Commemorating VE Day

May 2020

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(NOTE: This is an archived press release.)

On Friday 8th May, we commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the end of the Second World War in Europe. A national moment of remembrance and a two-minute silence will take place at 11am.

The following information on Writtle University College's contribution to the war effort is adapted from an article by Senior Lecturer Sandra Nicolson. The article was originally was published in The Horticulturist to celebrate WUC's 125th anniversary.

Writtle University College began life in 1893 as the County Technical Laboratories in Chelmsford. By the time the second World War began, we had changed our name to the East Anglian Institute of Agriculture and were in the process of relocating to our current estate in Writtle.  

The move was the result of high demand for our courses. By 1935 we had reached 100 full-time students. Our accommodation at the time, which was located in Chelmsford, was feeling the pressure.

Essex County Council wished to expand its premises in Chelmsford and to take over our site in King Edward Avenue. In 1935 it allowed the Agricultural Education Sub-Committee to look for an estate to centralise our activities.

Land at Writtle comprising four farms (Lordship, Guys, Daws and Sturgeons) was purchased to create an estate of over 500 acres and plans for the new buildings were drawn up. 

A report in 1935 described the project in glowing terms: 'The development of the great and important scheme is a wonderful opportunity for the Institute, and no effort is being spared by any one Department to ensure the success of the whole enterprise'. 

Plans for the move to the new site began immediately. Planting of 56 aces of top and soft fruit took place in 1936 and 1937 and plants were propagated ready for planting in the gardens around the main building. By 1939 the grounds were being laid out 'to provide an appropriate setting and to provide facilities for a full course in general horticulture' (1939 Prospectus of Courses).

Land was also to be devoted to vegetable growing, glasshouse crops, cut flowers and a model allotment plot to demonstrate how much could be produced from 10 square rods. Much of this planned work did not however take place until after the war.

Foundation stones for the new buildings were laid on 29th September 1938 by Mr John Gill and Alderman Francis Dent whose names were commemorated in the naming of the two residential hostels.It was hoped that the buildings would be ready for the start of the 1939 session. The prospectus of 1939 states that courses would be offered in Agriculture, Dairying, Horticulture and Poultry Husbandry. There were 120 students evenly divided between the four schools.

However war broke out in September 1939; materials and labour were in short supply and so the new buildings could not be occupied until January 1940. The move from King Edward Avenue to Writtle was said to have happened 'on the coldest and snowiest week-ends of the winter' (Bryce, 1953) and was a subdued affair. Courses were then suspended and the Institute buildings and estate were taken over by the Essex War Agricultural Executive Committee (EWAEC), some staff being seconded to the war effort.

The focus of the estate was food production and it became a County Demonstration Centre. Land Girls, recruited for the war effort, were accommodated on campus as they undertook short, three-weeks courses.

The Principal, J.C. Leslie, resigned in 1940 having held the post for 10 years and became the Chief Executive of the EWAEC, later joining the newly formed National Advisory Service. The educational work of the Institute continued but transferred to a site in Chelmsford. 

Once the war ended, courses could resume at Writtle although it was not until 1948 that EWAEC relinquished all the buildings it occupied.  Ben Harvey, who had been a former student, was appointed as Principal.