The mid-19th century town of Nottingham might well be called the epicentre of the movement to expand University provision in England and Wales, and yet its University's fully independent existence dates from 1948, one of the later provincial or "red-brick" universities. This delay can be attributed to its early success, to the closeness of its relationship with its city, and to relationships of rivalry and cooperation with the other cities and universities of the East Midlands. The forerunner and direct "ancestor" of the University of Nottingham during this period was University College, Nottingham.
University College, Nottingham was opened by Prince Leopold on 30th June 1881, and teaching began in the autumn term of 1881. It was still institutionally part of the Borough of Nottingham, administered by the Town Clerk's Department together with its Free Library and Museum. Academically it was affiliated to both Oxford and Cambridge Universities from 1882 onwards, having no powers of its own to confer degrees, but enabling matriculation into the older universities. Gradually however affiliation with London University provided Nottingham students with the opportunity of studying to first degree level, its first BA being awarded here in 1884.
The Charter of 1903 established the University's administrative independence of the Town Clerk's department, but its governance remained umbilically linked with the Borough since the overlap between the City Council and the Court of Governors of University College was almost complete. The Mayor was ex-officio one of four Vice-Presidents, the others being co-opted by the Court which consisted otherwise wholly of City Councillors, and Court elected the President and College Council. The Senate or academic body was not fully independent, since it could only discuss matters delegated by Council. There was a Principal appointed by Council and a Registrar to oversee administration.
Crisis hit University College in 1910. False (or perhaps more fairly, sloppy) statistics had been submitted in application for the College's annual government grant. Both Symes the Principal and Stevenson the Registrar resigned, and the ensuing inspection by the Board of Education recommended changes in teaching structure and in governance which encouraged the College to look towards University status and challenged the parochialism of the City Council towards it. In modern terms, it was time to decide whether it would be an FE or an HE institution. The new Principal, William Haslam Heaton, although cautiously appointed for a fixed term of one year in 1911, in fact served for the next 28 years. During the twenties and thirties another key figure in the College's development was lawyer and Alderman Edmund Huntsman, elected chair of the College Council in 1921 and serving until 1939. He had earlier taught law in Shakespeare Street, and possessed both sympathy with the educational cause of the College and gifts of advocacy with which to advance it.
Huntsman and the University College Council had a vision for a federal East Midlands University, to comprise not only University College Nottingham but also University College Leicester, the new Loughborough College, and colleges at Lincoln, Derby and Northampton. First dreamed of before the war, and adopted by Council in 1918, i t was the subject of a conference of regional education authorities in 1919, and the development of the scheme was delegated to a Reconstruction Committee. Finance was a persistent problem, and here the timely intervention of Jesse Boot, founder of Boots the Chemist and now a Baronet, provided a fresh start with an unsolicited gift of £50,000 in July 1920, followed by increasingly generous donations and offers of new sites for expansion, culminating in the gift of the Highfields site which is now University Park in 1921.
Meanwhile the drafting of the new Charter of the East Midlands University was proceeding, but foundered when Leicester University College challenged the dominance of Nottingham over the projected structure in 1923. Huntsman changed direction in 1927, acknowledging that the new charter would have to be for Nottingham only.
Jesse Boot may have been the most generous, but he was not the only benefactor of University College. Other financial gifts during this formative period came from industrialists Herbert Francis Lancashire, George Spencer, and William Henry Revis, and from the Boots Pure Drug Company (which was no longer owned by the Boot family). The Trent Building was opened by the King and Queen in 1928, and sports facilities and Halls of Residence were now beginning to populate the site.
Hugh Stewart took over as Principal from Heaton in 1929. Stewart was a classical scholar who had rapidly achieved professorial status and then inevitably had to transfer his focus to military leadership during the first world war, becoming a decorated war hero after Gallipoli. He therefore brought a valuable combination of skills to University College at a time when it needed to bring in more funds to grow into the fully chartered university of which it dreamed. The constitution of the College Council was widened, the Senate represented, and the hold of the Nottingham Corporation slackened.
Principal Stewart developed Lenton Hall (bought 1930) as a men's hall of residence, and so it was appropriate that it took his name after his death. He also promoted the migration of Engineering to the University Park campus, and the creation of the University Archaeology Museum. He backed the abandonment of two-year teacher training at Nottingham (in favour of postgraduate teacher training) and extra-mural classes burgeoned during his tenure, which ended in his unexpected death in 1934.
The last Principal of University College was H A S Wortley, who had been head of the Education Department since 1923. Financial problems continued to dog the development of the University, and falling student enrolments precipitated an ultimatum from the University Grants Committee in 1936 to reform its constitution. A new charter was granted in 1938.
The Second World War impacted upon University College in a temporary fall in student numbers during 1939-40 and in direct bomb damage to the Shakespeare Street site in 1941. A new development in 1943 was the establishment of the Faculty of Agriculture and Horticulture jointly with the Midland Agricultural College at Sutton Bonington, leading to the complete integration of the Agricultural College into University College in 1947.