The Queen and Sussex

We look back at the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and her association with the University of Sussex, remembering when she came to campus to open our Library in 1964 and her visit nearly 50 years later to open The Keep.

Opening the Library

Despite the inauspicious date – Friday 13 November – and a day of heavy rain requiring a parade of umbrellas, Her Majesty the Queen’s visit to the University of Sussex in 1964 was a resounding success.

The itinerary included lunch in Falmer House, followed by an official opening of the Library, a tour of other faculty buildings on campus – which was still in the process of construction – and ended with afternoon tea with the Students’ Union.

In the lead-up to her arrival, great preparations were underway. The University’s Bursar John Mangold advised that building work should be suspended during the visit to prevent accidents. In a memo to senior managers, he wrote: “In particular, I have in mind the chemistry crane. It would be a pity if concrete were spilled on top of the Rolls Royce.” He also gave instructions to tidy up the grass areas and complete landscaping.

The Queen arrived in Brighton by train just after noon. Among those greeting her were the Lord Lieutenant of Sussex, Brighton’s Mayor, and the Secretary of State for Education and Science, Rt. Hon. Michael Stewart. She was then taken by car on the four-mile journey to Falmer.

View a gallery of the Royal visit to the campus Library

On arrival at Falmer House (then called College House), she was presented to the Vice-Chancellor Sir John Fulton, senior officers of the University (including Pro-Vice-Chancellor Asa Briggs, who became the University’s second VC), and several members of the University’s council and their spouses.

She was then escorted to the Senior Common Room to meet the University’s architect, Sir Basil Spence, and shown a scale model of the campus – which is now on show in Bramber House.

Lunch followed in the ‘refectory’, which is now Mandela Hall. The Queen was served trout Normande, with duchesse potatoes, garden peas and broccoli, followed by pavlova and a cheese board. Other guests, including a number of students and staff selected by ballot, were given the same menu – substituting the trout for salmon.

Simultaneously across campus, a buffet lunch was served to students and staff in various buildings, including the chemistry lecture theatre (Chichester I), and the Arts A lecture theatres. The fare included a chicken leg, half a pork pie and a boiled egg.

The Queen stopped and asked me as she passed, ‘Are you working – or just pretending to?’” Bill Cowie
American Studies, 1964

Under a canopy of umbrellas, Her Majesty, together with Sir Basil, Lord Fulton, Michael Stewart and members of Council, walked the short route to the University’s Library.

The Queen unveiled a green marble plaque, carved by Ralph Beyer, with the inscription: “This Library was opened by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second on 13 November 1964.” She was also handed a silver key made especially for the occasion to officially open the library.

She was then given a tour of the Library by the Librarian Dennis Cox. Dame Flora Robson, a member of Council and a distinguished actress, was among those accompanying her on the tour.

Among the students in the Library that day was Bill Cowie, an American Studies student.

Bill recalls: “I well-remember architect Sir Basil Spence addressing the opening of the new Library.

“I also recall the Queen, during the same ceremony, stopped and asked me as she passed, ‘Are you working – or just pretending to?’”

Her final appointment for the day was afternoon tea in the Debating Chamber of Falmer House with committee members of the Students’ Union, including the President Ian Small.

She received a parting gift of a book of 28 photographs of the University.

After the visit, the Queen’s Secretary Sir Martin Charteris wrote to Lord Fulton to express the Queen’s personal thanks.

This section was shared with the University’s community: “I do not think I need to tell you that the Queen enjoyed herself nor that she was profoundly interested in all you had to show her and everybody, Professors, Postgraduates and Undergraduate, she met during the full and varied day. I think this was obvious to all.

“I am, however, under Her Majesty’s specific instructions to send you this expression of her thanks and appreciation for the quite excellent arrangements for her visit made under your supervision, and to ask you to ensure that all who were responsible for their planning and execution are made aware of The Queen’s gratitude and satisfaction.

“Bad weather as such is not remarkable in England (loyal Brightonians may of course disagree), but what was remarkable to my eye about yesterday’s incessant downpour was how little it seemed to interfere with anybody’s enjoyment of the day; it certainly did not interfere with The Queen’s.”

Opening The Keep

The weather was much kinder when the Queen returned – this time with her husband The Duke of Edinburgh – to meet University of Sussex staff on 31 October 2013.

The occasion was to open The Keep, which houses the University’s Special Collections as well as archive material of East Sussex County Council and Brighton and Hove City Council.

Browse a gallery of the Royal visit to The Keep archive in Falmer

Dr Fiona Courage, now Associate Director of The Library and Director of the Mass Observation Archive, showed the Royal party Second World War material from Mass Observation and some rare books.

Dr Courage says: “I was bowled over by this aura that she brought with her.

“For the 90 seconds I had to show her our collections, it felt as if she was completely engaged in everything I said, and that I was the only person in this overfilled room as far as she was concerned.

“I remember she was particularly interested in the horse racing page of one of our rare books on 18th-century sport.”

Making her mark

The Queen was the official Visitor of the University of Sussex.

Her first involvement with the University was to approve the Royal Charter that signalled the founding of the institution.

The document that represents the royal charter of the University of Sussex, showing the Sussex coat of arms, royal seals and a full sheet of words written in traditional caligraphic script

We were given our charter in 1961. View the Royal Charter as a full-size image.

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