab window straight into Hereford Street.

On students

  • In 1942, 17 Rolleston House students were fined £1 each for their part in penning a mob of sheep in the college quadrangle overnight. The fine was a significant amount, given that in the same year University Bursaries were only £20 per annum. The students had also tinkered with the college clock, so that while they were cleaning the quad the following day, they were treated to the clock ringing 26 times.
  • The Students’ Association in the 1920s provided a list of advice to new undergraduates including: “Don’t be in a hurry to join all College societies—you may find you can’t pay the subs.” and “Don’t talk to a socialist—their arguments will make you feel ill.”
  • In 1929 societies included both mens’ and womens’ hockey clubs, a photographic society and one interestingly named ‘misogynists club’.
  • In the 1880s ‘Diploma Days’ (Graduation Days) were known to be boring affairs, so students started composing and singing songs in the ceremonies. These often celebrated the less noble side of academic life, and included making fun of professors—annoying the authorities so much so that in 1900 an attempt was made to ban the songs, prompting a boycott.
  • By 1923 the ceremonies had grown so boisterous that the chairman, Rector and Mayor were all but silenced by the songs, haka and interjections. As Chancellor in the 1920s Professor Macmillan Brown hated it so much that he refused to confer degrees, instead distributing them through the mail.
  • In 1952 students rigged the theatre so that a halo and a dove descended during the ceremony, while Lincoln students attending brought a goat on to the stage to receive a diploma. In the same year, students took control of the public address system and drowned out the Chancellor’s speech, leading to the theatre doors being locked prior to the ceremony in future years.

On technology

  • Until the 1920s there was only one phone in the Chemistry Laboratory located in the Professor’s office, meaning staff only used the phone for emergencies. One former staff member recalled being called out of a lecture by the Professor to take an urgent phone call, expecting the very worst, only to find that it was his father calling to say that England had won a decisive cricket match.
  • Retrofitting electric lights to existing buildings in the early 20th century proved hazardous—parts of the Engineering School had become such an electrical hazard by the late 1940s that students were advised to always wear sandshoes to provide effective insulation against electric shocks and to keep their hands in their pockets so they wouldn’t be tempted to fiddle with switches.

The Canterbury College buildings The Canterbury College buildings as they are today (The Arts Centre)


Naturally I can’t take credit for this post, but I thought it was worth highlighting this great project. Credit must go to Terri Elder, Jill Durney, Phanesa Vong, Duncan Shaw-Brown, Eve Welch, Peter Kennedy, Alison McIntyre and the Macmillan Brown Library staff for the research and website.

‘Learning by Design: Building Canterbury College in the City 1873–1973’

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