December 8, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Town v Gown – students versus locals

2 min read
Local youth and university students often connected badly in the 1980s with acts of violence not being uncommon as students were viewed as privileged
town gown

First heard the expression town and gown when I visited friends at Cambridge University in the 1980s. There was, shall we say, a degree of animosity between local Cambridge blokes and the university students.

Especially Cambridge blokes from the local army barracks who could pack a punch as they showed at a gig by The Specials where I believe they invaded the stage apart from dishing out some black eyes.

Back in the early 80s, the percentage of young people in Britain going to university was much lower than it is today. And there was often a much higher degree of hostility between local youth and those allegedly privileged sods on the campus up the road.

And the locals had a point, we were much more middle class, ethnically less diverse and generally speaking better off. Though I went to a red brick university, not Oxford or Cambridge, where I never felt particularly cosseted. Graduate unemployment was also high in the mid-80s when I left college.

At Liverpool, the university was often referred to locally as the “hotel on the hill” – not helped that it was literally on a hill looking down, as it were, on the city below. Though behind us was the Toxteth district where most of the rioting happened in 1981 when hundreds of police battled for over a month with rioters.

DISCOVER: Attitudes towards LGBT people in the 1980s

Regrettably, the wrath of the dispossessed did occasionally land on a student through know fault of their own. One favourite tactic was to ask a student the time, just to check if they had a non-“scouse” accent before connecting a fist with their rosy-cheeked face.

Students easily left the land of gown for the land of town in Liverpool. They only had to stray past the economics and sociology department to find themselves in Toxteth, where many of them had digs anyway. And then town might decide to connect violently with gown.

All of this was thoroughly reprehensible but a flavour of the time I fear. Here is the university newspaper reporting on one such incident.

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