History of the Students' Union

Origins 1900s – 1930s

Portrait of J.G. Graves

A Students’ Union is run by students for students. In 1906 the Student Representative Council (SRC) elected by the student body was formed the term ‘Union’ was formally adopted in 1923. The Students’ Union is so much more than a building, yet for many years students did not even have one. In the early 1900s students only had separate male and female common rooms in Firth Court. Dances were held in Firth Hall and generally had to end by midnight. In the 1920s the first building 4 Leavygreave was offered to the SRC as a men’s club. After much lobbying 1 Northumberland Rd was given over to women but a joint building for all students remained a dream.

The cost of constructing a Union building proved too high for students to raise the funds alone but fortunately they did not need to. The new building was donated ‘as a personal gift to the students of the University, present and future’ by the philanthropist J.G. Graves who funded many major projects in the city such as the Art Gallery. The new building opened in 1936 providing the organisation with a Refectory and facilities for student groups which enabled them to flourish and grow. The University refused to allow the Union to set up a bar, a full Union bar was not permitted until after World War II.

During the war male students were expected to immediately join the military or remain at University and join the Senior Training Corps to prepare them for military life when they left University. Air raid shelters were dug in the quadrangle of Firth Court and University buildings were sandbagged by teams of student volunteers. The Students’ Union organised fire watching rotas at night around the University.

Post World War 2

Following the end of the war and the large number of ex-service men returning to the University to complete their studies, the University finally agreed to the opening of a bar in 1948. For the first time this meant students had a place of their own to socialise in the evenings. During the 1950s the number of students massively increased the early facilities of the Students’ Union struggled to cope. This led to the Students’ Union lobbying the University for more facilities, which despite budget pressures, would be realised as a shared space in the 1960s as University House.

The 1960s brought huge changes to the Students’ Union going from a cosy, overcrowded but friendly environment to a new era with greater space, better facilities but less intimacy. There was also great changes to the outlook of students during this period, formal dances were replaced with concerts by bands such as The Who. In the late sixties the Students’ Union became more political, with protests against the Vietnam War and high profile speakers such as Malcolm X drawing large audiences. The building changed as well with the new University House and Link buildings were completed in 1962 as well as a new bar, said to be the longest student bar in the country, which today is known as Bar One.

The 1970s saw a more militant Students’ Union focused on battling the University and wider political issues such as the Vietnam War and Apartheid. The Students’ Union provided food, drink and nightlife for students at subsidised prices but it was haemorrhaging money. Due to the increasing numbers of students overcrowding was an issue, with long queues for meals. This politically vibrant period also saw a large range of active and engaged societies and committees as well as the creation of Nightline, one of the first in the country in 1971.

As the huge changes of the 1980s swept the country the Students’ Union became increasingly professional and became more ‘commercial’ to survive in the face of severe threats to higher education funding. This played a huge part in the development of the Students’ Union, for example the organisation expanded acquiring the Fox and Duck pub in 1987 which is still part of the Students’ Union to this day. The Octagon was constructed allowing the Students’ Union to put on large gigs and performances. The threat to the University nursery was ended after protests resulted in the nursery being subsidised by the Students’ Union and becoming the first private nursery in the city. This period saw the University and the Students’ Union joining forces in the face of the threats after several decades of confrontation.

By the 1990s the Students’ Union was a very different place. The fears of unemployment led students to focus on their studies changing the culture of the Students’ Union. Union General meetings continued to decline and were eventually abolished but voter turnout increased in officer elections as political factions gave way to independent candidates. Once again a huge increase in student numbers, almost 50%, led to a large scale rebuild which lasted from 1993-1996. This added the Auditorium, what is now Coffee Revolution and the Gallery. The old cinema was converted into what is now called the Interval Café Bar. Increasingly complex welfare issues affecting students led to the creation of the professional Student Advice Centre. The issues of higher education funding did not go away and were regularly opposed but culminated in the introduction of tuition fees by the government.

The 21st Century

SU Building in 2010

At the turn of the century the Students’ Union was working hard to encourage more students to get involved in the organisation. The organisation no longer had a monopoly on the student market and finances remained rather precarious but new services and ideas such as Give It a Go allowed the Students’ Union to maintain its great services. During this period the Students’ Union found itself in a similar position to the 1990s with a building unable to cope with the increasing numbers of students and increasingly unable to cater to their needs. In 2009 the Students’ Union began its latest building project with £5million from HEFCE. It was completed in 2010 and created an impressive new main entrance, with more seating for students, a larger shop and many other outlets were refitted. By a process of continuous revolution the Students’ Union has remained popular with its students allowing it to remain amongst the best in the country.

For a more comprehensive history of Sheffield Students’ Union up until 2006 see Standing up for Students by Helen Mathers.