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Leicester Special Collections

Sylvia Dowling's Life in Halls

Photograph of the Sylvia Dowling Letters

These are examples of the letters themselves that Sylvia wrote at least once a week to her family back home.

These are Sylvia Dowling's accounts of the special experiences she had while living in halls during her studies at the University of Leicester. 

A College Hall Bedroom, 1950s

Black and white photograph of a study bedroom in the College Hall residences for students.

Letter Describing Sylvia's Room

One of Sylvia's earliest letters, this section of the letter describes the temperature issues in Sylvia's new room

5 October 1955

25 November 1956

Sylvia describes her first room, stating that "The drawers and mirror form a dressing-table really, although the mirror is flat against the wall. All the furniture is white painted except the table which is light oak (I think.) The walls are painted white too, + not plastered, but the room is quite cosy with the light on. I have a smaller light too, above the mirror."

She likes the room, but her only real complaint is the temperature. She explains that "The Warden apologised for it – it seems that the fuel supply is strictly limited, and all the central heating is controlled by the Registrar, a gentleman of Spartan views, who refuses to turn it on until he notices that everyone has a cold."

Additionally, Sylvia notes in her 25 November 1956 letter that her accomadation only has 3 bathtubs for 25 students. That doen't really seem like enough. To make matters worse, sometimes the electricity won't be on, so there would be no hot water. Luckily Sylvia eventually found the switch to turn the hot water on. Now she just needs to make sure she won't get caught! 

A Makeshift Student Christmas

An artistic rendition of the makeshift Christmas tree

December 1956

Christmas is coming, but Sylvia and her friends are away from their families. However, as a way to get into the Christmas spirit, Sylvia has put together a temporary Christmas tree by jamming a tree branch into their dresser and putting tinsel on it.

Students being away from their families during major holidays or birthdays is common. Nevertheless, we still find fun and creative ways to make up for our absence.

Have you ever missed a holiday or birthday because you were away studying? If so, in what creative ways did you make up for it?

Late Night Fire Drills

This image displays a fire alarm in the late 1950s

sound of fire drill.wma

The audio from a 1950s British fire alarm

27 January 1957

Sylvia is quite annoyed this Wednesday night, as the deputy warden had decided that it was about time that the students living in the hall knew where the fire escapes were. This meant that a fire drill was needed. This was fine, However, what wasn't fine was that the drill took place in the evening a little after eleven, which was very late, especially for those who had classes early in the morning. To make matters worse, the deputy warden noted that the students weren't fast enough, so they needed to do the drill again!

Fire drills have always been an essential part of living in student dormitories, and needed to keep everyone safe. With that said though, their untimely scheduling have been a source of annoyance for many from 1957 to now. Ask busy students what they think of mandatory fire drills and many will let out a groan!

Accompanying this section is the sound of what a fire alarm sounded like in the 1950s. What sort of experiences have you had while undergoing a fire drill at school?

The Dreaded Fresher's Flu

An artistic rendition of Sylvia being passed notes from other students to avoid catching fresher's flu

20 October 1957

Sylvia notes that everyone has fresher's flu again. Students are quarantined to their rooms, but Sylvia and her friends still find ways to chat by sneaking letters to one another and whispering through the door jam.

Fresher's flu is quite common across universities not just in the UK, but the rest of the world as well. These bouts of illnesses usually strikes during the first semester and causes new students to miss many of their lectures.

Most of us are very familiar with fresher's flu. As demonstrated by Sylvia's letters, it has plagued students for many decades, and will probably continue to do so for many more decades to come. But of course, even during quarantine, we will always find ways to stay in contact with one another, either by swapping letters under the door, or chatting online via the internet. This is especially relevant in the world of 2020, where the COVID-19 pandemic has kept many of us locked inside, away from others.

Have you or any of your friends experienced freshers flu? What sort of ways did you cope with it?