If walls could talk…
Listen carefully before this year’s students arrive and you can almost hear voices in the echoing corridors of the Portland Building.
Two young women laugh dismissively at a young man’s amorous advances and the debating society squabble earnestly about nuclear disarmament in the smoke-filled fug of the common room; the Monty Python theme tune wafts from the centre of a group gathered around a TV set while the ceiling above them thumps to the beat of Paul McCartney’s Wings, a gig which is being studiously ignored by the new crowd tucking into Singapore noodles at Mr Man’s and the raucous crowd spilling out of the Buttery Bar.
They are the voices of the University’s past - successive generations of Nottingham students who have lived, loved and laughed in one of the campus’s most iconic buildings.
This October, Portland celebrates 60 glorious years and we want it to give up its stories so that we can celebrate next March with a special anniversary event.
Successive alumni generations have added their own voices to the Portland throng and looking back down the decades it’s clear that the student hub has meant different things to each new cohort.
“We thought it was wonderful!”
In the beginning it was envisaged Portland, named in honour of the then Chancellor, the seventh Duke of Portland, would provide facilities, particularly in the evenings, so that students could enjoy an after-hours social life on campus, a welcome move on from the ‘Saturday Night Hops’ and the facilities on the lower ground floor of the Trent Building shared with academic and senior staff.
Ironically, for a building intended largely for student use (outright overall control would be a bone of contention for years) early plans for the grand opening did not include student representatives – hence the ad hoc and unofficial opening ceremony performed by a group of students including Iain Williamson (Geology, 1958).
“We decided to have our own impromptu ceremony. There was a big fuss about the opening and I think that’s what motivated our high jinks. A friend, John Brass (Mining Engineering, 1958) put his boiler suit on and polished the door and I think it was Graham Wallace (English, 1957) who performed the opening for the photo.
But the new building was welcomed by students at the time. We thought it was wonderful because suddenly, we had a bar, a coffee bar and dining facilities – everyone thought it was magnificent.
Former Students’ Union (SU) President Daphne Priestley (Sociology, 1954) was involved in the planning stages of the new building.
“It was a splendid building but it was a University building with a broader brief rather than specifically just a Students’ Union and that was part of the problem. But things were tight financially in the post-war period. As an undergraduate we still had rationing so the concept of a big, new build like that was very exciting and I was very proud to see it come to fruition when I later returned to the University as Chair of Convocation.”
Centre of the social universe
The building almost immediately achieved its objective and a year after opening 600 students, the majority of whom would have been living in lodgings off campus, were eating their meals in the cafeteria.
Portland went on to become a social hub for all students, somewhere to meet friends and students from other disciplines, join societies, relax and enjoy a Saturday lunchtime drink in the Buttery – even in the 1960s, it was still the only bar on campus.
Students danced nights away in the ballroom and saw the latest films at special showings. It was the venue for union, medics and graduation balls and hosted some well-known bands of the 1960s and 70s – including T-Rex, Steeleye Span, Mungo Jerry, Supertramp, Wishbone Ash and The Faces.
It was only when city centre businesses woke up to the student market in the following decades that ‘going into town’ became the norm. But even as the times and trends changed around it the Portland Building remained, as it is today, the beating heart of the Students’ Union – the venue for election hustings, the meeting point for BUCs sports, the focus of student societies and a welcoming space to eat, drink and meet people.
Share your memories
Fresher’s Week closed today as a new group of students start to create their own Portland memories and add their voices to the building’s story. Now we want to hear from you.
As part of the special exhibition and celebration in March 2017 we want to capture the essence of what the Portland Building meant to you. We’re looking for photographs, memories and artefacts which connect your student life to the building.
Please send your contributions either to firstname.lastname@example.org or Alumni Relations, Portland Building, The University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham, NG7 2RD.
Save the date
Please also put 4 March 2017 into your diary – we’re inviting you back to campus for a series of special events and activities led by our SU societies. You’ll have a chance to view the exhibition and celebrate this special occasion with us. Look out for more details coming soon!