The cat that got the cream

As Felix turns 70, some of its leading players give us the stories behind the headlines.

Felix newspaper cat logo

Some cats have far more than nine lives. As Felix approaches its 70th birthday, a look through the archives reveals a taste for regeneration that would give pause to a Time Lord.

Imperial’s student journal has been by turns a roughly typed newsletter with smudgy headlines, a glossy A4 magazine, a business-like Economist-style weekly and a full-colour tabloid.

In his corner of the front page, the mascot himself has likewise gone through numerous incarnations, including cartoon kittycat, sabre-toothed tabby, roaring lion and caped crusader.

Today, Felix appears as the mischievous, tip-toeing feline who graced the cover of the very first edition on 9 December 1949.

The name was a cheeky reference to Phoenix, the Imperial magazine that had been founded by H.G. Wells as the Science Schools Journal in 1887.

The first editorial explained: “The need has been felt for some time for a frequently published journal to comment on the affairs of the College while they are still topical ... Any contribution will be welcomed, whether it be a full article on the marital customs of the Watussi or a chance remark heard in the bar.”


Felix the black cat logo

When Sir Les Ebdon (BSc Chemistry 1968, PhD 1971) took over Felix in 1969, controversies included racism at a student lodgings bureau, a proposed collar-and-tie rule in the Beit refectory and the quality of the bands at Carnival.

Some coverage was contentious in itself, such as a report on College lavatories smashed up after a rugby dinner.

But the biggest spat was around the issue of “double jeopardy” – that misbehaving students could be disciplined by the College after being dealt with by the courts.

After Felix reported that a committee convened by the College authorities was planning to institute this policy, Sir Les was summoned to the Rector, Lord Penney.

We agreed to print his letter of rebuttal, but we set his name in a creepy gothic typeface. My supervisor thought I was done for.
Sir Les Ebdon

He says: “The Rector rapped the paper and said, ‘I don’t know where you got this story. Even I don’t know what this committee is recommending. You’re a terrible journalist.’

"I said, ‘If I know a story that you don’t know, I might be a better journalist than you think.’ That didn’t improve his temper.

"We agreed to print his letter of rebuttal in the next issue, but we set his name in a creepy gothic typeface. My supervisor thought I was done for.”

Under Sir Les’s watch, the price of Felix rose from fourpence to sixpence, though the honesty-box system for gathering payment was widely abused. (The newspaper would finally abolish its cover charge in 1971; the famous “Keep the Cat Free” slogan dates from three years later.)

It was an issue brought up when the Duke of Edinburgh visited Imperial and dined with Student Union officials.

Sir Les recalls: “Prince Philip asked me, ‘Do many people take your newspaper?’ Thinking of his famous wit, I said, ‘Far too many. They’re supposed to pay sixpence.’ It took him a while to get the joke.”

Henry Alman

Current editor

Just a few months into the role, Henry is looking forward to taking a considered approach and giving as broad a view as possible.

Henry Alman

In 1987, Judith Hackney (BSc Physics 1989) became one of the last editors of the pre-computer era.

By then, Imperial had the facilities to print the newspaper on campus. But when the Felix offices were moved from near the Beit Quad entrance to a windowless cellar at the back end of the quad, a large area of the building was subjected to the intoxicating stench of Cow Gum – the adhesive used to attach articles and artwork to layout sheets.

They thought it should be a Union mouthpiece, but we felt the point of it was to hold the Union to account
Judith Hackney

She says: “We were still producing the newspaper by writing longhand on pieces of paper and handing the copy to a paid employee who would typeset on a very large machine.

"It would come out of this machine in galleys, which were then cut up with scalpels and pasted on to A3 sheets of paper with this potent glue. There were lots of fumes as we carried the pages through to the printing area.” 

The Felix of the late 1980s offers a glimpse into a febrile time, with heated arguments about abortion and gay rights played out in its pages. It also represents one of the periodic lows in the uneasy relationship between the newspaper and Imperial College Union.

“They felt that because they funded the newspaper, it should be a Union mouthpiece and publicity machine,” says Hackney.

“Whereas we, thinking ourselves very much as student journalists, felt the reason for the newspaper was to hold the Union to account.” 


Felix black cat logo

Under Rupert Neate (BSc Biology 2005), editor in 2005-06 (pictured left), Felix took its campaigning role seriously.

One of his actions was to bring back the “Page Three” pictures of students posing in various states of undress; these had been trialled a few years earlier and have survived in various forms to the present day (“We had complaints, but we did a poll and basically everybody wanted it,” he told Felix in 2013).

But it was his investigative scoops – many picked up by the national media – that led to Felix becoming Newspaper of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards for the first time, where Neate also won the Journalist of the Year award.

Stories with the biggest impact included an exposé of fly-tipping at Charing Cross Hospital and a look into the sharp increase in thefts from halls.

We had complaints about Page Three but we did a poll – and everybody wanted it
Rupert Neate

“We also did a campaign about a major London nightclub that had banned R&B music,” he says.

“We thought that was a sideways ban on letting black people into the venue. That story got a lot of publicity and we got them to reverse the ban.

"Stories like this made me realise you could actually change things as a journalist.”

Judith Hackney

Editor, 1987

One of the last editors to produce Felix without computers, Judith remembers an uneasy relationship between the paper and the Union.

Judith Hackney

By the time Jovan Nedić (MEng Aeronautics 2008, PhD 2013) was elected editor in 2008, the paper’s masthead was sporting some subtle changes.

Since the previous February, the cat crusader had been shown wearing a gag, with the slogan amended to “Student ‘news’paper of Imperial College”, in protest at alleged censorship by the Union. 

The main plank of Nedić’s manifesto was to “ungag the cat”, but his other big plan – and a first for a UK student newspaper – was to digitise the entire Felix archive, making it free for anyone to view online.

We’d never imagined that a survey about sex at Imperial would result in too much data
Jovan Nedić

“I’d realised Felix’s 60th birthday was coming up,” says Nedić. “And I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could also get the archive uploaded in time for the anniversary?”

An invitation was extended to all former editors and sub-editors to attend a formal dinner in the Union dining room, with a tour of the current Felix offices.

And, thanks to funding from the Union and the IC Trust, the archive went live in time for the celebrations – though it caused consternation with some alumni who weren’t keen to see their College indiscretions made available in a searchable format.

Nedić says: “I do remember getting emails from a few people, going, ‘Oh my God, no – I didn’t think this was going to appear online. Could you remove it?’”


Felix black cat logo

As Fred Fyles (MBBS Medicine 2019) was voted into the editor’s chair in 2017, big topics included nationwide strike action among academics and the campaign to have universities divest from fossil fuels.

An investigation into the College’s Counselling Service earned him a shortlisting in the 2018 Mind Media Awards, which recognise exceptional reporting of mental health issues.

However, it was the annual sex survey that provided the biggest headache. “We’d never imagined that a survey about sex at Imperial would result in too much data,” he says.

“We tried to collate the results into a big set of data visualisations, and it was one of those things that ended up being way more work than we thought.

"We had to pull a couple of all-nighters, and things got pretty hairy: we ran out of time and almost missed the print deadline.”

It’s the camaraderie of the office, Fyles believes, that he’ll recall most about Felix in years to come.

“The strong bond we had between team members sticks with me. It can be difficult to recruit journalists at an all-STEM university, but it means the people who do get involved are there because they really, really enjoy it, not as a CV exercise.”

Rupert Neate

Editor, 2005

Named Journalist of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards, Rupert says that he took the campaigning role of Felix seriously, running stories on fly-tipping and thefts.

Rupert Neate

As Fred Fyles (MBBS Medicine 2019) was voted into the editor’s chair in 2017, big topics included nationwide strike action among academics and the campaign to have universities divest from fossil fuels.

We’d never imagined that a survey about sex at Imperial would result in too much data
Fred Fyles

An investigation into the College’s Counselling Service earned him a shortlisting in the 2018 Mind Media Awards, which recognise exceptional reporting of mental health issues.

However, it was the annual sex survey that provided the biggest headache. “We’d never imagined that a survey about sex at Imperial would result in too much data,” he says.

“We tried to collate the results into a big set of data visualisations, and it was one of those things that ended up being way more work than we thought.

"We had to pull a couple of all-nighters, and things got pretty hairy: we ran out of time and almost missed the print deadline.”

It’s the camaraderie of the office, Fyles believes, that he’ll recall most about Felix in years to come.

“The strong bond we had between team members sticks with me. It can be difficult to recruit journalists at an all-STEM university, but it means the people who do get involved are there because they really, really enjoy it, not as a CV exercise.”


Felix black cat logo

In September 2019, Felix’s latest editor took the reins. So, does Henry Alman (BSc Physics 2019) feel the pressures of upholding a 70-year tradition?

“Absolutely,” he says. “Felix is a high-quality publication. But I’d say it’s exciting rather than nerve-racking to pick up that mantle after so many good editors in the past.” 

Alman believes there’s much to be learned from the editorial values of Felix’s past.

“Today, you can do incredible things such as live reporting on Twitter, but I don’t think that sort of immediacy is entirely positive for news quality,” he says.

“I want to take a more considered approach and include as broad a view as possible of the different people and demographics that exist here at Imperial. To do that, you have to give your writers time.”

The Felix archive

Visit the Felix website to find archive issues from 1959 to 2019.

Imperial is the magazine for the Imperial community. It delivers expert comment, insight and context from – and on – the College’s engineers, mathematicians, scientists, medics, coders and leaders, as well as stories about student life and alumni experiences.

This story was published originally in Imperial 47/Winter 2019-20.