The Varsity protest that shaped a generation

The 1970 Garden House riot changed the history of student activism, and the lives of those who took part

The Garden House riot is largely forgotten, yet it marked a watershed in the history of student protest in the UK. Before it happened, on a February night in Cambridge in 1970, the echoes of the student troubles that swept Europe in 1968 still influenced many British students' sense of their relationship with the adult world. Afterwards, when the wreckage had been cleared up and eight students had been jailed, the idea of "direct action" seemed rather less seductive to some.

Only recently, 40 years on, has student radicalism once again begun to express itself with the abandon of the pre-Garden House era. The idea of law-breaking as a valid and indeed necessary political tool has gained new currency. With another big London demonstration against tuition fees planned for tomorrow – as well as the next court appearance of Edward Woollard, the student accused of throwing a fire extinguisher from a rooftop during the protests of 10 November – it seems timely to look back on the events of that night, and to consider their effect on the lives of those who took part.

The basic story is simply told. A dinner to promote Greek tourism at the city's Garden House Hotel had been disrupted by a demonstration against the country's ruling military junta. The protest turned violent, the hotel was damaged, and police and students were bloodied. The dinner was the culmination of "Greek Week", a city initiative to raise Greece's profile as a holiday destination. Among the students who objected to the event was Rod Caird, a privately-educated bagpipe enthusiast and radical from Dundee, aged 21, who was reading oriental languages at Queens' College and was part of the circle that produced The Shilling Paper – the newspaper of the student left which vehemently opposed the promotion.

"It was," he says, "incredibly stupid to organise a Greek Week in a university town full of hairy radicals, at the height of the dictatorship. We were bound to protest against it, because we protested against everything."

The Shilling Paper of 13 February publicised the evening's protest with a cut-out poster, stating "Greek fascists hold propaganda party – all invited". Among those to accept the invitation was Peter Household, a 21-year-old half-Swedish history undergraduate at St John's College.

"It was the first demonstration I'd been on," he recalls. "I was pretty useless. But I had struck up a friendship with a West German who was probably the only left-wing student in St John's. This demo came up and he said we should go."

That evening, a large crowd of demonstrators assembled in the grounds of the hotel, initially to be faced by just a handful of policemen. Among the protesters was Nick Emley, a 19-year-old from a respectable army family, then in his first year of a modern languages degree at Clare College. "We were going to block the entrance so that these worthy burghers from the town could not turn up and have their nice little Greek tourist board week," he says. "We certainly didn't go thinking, 'Right, we're up for a ruck'."

Tension escalated after demonstrators began hammering on the windows, and a member of hotel staff turned a firehose on them from a first-floor window. The lights in the garden failed, and the police found themselves under a hail of stones. Tempers were frayed, windows broken, and truncheons drawn.

Several protesters broke through to the dining-room, and by the time police reinforcements with dogs managed to clear the hotel, more than £2,000 of damage had been done. Two policemen had been injured by missiles, as had one of the proctors, the University's own constables. Before midnight, six students were facing criminal charges.

Peter Household was arrested early in the evening. He says: "I started out at the back, ended up at the front, and wasn't sure how I got there. I nudged a policeman with my shoulder, and got done for obstruction."

For throwing a mole fuse – a small smoke bomb used in pest control – Rod Caird faced a charge of wilful damage. Nick Emley was charged with assault, after an incident which he insists was accidental. "We were being pushed from behind," he says. "My right shoulder went forward and my fist clattered into this copper's face, which I hadn't intended."

In a move that caused considerable disquiet in the university, the proctors provided police with a list of those they had recognised at the Garden House. When the case came up before Hertford Assizes in June, nine more students joined the original six in the dock. Most were charged with riotous assembly.

By the time of the trial, Peter Household's obstruction charge had escalated to assault, and Rod Caird faced four new charges, including actual bodily harm. He says: "That arose from the process of arrest. I and the policeman both fell over, and that was the basis of the charge – I didn't hit him or anything."

The trial took place before Mr Justice Melford Stevenson, reputedly the severest judge on the criminal bench. Mr Justice Melford Stevenson was, according to Caird, "unbelievably hostile". The trial ended with convictions on at least one count for eight of the students, including the six arrested on the night. All were handed down immediate terms of custody. Being under 21, Emley and one other undergraduate were sent to Borstal. The others were given sentences of between nine and 18 months in prison. Household received the former, Caird the latter.

The harshness of the sentences (all but one of which were upheld when appeals were heard) shocked even conservative commentators. A leader in The Times said that "while the judge was right to take a serious view of a deplorable affair, he has been very severe".

As debate continued on the outside, the students in the adult penal system were sent to Wormwood Scrubs to await dispersal to prisons around the UK. There, Peter Household found himself sharing a cell with Rod Caird and another of the protesters, who encouraged him to read Marx, Engels and Lenin.

He says: "I knew there were people on the outside laughing at me. They were saying, 'That stupid Peter, he didn't know why he was there that night.' I had two choices: I could either say, 'Yes, this was a terrible accident', or I could come out with a reason as to why I was there. So although I had no strong political views when I went in, by the time I came out I was a hardened lefty – and remained so for the rest of my life."

Rod Caird says: "I pretended at the time that I was taking it all in my stride; that this was all right and proper, and I believed in it. But there was a bit of bravado involved. It had a huge impact on my parents, which I never talked through properly with them."

Later in life, Caird was given a sheaf of the correspondence his parents had received after he was sent to prison. He says: "It's a very odd file, which I look at from time to time, and put away very rapidly. A lot of the messages were like bereavement letters, saying 'How dreadful'. It was as though I'd died."

Facing at least six months at Borstal, Nick Emley first harboured fantasies of escaping. Before long, however, he slotted into the routine. "I have to say, I didn't find it such a horrendous thing," he says. "It wasn't that different from my prep school, which I went to aged eight."

Incarceration had, inevitably, a life-changing effect on the jailed students, their glittering prospects dimmed forever by criminal records. But the changes were not all bad. "Afterwards, I taught for five years in a big state school in Peckham," says Emley, "and I was undoubtedly a much better teacher for having spent seven months in Borstal. I was aware of the alienation, disaffection and hopelessness that a lot of those kids had."

Household, too, found a positive side to the experience. On completing his degree, he briefly joined the Socialist Workers Party before becoming involved in the trade-union movement – eventually becoming convener of Unison's York city branch. "Other than for the Garden House protest, I would probably have had a brief dalliance with left-wing politics and then forgotten all about it, as most people in those days did," he says.

Rod Caird was transferred from Wormwood Scrubs to HMP Coldingley in Surrey. His experiences there formed the basis of A Good and Useful Life, a book on penology published in 1974, and steered him into a career in the print and broadcast media. "Prison completely derailed what I was planning to do with my life," he says, "but as it turned out, I had a very interesting career in television. I've never made any secret of the fact that I went to jail in 1970, and everyone I've worked with knows about it."

None of the protesters I have spoken to regrets his involvement in the demonstration. "It's part of my life I wouldn't be without," says Household. "It was a formative experience, and it had a huge impact."

Nick Emley, who was able to resume his degree after six months at Borstal, says: "I absolutely feel it was a righteous cause, and that it was correct that we should have been raising our voices against the selling of fascist Greece to holidaymakers."

But Rod Caird believes the deterrent effect of the sentences on student activism should not be underestimated. "We certainly publicised the protest movement about the dictatorship in Greece very effectively. But it brought people up with a start, to realise that, if they were going to get involved in demonstrations, it could have a really bad outcome.

"It was an election year, don't forget, and it was a good opportunity to give unruly students a good whacking – and it didn't half work. Cambridge went down like a pricked balloon. People got on with their degrees quietly for some years thereafter."



A longer version of this article appears in CAM, Cambridge University's alumni magazine: alumni.cam.ac.uk/news/cam

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