70 Years of Activism, Research and History with the Nordic Summer University

This post is contributed by Kai Green, the Anniversary Project Manager for the Nordic Summer University (NSU), a nomadic institution which meets every year in a series of winter and summer circles for interdisciplinary exchange.  In 2020, the Nordic Summer University is celebrating its 70th anniversary with arts/research projects investigating and inspired by NSU’s past, its archive in Copenhagen, and reflecting on its future as an institution.

Since 1950, the Nordic Summer University (NSU) has been an independent, democratic, academic institution, committed to cross-disciplinary research and critical thinking. Inspired by the 19th Century Danish public reformer N.F.S. Grundtvig – who developed a social philosophy of “people’s high schools” (folkehøjskole) – NSU was founded to express Nordic humanistic and educational values. The institution sought to cross disciplines, to flatten hierarchies by mixing established figures with young scholars, and to be both scientific and popular by expressing Grundtvig’s ideal that “the University must build bridges between the light of the scholars and the lives of the people” (højskolen skal bygge bromellem lyset hos de lærde og livet hos folket).

Keynotes over the years have included Slavoj Žižek, Martha Nussbaum, Karen Armstrong and Simon Critchley, but this is no ordinary conference!  Keynotes not only deliver lectures but live with and around the study circles during the week, joining discussions and switching over to become just another curious researcher among peers.  (Sound histories of our keynotes are being explored by one of our artists/researchers, Eduardo Abrantes.)

Living History

Despite 70 years of activities, NSU has always had the character of an experiment. Still today, members collectively create “study circles” to explore a theme with cross-disciplinary interest, meeting every winter in three-year cycles for a weekend conference and then (together with the eight or so other circles) at the heart of NSU: the week-long, immersive summer sessions, held in a different Nordic location every year.

Constant experimentation reflects the fact that NSU – as a fully democratic organisation, voting every summer on plans for the year ahead (in sometimes exhausting detail!) – has always morphed with the influences of the times.  Even with egalitarian credentials, a more elite grouping of academics ruled the roost in the 1950s and 1960s, with significant figures like Niels Bohr in attendance.  In the 1970s, Marxism became popular amongst many NSU members, leading the Danish newspapers and radio stations of the day to decry the “bloodless revolution” being enacted behind-the-schemes, claiming that children were being brought into a “radical experiment” of left-wing ideology.

They were right about one thing: children have always had a significant place at NSU’s summer sessions, allowing adult researchers with child-caring responsibility to be free to immerse in the debate, learning and cultural sharing.  Such decisions were powered by the long association of NSU with feminist theory and gender equality: the 1973 study circle “The specific character of women’s oppression under capitalism” (Kvindesituation & kvindebevægelse under kapitalismen) was the very first such investigation of the subject in a Nordic University (you can read more about the feminist histories of NSU in the work of another of our brilliant artists/researchers, Hild Borchgrevink). Still to this day, there is a specific ‘Children’s Circle’ supported by pedagogues during our summer sessions.

Nordic Summer University

Tracing the Spirit

Throughout 2020, in collaboration with the Nordic Council, we are bursting open our history with a range of 10 arts/research projects – each taking departure in a theme of ‘Nordicness’ and producing films, essays, photos and blogs to trace the spirit of NSU across the world. We have projects finding the ‘spirit of NSU’ in:

  • the utopian colony founded by Norwegian violinist Ole Bull in Pennsylvania in the 1800s,
  • a British-US-Danish collaboration of letterpress artists,
  • a Foucauldian archaeology of NSU,
  • a video collage of keynote memories,
  • a documentary on the fight for ecological rights for the Swedish Lake Vättern,
  • a post-human vision of NSU using VR technology
  • a wall-to-ceiling ganzfeld from the archive
  • and a collaboration of artists/researchers in Oslo, Copenhagen, Berlin and Manchester.

The projects culminate in an Anniversary Celebration, during our Summer session, when we reach our 70th birthday.  If you’re interested in attending, please keep an eye on NSU’s website and social media.

Still Standing

Although Nordic countries have perhaps held out longer in the protection of their Universities from commercial impulses than their North American and British counterparts, the Nordics have not been immune from the efficiency-drives of Higher Education. Yet, even within Nordic countries, NSU’s emphasis on “salon-like”, trans-disciplinary and broadly-drawn seminars continues to be so rare. Being a nomadic institution, NSU has suffered more instability than most publicly-funded academic spaces, but has always fought-back against the chance of foreclosure.  The Nordic values of equality, democracy and openness bring a loyal following of academics from across the world.  But most exciting is the mix of longstanding and fresh members together.

Being nomadic, our history is not an easy one to collect and share. Run almost entirely on voluntary labour, NSU has not had the luxury of time to dwell on its history.  Yet, substantial effort has been rewarded: the Danish National Archives in Copenhagen now stores NSU’s extensive 70-year archive.  The next step, for an organisation that thrives on face-to-face dialogue, cocooned away from society for a brief while every winter and summer, is to make our archive alive so it can be fully engaged with.

I acknowledge and thank the authors of “Kritik og krise”, a publication from NSU Press (Gothenburg, 2000), which presents historical reflections from NSU’s past.  The full publication can be read (in Nordic languages) here.

The University of Manchester War Memorial

This post is contributed by Dr James Peters, archivist at the University of Manchester’s University Archives and Record Centre.

After the Armistice of 11 November 1918, life at the University slowly returned to some sense of normality.  However, as the War had claimed the lives of so many staff and students, the University community began to consider how it would recognise and commemorate its loss.

There was a strong feeling that a special War memorial was required; in March 1919, the University magazine, The Serpent, called for “a visible, tangible token” of commemoration, arguing that only an enduring monument could properly honour the dead, and it would be an error to pay tribute indirectly through “scholarships or laboratories or additional college buildings”.

This support for war memorials was reflected in society at large. Civic memorials were the most prominent, but schools and universities were also very active in commissioning memorials, unsurprisingly given that the war dead were drawn disproportionately from the young.

WW1 memorial SN

The University War Memorial

The University’s War memorial was not completed until November 1924, six years after the War ended. This long gap was due in part to the University’s preoccupation with a major fundraising appeal in 1919-20. In addition, as the memorial would name the University’s dead, it was essential that these details were accurate. Gathering this information was a major exercise, and the University’s Roll of Service, which provided the data for the Memorial, was not finished until 1922.

It was not until late 1921, when the University Council appointed a committee to plan the War memorial. Committee members included senior lay figures such as Sir Frank Forbes Adam, chairman of Council, and Sir Edward Donner, a major University benefactor, Mary Tout, wife of the historian Thomas Tout, who represented the University’s alumni, and three academic members: Professors J. Orr (French), H.B. Dixon (chemistry) and A.C. Dickie (architecture).

Dickie was given responsibility for the design of the Memorial, and in early 1922 he presented the committee with four options:

  • “a mural treatment” in the wall of the John Owens building, which would list the names of the dead and include a “bronze figure of St. George”;
  • “a not too large winged victory delicately posed on the apex of the great stone”; this planned to use the glacial boulder sited at the northern end of the Main Quadrangle, with panels naming the dead attached to the base;
  • “ a shrine for a figure on a pedestal” in the “old vaulted entrance” at the Oxford Road entrance;
  • “a figure on a pedestal” in the area between the Whitworth Hall and the Christie Library [this was then an undeveloped area where a link building between the Hall and the Christie building was added in the 1950s].


Proposed WWI memorial

One of the proposed memorial designs

Interestingly, three proposals were primarily figurative, with an option situated on each side of the Main Quadrangle. Such distinctive public memorialising was a new departure for the University; until then, its most obvious ‘monument’ was the glacial boulder in the Main Quadrangle, which was proposed for adaptation to a memorial. In the end, the committee opted for arguably the conservative option, the memorial tablet, which avoided difficulties with imagery which might sit uneasily with the University’s strict non-denominationalism in religious matters.

A local firm of sculptors, Earp, Hobbs & Miller of Lower Mosley St., was commissioned to make the memorial. The overall aesthetic of the completed mural was restrained, with imagery kept to a minimum. The planned figure of St George was dropped, with only the University’s coat of arms, flanked by child figures, represented. Dickie characterised the design as being “appropriate to the material used rather than in the style of an Architectural period”, although the style could described as “free classic”.

The memorial’s inscription read: “To members of the University of Manchester and the Officers Training Corps who laid down their lives in the Great War 1914-1919. In Grateful and Enduring Remembrance”. This was accompanied by a quote from Algernon Swinburne’s poem, Super Flumina Babylonis: “He has bought his Eternity with a little hour and is not dead”.

The memorial originally named 510 members of the University and the University’s Officer Training Corps (not all of whom were University students) who died on active service between 1914-1919. Names were organised by seniority of armed service (with Royal Navy personnel appearing first) and within this, by seniority of unit and then by rank. The number of dead listed from the local Manchester Regiment – 104 – is strikingly high. The memorial includes one woman student, Gertrude Powicke, who had died in 1919 whilst working as a nurse during the Russo-Polish War. However, at least one other female former student is not recorded: Isobel Tate, a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), who died of illness in 1917, while serving in Malta.

The memorial was unveiled by the University Chancellor on 29 November 1924 (it had originally been planned to hold the ceremony on Armistice Day, 11 November). The Chancellor, the 27th Earl of Crawford, had only recently taken up this post. Crawford was an experienced politician, who had had an interesting War; he had enlisted, aged 43, as a private orderly in the RAMC in 1915, but within eighteen months had joined the Coalition Cabinet as Minister for Agriculture. Interestingly, he had succeeded Lord Morley of Blackburn as Chancellor in 1923; Morley had resigned from the Cabinet in August 1914 in protest at the British decision to go to war. It is interesting to speculate on how Morley might have approached the ceremony, if he had still been alive.

Crawford’s address at the unveiling was relatively brief and low-key in tone: he stressed the overwhelming sense of loss  for those killed, while commending their sacrifices:

“The University would never realise the potential scale of loss, either to its own fame or to the advancement of the community” and “it is the premature dislocation, the tragic eclipse of young life, which arouses the most continuing sense of grief”.

The memorial’s location at the centre of the main University building, ensured that it was seen and acknowledged by staff and students going about their daily business. The memorial undoubtedly contributed to a stronger corporate identity at the University in the inter-war period, focussing on an event which caused upheaval to so many lives.

Further Information about the Memorial can found on the University of Manchester’s First World War webpages.



Chairs That Stand Empty: The men behind the names on the Hulme Hall First World War Memorial

Hulme Hall is a historic student hall of residence at the University of Manchester.  Over 250 students who passed through Hulme Hall fought during the First World War.  Forty were to lose their lives, with 33 remembered on the Hulme Hall War Memorial.  After research taken over a period of seven years, former resident James Hern has pieced together the men’s stories.  In 2017, he published Chairs that Stand Empty based on his research.  James was a student at the University of Manchester from 2001 to 2005 and resident at Hulme Hall for his first three years.  In this post, he reflects on using war diaries in his research.

Lies; deception; reluctant courage; absent without leave; rearguard action; administration errors; bravado; missing in action; a court marshal and victims of friendly fire and fate.

If it wasn’t such a tragic reminder of one of our low-points in recent human history, it would be easy to mistake the stories of many of the men who are remembered on the Hulme Hall War Memorial as having been lifted straight out of a novel or Commando Comic.

As we approach the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day on 11 November 2018, I want to use this blog post to share how war diaries, written by individual Battalions whilst serving overseas, helped to piece together the stories of three of the men on the Hulme Hall War Memorial.  The diaries help indirectly to shape an understanding of where and how an individual would have fought in the war and provided a glimpse into some of the horror, bravery and sheer terror that men were exposed too; too often with tragic consequences.

Eyre Spenser Wilkinson
Hulme Hall 1908-09; Classical Studies

Wilkinson - Profile

Battalion ordered to advance – this done by platoon rushes – on leaving assembly trenches [right half of] Battalion met by heavy rifle and machine gun fire in enfilade & shell fire, both high explosive and shrapnel – during this advance, [right half of] Battalion lost 3 officers and 120 men

The [left half of] Battalion, which advanced at the same time, suffered very little.

This entry is from the War Diary of the 1st Battalion City of London (Royal Fusiliers) on 9 May 1915 at 6:10am.1  Reviewing the diary confirmed that the action at Aubers Ridge in France, in May 1915, was the first of two major offensives that Eyre Wilkinson was involved in with the Battalion.  The indiscriminate nature of warfare is captured in the entry.  With the Battalion split into two, one half advances with little loss of life whilst the other half is torn down within seconds of leaving the relative safety of their trenches.

Four months later Eyre was involved in the Battalion’s second major offensive, this time part of the opening attacks of the Battle of Loos. During the fighting, he was blown up in the blast of a high explosive shell, from which he survived, physically unscathed.  Shortly after being blown up, Eyre joined the Royal Flying Corps as an observer; perhaps having tried to escape the horrors of trench warfare he had witnessed.  He was shot down and killed in January 1916.

A letter from Eyre’s father to Professor Thomas Tout, shortly after Eyre’s death was confirmed, hinted at the toll ten months of fighting had taken.2

The boy is gone, indeed, but I know something of the inner battles that he had to fight to which I think he won. He was with us five days in mid-December radiant and tender and I think with some presentiment of what was coming

William Lawton
Hulme Hall 1913-14; Mathematics


The 1 July 1916 is infamous as the first day of the Battle of The Somme; one that saw over 19,000 British soldiers lose their lives.

For Second Lieutenant William Lawton, and men of the 8th Battalion The South Lancashire Regiment, the morning proved uneventful.3

The “great offensive”, as long looked forward to, began at 7.30am; but in Tyler’s Redoubt at Millencourt, we could see nothing, and heard practically nothing.

The first hints of the horrors that had unfolded that day would have come later that evening when the Battalion was ordered to attack the village of La Boisselle at 10.30pm.

Battalion was fallen in, and all the Bombers collected at the front. Unfortunately no guide was obtainable to guide us up to the front line until 9.30pm. We then started up the one communication trench, which was found to be blocked with wounded, and odd men, chiefly from the TYNESIDE SCOTTISH, and others of the 34th Division, who had made an attack in the morning.

As a result of this, our bombers did not get up till 12 midnight, and the 10th Worcesters, who were going to help us in this attack, were in the same plight. The 3 Companies that were following, B, C, D (A being left behind) did not arrive up till 4.30am. As a result of this, we did not attack, because it was broad daylight then, and we were meant to attack in the dark.

The war diary confirms a similar occurrence happened the following night; Staff at Headquarters had agreed to ensure communication trenches were clear but the Battalion encountered a number of wounded men on stretchers which caused more delays.

Finally arriving at the front line at 4am on the morning of the 3rd July, the attack could not be postponed again, which meant the men were not fully briefed before they moved towards the village.

William was killed in the attack, with men of his company later writing to this family that:

Just before his death he was walking around the village (which was still held by the Germans) as if such things as bullets and shells did not exist.4

A victim of circumstances, William, as part of A Company, wasn’t assigned to be part of the original attacks on La Boisselle on the morning of 2 July.  How different would his story have been if the original attacks had taken place as planned?

Robert Southward
Hulme Hall 1915-16


Robert was killed during an attack on The Somme in August 1916 whilst serving with the 1st Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

In trying to establish more details surrounding his death, Robert’s family were told by his Commanding Officer that he was killed whilst crossing no-man’s land and that he was buried on the spot where he died, near High Wood.

The description of Robert’s death had struck me as odd.  The Battalion suffered 190 casualties that day during the attacks: 30 were killed, 110 wounded and 50 were reported as missing.  Did they really have time to bury Robert?  Wouldn’t it have been too dangerous?  Robert had only been with the Battalion for four days before the attack – would he have known many of the men he was attacking with?

Included in the war diary for August 1916 was an account of the attack, written by Major Phillips.  He noted that:

The right platoon, which was detailed to attack trench X and to form a strong point at NW corner of High Wood, left their trenches and was seen to advance into our intense bombardment, which was not timed to lift until 2.48pm. Remainder of right appears to have followed on too quickly and suffered a similar fate.5

Reading the above account along with the information provided to his family, it seems certain that Robert was part of the platoon that advanced into their own bombardment, subsequently being killed by his own side.

It took me three minutes to read the names of the 33 names of men on the Hulme Hall War Memorial during the 2002 and 2003 Remembrance Services.  Names that once would have stirred memories of friendship, academic success or endeavours on sports pitches had become simply another unknown name on a memorial plaque.  Lives remembered for a fleeting moment.

If you do pause for a moment of silence on Remembrance Day, spare a thought for the men of Hulme Hall who never made it home.  Their stories serve a powerful reminder of the horrors and futility of war and send a clear message to future generations.  They should never be forgotten.



[1] 1st Battalion City of London (Royal Fusiliers) War Dairies, held at the National Archive, Kew, reference WO/95/1730/0/397

[2] Letter written by Henry Spenser Wilkinson, father of Eyre, to Professor Thomas Tout dated February 1916, held at the University of Manchester Library, Manchester, reference GB 133 HHH/2/9/1

[3] 8th Battalion The South Lancashire Regiment War Diaries, held at the National Archives, Kew, reference WO 95/2081

[4] Extracts from letters received by the Lawton family following William’s death, sent to Rev T Nicklin, undated. Extracts held within Hulme Hall Administration Records 1907-1915, held at the University of Manchester Library, Manchester, reference GB 133 HHH/2/7/3

[5] 1st Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment War Diaries January 1916 to December 1916, held at the National Archives, Kew, reference WO 95/1270/3

Photographs of Eyre Wilkinson, William Lawton and Robert Southward: Hulme Hall Chronicle 1916-1920, held at the University of Manchester Library, Manchester reference GB 133 HHH/2/9/1