Students' rooms: 1890s v 2010s

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News Magazine


A trove of 19th Century photographs (recreated above) of students at Royal Holloway University gives a rare insight into Victorian accommodation. Students have always used their rooms to express their personality, but how has it changed over the past 100 years?

A horseshoe, crocodile skin, and the skeleton of a medieval nun.

It's not the typical stuff you'd expect to find in a student room.

And yet a collection of 56 photographs from Royal Holloway's archive shows that is exactly what some of the women that went to the university between 1896 and 1898 put on their floor or pinned to their walls. The halls in Egham, Surrey, are still used as student accommodation.

Some things look familiar in the 1890s shots. There are plenty of that perennial student favourite, pictures.

There are books and plants. And flowers. Lots of flowers, actually.

But other items of dorm decor are from a different era.

Fancy fans, pretty parasols and wicker chairs, for example, are a far cry from some of the poster-plastered, traveller souvenir filled, iPad-littered rooms of the 21st Century.

What remains constant is the pleasure students have always taken in decorating their rooms when they arrive at university, says Dr Jane Hamlett, a lecturer in modern British history at the university's department of history.

"In the 19th Century, students had two rooms each - a rather nice sitting room and study, and a bedroom - and they tended to put lots of things in them to reflect their status, interests or personality.

Image caption,
Victorian students had the luxury of a study and a bedroom

"Students had five o'clock tea in their rooms every day, because socialising and entertaining was important to upper middle-class families, so it was an important space for them," she says.

Hamlett says Victorian universities were quite regimented, with ordered days, set activities and formal meal times, to make it like a middle-class home and reassure parents.

The young women arriving at Royal Holloway in the 1890s were pioneers. It was unusual, even shocking, for women to go to university, so the female-only halls of residence offered them a particular kind of freedom.

"There was a worry that if women had too much education they would become unfeminine, and unfit for being wives and mothers, so it's surprising women didn't seem to feel they had to portray themselves as feminine.

Image caption,
Crocodile skins were one of the more surprising findings

"One of the Holloway rooms even contained a crocodile skin - a classic symbol of manhood in the Victorian period," she says.

Some racy items were on show.

"There were also lots of classical statues of the young male body when Victorians were very silent about sexual matters - but because it was in an educational and cultural context, it probably made it acceptable to look at it that way," says Hamlett.

But many items - such as portraits of family members and allegiances to former schools and sporting interests - are more conventional.

Image caption,
Pictures have been a student staple for more than 100 years

Fashion also played its part. There were potential nods to the Aesthetic Movement, led by Oscar Wilde, with fans and parasols pinned to the walls and Japanese screens.

And Hamlett says there was one picture of a kitten that reoccurred a few times in the 56 photos.

Pictures, or more particularly posters, have arguably taken up more space on student walls than anything else for years.

There was a time when cult movie classics such as Easy Rider, Reservoir Dogs or Trainspotting, or music icons such as Bob Marley or Jim Morrison, featured at practically every university.

Aphra Bruce-Jones, a 21-year-old history student at the Royal Holloway, who lives in the halls, says there is still a profusion of posters on student walls, with peers opting for iconic portraits of Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe.

Image caption,
Aphra Bruce-Jones uses postcards, bunting and lights to personalise her space

"Other popular posters are the Keep Calm and Carry On ones, or spoofs of them. Or posters to do with alcohol - there's one showing how to make different cocktails," she says.

Standard rooms in halls are nicely furnished, but "blank, with a bed, wardrobe, and drab neutral coloured curtains and carpets", according to Aphra, so decorating them is important to give them character.

"I've got pin boards filled with photos and postcards I've picked up from museums or churches. I've made some floral bunting, which hangs over my mirror, and fairy lights," she says.

Adam Williams, 21, a third year music student at the university, agrees putting a personal stamp on rooms is important to students.

Image caption,
Adam Williams says music and photography play an important role in his room

"When I first came to university, I put things in my room that reminded me of school, and things from home.

"Now I'm back in halls for my third year, it's more about who I am. I'm a drummer, so I've got drum kit and instruments, and I gig with various bands, so there are gig posters on the wall. I'm also into photography so there are about 10 cameras and some of my photos," he says.

Friends have done different things, like use LED lighting, or displayed their art work, he says.

"People want to feel comfortable in their room, it's where we relax. We are given a blank space and people like to make the most of that," he says.

Hamlett says student rooms are a rite of passage and reflect an important time in young people's lives.

"For more than 100 years, student rooms have been used to show self-awareness, an attachment to family and school.

"But also a new sense of identity," she says.

Image caption,
In another recreation of an 1890s photo, students have no need to communicate verbally today