Leeds nostalgia: the dawn of the technical college

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As part of Times Past’s occasional ‘Old School’ series, this week we take a look at Leeds College of Technology, which was greatly expanded in March 1956 and which was later replaced by Leeds Polytechnic, which was granted university status in 1992, becoming Leeds Metropolitan University, which was then renamed Leeds Beckett last year.

Of course, the original technical school can trace its roots back to the 1820s, when it opened with just 279 students.

Originally founded in 1824 as part of the Leeds Mechanics’ Institute, in 1868 the College became the Leeds Institute of Science, Art and Literature, then The Branch College of Engineering and Science, then was renamed Kitson College and later.

By 1929, the number on roll had increased to 3,350. It trained students in baking, tailoring, housecraft and machine tool operation.

A new £350,000 college scheme for Leeds was approved by Leeds Corporation in October 1937, setting the ball rolling on a new era of education for the city.

The technical college was part of a national drive to put the nation ‘a leap ahead’ of the industrial might of Germany, Russia and the US and to offer a more attractive ‘promotion ladder’ to the ordinary worker.

An article published in February 1956 in the Yorkshire Evening Post, said the creation of the college, which was outlined in a White Paper, would herald the arrival of the ‘working man’s degree’.

J S Walsh, then chairman of the Leeds Education Committee, said that if Leeds was chosen to become a regional centre for the new technical education scheme, it would willingly take its place.

The plan was graduates would receive a National Diploma of Technology, which would be on a par with a university degree.

Work had already begun on a technical college in Leeds - at a cost of about £1m - and education officials in the city hoped it would be upgraded by the Government to take on the new role.

In the end, the upgrading didn’t come until 1962 when then Education Minister Sir Edward Boyle, announced it would be one of four new centres in England, including Newcastle, Dagenham and Hatfield, taking the national total to 25.

At the time, there were four tiers of technical college - colleges of advanced technology, regional colleges, area colleges and local colleges. Leeds was advanced to regional status following a review which began in 1961.

Even at the time, there was criticism of the building’s lack of classical form, particularly its angular, functional main building opposite the Brotherton Wing of Leeds General Infirmary.

Former Labour Primary Minister Clement Attlee, who was by that time an earl, spoke at the official opening ceremony back in March 1956.

He said: “What pleased me the most was that I wcould understand the machinery a bit. He told the crowd he often went round places where atoms were split but said he could not conceive what an atom was like, let alone it being split.

He added: “I gather that on the whole ability is fairly well distributed throughout this nation and has no particular reference to wealth of parents. It is most essential these days we should not waste any ability. In these last few decades, we have really begun to utilise our ability and this college is an example.”