Higher Education Postcard: Aberystwyth University

This week’s postcard from Hugh Jones’ postbag tells how Hugh Pugh of Pwllheli helped turn a hotel into a university

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

From the Aberystwyth Observer, 20 November 1869:

UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF WALES, ABERYSTWYTH. The local committee, availing themselves of the presence in the town of various friends of the institution from different parts of the country, invited a number to a breakfast at the College house, on Wednesday morning, with a view to a friendly conversation on matters pertaining to the present position and future prospects of this national movement. About sixty gentlemen, among whom were Samuel Morley, Esq, M.P.; Henry Richard, E.q., M.P.; John Roberts, Esq., Liverpool; Stephen Evans, Esq, London; Dr. Sandwith, of Kars, late candidate for Marylebone; Hugh Pugh, Esq., Pwllheli &c, &c., sat down to breakfast. John Matthews, Esq, mayor, presided. After breakfast a very interesting friendly conference took place, when the Rev. Mr Charles, the secretary, made a statement of the present condition of affairs, after which Mr. Morley, Mr. Henry Richard, Mr Roberts, &c., shared their views and offered suggestions on various points, which were taken up with spirit with the successive speakers. It was ultimately agreed upon that a general conference of gentlemen interested in the future education of the Principality be called, to meet at Aberystwyth, early in the month of January next, and a committee was appointed to convene a conference. It appears that measures are on foot to convene a conference to take into consideration the subject of elementary education in general, and it was deemed desirable that both conferences meet at the same town and during the same week, as the same gentlemen would, to a very great measure, attend both. It was likewise agreed for this reason that the place should be Aberystwyth, and the educational conference should be held on one day and the University College conference on the following. The meeting manifested great earnestness and determination to bring this movement to a real practical result, from the tone of the whole meeting, as well as the character of the gentlemen composing it, we feel assured that such will be the case.

The local committee was, I believe, the local branch of the Welsh University Committee, which sought to do pretty much what its name suggests. Two years previously, in 1867, it had bought the (incomplete) Castle Hotel, on the seafront at Aberystwyth, with a view to making this the home of a university.

Cost, as ever, was a decisive factor, and in 1871 the committee established five regional committees – in London, Liverpool, Manchester, North Wales and South Wales) – each to raise £400 per year for running expenses, for three years. The university college was to open by October 1872 – and the 14 September 1872 edition of the Aberystwyth Observer shows that it did!

Initially, it seems that students may have registered for University of London degrees – certainly, University College Aberystwyth was unable to award its own.

The new college thrived – expanding the range of disciplines, making scholarships open to all, regardless of race or creed, offering accommodation for men and women. On the last Sunday in October 1875, a collection was held for the university in chapels across Wales, raising £3,100 – equivalent to over £380,000 today. Not bad for a whip round – it’s about 1/2d from everybody living in Wales at the time.

1885 was the next significant year for the university. There was a good thing – a gift of land at Penglais, the Gogerddan estate – which enabled the university to grow, and which provides the main campus today. And a bad thing – a calamitous fire which partially destroyed the Old College building.

In 1893 The University of Wales was established. On the model of London University, it was a federal institution – alongside Aberystwyth (which became the University of College of Wales, Aberystwyth) were the University College of North Wales, Bangor and the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire.

Aberystwyth continued to develop over the next decades – its law department was the first in Wales, it became a clear centre of expertise in agriculture, especially in dairy science. In 1908 its men’s rugby team started a run of 15 undefeated years, in 1909 the National Library of Wales was founded in Aberystwyth – a clear benefit to the University. In 1918 a gift enabled the University to establish a professorship in International Politics, a subject for which Aberystwyth became and remains famed.

The college was awarded a coat of arms in 1938, including its motto ‘Nid Byd, Byd Heb Wybodaeth’ (‘A World Without Knowledge, Is No World’). And the college continued to grow, with 2000 students in 1965, and numerous new departments and disciplines added.

But the landscape of higher education in Wales was changing, and the federal University of Wales no longer met the needs of its members. In 2007 the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, became Prifysgol Aberystwyth, or Aberystwyth University in English, and it was once again an autonomous institution.

2022 marks 150 years since the college first opened its doors. There was a day’s holiday in the town to celebrate its opening. Maybe there’s a need for another day off in October 2022 to mark its anniversary?

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