100 years ago: Laying the Trent Building foundation stone

14 June 2022 will mark 100 years since one of the most significant events in the history of our university - the laying of the Trent Building foundation stone. Newspapers reported that “shrieks of laughter shook the walls of the university” as the students gave a “wild reception” to the visiting Lord Haldane.

Ahead of our first ever Nottingham Ambition Giving Day on the foundation stone's centenary this year, we take a look back at this historic event in more detail...

Viscount Haldane laying the Trent Building Foundation Stone

Viscount Haldane laying the Trent Building Foundation Stone

All archive images courtesy of University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections.

In 1922 there was no 'University of Nottingham'. Instead there was 'Nottingham University College', which was opened by then Prime Minister, W E Gladstone in the city centre in 1881. After the First World War the college soon outgrew its original building and it was thanks to a donation of 35 acres of land at Highfields Park by Sir Jesse Boot that the university you know today exists.

Every building needs a foundation of course, and so it was in June 1922 that the pomp and ceremony of our foundation stone laying commenced. Prior to this the students held an inquest into the corpse of "Uriah See Enn" (University College, Nottingham), representing the 'death' of the present college. According to an account in the archives it was "found to be due to shock due to the super-abundant generosity of Sir Jesse Boot."

Following the inquest a funeral procession took place, with accounts describing a parade of over 800 students ("a motley crew") wending its way around the city - parading the 'corpse' on a stretcher, pulled on an old fire engine-type contraption!

Once returning to the college there was a ceremonial 'cremation' of the body before the party decanted to Victoria Station in Beeston to receive Lord Haldane, former Secretary of State for War and leading exponent of higher education. Haldane had already been instrumental in the creation of the universities of Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Imperial College London.

Lord Haldane arrived at 12.39pm precisely according to reports, where he was met by a delegation of staff including the Duke of Portland, the Principal of the University College and also officers of the "Most Antique and Irreverant Order of Bacchus" - otherwise known as the president and officials of the College Students' Union. Lord Haldane then accepted an invitation to become a member of the "Most Noble Order of the Boot".

Amid "roars of laughter, the screech of Klaxon horns and the blowing of trumpets", Lord Haldane was inducted as a vice-president of the order, which among other priviliges afforded, enabled him to drink "from a pewter pot frothing with ale". He was then driven to the Exchange building in Old Market Square atop the fire engine, with a raucous crowd in his wake, to attend a luncheon.

You may wonder the cost to build our beloved university, it was no less than the sum of £250,000 - which is equivalent to around £15m today! And where did the money come from? £150,000 was generously provided by Sir Jesse Boot himself, with the source of the other £100,000 dramatically revealed on the day by Lord Haldane himself:

"In this matter some odd person turns up, and sometimes he won't have his name mentioned, and the money appears where you least expect it. An odd thing happened to me the other day.

"I received an anonymous letter in which the writer, who would not give me his name or address, or tell me who he was, said: 'I have been following this movement for the creation of a new University. I am particularly interested in the Midlands, and understand that you are to be present at the laying of the foundation stone of the new University. Well (he said). I have directed my bankers (a great bank in London) to pay over to you £100,000'."

After the luncheon, the travelling party made its way to Highfields for the stone laying. In his speech to the assembled crowd Lord Haldane evocatively described the value of the university:"This new foundation stone of a University for the East Midlands is the foundation for a University which I hope will be confined to no one class. No University is worth anything today unless it penetrates the people."

A letter from our mysterious anonymous donor was also read out at the stone laying ceremony, which struck to the heart of the community spirit of a fundraising activity, both then and now.

...the University will receive support not only from a few wealthy men who give largely, but also from the great mass of the people, who will give of their little as much as they can.

University of Nottingham as you know it today had begun

And with that the foundation of the University of Nottingham as you know it today had begun. Following a period of war, pandemic and political instability, the laying of the foundation stone must have seemed a poignant expression of hope and ambition in the future.

What may also surprise you is that the very same stone which you see pictured back in 1922 is still in situ at the Trent Building today - perhaps for many of you without so much as a passing glance!

The next time you're back on campus, head to the main entrance of the Trent Building in the courtyard and look to your right. A piece of history.


Join us in June and be part of our first ever Nottingham Ambition Giving Day and help build something extraordinary for future generations! Find out more and see how you can get involved.