150 years at the heart of student life in Manchester

The earliest roots of the University of Manchester Students’ Union can be found in 1861 when a union was founded for men studying at Owens College. Owens College became the Victoria University of Manchester in 1903. A Women’s Union was formed in 1900 and the two unions continued separately for the next 67 years. In 1908, the Men’s Union and the Women’s Union moved into a specially constructed building on the site of the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons, which also housed the University Refectory.

Old students' union building (UML)

A students’ union was formed at the Faculty of Technology, which became UMIST, on North Campus in 1910. It was known as the Tech Union and enjoyed a healthy rivalry with the unions on Oxford Road.

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, the students’ unions served as social spaces for students to spend time in between lectures and to meet in the evenings. They were very much like a members’ club where students could have a meal and a bath. Initially, they had been unions of the various student societies, such as the Medical Debating and Literary Societies, providing assemblies rooms and catering for meetings. In the 1930s, the Men’s Union opened a licenced bar which would ensure its place at the heart of student life in Manchester.

Coffee Bar in the old union (UML)

Early in 1900s, students started to feel that the unions were much more than just rooms to meet. The publication of a magazine in 1917 strengthened the growing perception that the Students’ Union was a community of students at the University. Serpent was the first magazine printed by the Students’ Union. It was a brighter and more amusing publication than the University Magazines that preceded it and was the start of a long tradition of literary and journalistic writing. Serpent was followed by News Bulletin in 1934, which moved away from long essays and was focussed on keeping students up to date on what was going on in the Unions and what different societies were doing.

In the 1910s, ‘ragging’ around the city especially on Shrove Tuesday was becoming an not entirely welcome student tradition. These ‘rags’ started with students doing pranks, causing chaos and generally inconveniencing members of public. Some students realised that their rags would be a fantastic way to collect money for charity and in 1921 the first RAG Shrove Tuesday charity collection raised £658. So, the pranks and torchlight processions carried on accompanied by rattling collection buckets. By 1938 students had collected £100,000 for good causes and nowadays students raise £100,000s every year.

During World War II, many students did military service and men that continued their studies had to serve in the University Fire Brigade. Women did a great deal of relief work, including running emergency kitchens to help Mancunians who had lost their homes during the Blitz. In the years after the War, students were expected to help with bomb clearance around the city.

After the War, the students’ unions’ roles changed notably. There was greater focus on student welfare and representing their interests to University, which recognised them as the official representatives of student at Manchester. Elected student officers regularised their meetings and consultations with University leaders and all students automatically became members of the students’ unions when they enrolled.

The Manchester University Unions’ Arts Festival was held for the first time. Many different societies put on performances - so many that they had to hire the Free Trade Hall as a venue. In the same year, a new magazine called Technowledge was first published by students at the Tech Union.

In 1957, the Victoria University of Manchester moved in to a brand new building – our current building – which was opened by the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Plans took ten years to complete and the new building was hoped to be a ‘Super Union’. The Men’s and Women’s Unions were still separate at the time but forward-thinking architects designed the plans so that building could be segregated or unified, so it was ready for when they combined ten years later. The new building had a debating hall with a capacity of 500, a coffee bar, a common room and mixed bar called the Serpent Bar.

Steve Biko building under construction 1956 (UML)

There was a furore because initially the University would not allow hot food to be served. Eventually it was agreed that the Students’ Union could serve salads and ‘things’ on toast. The new building rapidly became a hub for students on campus, not least for its laundrette and baths; not to mention, the three TV rooms, one for each of the terrestrial channels. Students later voted to name the Students’ Union building after Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid student activist.

In 1963, The Main Debating Hall started to hold gigs and concerts, now Academy 2. The Ents Officer was responsible for booking gigs which were normally rather chaotic. In 1964, The Kinks’ Ray Davies had his microphone stolen and ended up with a sore throat after playing the Main Debating Hall. Since then, it has been played by The Who, Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones.

In the 1960s, students took a much more active interest in campaigning on issues outside their own lives as students in Manchester. In 1964 they voted for an Anti-Apartheid policy. This was not only significant in terms of international student support for the movement in South Africa but also because it represented the first time that the Students’ Union took a position and campaigned on an issue outside the realm of education and student life. 1971, the Students’ Union lobbied the University into withdrawing from £140,000 worth of investments in South Africa as part of the Anti-Apartheid campaign.

This increased awareness and social responsibility wasn’t only concerned with issues abroad. In 1966, Socially-minded students started Community Action to help local people. The projects were at the intersection of activism and volunteering. Students have been volunteering with children, homeless people and elderly people ever since. Community Action became Student Action in the 1990s.

In 1967 The Men’s and Women’s Unions combined to form the University of Manchester Students’ Union after Anna Ford had been elected as the first joint President of the Students’ Unions in 1965. It was one of the last unions to be unified in the country.

Occupation was a favoured form of direct action. In 969 students at a different university had discovered that their institution kept files on their political views. Students at Manchester occupied offices in Whitworth Hall in protest and to attempt to find out if the University of Manchester kept such files. This became known as the Files Occupation. In 1973, students occupied the Old Music School to prevent its demolition and protest against the lack of Students’ Union facilities. Calling it the Squat, they held and used it as an additional meeting space for a long time.

During the 1980s, several government ministers visited at the Students’ Union to give speeches and were met with a fairly hostile response. Many students were actively involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and were campaigning vigorously against Government plans to have American cruise missiles in the UK. In 9183, the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Heseltine, was invited to speak at the Students’ Union. 100 students staged a sit-down protest in Oxford Road and someone splattered Heseltine with red paint. During the Miners’ Strike, many students supported the miners and their families by sending food packages. In 1985, the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, visited the Students’ Union in March and was met by noisily protesting students. The police put this protest down forcefully.

From 1964, the students’ unions published Mancunion student newspaper. The paper has held successive Exec Officers to account over the year and many editors of have gone to great things in journalism.   

In 1985, the Students’ Union led the way in the national student movement by electing a Women’s Officer as a full-time sabbatical position. Many other unions have followed suit and Manchester remains at forefront of the Women’s Campaign nationally.

The Academy was opened in 1990 to provide a massive venue for Ents and gigs outside the main union building. It rapidly became one of Manchester’s premier venues. The Buzzcocks played the first gig and since then it has played stage to the likes of Oasis, Kylie Minogue and Prince.  

Of course, student campaigning on national and international issues did not end with the Anti-Apartheid campaign and has carried over the last fifty years. Student activists in Manchester campaigned on a huge variety of issues including Developing World Debt, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Climate Change. In the late 80s and in the early 90s, students at Manchester led the Lloyds and Midland Bank Boycott, protesting against the banks’ holdings of debt in developing countries. More recently, students have been active in Stop the War and climate change campaigns. Students have also been involved in Save the NHS demos.

Of course, the Students’ Union has continued to stand up for students’ issues during their time at University. The earliest example of organised direct action was in the 1950s when students chained themselves to car park gates as a protest against losing their spaces. Since then the Students’ Union has campaigned against course closures, poor accommodation and rent hikes, and loss of student services. Students campaigned for a nursery for the children of students who were parents and the Students’ Union ran its own for two decades.

Students at Manchester have campaigned vigorously against tuition fees and threatened increases in 1990s and 2000s. ‘Fee Fighters’ campaigned extensively against the introduction of tuition fees by occupying the Vice-Chancellor’s office, storming the Town Hall, organising rallies and boycotts, as well as marching in a national student protest in London. In 2010, students occupied a lecture theatre for weeks as part of a sustained campaign against the proposed increase of tuition fees to £9,000. Huge numbers of students from Manchester joined the largest student protest ever in London.  More recently, campaigners have supported lecturers in pay disputes.

The Steve Biko building has also continued to be the home of all sorts of entertainment for students studying at Manchester. In 2001, FuseFM, the Students’ Union’s radio station, started broadcasting and in 2006, the first Pangaea Festival was held. Pangaea is now the largest student-led festival in Europe. It was originally the vision of a small group of students who wanted to put on a massive event that was for students and run by students. Their idea was that music from all over the world would bring students together. That idea is neatly encapsulated in the event’s name - Pangaea was a prehistoric landmass when all the continents were combined. From chaotic beginnings the Pangaea Festival grew and grew in its first decade and now takes place three times a year. The all-night festival attracts amazing artists and is always a night to remember. 

In 2004, The University of Manchester was formed when the Victoria University and UMIST combined. The new unified University of Manchester Students’ Union now has nearly 40,000 members on the main Oxford Road Campus and at North Campus. Every student at the University of Manchester is automatically a member of the Students’ Union. Our membership has grown and diversified phenomenally over the last century and a half. When the Owens College Union was founded in 1861 there were about 100 students on the roll, most had grown up in Manchester and were all men. Nowadays, of our nearly 38,000 members, 9,000 are international students from 150 countries and the majority are women. The Students’ Union exists to support and represent all students of the University, as well as celebrating the wonderful diversity of our members.

Further Reading

In memory of Burlington Street: an appreciation of the Manchester University unions, 1861-1957 edited by Ian G. Gregory

A History of the University of Manchester 3 volumes edited by Brian Pullan and Michele Abendstern

If you are really interested in finding out more about the Students' Union, explore the Students' Union Archive at the University of Manchester Library. Images courtesy of UML.