The University originated from a University Extension College formed by the amalgamation in 1892 of Oxford University's Extension Association (founded 1885) with the government financed Schools of Art (1860) and of Science (1870). In 1896 the College was formally incorporated, granted a coat of arms (now that of the University), and flourished in buildings next to Reading Town Hall. Day and evening classes led to qualifications in many science subjects including agriculture, as well as in art, design, music languages and teaching; a proportion of students read for University of London external degrees.
Within a few years staff numbers grew to 30 and a meeting of the staff was called on Saturday 6 February 1897 in the College Common Room (which was used by staff and students). The Principal, Halford Mackinder, was in the chair, and the minutes were taken (and handwritten) by William Macbride Childs who was appointed Lecturer in History in 1893 and later became Principal and the first Vice-Chancellor.
The initial object of the College Common Room was to establish regular staff dinners which were arranged by two Stewards appointed annually; these were held in the town until December 1898 after which date several dinners were held at the College. The Stewards and members soon found other matters to discuss, especially the furniture and equipment of the Staff Common Room; the College had given £50 for furniture, while members subscribed to buy equipment and to cover the cost of a caterer providing light meals and refreshments. The College's rapid growth led to great accommodation problems in Valpy Street, solved when Alfred Palmer made a gift of Acacias with neighbouring houses and gardens in London Road in 1904. After the transfer, there was a clear distinction between the common rooms for men and for women students (evening students were separate again) and the common room for staff.
Although an early constitution had distinguished a Senior Common Room from those for students, minutes referred simply to a meeting of Common Room and in 1908 a proposal was found to be necessary (and was carried) to have the title altered from Staff Common Room to Senior Common Room.
In Acacias, especially after 1923 when the Library moved from the upper floor to its fine central building (which for a time housed the Administration and Library of Gyosei International College), Common Room took on much of the character of a well-appointed club. However, the atmosphere of a gentleman's club which Edith Morley had experienced at Valpy Street did not persist. From an early date women had been on the staff, such as the brilliant zoologist Catherine Pollard (who married Childs) and the craft teacher Julia Hilliam who was re-elected to serve for three years as Senior Steward (and who married Arthur Bowley the econometrician, also on the staff). Thanks to gifts of silver often made by members, formal dinners were glittering occasions. Morning coffee, as well as afternoon tea, even until after the Second World War, were delightful rituals. Wine was bought for resale to members and - for many years too - tobacco. Up until the 1950s lunch in the panelled dining room, served by devoted uniformed staff, with coffee afterwards in the newspaper lounge downstairs with windows opening on to a lawn discreetly marked PRIVATE to keep students at bay, provided relaxed opportunities for conversation and cross-fertilisation of ideas across the disciplines, and outside bowls could be played on the lawn.
These Common Room traditions after the war brought into existence the Society for the History of Ideas, which flourished for several years, and led to the creation of the Forum - now discontinued. It could also be said that out of some Common Room conversations came the impetus to establish the association of Non-Professorial Staff and a local branch of the Association of University Teachers; yet, at all times, Senior Common Room itself maintained its status as an organisation for purely social purposes and, just occasionally, the wish of some members to mobilise opinion on other matters had to be suppressed.
An early convention was that the title of Professor which the College had established in 1907 was never used in Common Room. At Acacias, the long table under the window in the upstairs dining room had one chair in the middle reserved for the VC, and the two chairs at each end for the Senior and Junior Stewards. Thus, any member of SCR had the option of sitting next to the VC or one of the Stewards, which some of us remember as an excellent tradition. It was not until Dr (now Sir Harry) Pitt arrived in 1964 that the dining chair reserved for the Vice-Chancellor was removed along with those for the Senior Steward and Junior Stewards.
The choice of newspapers and periodicals, which has been a recurrent topic for most of the century, offers interesting sidelights on the social attitudes of academics at different periodicals, and the same is true of proposals to introduce wireless and, later, television apparatus.
Common Room established a base in Whiteknights in 1963, after the students in Whiteknights Park House moved to the new Whiteknights Hall. Whiteknights Park House was renamed Park House to "avoid confusion" with the new administration building. The old gates for the former Whiteknights Park House were demolished to make way for the College of Estate Management building; a picture of the gates drawn by one of the members, Margaret Fuller, was donated to Common Room and still hangs in the bar.
The appointment in 1965 of Jean Carter, as the first permanent part-time Secretary of the SCR, greatly assisted its activities and scope (and among other things meant Senior Stewards were less likely to overlook the necessity of obtaining bar licenses). Mrs Carter served the SCR, with distinction, for fifty years and retired in 2015. A replacement part-time Secretary was appointed and Charlene McGroarty now supports the SCR.
With the expansion and development of the University on the Whiteknights campus, the central catering facilities were expanded, taking over the responsibility for catering in Park House and Acacias 1989. Reduction in the number of members left on the London Road site resulted in a scaling down of the catering facilities in Acacias. In 1988 Acacias was bought by Gyosei International College (later renamed Witan International College) and from that time the two institutions cooperated, with SCR members at London Road continuing to have use of the lounge at Acacias whilst members of Witan were able to use the Park House facilities. Witan International College closed on 31st March 2008 and the ownership of Acacias was returned to the University. The lounge is now reserved for SCR members only and includes a piano and magazines. The relocation of the Faculty of Education from the Bulmershe campus to London road (January 2012) has led to an increase in both SCR members at London road and use of Acacias. With permission from the Steward, the University Women's Club and Romilly Society meet regularly in the lounge at Acacias.
A SCR wine cellar remains at Acacias, complementing the range of wines available in the wine shop at Park House.
The SCR facilities at Park House underwent refurbishment and re-organisation from 31 August 2010 to 31 January 2011. The redecorated Park House bar and dining room area was re-named 'Eat and Drink'. Access was extended to include all staff members (in addition to SCR members) and a new waitress-serviced restaurant, Blandfords, was opened. The SCR lounge and SCR meetings room on the first floor (next to the SCR office) were redecorated. One room is now the 'SCR newspaper lounge' with daily newspapers and magazines, together with Tassimo coffee and tea; and the other is the 'SCR meetings room' which is equipped with a data projector. Wi-Fi internet connection also became available within both rooms.
The SCR facilities on the first floor of Park House continue to offer members a relaxed environment for social and interdisciplinary discussion, with catering and bar facilities both at lunch and in the evening provided on the ground floor by Eat and Drink, and the SCR wine shop open to members at lunch time. The newspaper lounge remains a favourite quiet meeting place for many, while the meetings room is well used by a wide range of groups on a bookable basis.
The SCR maintains a full and varied social programme that includes formal events (Christmas, Summer and Burns Night dinners), fireworks events, theatre trips, country walks, pub quizzes, whisky and wine tastings, and international food evenings. The SCR committee (Senior Steward, Junior Steward, Wine Stewards, Honorary Treasurer, Social Steward, Newspaper Steward and Lay members) meet once per term to consider SCR operation. In addition, the SCR holds an open meeting for its members twice per year. Members of SCR pay a small subscription (currently £3.70 per month) which is good value for the pleasure and ambience provided by SCR events and facilities. Few other Universities in the UK are fortunate enough to have retained their SCRs. Members are encouraged to invite guests/visitors to accompany them when participating in SCR events and enjoying SCR facilities.
The SCR celebrated its 120 year anniversary in 2017 and remains a vibrant and active 'social club' for all University staff members as well as for retired staff. We look forward to maintaining our traditions and continuing to offer a valuable service to our members by remaining at the heart of the University community.
In July 2019, the family of Ted Bell (Assistant Registrar and Senior Steward of the SCR from 1981-82) generously donated a new stone sign, carved by Wayne Hart, Lettercarver, Typographer & Sculptor. The new stone is installed at the front main doors of Park House.
The SCR has always strived to really listen to its members and be receptive to all staff from across the University. From 1 August 2019, following extensive consultation with members, the Senior Common Room will be known as the Staff Common Room.