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How and why did Sex Pistols Manager Malcolm McLaren burn down the Goldsmiths’ College library?

The destruction caused by the fire in Goldsmiths’ College library in March 1971. Image: Goldsmiths’ archives.

For three to four years between 1968 and 1971 Malcolm McLaren, then known as Malcolm Edwards, was a charismatic, enigmatic, disruptive and strikingly original art student activist at Goldsmiths’ College.

It seems likely his behaviour as a Situationist Marxist was being regularly reported to Metropolitan Police Special Branch and then on to MI5.

He helped instigate the biggest, loudest and most memorable art and music festival in the university’s history.

It’s never been repeated because when King Crimson played the back field, they could be heard loudly and clearly in Hilly Fields Park near Ladywell- well over a mile away.

So many thousands descended on the College grounds- lured there with the exaggerated and false promise of Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones, College security and the police surrendered all hope of controlling the numbers.

The scent of marijuana was in the air and lying and rolling around on the grass in the summer sunshine, it could be said people got to know each other much more intimately than would normally be expected in an educational environment.

Malcolm left Goldsmiths without completing his degree, spooked the senior management of the College by invading and squatting in their meetings with ‘silent staring’, stole the library’s most expensive art books to sell to Charing Cross Road rare book dealers and later confessed to burning down the College library to cover his traces.

It’s also been claimed he assaulted Andrew Forge, the chair of the Art School’s Academic Committee with a copy of Chairman Mao’s ‘Little Red Book,’ and the agitation and student unrest he fomented generated intolerable stress for the Art School’s Principal.

Cover of the much-acclaimed biography of Malcolm McLaren by Paul Gorman, published by Constable in 2020

In 2020 the back cover of his acclaimed biography by Paul Gorman offered some 86 descriptions and identities to attempt to answer the question ‘Who was Malcolm McLaren?’

Many of his contemporaries and alumni interviewed for the Goldsmiths’ History project would agree with ‘troublemaker, anarchist, exhibitionist, media manipulator, and Situationist.’

Those sympathetic to his complex and creative personality would also agree with ‘cultist, art student, enabler, friend, iconoclast, humorist, performer, painter, raconteur, romantic, visual artist and visionary.’

In popular culture, the Guardian said Malcolm McLaren was ‘the Manager of the Sex Pistols and a pivotal influence on late 20th-century pop culture.’

Dave Simpson wrote that the impresario ‘was one of the pivotal, yet most divisive influences on the styles and sounds of late 20th-century popular culture.’

He is perhaps best known as manager of the Sex Pistols, the punk-rock band that was a rude and loud cultural counter-point to the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977. When he died in 2010, the BBC reminded us that ‘he was arrested on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee after sailing down the Thames on a boat with the band while they played their anti-establishment song God Save The Queen.’

The lyrics continued: ‘The fascist regime, They made you a moron, A potential H bomb’ when sailing by the Palace of Westminster.

Simpson said: ‘With his first partner, the designer [now Dame] Vivienne Westwood, he popularised looks from punk to fetish, which still dominate the fashion world.’

The journalist Julie Burchill once said ‘we are all children of Thatcher and McLaren.’

Paul Gorman explains in the introduction to The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren ‘he was not interested in operating on the fringes.’

He was ‘an enthusiastic internationalist intent on fast-tracking vanguard ideas to the heart of the world’s mass media and entertainment industries, engaging along the way with major record companies, film studios, national broadcasters, the fashion trade and global ad agencies, and popping up in the public glare, whether at an Art Basel preview, a Beijing recording studio, on the front row of a Paris haute couture catwalk extravaganza or in a high-ratings British reality TV show. ‘

Malcolm Edwards/McLaren publicly confessed to the Goldsmiths’ College library fire in the first issue of the stylish and iconic magazine Fantastic Man in 2005 edited by Jop van Bennekom and Gert Jonkers.

No doubt he would be delighted to know that copies of this issue of the fashion magazine are so much sought after, they each sell for around $1,000.

He said he caused the fire with two unnamed college friends because the college authorities had called in the police to investigate his stealing of expensive art books from the library.

He said: ‘I was so concerned. They were getting close to nabbing me…And like lunatics we decided the best thing to do is to burn the library down so there would be no finger-prints. We thought…let’s burn it down. And that’s what we did. We burnt down the Goldsmiths’ College library.’

Paul Gorman reports in the biography that McLaren ‘delighted in telling Goldsmiths alums, including the British artist Damien Hirst, who observed that McLaren had likely impaired his education at the institution in the 1980s as a result.’

Goldsmiths’ Special Collections has contact prints of the dramatic and extraordinary roll of film taken of the fire in the early hours of Saturday morning March 13th 1971, the response of the police and the London Fire Brigade, and the terrible destruction to the library’s most treasured books and archived documents.

The remarkable and in some places disturbing black and white images are shown here for the first time. They are heart-breaking for anyone who loves books and cherishes and understands the cultural value of libraries in education and human society.

If McLaren was telling the truth, he and his friends stole and destroyed irreplaceable treasures and memories of Art and Drama and the history of Goldsmiths and its staff and students.

The damage in 1971 was estimated at around £150,000.

With inflation that would be one and a half million pounds in today’s money (28th September 2021).

The History Project has gained access to the London Fire Brigade official report of the fire, and also established the somewhat perplexing perspective that the Metropolitan Police say they have no records of any criminal investigation.

However, the Metropolitan Police have also tenaciously resisted Freedom of Information requests for access to Special Branch files on the activities of Goldsmiths staff and students during this period and these would inevitably have included him.

It is more than likely Special Branch monitored and kept a file on Malcolm McLaren. Goldsmiths’ College was in regular liaison with the Branch on subversive and disruptive political activities by staff and students.

The reporting and contact had been established from the time of the Cold War and Goldsmiths was effectively the home for the annual congresses of the London District of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

While the Fire Brigade report says the supposed cause of the fire was ‘unknown’, it is now clear that the Warden of Goldsmiths at the time, Sir Ross Chesterman, his Registrar, George Wood, and their head of security, Len Lusted were convinced the fire was deliberately started and spoke quite openly about it to journalists, colleagues and students.

Sir Ross wrote a rather controversial ‘story of Goldsmiths’ College 1953-1974′ covering his time there as Warden.

Golden Sunrise was privately published in 1996, nine years before McLaren’s confession in Fantastic Man.

1966 edition of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung- allegedly used by Malcom McLaren to assault a senior member of staff at Goldsmiths’ Art School. CC BY-SA 4.0

Sir Ross provides a detailed account of the troubles caused by students he believed had been inspired by Mao Zedong’s Chinese Cultural Revolution though in those days the Chinese Communist Party leader’s name had been romanized as ‘Mao Tse-tung’.

It is likely Chesterman was referring to McLaren and his friends, though he does not accuse anyone in particular of being the library arsonist.

In fact, he makes no mention of the Library fire at all in Golden Sunrise.

Chesterman wrote about a painting group of ‘about a dozen strong, and included a number of almost illiterate students, men and women, all of whom seemed to have a serious chip on their shoulders. One of the women students was a dwarf – a real dwarf of the kind one sees in circuses. I had nothing, of course, against her physical condition, but she also was one of the leading troublemakers…the group would spend the day sitting in a studio and arguing about social conditions in Britain. After some time they became bolder, and undertook what I found a disquieting and even frightening course of action.

They would come up to my room, unannounced and uninvited, and sit down wherever there was a seat. They would say nothing and just keep there for about twenty minutes. Then, suddenly, they would all get up and walk out. I was not the only target – they would use the same treatment on other senior members of staff. Perhaps the worst aspect of this kind of silent invasion is that they would arrive late in the afternoon, when one was tired after a day’s work, and when the College was almost empty, so that no help was at hand if they were to turn violent.’

Chesterman’s language and attitudes betray the chasm in generational distance as well as the disparaging, patronising and offensive language and description which Malcolm’s friend and fellow art student Helen Mininberg, later known as Helen Wellington-Lloyd, had to contend with.

Helen continued her friendship and artistic collaboration with McLaren after Goldsmiths, designing typography and posters for the Sex Pistols and appearing in Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee in 1977 and The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, by Julien Temple in 1980.

In 2001, the BBC reported on the sale of her collection of Sex Pistols’ memorabilia at Sothebys.

She was described as ‘a close friend and confidante of Malcolm McLaren, having met him at Goldsmiths School of Art in 1968’ and said: ‘We became friends immediately, probably because we saw ourselves as misfits in society.’

Gorman’s 2020 biography provides valuable insights into Malcolm’s time at Goldsmiths.

This includes an interview with his personal tutor and art lecturer, Barry Martin, who offers a sympathetic account of the tolerant mentoring and guidance provided by some staff much closer in age to Malcolm and his students than the College and Art School hierarchy.

They were in tune with the tectonic transformations of figurative to conceptual art, the representational being challenged and transformed by political, abstract and revolutionary ideas. They had been students when campuses revolted against the Vietnam War, global capitalism and much else.

Chesterman was a scientist and belonged to a generation which had little or no understanding of youth culture aesthetics:

Sir Ross Chesterman’s memoirs of his time as Warden of Goldsmiths’ College 1953-1974. Image: Goldsmiths Archives

‘…students in the first and second year painting course joined in the programme of aggression, one student producing a selection of pictures which one might well have been entitled “Nazi Memorabilia’. I was greatly helped in resolving this particular incident by one of the college porters; he came to see me one afternoon after the day’s painting was over and, in some embarrassment, told me that the sight of large German swastikas made him feel very angry indeed, particularly, he said, when he remembered what he had had to put up with during his four years of fighting. “So, if you don’t object, Warden,” he said to me, “I would like to remove the pictures and destroy them.”‘  And that is what he did.

In contrast, Art lecturer Barry Martin was able to understand the context and motivation of McLaren and his friends. He told Paul Gorman: ‘He was argumentative…He liked trouble and causing a disturbance, constantly questioning what we were doing. I think he saw himself as a Che Guevara figure, rousing the troops to storm the barricade.’

Gorman writes: ‘Arriving early one morning Martin found McLaren laying out chicken wire across the Goldsmiths’ hut floor and unsuccessfully trying to hook it up directly to the mains. McLaren told Martin that, once electrified, his idea was to encourage a chicken to walk across the wire, a variation of the music hall routine of making hens dance on biscuit tins by placing lit candles inside them. Pointing out that this was extremely dangerous for McLaren, let alone the chicken, Martin persuaded the student to abandon the plan and saved him from electrocuting himself.’

Gorman has published images online of some of the paintings McLaren did at Goldsmiths in 1969 while being taught by Barry Martin.  The paintings went on show for the first time in 2014-15 at Le Magasin, Site Bouchayer-Viallet in Grenoble.

Gorman said: ‘During a 90-minute critical review by his teacher Barry Martin, Edwards (soon to revert to his birth-name of McLaren) declared his rejection of the limitations imposed by traditional art forms, in particular painting. McLaren subsequently destroyed all but one of the works. In a symbolic statement the exception, the largest canvas – the 7ft tall Map Of British Isles With Yellow Star And Hole, into which he had already kicked a sizeable hole – was left to rot in the summer rain in the yard at the back of the college. Eventually it was torn apart and taken away by the dustbin-men.’

Online and in the biography, Gorman explained that ‘McLaren dedicated his remaining two years at Goldsmiths to organization of events and film-making, one about his hero, the early British rock’n’roller Billy Fury merged into an unfinished commentary on consumerism centred on the history of London’s main commercial thoroughfare, Oxford Street.’

It was six minutes past 2 a.m. on Saturday morning 13th March 1971 when the London Fire Brigade received a telephone call of a fire in Goldsmiths’ College main building. It had been discovered by a student two minutes before having started somewhere in the middle of the library on the second floor.

The weather was dry and clear and so were the road conditions when fire engines left New Cross fire station and arrived outside the college only three minutes later.

When the appliances pulled up, the fire was quickly spreading to the roof largely because much of the substance used for its construction comprised of boards of compressed straw- a cost effective building material needed to repair the main college building cheaply and quickly after Luftwaffe destruction during the Second World War.

Yes, incendiary bombs at the end of December 1940 had indeed burned down the College’s library then. Many books had been taken to Nottingham University with staff and students leaving New Cross in the autumn of 1939, but thousands remained and 12,000 were destroyed by flames and water.

The College library suffered catastrophic damage on 29th December 1940 when incendiary bombs rained down from Luftwaffe planes during the Blitz of the Second World War. This photograph shows the roof has gone and there are skeletons of library bookshelves. Image: Goldsmiths Archives.

They had been piled up into a huge mound in the middle of the Great Hall and remained there for much of the Second World War period as some kind of detritus monument to the Blitz.

Dave Riddle had been Student Union social secretary at Goldsmiths the year before the fire and is a compelling witness to the events of that morning:

‘Another fellow alumnus (Neil Brittain) and I were employed at the time by the Goldsmiths Youth Club to run their discotheque every Friday in Brockley (where one of the evangelical churches now is just on the Goldsmiths side of the double roundabouts). There was a ‘dance’ in the Great Hall that night. It may have been the Valentine’s Ball as they had a big name ‘Yes’ as the main act. The event was due to finish at 2 or possibly 3 a.m. We had ‘promoted’ the event at the Youth Club, although it wasn’t really the sort of band favoured by the youngsters of the Club at the time. Some did come down to the College, but I drove down with Neil as I had a car full of disco gear at around 11.30pm.

After watching Yes play for an hour or so, at about 1.45 a.m. as far as I recall, the fire alarm went off which we thought was someone messing with one of the alarm buttons. We left the building via the side door by Security and out of the front of the College only to see smoke and sparks blowing out of the College roof in the direction of Lewisham Way. Two fire engines then arrived and the fireman strolled nonchalantly past saying ‘Well where’s the fire then?’ As if it wasn’t patently obvious! We were then efficiently herded in the direction of the Education Building courtyard and watched further events from there. Lots more sparks, flames and sparks.. but we were tired and since my car was parked almost exactly where we were, and potentially extracting it could have become difficult, we left at that point (around 2.30 a.m.).’

 

The London firefighters were battling a fire which was threatening to engulf the entire building, which would certainly have happened had they not stopped it spreading across what was a tinder dry and flammable roof 150 feet by 350 feet.

Somewhere and somehow the photographer gained a vantage point which is difficult to identify. These were the days before drones. No Metropolitan Police or London Fire Brigade helicopter was available for deployment at this time. Was there some high point on the roof of Goldsmiths?  Or had the LFB deployed another turntable high ladder with radio communication to coordinate the firefighting?

These images of the glow of the conflagration show the success and achievements of the operation by 3.33 a.m.  Absolute fire destruction consumed one eighth of the roof and second floor and no more.

Later on Saturday morning with the sunrise, the senior management of the College were able to fully understand just how devastating an event this was.  Goldsmiths had only one library.

And it was now gone at a time in the academic year when students on all programmes were needing to revise for exams and research and complete the final dissertations and essays for their undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

The LFB report on destruction is exact and defining:  ‘About one eighth of roof collapsed. 2nd floor about 500 ft of middle brick well distorted and cracked, 200 square feet of walls stripped of plaster board, structure otherwise undamaged. Whole contents of library severely damaged by fire, heat, smoke and water. First Floor- about one eighth of floor and contents damaged by water. Ground Floor about one eighth of floor and contents damaged by water.’

In the daylight the fire event photographer roamed over collapsed and buckled roof girders and beams, charred and incinerated books, furniture and equipment. Everything had been blackened and soaked.  Ash, cinder and dust and the acrid stench of burning and smouldering and shafts of sunlight streaming from a roof now open to the sky.

Sir Ross Chesterman wrote to the Times Literary Supplement on 2nd April 1971 effectively begging for donations of books. He said: ‘The College feels this loss even more keenly because this is the second occasion on which the library has suffered by fire. During the Second World War the main library and its bookstock were very severely damaged by enemy action.’

He explained that insurance could not cover all the costs needed to replace what was lost. The public appeal asked for ‘anyone willing and able to help by gifts of books or money to get in touch with the College registrar or librarian.

What is also clear from the media reports is that the College, police and fire brigade were investigating arson.  Sir Ross told the Times ‘It could have been deliberate. I find it difficult to understand how an intense and localized fire could start accidentally.’ As he was  a scientist, he knew that books did not just burn spontaneously: ‘I do know the exact meaning of the word “gutted”, but these were gutted.’

Dave Riddle was also aware at the time that arson had been suspected with a pretty forensic idea of how the fire had been set:

‘There were supposedly ‘hot-spots’ found in waste paper baskets thought to have been caused by ignited magnesium ribbon. The College Security head at the time, Len Lusted, was a good mate as I had been SU Social Secretary the previous year. He actually questioned Neil and me about whether any of the Youth Club kids may have been involved, but we had no knowledge of whether any of them were actually able to buy tickets on the door.’

Clearly there had been arson investigations, but it is a mystery why their reports have not survived in either Metropolitan Police or London Fire Brigade archives.

The Goldsmiths History Project has been pursuing Freedom of Information Act challenges to gain access to Malcolm McLaren’s Special Branch and MI5 files and those of others, and at the time of writing there is still an outstanding appeal to the Upper Tribunal Information Rights with the possibility of judicial review to the High Court.

In 2005, Goldsmiths and the authorities had a confession and motive from Malcolm McLaren as a prime suspect.  But 34 years after the event,  its publication in a somewhat esoteric fashion magazine became the source of rumour more than a sensational revelation catching the attention of mainstream media coverage.

Paul Gorman quite rightly speculates there is ‘a chance that the arsonist was someone else, and that, at a safe distance, McLaren laid claim to amplify his image as a dangerous subversive.’

The librarians who came to work on Monday morning 15th March 1971 to find that their professional world had been devastated by a roar of flame and destruction would recall the sad emotional impact of that experience and the struggle to rescue, repair and rebuild.

Whether the claim to be the library arsonist was bravado or truth, there was certainly a lack of emotional insight and understanding of the cultural offence of burning books.

This is particularly so from somebody with the same heritage as the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine who poignantly said in his 1821 play Almansor ‘Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.’ (‘Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.’).

Goldsmiths’ College knew all about Malcolm McLaren when they admitted him as an undergraduate. The art lecturer Peter Creswell knew about his ‘unusually aggressive and confrontational’ personality because he had taught him at Croydon College of Art when he gained his A Level in Art History.

For all his promiscuous attendance of several art schools at the same time, Malcolm did choose to commit to Goldsmiths in terms of three years of studying for an art degree with a lot of creative and memorable activism to go with it.

Fellow alumni tend to be more affectionate and tolerant than disparaging in their memories of the maverick student in red hair and bottle green jackets. They would often find his disruptive Situationist interventions simply exasperating and quite sensibly best ignored.

He once stood on the metal staircase of the new College refectory throwing plastic cutlery and shouting ‘You’re all just a bunch of ****ing ****s.’  The students he was haranguing simply raised their eyebrows and carried on eating their steak and kidney pies, and bangers and mash.

Russell Profitt was the first Black President of a UK University Student Union at Goldsmiths while McLaren ran his own political agendas for what was then a separate student union body in the Art School.

He remembers McLaren’s activities as more of a burlesque contribution to student life:

‘The constant agenda item was always around the price and quality of food in the refectory. It was anything but Fortnum and Masons. I guess more people thought that the academic leadership of the College certainly enjoyed the best. They had a staff restaurant. It seemed as though they would be getting the best chomps, chops and fruit,  and whatever was left would be meagerly shared out to the rest of the student body.

Russell Profitt MBE when President of Goldsmiths’ College Student Union during the late 1960s. He was the first Black President elected to any student union body in the United Kingdom. Image: Copyright Russell Profitt.

I remember holding a student union meeting in the Great Hall where food was on the agenda. The students would be sitting in chairs on the floor of the Great Hall looking very hungry. Myself and other Student Executives would be up on the stage together with Mrs Maureen Foley who was the first full-time secretary of the student union. She was indeed a legend and her friend Margaret Collier. They then helped to run the student union as they took notes and minutes and they made sure that whatever was said got recorded properly. They were on the platform with us.

Just as we were about to get into the debate on food, I noticed that the balconies left and right started to fill up with students. They were not students that usually attended general meetings. They were from the Art School. Malcolm Edwards, later Malcolm McLaren, was one of their leading lights and he was up there with his ginger hair flowing, wearing his lovely green coat and orange scarf.

As he sat there, I felt something was going to happen and looked up. Before I knew exactly what was happening, there was this enormous tirade of tomatoes heading down towards us onto the stage as a sign of protest. He was up there chucking his rotten tomatoes down saying “This is what I think of this place.” He was “effing and blinding” and this broke the whole meeting up because what landed on the floor was picked up by the students and thrown back up. There was this huge food fight in the Great Hall. The meeting ended in chaos.’

If Malcolm McLaren was a tortured soul at Goldsmiths, for all his complaining and disruption, he also seemed to be very happy. Another alumnus, Paul Thompson, remembered the ‘grin on his face having a great time…he often had a grin on his face in those days.’

Seven years after leaving Goldsmiths degree-less and with a trail of book stealing, arson, mayhem and creativity behind him, Malcolm McLaren became as famous and impactful as Mary Quant.

He was charming and charismatic when agreeing to do an interview in Soho in 1978 for myself and another journalism student from the London College of Printing. I operated the Uher tape recorder, and my fellow student asked the questions. The interview was so good it was bought by Capital Radio.

The history of Goldsmiths has a fascinating tradition of alumni who are creative and entertaining disruptors in art, politics, culture, fashion and academic thinking.

Malcolm Edwards McLaren certainly counts as one of the most remarkable, memorable and indeed infamous.

 

Forthcoming ‘That’s So Goldsmiths’- an investigative history of Goldsmiths, University of London by Professor Tim Crook.

Special thanks to Lesley Ruthven and Dr Alex Du Toit in Goldsmiths Special Collections, Andrew Lott, Senior Information Officer on behalf of London Metropolitan Archives, Dave Riddle, Russell Profitt and the many 1960s alumni who contributed background and information for this feature.

 

There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack by Professor Paul Gilroy

Professor Paul Gilroy is one of the world’s most influential academic intellectuals with a distinguished career of Professorships held at leading universities in the UK and USA.

He was first appointed Professor at Goldsmiths, University of London in 1997 and in the absence of any corrective information from other sources it could be posited that he was the University of London’s first black professor. He is currently Professor of the Humanities and Founding Director, Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism & Racialisation at UCL (University College London).

The front cover of his first monograph has a striking portrait photograph by the Observer’s legendary photojournalist Jane Bown. A proud black British serviceman stands to attention at a Remembrance occasion wearing seven Second World War medals, but the title: ‘There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack’ strikes the discordant and critical note- for the subtitle of the book is ‘The cultural politics of race and nation.’

It was first published by Unwin Hyman Ltd in 1987 and reprinted by Routledge from 1992.  At the time Paul Gilroy was Senior Lecturer in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths’ College. He had taught at South Bank University and the University of Essex and held a Visiting Professorship at Yale.

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Meg Hinwood and her life as a Goldsmiths student in words and pictures-1907 to 1909

This remarkable postcard of a tram travelling past the snow-covered front of Goldsmiths’ College in Lewisham Way just before Christmas 1908 was in an album donated to the University’s archives by Meg Rayner, née Hinwood, in 1968. She had been a student at Goldsmiths between 1907 and 1909. The outline of the tram with an advert on its side can be seen towards the right of the picture as it travels past the iron side gate. Image: Goldsmiths Archives. All rights reserved.

Introducing Meg Hinwood

This is the story of a working-class girl from Dover who exceeded her wildest dreams at the beginning of the 20th century of being able to go to University to train to be a teacher.

In her excitement and joy when studying in London for two years and embarking on a future career as a professional young woman Meg would continually buy postcards depicting life and scenes during her Goldsmiths’ College life.

These would be produced by a resident College photographer called Mr Wilkinson.

An impromptu, informal and popular image of male senior and junior students getting together raucously to pull faces and make gestures in front of the College’s photographer in 1909. Standing at the back is the tall figure of one of the two Egyptian students holding four books during a break between lectures. There was gender segregation during the early 20th century with men’s and women’s entrances and corridors and separate follow-up assemblies and College Vice-Principals. Image: Goldsmiths Archives. All rights reserved.

Meg would write notes on the back with her latest news and post them to her mother with instructions to put them in an album.

Meg Hindwood's handwriting on the back of one of her postcards.

Meg Hinwood writing a note to her mother on the back of the ‘fellows in the quad’ picture of Senior and Junior male students taken by Mr Wilkinson, the College photographer. Image: Goldsmiths Archives. All rights reserved.

This was the early 20th century medium of email or Instagram.

A social news picture and text message.

Though at this time it needed a stamp bearing the portrait of King Edward VII and the auspices of the Post Office to carry it to its destination.

Meg was at University during a crucial period in the social history of Britain.

The London Meg Hinwood chose to study in between 1907-9 was the biggest and richest metropolis in the world, but New Cross and Deptford were mainly working-class with much over-crowding, poverty and child mortality. Around seven million people lived and worked in London. The Jewish community was the largest immigrant group. Chinese and Indian immigrants became more prominent and established, and a small but significant African and Black Caribbean community continued to prosper. The Pan-African Conference had been held in London in 1900 and this was a sign of the capital becoming an important centre of counter-imperial political activism.  The 1901 census recorded 33,000 Londoners as having been born in the British colonies or dependencies. This is a crowded scene in Petticoat Lane market around 1909. Image: George Bain news agency, US Library of Congress. Public domain.

Suffragettes were taking direct action in the campaign to win the right to vote.

London was the capital of an imperialist world power boasting that it controlled one fifth of the world’s surface with racist subjugation of many other countries and peoples.

This was an age when the working classes were beginning to organise for better pay and conditions through trade unions, and Parliament through Liberal governments were laying the foundations of a Welfare state.

The Edwardian period was attended by growing industrial unrest as trade unions began to organise Labour to improve pay and conditions. This is the entrance to the Great East India Dock during a strike circa 1910. Image: George Bain news agency, US Library of Congress. Public domain.

A disadvantaged and Working Class Background

Meg (Marguérite) Hinwood was brought up in her grandparents’ home in Dover by her widowed mother.

Her father, William Hinwood, was only 27 years old when he died in 1889- just two years after she had been born.

She was too young to properly remember him.

He had been an accountant’s clerk and Meg and her mother Anne had been devastated by what the local newspaper described as his ‘deeply regretted death.’

They had to leave their life in Malmesbury Wiltshire to move in with Anne’s parents in Dover.

Meg was brought up in the terraced house at number 30 Clarendon Road overlooking the port and only a few streets away from Dover Priory railway station. They called their home ‘Fern Bank.’

The house is still standing in this residential part of the town.


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When Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to Goldsmiths- only months after the release of Nelson Mandela

Black and white photograph of the Great Hall of Goldsmiths on May 4th 1990 taken from balcony looking down at stage in front of the organ where his most reverend Desmond Tutu is receiving the honorary freedom of Lewisham. Lewisham Council dignatories, local MP and Goldsmiths' College staff and students present.

The Admission of the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu as an Honorary Freeman of the London Borough of Lewisham, Great Hall, Goldsmiths’ College 4th May 1990. Image: Copyright Goldsmiths archives.

Sir Desmond Mpilo Tutu is the world’s most revered living anti-apartheid and human rights activist.

He was the first black African to hold the position of Bishop of Johannesburg and then Archbishop of Cape Town.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his advocacy and activism of non-violent opposition and protest against the South African apartheid regime. In his acceptance speech he said:

Colour photograph portrait of Archbishop Desmond Tuto.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Image by Benny Gool, public domain.

“This award is for mothers, who sit at railway stations to try to eke out an existence, selling potatoes, selling mealies, selling produce. This award is for you, fathers, sitting in a single-sex hostel, separated from your children for 11 months a year… This award is for you, mothers in the KTC squatter camp, whose shelters are destroyed callously every day, and who sit on soaking mattresses in the winter rain, holding whimpering babies… This award is for you, the 3.5 million of our people who have been uprooted and dumped as if you were rubbish. This award is for you.”

His steadfast and dignified campaigning for the rights of Black South Africans is credited with playing a key role in persuading the apartheid regime in South Africa to relinquish power, release Nelson Mandela and hold democratic elections in 1990.

Goldsmiths, University of London hosted Archbishop Tutu’s return to London to receive the freedom of Lewisham in May 1990.

Students and staff created the music and poetry which celebrated his achievements in bringing about peace and reconciliation.

The South African cleric and theologian’s links with Lewisham had been and remain affectionate and meaningful.

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Nigel Perkins- a Zen lecturer who gave Goldsmiths more than four decades of teaching and inspiration

A portrait of Nigel Perkins in sweater and open necked shirt taken in studio of Goldsmiths main building in 1996.

Nigel Perkins in the third floor studio of the Blomfield building of Goldsmiths, University of London in 1996. Image by kind permission of Paulo Catrica.

Lecturer Nigel Perkins passed away from COVID in January 2021 after a brilliant career lasting forty one years teaching photography and image communication in the Department of Media, Communications and Cultural Studies.

The postgraduate MA he convened, now called ‘Photography: The Image & Electronic Arts’ has been one of Goldsmiths’ most successful.

Nigel can be credited with producing more than forty cohorts of students from all around the world who have had outstanding careers as artists, photographers, and influencers in all spheres of culture, media, and academia.

He should also be remembered fighting for and preserving film making at Goldsmiths when in the 1980s the pressure to focus on television and media theory threatened its extinction.

The story of Nigel at Goldsmiths is the story of advancing and sustaining the arts in university media and the wider cultural industries.

The powerful expression of tributes from past and present staff and students in the days following his death provides a significant document about the purpose and value of the arts and humanities in university teaching.

It is clear he was a legend and inspiration.

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Remembering Goldsmiths’ ninth Warden between 1992 and 1998- Professor Ken Gregory

Portrait of Professor Ken Gregory when Warden of Goldsmiths College,Univeresity of London

Professor Ken Gregory when Warden of Goldsmiths, University of London and wearing a Goldsmiths’ tie. Image: Goldsmiths, University of London

The ninth Warden of Goldsmiths between 1992 and 1998, Professor Ken Gregory, has passed away at the age of 82. University historian Professor Tim Crook provides an obituary and assesses his contribution to Goldsmiths.

Arriving at Goldsmiths- a distinguished Geographer with a beard and without a Geography department

Ken Gregory was 54 years old and one of the country’s most distinguished academic geographers when he came to work in New Cross from the University of Southampton where he had been Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Southampton named a lecture series after him, which has run since 1993 within the School of Geography and Environmental Science.

When he arrived at Goldsmiths he was Ken Gregory BSc, PhD, DSc and FRGS. When he died on 23rd November there were many more honours to add to his profile: CBE, DSc (Hon), DUniv, C.Geog, FGCL, and FBSG.

Ken was the Warden during six turbulent and dramatic years for universities during the 1990s. He was calm, collegiate and effective in changing the university’s direction and strengthening its stability and viability in an increasingly market driven economy.

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The last time Goldsmiths was evacuated- 1939. Part One: Get Thee to Nottingham!

M. McCullick’s watercolour ‘Barrage Balloon backfield’ dated 1942 but still including the former Chapel tower which had been largely knocked down by a balloon removed from its moorings by a storm in October 1939.

M. McCullick’s ‘Barrage Balloon backfield’ dated 1942 but still including the former Chapel tower which had been largely knocked down by a balloon removed from its moorings by a storm in October 1939.

This country and most of the world is at war with an invisible (to the eye) virus.

And most of the academics and students have been evacuated to their homes to work- apart from a skeleton group of staff providing basic services and looking after the buildings.

These are unprecedented times. We have to wind back the clock of history to September 1939 and the outbreak of World War Two for a comparison.

Goldsmiths had to carry out a complex, stressful and devastatingly disruptive exile to Nottingham University which lasted for seven years.

A sketch of fashion recommendations for Goldsmiths’ College students in The Smith magazine for Easter 1939. Image: Goldsmiths Archives

Many of the fashion conscious students soon had to surrender their individuality for the drab constancy of uniforms and make do and mend.

Not everyone left. A small group of Art School tutors and their students worked and lived through the Blitz and ravages of World War.

The College was never the same again.

Sights, sounds, culture and life familiar in 1939 would be lost and when there was a return in 1946, Goldsmiths, and indeed British Society, would be so different.

This three part series tells the story of evacuation, exile and return.

We begin with the crisis of a war of arms and not pestilence being declared Sunday 3rd September 1939.

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A Letter To My English Friends- the political dignity of an Indian student at Goldsmiths in 1933

Shiba Chatterjee seated front row fifth from the right- the only non-white and overseas student at Goldsmiths’ College in 1932-33. Image: Goldsmiths Archives.

Shiba Prasad Chatterjee was the only non-white- what we would now describe as BAME- student at Goldsmiths’ College in 1933.

As the only Indian student in the college, he was studying for a one year teaching certificate in a society that was deeply racist and in a country that was Imperialist and refusing to grant his own people either home rule or independence.

The cover of the first edition of Katherine Mayo’s ‘Mother India’ first published in USA in 1927 and Great Britain in 1928 and which purported to reveal  ‘for the first time […] the truth about the sex life, child marriages, hygiene, cruelty, religious customs, of one-sixth of the world’s population: India’s 350,000,000 people.’

Equally pernicious at the time for Shiba Chatterjee, was the popularity and wide discussion of a book by the American historian, Katherine Mayo, called Mother India which insulted, denigrated, patronised and humiliated Indian society, culture and religion.

It was a best seller, widely quoted and the authority and talisman for all those British Imperialists who believed that Indians were not capable and fit to run their own affairs.

That was the majority of the Great British population, the position of most of the British press and leading and influential politicians such as Winston Churchill.

There had even been a United Empire Party spawned and sponsored by the most powerful newspaper barons, Lords Beaverbook and Rothermere, that sought to break into British mainstream politics.

It had been defeated in 1931 when the Prime Minister of the National Government, Stanley Baldwin, condemned the press barons for wanting: ‘power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages,’ using their newspapers as ‘engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, personal likes and dislikes,’ and distorting the fortunes of national leaders ‘without being willing to bear their burdens.’

At the same time the leader of the Indian Congress movement seeking self-determination for 350 million Indians, Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi, had been jailed for the eighth time.

The official student record for Mr. Chatterjee contains very limited though impressive information about his background.

He was born in March 1903 and came to Goldsmiths with a Master of Science degree in Geology from the University of Benares in India.

At the age of 29, he was therefore much older than the other British students attending the college.

While studying at the College he lodged with a Mrs Fenlon at 37 Breakspears Road in Brockley, SE4.

Shiba Chatterjee’s student record. Image: Goldsmiths Archives.

Houses in this conservation area are currently valued at nearly £1 million with two bedroom flats often selling for around £500,000.

He was sponsored during his stay in London by a Mrs Riccobena of 5 Oakley Square N.W.1.

He gained his teaching certificate recognised by the British Board of Education in July 1933.

Nothing more is known about him. In the only other College archive document his presence on the one year teaching certificate is indicated not in type-written script, but by pencilled handwriting.

It is as though the recording of his presence was something of an afterthought.

The traces of Shiba Chatterjee’s existence in the College records may be very slight, but the power and presence of his political and cultural identity is on a giant scale with an article he wrote for the Goldsmiths’ magazine Smiths in the year of his graduation.

The article titled ‘To My English Friends’ represents one of the most heartfelt and dignified appeals for political and cultural understanding it would be possible to find throughout all the archives held at Goldsmiths.

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Postcards from Goldsmiths- the equivalent of emails or instagrams in early 20th century Britain

A composite of 13 images of Goldsmiths’ College on one postcard in November 1914

It’s the first autumn going into the winter of the Great War in 1914.

A first year 18-year-old student at Goldsmiths’ College called Wilfrid sends a composite postcard with 13 different images to a Mrs Hinchliff in South Yorkshire.

We know not whether she was a guardian, family friend, or somebody more intimate.

She may have been Wilfrid’s mentor and former teacher who helped him believe in himself and encouraged him to pursue Higher Education and a career in teaching.

The tone begins formally “Dear Mrs Hinchliff […] This card gives you some idea of the College.’

Wilfrid’s postcard ends with ‘with best wishes, and kindest regards’ (and) ‘yours very sincerely.’

What is there to read in this early twentieth century equivalent of an email or instagram sent to a married woman with the address of a small colliery worked by about 30 miners, near Sheffield, which is then diverted by the Post Office to a hotel?

What would become of Wilfrid in the ghastly carnage of the First World War that gobbled up young volunteers and conscripts like him in what became industrialised slaughter?

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Goldsmiths and MI5- Trying to access the archives

The headquarters of the current Security Service, MI5 at Thames House on the north side of the River Thames. Image: MI5 Thames House Image Gallery, (OGL v1.0).

The Goldsmiths’ History Project becomes the subject of a freedom of information battle this week.

The Information Tribunal First Tier in London is hearing an appeal by Goldsmiths’ historian Professor Tim Crook on his application for MI5/Security Service files kept on staff and students before 1989.

This will take place in Court 7 Field House, 15-25 Breams Buildings
London, EC4A 1DZ starting on Wednesday 10th July at 10 a.m.

The Tribunal has allocated two days to the case.

There are significant events in the history of the staff and students where the perception of political extremism and actions may well have attracted the engagement and interest of the Security Service otherwise known as MI5.

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