First Forty Years of Physics at Leicester 1924-64

Professor Ken Pounds looks back upon the first four decades of Physics at the University of Leicester.

The University College opened in October 1921, with 9 students & 6 staff. Funding in the early years was primarily by local benefactors, several of whose names are now recalled by buildings on campus, e.g. Astley Clarke, Percy Gee, Fielding Johnson.

Professor Edward Stewardson (centre) as Head of Department in the 1960s. Third from either end of the front row are Anne Brigleman – our first female lecturer – and Ken Pounds. 

The College records describe the `bold step’ in October 1924 to create departments of Physics and Chemistry – associating that move with a public appeal for £20k. In the following academic year, 10 physics undergraduates were enrolled and one lecturer appointed, A.C. Menzies (Chemistry started out more modestly with 3 undergraduates in 1925).

Annual reports for several succeeding years noted the financial challenge of running the two new science departments. However, both were rapidly becoming an established part of the growing reputation of University College Leicester.

The College’s first higher degree student, graduating in 1927, was a certain C.P. Snow BSc MSc (Physics). 1927/8 saw the first reference to research in the department, with a Mr Bull ‘studying the spectrum of gold’. In that same year Professor A.S. Eddington (Cambridge) gave a well-attended public lecture on ‘The Mystery of Time’.


By 1930 student numbers were up to 18 (day) and 3 (evening), with Menzies still the lone staff member. That was soon to change with the receipt of a DSIR grant of £200 p.a. (‘in the first instance’) to recruit a research assistant for Menzies. £45 from Royal Society simultaneously allowed the purchase of an ‘optical density meter’.

Those investments rapidly bore fruit with the publication in Nature, in 1931, of a paper on ‘The Raman Spectrum of solid nitrogen peroxide’ – presumably recorded on film – by Menzies and Pringle. With an enhanced CV, or perhaps the promise of a lighter teaching load, Menzies left for a Chair at University College Southampton in 1932, to be replaced L.G.H. Huxley.

An entry in the records for 1933 show the Annual Meeting of the British Association being held in Leicester. By 1934/5 the number of physics undergraduates had grown to 25 (full-time) plus 1 (part-time), a healthy student-staff ratio of 25.5! Huxley was named the F.W. Bennett lecturer. In 1936/7 DSIR, then the main government agency for supporting academic research, set up an Observation Centre for measuring atmospheric pollution at the College (an interesting forerunner of current research in atmospheric science in the Schools of Physics and Chemistry). Notwithstanding his teaching load, the 1937/8 annual report notes five publications by Huxley, mainly in the area of gas discharge physics.

Leicester Physics during the Second World War

1938/9 saw the first mention of war, with free student places for refugees, and an air raid shelter being built in a large cellar underneath the College building. In 1939/40 Huxley was recruited to join an Air Ministry team working on the development of radar. Fortunately the College had a ready replacement in Dr E A Stewardson, a Cambridge contemporary of H S W Massey (see later), who had been teaching until the outbreak of war at the National Central University in China.

Enlisting of many staff and students led to most parts of the College shrinking as the war progressed. Conversely, Physics grew quite strongly, due partly to the evacuation to Leicester of staff and students from Kings College London. A second reason was the setting up of a sub-department of Radio at HM Governments request. The purpose was to train armed forces personnel and new graduates (including some from Arts) in radio communications techniques.

A total of 47 students were studying in the Department in 1942/3. Fortunately for Dr Stewardson the records show he had some teaching assistance from other departments, including Mathematics.

Post-War Years

1945/6 saw the College gaining official recognition – and funding – from the UGC, a £12k grant allowing departmental grants to be doubled and new appointments made. Physics appears to have been quick off the mark and October 1946 saw the appointment of Colin Hayward & D.M. McCall as Assistant Lecturers. A further boost – the material effects of which were to be seen for years ahead – came with the gift from the Wireless Personnel Committee of ¾ ton of assorted radio & electrical components.

The post-war expansion of the College continued with Stewardson being appointed to the first Chair in Physics, and 3 large houses being purchased ‘near the Stoneygate tramway terminus’ in Oadby, to provide accommodation for 100 male students.

1947/8 saw the appointment of two further members of staff (still in the Department when I arrived in 1960), Arthur Hunter and Ted Wilson, though McCall had left. Undergraduate numbers rose to 75 (a record), boosted by returning members of the armed forces. E. Matsukawa and Miss C. Sinclair were appointed to Assistant Lectureships in 1948.

The recruitment of new, young staff was beginning to transform the Department’s research, with new facilities being developed (in the ground floor N wing of the College building) including a Van de Graaff accelerator and Soft X-ray Vacuum Spectrometer.

The Department was further strengthened with the appointment to lectureships of Walter Spear (1953) and Peter Russell (1954), while Haywood was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1954, effectively acting as Deputy to the Head of Department.

1950s: From College to University

A further step in the long road to achieve full university status was achieved in 1951 with the granting of a Royal Charter. Initial consequences included re-naming of the University College Leicester as the University College of Leicester, and the replacement of the Academic Board by Senate!

Undergraduate numbers in Physics (and Chemistry) appear to have been restricted throughout the 1950s by a chronic lack of laboratory space, located at that time along the front ground floor corridor of the College (now Fielding Johnson) building.

The growing popularity of the broader General Science degree was shown by the breakdown of students in the Department in 1955, being 91 (GS) and 15 (Physics Hons).

1957 was an historic year for Leicester, University status being celebrated in the new Queen’s Hall during a visit by Queen Elizabeth II. The UGC grant increased accordingly, to £229k, and the student population rose to a record 838.

In 1958 Ken Banyard was appointed as Assistant Lecturer, initially for 1 year, and the Physics Department admitted its first female undergraduate. 1957/8 saw plans for the new Physics building approved, a year behind Chemistry, and building began in 1958. The strengthening of Science at Leicester continued in 1959/60 with the establishment of new chairs in Biochemistry (to be filled by Hans Kornberg) and Physical Chemistry (Martin Symons). DSIR made a research grant to Physics of £13k, and honours undergraduate numbers rose to 40, with a further 178 reading General Science.

1960s: New Buildings and Rocketry

January 1960 saw my own arrival in Leicester, as an Assistant Lecturer. The intent, apparently agreed in a conversation between Profs. Stewardson and Massey (Head of Physics at UCL), was to set up a rocket research group at Leicester specialising in the study of solar X-rays. The salary (£700) and free food and lodgings as Tutor in Southmead House offered a new lifestyle to a single, just 25, still writing-up, recent student.

Tudor Jones joined the staff, also as Assistant Lecturer, in October that year, increasing the Physics staff complement to 10.

The following decade saw the Department grow in strength, with Prof. Stewardson providing guidance and support for his ambitious younger colleagues. Both research and teaching were greatly helped by the move into the new (present) Physics Building in 1961/2, although the Van de Graaff accelerator failed to survive the move.

It was not until June 1973 that a roof collapse in the Bennett building caused Physics to be evacuated, but that is a story for another time.

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