27 January 1969: Students set up the LSE-in-exile

Putting up barriers during disputes rarely leads to anywhere good. And so it proved in the long-running dispute between the board of governors at the London School of Economics (LSE) and the student body in the late 1960s.

Following a student rebellion in October 1968, the LSE, part of the University of London, decided to erect a set of iron gates to ‘increase security’. But many students must have wondered, whose security – theirs or the governors’.

Even The Times conceded “The gates resembled the iron grilles similar to those fitted outside jewellers’ shops”.

For the students, the gates symbolised the school’s unwillingness to listen to their grievances. Like other youth movements in France and America, the students wanted a greater say in the running of their institution. But it was also the man behind the gates that caused so much anger.

In 1966, the board of governors appointed Dr Walter Adams as the LSE’s new director. That was a controversial choice. Dr Adams had been the principal of the University College of Rhodesia in what is today Zimbabwe, and had been criticised for not doing enough to challenge Ian Smith’s white minority rule.

Matters came to a head on Friday, 24 January 1969. Despite the student union president and the vast majority of students advocating peaceful opposition to the gates, a radical minority led by the ‘Socialist Society’ went to tear them down. Scuffles with the police ensued and Dr Adams immediately closed the college.

The following Monday, students and sympathisers took over the University of London Union building, with the aim of establishing an ‘LSE-in-exile’. They barricaded the windows and doors and prepared for a lengthy siege.

“By early morning the building was showing all the usual signs of student occupation”, noted The Times, which was sent a pamphlet by the students urging print-workers “not to print malicious lies and opinions”.

In the days that followed, many of the students, and staff accused of inciting the violence, ended up in the dock. Education Secretary Edward Short, a Labour minister, branded the activists as “not socialists… but a new brand of anarchist”.