Home   Medway   News   Article

Tracey Emin, Karen Millen and Zandra Rhodes part of University of Creative Arts Rochester's successful history as it's set to close


More news, no ads

LEARN MORE

For more than 130 years, talented artists and designers have been learning their trade in the heart of Rochester and in turn it has become a central pillar of the community in Medway.

But under shock plans which would see the closure of the University of the Creative Arts, we look back at the history of how one of Kent's most established art and design schools came to be.

University for the Creative Arts, Rochester building in Fort Pitt Hill which opened in 1970
University for the Creative Arts, Rochester building in Fort Pitt Hill which opened in 1970

It has attracted and inspired some of the biggest names in the world of art and design – including Turner Prize winner Tracey Emin and fashion designers Karen Millen and Zandra Rhodes. But it could be no more in as little as two years.

The first origins of UCA Rochester take us back to 1853 when art classes started being run by two technical institutes in Chatham and Gillingham.

A formal art school was set up 33 years later in 1886 with the establishment of the Rochester School of Art.

The government-backed school was based at the Guildhall and is said to be the forerunner for the present day campus located on Fort Pitt Hill overlooking St Bart's Hospital and the river.

The first headmaster at the school was George Ward who stayed in the post for 40 years.

UCA alumni Karen Millen studied at the Medway College of Art
UCA alumni Karen Millen studied at the Medway College of Art

After the Technical Education Act of 1890, the school expanded beyond its capacity even after new premises were built on the site of the old Duke's Head pub next to Rochester Guildhall.

The new law allowed science and art classes to be taught together but there was such demand that the art school had outgrown its allocated three rooms in the new purpose-built facility by the time it opened in 1893.

The new site in the High Street cost £3,500 to build – £460,000 in today's money – and Mr Ward was assisted by three teachers supporting 130 students.

The proposals to close UCA in September 2023 will affect thousands of students and an estimated 150 staff.

In truly typical thinking of the Victorian age, the school combined the teachings of artistic flair with the discipline of scientific study.

Students were expected to use their artistic judgement and apply it to technology and mechanic production to produce work rather than relying purely on their artistic drawing skills.

The view of the UCA building on Fort Pitt Hill in 2000 when it was still known as the Medway College of Art and part of the Kent Institute of Art and Design. Picture: Aerial Pictures of Medway
The view of the UCA building on Fort Pitt Hill in 2000 when it was still known as the Medway College of Art and part of the Kent Institute of Art and Design. Picture: Aerial Pictures of Medway

It was at this time architecture and teaching training courses started to be offered.

The school now known as UCA has undergone a range of name changes in its 136 years so far and is possibly most famously known as Medway College for Design or the Kent Institute of Art and Design following a merger with art schools in Canterbury and Maidstone in 1987.

Science and commercial classes moved away after the Education Act 1902 and a year later purpose-built accommodation is built in Eastgate which opens in 1907.

The growth of the school continued and by 1950 the blocks had been extended and three annexes built.

By 1912, architecture courses had moved to Canterbury while printing classes were based at Maidstone.

After the First World War, the school's curriculum became heavily influenced by the arts and crafts movement and became known as the Medway School of Arts and Crafts.

The Rochester School of Art, founded in 1886, was initially located in the Guildhall before moving to the site of the old Duke's Head pub next door. By the 1930s the school had outgrown its city centre home and moved elsewhere around Rochester including the current home on Fort Pitt Hill
The Rochester School of Art, founded in 1886, was initially located in the Guildhall before moving to the site of the old Duke's Head pub next door. By the 1930s the school had outgrown its city centre home and moved elsewhere around Rochester including the current home on Fort Pitt Hill

In the 1920s, new courses started to reflect society's post-war needs including one for disabled ex-servicemen to learn watch repairing.

Sign-writing, decorating and jewellery courses were also set up.

An inspection by the county education board in 1926 reported it was taking its place among those of "true schools of design".

Towards the end of the decade, the school was also providing tuition to benefit the Medway Towns with a prospectus for 1928-29 offering courses for craftsmen, general students and teachers.

These were set to meet the "industrial, commercial and general aesthetic needs of the locality".

The document shows subjects were based around Industrial Crafts which included: basketry, batik dyeing, bead work, block printing, cabinet making, coach painting, dress design and making, embroidery, etching and engraving, painters and decorators work, leather work, metal work, painted decoration, raffia work, silversmiths work and jewellery, stained glass, stencilling, wood carving, writing and illuminating.

Top fashion and textiles designer Zandra Rhodes attended the Medway College of Design in 1957. She says her time at Medway has always helped her in her career as a designer for celebrities and royalty. Picture: Shine TV
Top fashion and textiles designer Zandra Rhodes attended the Medway College of Design in 1957. She says her time at Medway has always helped her in her career as a designer for celebrities and royalty. Picture: Shine TV

There were other courses in shop window display, drawing, painting and modelling for young people.

It also continued to provide art teacher training for secondary and elementary schools and in the 1930s had outgrown its town centre locations.

The first extension was built in Corporation Street before the annexes at Fort Pitt – the home of UCA today – and in the High Street and Free School Lane.

In 1936, plans were drawn up to demolish early 19th century buildings built as part of the former Napoleonic fortifications on at Fort Pitt Hill to create a technical college.

But when war broke out three years later, these plans were shelved.

The courses continued throughout the war with air raid shelters set up on site and armed forces exempt from tuition fees for evening classes.

"Their support and encouragement were so important to my early development..."

Dressmaking, pottery, advertisement design, lettering and typography and cabinet making courses had all been established by 1940.

In 1948, the college had grown to 196 full-time staff and 881 part-time students across six departments – architecture, drawing and painting, commercial and industrial design, modelling and sculpture and women's crafts, printing and allied trades.

Dame Zandra Rhodes – who went on to become one of Britain's most influential fashion and textile designers – joined the college in 1957.

Her mother Beatrice was a dressmaking tutor at the college and Zandra desperately tried to keep this secret from her classmates.

She later went on to win a fellowship at the Royal College of Art and designed pieces for Princess Diana, Freddie Mercury and Brian May.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2005, Chatham-born Zandra said it was at the college where her love of textiles flourished and under her tutor Barbara Brown she says she never forgot what she learned at Medway before going on to establish an incredible career.

Dame Zandra is installed as chancellor of UCA at a ceremony in Rochester Cathedral in May 2010 in robes she designed herself
Dame Zandra is installed as chancellor of UCA at a ceremony in Rochester Cathedral in May 2010 in robes she designed herself

Dame Zandra Rhodes speaks to KMTV

She said: "Their support and encouragement were so important to my early development. They fostered my confidence and gave me the motivation to pursue my own creative goals and go on to study at the Royal College of Art."

The current building opened in 1970, the same year the Medway College of Design opened in Fort Pitt Hill with the remaining buildings and annexes in Eastgate closing.

The new eight-storey building cost almost £1 million to build and was designed by Hugh Mollison who had also worked on the former Maidstone College of Art Campus (later to become part of UCA) and Mid-Kent College, Maidstone.

After opening, students complained the cafeteria was incapable of holding all 600 of them as it was only designed to have a capacity of 100.

During construction a tunnel measuring one-and-a-half miles stretching from the Gun Wharf on Dock Road in Chatham to Fort Pitt was discovered.

It is thought to date back to the early Napoleonic fort where weapons would be unloaded at the gunnery dock and carried to the guns on the fort protecting Chatham and Rochester.

A timeline of UCA in Rochester
A timeline of UCA in Rochester

The 7ft wide tunnel was found about 40ft under the eastern wall of the college building.

Throughout the 1980s the focus of courses was more geared towards goods being well-designed in order to compete with foreign rivals.

These industrial design courses reflected the demands of marketing executives which branded well-made products based on quality of design and manufacture.

In 1982, the college launched its first Business and Technician Education Council (BTEC) qualifications. It also saw links created between the college and commercial businesses with designers encouraged to work with students to create a realistic working atmosphere.

Twelve-week placements in a workplace were established and there was computer training and business management and professional standards courses were taught to help prepare students for work.

A merger between Canterbury College of Art, Maidstone College of Art and Medway College of Design saw the establishment of the Kent Institute of Art and Design (KIAD) in 1987.

UCA has been a strong pillar in the community in Medway and has been a key link with schools. Pictured here is a piece designed by former Strood Academy pupil in 2010 on display at UCA Rochester. Picture: UCA
UCA has been a strong pillar in the community in Medway and has been a key link with schools. Pictured here is a piece designed by former Strood Academy pupil in 2010 on display at UCA Rochester. Picture: UCA
Another item displayed at UCA from a budding designer at Strood Academy, Stacey Thomas, which was put on display at UCA in an exhibition in 2010. Picture: UCA
Another item displayed at UCA from a budding designer at Strood Academy, Stacey Thomas, which was put on display at UCA in an exhibition in 2010. Picture: UCA

It was a highly controversial move at the time and petitions lobbied parliament to reconsider the decision.

KIAD operated from three sites in Canterbury, Maidstone and Rochester until it joined with the Surrey Institute of Art & Design, University College on August 1, 2005.

This saw the name change again to form the University College for the Creative Arts at Canterbury, Epsom, Farnham, Maidstone and Rochester.

In 2008, the University College received university status and was renamed University for the Creative Arts.

The Maidstone campus of UCA closed in 2014 and was taken over by MidKent College.

News from our universities, local primary and secondary schools including Ofsted inspections and league tables can be found here.

Read more: All the latest news from Medway

Close This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.Learn More