From Hannah Gay, The History of Imperial College London: Higher Education and Research in Science, Technology and Medicine (Imperial College Press, 2007)
In the 1950s and 60s student journalists still reported on day-to-day college life in the student papers. A new fortnightly student paper, Felix, was founded in 1950 with the purpose of keeping students informed of college events and The Phoenix became a review journal.
In 1958 it was edited by David Irving, the future controversialist historian and serious minimiser, if not denier, of the Holocaust.1 Irving had come to the college in 1956 and had founded an organization called the National Guardian Movement which he claimed was an anti-Communist movement but, given its literature, was clearly inspired by the British Union of Fascists. It had some student members from Imperial and some from other colleges in the university.
Irving soon became well known in the college. A gifted journalist, he helped in the running of The Phoenix after the editor had been injured in a mountaineering accident. He worked hard, contributed a number of drawings and short articles and, despite some misgivings among board members shaken by the content of some of his articles, was asked to take over the editorship in 1958.
At first he appeared to have had a good idea, namely starting a series on old students, 'They Came to Imperial'. But his first subject was the German industrialist Fritz von Thyssen and it is clear that Irving was interested in him solely for his connections to Hitler. This and other questionable content led to Irving being fired from the editorship. But, for reasons not entirely clear, he was then asked to edit the 1959 carnival magazine for the University of London Union.
That year the carnival was to raise money in support of the World University Service and its work with black students in South Africa. Irving produced a magazine but secretly inserted some extra inner pages. In these he is said to have defended Apartheid, included racist and sexist jokes and cartoons, claimed that Hitler's regime was 'the first great unifying force that Europe had known for six hundred years', and reprinted material from Oswald Mosley's journal Action.2
News of what he was up to leaked out of the Imperial College Union press room where the magazine was being set up, but Irving managed to get the copy as far as the printers before it was found and destroyed. People at the college were genuinely shocked by what had happened. The Rector, who expressed outrage, avoided the embarrassment of what to do next when Irving failed his exams and had to leave.3
While racist jokes were rare in student publications of this period, sexist jokes and articles were still acceptable. It would appear that the only people who objected to the Spring 1958 issue of The Phoenix edited by Irving), which by today's standards was outright sexist, if not misogynist, were some women students. Judy Lemon wrote a spirited reply which was published in the following issue but her response was largely ignored.
By the time Brian Flowers became Rector in 1973 blatant sexism was no longer acceptable. Flowers led from the top in combatting it and in encouraging women to come to the college.4 By then times had changed, and students would have thought twice before making the kind of jokes in print that earlier had been unremarkable. However, life was not that comfortable for outspoken feminists....
1. Irving had come to the college as part of a new venture to attract good arts students into the sciences. These students were given instruction during their first year at the college designed to allow them to enter regular first year science courses in their second year. This experiment was abandoned after a few years.
2. Quotation in Felix, 6 May 1959. Information on the content of the >missing pages is taken from issues of Felix in the same period. Irving's actions were a hot topic for several weeks.
3. Irving's love affair with Hitler was evident already when he was a student, though at the time he appears to have been viewed simply as a crank, albeit an intelligent one. On failing his exams, Irving did not immediately leave the area but continued working as a labourer on the new physics building site, something he had already been doing for about a year.
4. In 1975 about 10% of the student body of approximately 4000 students were omen.