As it approaches the anniversary of Grace Dieu, News Editor Izzie Naish interviewed Loughborough alumni David Wardrop to find out more about the most important yet tragic event in Faraday’s history.
It goes without saying that each hall in Loughborough has their own traditions and unique hall spirit. Faraday is no exception, however their most important event of the year, Grace Dieu, is one tinged with tragedy.
In 1962, eight Faraday students set out for the Bull’s Head pub in Thringstone on the Ashby Road. They left in two cars, however only four arrived. The other four tragically lost their lives in a crash at Grace Dieu, just short of the pub. Faraday Hall’s Grace Dieu evening takes place in their memory, in normal times being marked by a formal high table. The parents of the four students who died provided the funds for the Grace Dieu Award, presented to those who have contributed massively to the hall and embody what it means to be a true Faradonian.
This year, the eve of Grace Dieu sadly cannot take place as it normally would. However, Faraday alumni David Wardrop kindly met me, a former Faraday Media Rep, and the new hall chair Alice Fletcher to tell us more about what this event means to him.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your time at Loughborough?
‘I went up to Loughborough to study Electrical Engineering but changed to a new course, Humanities and Technology, a pioneer initiative aiming to link engineering with economics, politics and command of a language. It was a ‘thick sandwich’ course offering about 8 months industrial experience in Year 3. I was lucky, finding a job in Canada. Upon graduation, the year Loughborough became a university, we were spoilt for choice. I applied for and received three job offers, a colleague was offered nine!
I don’t know for how long the course ran but with the College of Advanced Technology (CAT) becoming a University of Technology (1966), then dropping the ‘Technology’ suffix (1996), I suspect it ended about then. I became editor of Venture, the fortnightly printed student newspaper, and the next year elected President of the student’s union, the Union of Loughborough Colleges (ULC).’
Can you tell us about your time in Faraday? What traditions were there?
‘Faraday, complete with its Standing Stones, opened shortly after Telford. The Whitworth opened then also, housing post-grads. The rest of the hillside was a building site and beyond Faraday was the golf course.
Every night except weekends, the Hall Warden would sit at the high table with one or two members of staff and selected students. Dinner would be served by waitresses and you had to be there on time. I remember the day when President Kennedy died, I had been listening to the live broadcast and was late to arrive, giving my apologies to the Warden. International crisis or not, I was still considered late! With no social media, the whole hall would watch Top of the Pops on the Common Room TV on Saturday night and then go to the Union Dance held in the Edward Herbert building, always a mammoth affair with 2000 people. As most engineering students were male, the Students Union would coordinate coachloads of female students from local training colleges from a radius of more than 2500 square miles. I guess there’s a better gender balance these days. We engaged the country’s top rock groups which gave all who attended a good night. I cannot recall Faraday ever having a Ball.
We also started the Faraday Hall Dining Club. I was its second Chairman. We would find a local dignitary to come and speak, and we would enjoy a three-course meal with wine and hear outrageous speeches, now probably unacceptable. I think membership was £1. Most of the fifty or sixty wore dinner jackets and I joined the Cigar Club so we could pass fat cigars around.’
Moving on to Grace Dieu specifically, what happened on the night of the crash?
‘I don’t know whose decision it was to visit the Bull’s Head. Our two cars left separately. I drove the first car and I recall the fog, a regular feature of the Trent valley. We waited for the second car driven by Tony Birrell. Anxious, I drove a short way back, close to the ruins of the medieval Grace Dieu priory, to a railway viaduct, now removed, which was on a gradual curve. There was the car, crushed into the viaduct pillar, silent. I turned round to illuminate the scene and to this day I recall Tony Birrells’ face, white in the headlights, smashed against the steering wheel. I returned to the Bull’s Head and called the police. The landlord offered me whisky which I have never liked and thankfully refused. He also offered me a cigarette and although I have never smoked, I pulled at a few puffs, hopeless.’
What happened in the days and weeks that followed?
‘Together with Mike Kennard and myself, Alan Darvill, one of the dead, shared a triple room in what was then called Block 9, facing the dining hall. Everybody who came for breakfast the next morning passed by in silence. Later the next morning, his mother arrived to learn more. She was so wonderful, no finger-pointing, no questions. We remained strong friends until she died many years later and I still know his girlfriend at the time, nearly sixty years on.
By now it was the end of term and we all left. In January the next year, the coroner examined witness statements and announced that Tony Birrell had minimal amounts of alcohol in his blood, insufficient to influence his driving. I remember the dignity of his father.’
How did the Grace Dieu Award originate?
‘Back at Faraday, we set about creating something tangible, a legacy. The idea of the award came to us quickly, but how to frame it and when to present it? I have mentioned the Faraday Dining Club, but these could be raucous affairs, not suited for something as serious and shattering as the new award. So, ‘Jasper’ White, Faraday’s first Hall Warden, set aside one annual dinner for the event. Bearing in mind all of us wore jacket and tie every evening, that ensured the necessary formality. With the funds from the parents, I bought the picture now hanging in the Hall from the Medici Gallery in Grafton Street in London. I bought one for myself at the same time. I see it every day and I am reminded of a night when fate was so cruel.
I was fortunate enough to be the initial recipient of the Grace Dieu Award, I think in recognition as Dining Club Chairman and other ways we managed to make life enjoyable.’
What effect did the incident have on you?
‘Deep down, a sense of guilt in the depths I have never dared to explore. Alan was the most charming, impish character – we all loved him. Now, nearly sixty years later, many filled with great moments and happiness, it does not take much to fall into silence and sometimes a lump in the throat. ‘It cannot be undone’, I hear a voice trying to soothe me. Maybe it is a sign of humanity that such memories can reawaken such sensitivities so quickly. Better to leave it there. But it will always be there.’
In the light of what happened, what is one piece of advice you would give to other Faradonians?
‘This is the most awful question but always asked, and which has thrown up some really rubbish answers! So, my one piece of advice refers only to Faradonians, nobody else. It is triggered by remembering, thanks to your question, that I was on the design committee for the Faraday Hall tie. Of all the important men – yes, all men – after whom Loughborough’s halls are named, Faraday stands high above the others. He was creative in his approach to his work, he would analyse and draw conclusions and thanks to his always questioning intellect, he was responsible for many scientific advances; most importantly converting mechanical energy into electricity, creating the first electric generator.
But he was not just another scientist. He was born towards the end of the Age of Enlightenment, when philosophers and scientists would meet in a spirit of tolerance and fraternity – the values which Faraday espoused to the end of his life. Shortly before he died, Queen Victoria offered him a knighthood, but he refused, preferring to die as just Mr Faraday.
So, my one piece of advice to your generation of Faradonians is that it should not need a tragedy like the accident at Grace Dieu to prompt an annual event you still mark so wonderfully – and for that I salute you. As we emerge from COVID, hopefully stronger through the creativity of our scientists, why not now take time to consider introducing another annual event, one which marks the genius of the man after whom your Hall of Residence is proudly named. He was a giant. Respect him, remember him and, yes, love him.’
Header designed by Archie Young – Faraday Media Representative