They 'Made Good' at Swansea

Scientific Research and the Establishment of the University College of Swansea in 1920

by Karmen Thomas, Swansea University

[i1] Singleton Abbey: the home of University College Swansea from 1920


In 1920, the University College of Swansea received its Royal Charter: an outcome that was not welcomed by all educationalists in the Welsh university movement, as they had assumed that the three established colleges already served the higher educational needs of Wales. This essay will address the connections between scientific research and the establishment of a university college at Swansea. It will argue that it was the limited provision of scientific teaching and research specific to Welsh industry which was offered by the three constituent colleges of the University of Wales that influenced the decision to create a fourth university college. The essay will discuss the effectiveness of the three colleges in establishing and promoting scientific education and research in Wales and identify how the centralised curriculum policy of the institution’s federal system affected the individual colleges’ resolve to undertake teaching and research, which could be applied to local industry. It will determine that it was combination of various seminal factors, the findings of a Government Commission, wartime pressures on industry and scientific higher education, plus the industrial/ educational networks that developed in Swansea which shaped the decision to establish a fourth college. The final part of the essay will identify how the early industrial connections with the new University College developed and became a network of financial support for the institution - a network that underpinned the institution’s progress during its first decade.

[i2] The First Meeting of the University of Wales Court in 1894, Whitehall

The University of Wales

Whereas in England there were local and regional pressures on the civic universities to meet the needs of their cities and their regional areas (which were often linked to growing industrialisation in the locality), [1] the University of Wales and its three constituent colleges were under a national obligation.[2] This national obligation stemmed from nineteenth century Welsh educational issues developing alongside political and nationalistic trends. The politicisation of the debates around higher education provision encouraged leading Welsh politicians, such as Stuart Rendel and Henry Richard, as well as educationalists, to undertake a commitment to create a Welsh national higher education system. The evidence of their determination was the establishment of the three colleges at Aberystwyth (1872), Cardiff (1883) Bangor (1884) and a university of Wales by 1893. The decision to unite the three colleges under a federal system was deemed to be the most effective way of delivering the higher educational requirements of all of Wales.

[i3] University College Aberystwyth

[i4] University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire

[i5] University College Bangor

The University was recognised as the first Welsh national institution and its achievements were a source of national pride. So, maintaining the University’s federal system was accepted as a fundamental element to sustaining that sense of national unity.[3] The federal system of the University ensured that the three small colleges would be encompassed within the credibility of the larger national institution, the University of Wales. However, there were difficulties and problems with the Welsh federal system. By its very structure the academics at the University had to balance bureaucratic demands as well as teaching and research obligations.[4] These internal pressures were compounded by the fact that academics were obliged to attend numerous meetings at different towns in Wales.[5] Such complex demands on the academic staff had a long-term effect on the freedom of the individual colleges. Whereas the Welsh federal system was conceived to be democratic and co-educational, there were those working within the network who preferred a more centralised structure particularly in relation to its curriculum.[6] Historically, the three colleges had an adaptable curriculum, as the architects of the university’s charter had made a radical decision to ensure flexibility within the federal system.

The charter enabled the teaching departments within the different colleges to have authority over their individual curriculum. The academic Isambard Owen observed in 1892 that ‘’Curricula’ and ‘syllabuses’ are not to be imposed on the colleges from above’.[7] This development was fundamentally different from the centralization of the other educational federal systems which were put in place at the Victoria University in 1880 and later, in 1898, st the London University. Such flexibility should have encouraged the creation and expansion of science disciplines at the colleges, and in fact the early signs of establishing science faculties were encouraging. All three colleges incorporated different science disciplines onto their curriculum during the late nineteenth-century, which included departments of Zoology, Physics, and Chemistry.[8] However, while the freedom established within the internal bureaucracy of the University allowed its constituent colleges to determine local educational needs and to act on them, the University increasingly sought compromise and conformity. By applying a central academic policy to the three colleges to ensure the federal system worked efficiently, the University failed to take into consideration certain regional industrial expectations of its individual colleges.

In assessing the success of the University of Wales federal system, it is important to consider how the University of Wales represented a geographical area and a distinct nationality. Yet it was an adherence to a distinct nationality which would have a negative impact on the University’s plans to establish a scientific and technical curriculum which would benefit Welsh industry. As a new ‘national institution’ which reflected the aspirations of all levels of Welsh society, there were expectations of the University to deliver a certain type of higher education. However, many Welsh parents preferred their children to study the humanities over the sciences, as parental ambitions were directed towards professions in the church or in education.[9] The belief that the professions in the church and teaching had a moral aspect attached to them against a scientific profession with its potential dangers of leading to a ‘selfish and detached’ career, was prevalent in Wales throughout the nineteenth-century and continued up to and during World War I. This bias is clearly illustrated in the type of degrees which were awarded by the University of Wales. Between 1897 and 1907 there were 903 degrees awarded in the arts and humanities departments and only 298 degrees awarded to the sciences.[10]

The disparity between the two disciplines was even greater at the Honours level. Between the same period there were 525 Honours degrees awarded to the arts and 81 Honours science degrees.[11] A further cause for concern was the numbers of students studying science in the constituent colleges. This did not increase from 1907 through to the end of the war.[12] The number of science graduates remained at between 20 to 25 per cent of all graduates from the Welsh University. Furthermore, nearly all graduates from the Metallurgy, Engineering and Mining Departments did not obtain positions in Welsh industry, but in England or the colonies.[13] This apprehension within Welsh society towards studying scientific disciplines was a major factor in the difficulty of engaging the public with scientific research. However, it must be noted that disengagement with scientific research was in fact a national concern and indicated as such in a Government White Paper of 23 July 1915.[14]

The science disciplines that were offered by the Welsh colleges tended to be the pure sciences, as the University seemed to favour the pure rather than the applied sciences. Zoology was adopted by all three colleges in 1896 while the subject of Engineering was only under discussion.[15] Considering there was a shortage across British industries of graduates of practical science subjects, the preference for zoology over engineering is questionable. Mechanical Engineering and Civil Engineering were introduced the following year.[16] In 1909, in a report to the Treasury on the three university colleges, it was noted that research was being undertaken in certain science disciplines in all three colleges.[17] Yet, there was a glaring omission in the colleges’ scientific research work. Apart from the agricultural research initiated at Bangor College by James Dobbie, which developed into a Department of Agriculture, and Aberystwyth College’s Zoology Department’s research into aspects of the North Wales fishing industry, there were no other research programmes which had a connection with Welsh industry. The colleges of Aberystwyth and Bangor were established away from areas of heavy industry, so it is not surprising that the scientific research programmes they established were connected to the traditional industries of farming and fishing. Furthermore, any opportunity by the University of Wales to connect and support the slate industry was hampered by the fact that its northern College was sited at Bangor. If industrial needs had been taken into consideration for a college in North Wales, then Bangor College would have been sited further east along the coastline.[18] Neither Aberystwyth nor Bangor Colleges developed educational connections with the slate industry, or the South Wales mining industry, even though workers from both industries gave them financial support.

[i6] Map of Swansea's Industrial Works

Industrial Disengagement

The efforts to establish connections between Welsh academia and industry did not really improve with the establishment of a constituent college in South Wales. The decision to site the third college at Cardiff and not at Swansea lost an opportunity to connect with the heavy industries of South Wales. Other considerations of population and urban infrastructure growth tilted the decision-makers towards Cardiff, even though many of the South Wales heavy industries such as copper, tinplate, steel production and mining were situated around the town of Swansea and its immediate area.[19] However, Cardiff University College under the direction of its first principal, Viriamu Jones (who was himself a scientist), did establish a wide range of disciplines onto the College’s curriculum.[20] By 1904, 23 departments had been established. Yet, this excessive diversification would have an unintentionally negative impact on the relations between the college and industry. The college over-reached its educational provision, and the consequence of an extensive curriculum on limited funds and space ensured that areas of excellence failed to materialise.[21] Specialised departments might have made the University more attractive to a sceptical Welsh industry.[22] The feelings of scepticism which were felt by many industrialists towards the university were fuelled by a lack of understanding of what the university could offer Welsh industry.

An appreciation of the level of Cardiff’s College disengagement from industry can be determined by the fate of one department. The Mining Department had been established in 1891 but had made so little progress in offering specialised teaching and research, that the owners of the South Wales Coal companies decided to establish and fund their own mining institution.[23] The industry needed specific scientific research to alleviate urgent problems within the industry, especially in relation to production and safety issues. The School of Mines opened at Treforest in 1912. Its success had a detrimental effect on the number of students enrolled on the mining course at the University College, whose student numbers fell to one by 1914. Concerns regarding the university’s disengagement with industry were felt outside of academia. In an article in the Western Mail in 1917 it was suggested that the complacency of the Welsh Colleges tainted the reputation of the Welsh University, as the institution seemed ‘indifferent alike to present needs and future national development.[24] In their defence, Cardiff College stated that ‘industry was slow to appreciate that maths, mechanics and physics were the basis of all engineering’.[25]

By 1917 academic connections were established between the School of Mines and the University College at Cardiff, with full-time students attending courses which consisted of modules shared between the two institutions.[26] Yet this progression was implemented too late to appease critics of the University. Whereas the consequences of disengagement from industry by the colleges of Aberystwyth and Bangor did not have a marked effect on the economy of Wales, the failure by the college at Cardiff to connect with industry had potentially serious consequences.[27] By the beginning of World War I, Wales was an important economic region and played a central role in the success of the British economy due to its coal-mining and metallurgical industries. [28] Therefore, the success and stability of Welsh industry was inter-connected with the type of industry provided by its University. The pressures of the early years of the war drew attention to the consequences of neglecting specific areas of scientific education not only in Wales but to the whole of Britain, particularly in the education of industrial chemists.[29] Industrial records show that in Wales the strain of directing vital heavy industry production towards the war effort put industries such as steel and tinplate processing under immense pressure.[30] There were complex difficulties in achieving a rapid increase in steel production, and one of them was a shortage of skilled men within the industry. The national, commercial and military needs during the war ensured that academic contributions to industry became more urgent and focused.[31]

The Case for Swansea

Government concerns regarding financial and institutional development issues of the Welsh federal university system were made clear in 1916 in a Royal Commission on University Education in Wales, which was chaired by Lord Haldane.[32] The Royal Commission gave an invaluable opportunity to the advocates of a university college at Swansea. When Swansea lost out to Cardiff in 1883 in the bid to site the third constituent college of the Welsh University, the town concentrated its efforts to establish its own educational institution which would have strong connections with local industry. Legal statements known as Proofs of Evidence given by industrialists, educationalists and councillors from Swansea and its region to the Royal Commission gave an insight into the establishment and growth of a Technical College. By the time of the commission in 1916 the Technical College with its laboratories offered a comprehensive range of scientific and technical subjects to the standard of degree level and had plans to become associated with the University of Wales.

The commission gave the supporters of a university college at Swansea the opportunity to press their case, which was given extra leverage by the findings of the commission. The commission’s write-up, known as the Haldane Report, revealed inconsistencies of science education and research at the University and its colleges.[33] The report recognised that the colleges lack of success in developing connections between their science departments and industry was partly due to the University’s desire for compromise and uniformity.[34] The commission observed that:

In South Wales, especially, it is alleged that this pressure towards uniformity and compromise among institutions remote from one another and in areas with widely differing conditions, works with other causes to excite suspicions which exercise an unfortunate influence on the relations between the University College and the great industrial community it has to serve. [35]

What is clear from the Proofs of Evidence is that unlike the links between industry and Cardiff College, close connections had developed between the Swansea Technical School and local industrialists. These connections were not just formed to financially support the institution, this was a collaboration to ensure that the scientific modules on the curriculum were compatible with industrial needs.

Industrialists such as Alfred Mond, Thomas J. Williams and Charles Hamilton Eden ensured that these collaborations would continue if a university college was established.[36] The industrialists also stressed that the increasing complexity of  heavy industries underpinned an urgent requirement for scientific and technical education at university level in Swansea.[37] This viewpoint was supported by the recommendations in the Haldane Report, which was in effect an official acknowledgement of the necessity for a university college in Wales that would be defined by its scientific teaching and industrial research. In an early conversation between Lord Haldane and Alfred Mond regarding the proposed University College at Swansea the industrialist told Haldane that ‘if we only got what we were asking for, we should ‘make good’ in Swansea’.

[i7] Singleton Abbey's front terrace

Made Good

In July 1923 three years after the establishment of the University College, Mond informed an audience at the opening ceremony of the new ‘temporary’ science buildings that ‘we have’.[38] Mond was referring specifically to the institution’s move to the Singleton Abbey site and the completion of the science buildings, which would house the departments of Metallurgy, Physics and Chemistry. The completion of the buildings was a physical representation of the efforts of the region’s University Movement, and as Mond suggested a tribute to those individuals whose enthusiasm and dedication led to the establishment of the institution.[39]

[i8] The Plan of the Metallurgical Department at University College Swansea

[i9] University College Swansea Honours Physics Laboratory ca.1923

The construction of the science buildings and furnishing and equipping the different departmental laboratories put an added pressure on the University College’s finances.  An essential part of funding for the institution came from endowments and subscriptions, and a distinct source of such funding was not dissimilar to the financial support received by the three other constituent colleges of the Welsh University. This funding came from working-class groups such as miners and the Penrhyn and Dinorwic quarryman. As with her sister colleges, the University College of Swansea also received a substantial amount of public funding from industrial sources. Yet, the provision of industrial financial support for the University College at Swansea was different to the earlier support given to the older constituent colleges, in that the support was formally organised. What is apparent when assessing financial support in the industrial and college archives is the determination of local industrialists to support the new college in an organised and systematic way. A system of organised industrial monetary collection is apparent from the minutes taken at a Director’s meeting held at Ashburnham Tinplate works on 30 September 1920.[40] Item 4 of the minutes states:

The Tinplate conference having recommended that the Tinplate Trade as a whole should contribute to the funds of Swansea University on the basis of £5 per mill per annum. Resolved that we accept the recommendation that a cheque for £20 to clear this year’s subscription be issued forthwith.[41]

The recommendation was accepted and acted on within the year by 45 of the tinplate mills, and with the annual subscriptions being guaranteed for at least five years. This was not the sum total of financial support from the tinplate industry, as larger single endowments were presented to the University College and appropriated for the science buildings and equipment.

An acknowledgement of the extent of local industrial financial support was noted in a pamphlet produced by the University College for the Universities Bureau of the British Empire.[42] The document states that the amounts were substantial. In 1920 single payments totalling £4,700 were received and annual subscriptions totalling £6,638.16 were given and promised for a further five years.[43] Such immediate and organised industrial funding for the University College was partly due to the efforts of the Council of the newly formed institution. The Council under the presidency of the industrialist F.W. Gilbertson decided to take pro-active measures to solicit the continued support of local industry. At a meeting of the College’s Finance Committee on 10 June 1920 it was agreed that the President of the College should issue invitations to local manufacturers to a meeting at the Swansea Metal Exchange on 22 June to discuss industrial support of the University College. Those who attended would be addressed by Gilbertson and Principal Sibly.[44]

Whatever was expressed at the meeting by Gilbertson and Sibly, it had the desired effect on the industrialists and cemented their resolve, and role in the public finance of the University College. The networking that was undertaken with the region’s industry would continue to generate financial support for the institution throughout its first decade. In 1925, some of the industrial subscribers who had promised subscriptions for five years gave assurance for a further five years of subscriptions.[45] A few extended their subscriptions for a further seven years, notably the Cleeves Western Valleys Anthracite Collieries Ltd who promised by deed £500 per annum and the South Wales Siemens Steel Association assured by deed £2,500 per annum.[46] The development of research projects that were associated with the needs of industry were earmarked for extra funding as Siemen’s subscription illustrates, as out of their £2,500 annual subscription, £1, 200 had to be allocated for research into metallurgical research.[47]

To conclude, the determination to deliver a successful and accessible national university system in Wales ensured that its bureaucracy was built on a federal system. The federal system supported the small constituent colleges during their early years which allowed each college to establish scientific disciplines in their curriculum. However, national educational demands on the Welsh University focused the institution’s direction on the humanities rather than the sciences. This educational bias, added to the university’s increasing culture of conformity and uniformity, guided the colleges against using the flexibility of the federal system in relation to their curriculum. This is apparent by the failure of all three colleges to establish teaching and research programmes to resolve issues connected with the vital heavy industries of Wales. Research programmes at Aberystwyth and Bangor Colleges only focused on the traditional industries of fishing and farming. However, it was the years of conflict of World War I that focused political, industrial and educational conversations on the inadequacies of scientific university education in Britain and highlighted the vital role of university scientific research. In Wales these conversations were reflected in the observations and comments in the report of the 1916 Royal Commission on Welsh university education. The decision by the University of Wales to encompass a fourth constituent college at Swansea was an acknowledgement of the need for a higher education institution which would deliver scientific teaching and research requirements of the industrial region of South Wales. The opening in 1923 of the science buildings with their modern laboratories at the Singleton site consolidated not only the creation of the science faculty, but it also symbolised that the University College of Swansea was firmly established at the Singleton campus. Significantly, the buildings’ completion was visible evidence to the industrial community that their financial endowments and contributions had, as Mond succinctly phrased it, ‘made good.’

Karmen Thomas is a PhD student in the History Department at Swansea University, supervised by Christoph Laucht and Tomas Irish. Karmen is studying the history of the science faculty at the University, through the development of the science departments that were established during the early years of the institution.






[1] William Whyte, Redbrick. A Social and Architectural History of Britain's Civic Universities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 137.

[2] Kenneth Owen Morgan, Rebirth of a Nation. A History of Modern Wales (Oxford: Oxford  University Press, 1981), p. 110.

[3] Austin Jenkins, The University of Wales: The need for a Principle Officer (Cardiff: Cymmrodorion Society, 1908) p. 2.

[4] Karmen Thomas, Development and Discord in the Welsh Federal University Movement (1889-1914) (MA Thesis, Swansea University: 2016) p. 55.

[5] Thomas (2016), p. 51.

[6] Thomas (2016), p. 51.

[7] Swansea University Library Pamphlets, reference code: W/LD-W/LF1145, 6254, Isambard Owen, Memorandum on the Proposed Charter of the University of Wales (Swansea, 1982), p. 2.

[8] J., Gwynne Williams, The University of Wales 1839-1939, Volume 2 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1997) pp. 64-92.

[9] E. H., Griffiths, ‘Scientific Education and Welsh Industries’ in The Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, session 1916-17 (London: issued by society, 1918) p. 198.

[10] Gareth Elwyn Jones and Gordon Wynne Roderick, A History of Education in Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003), p. 98.

[11] Jones and Roderick (2003), p.98.

[12] E. H. Griffiths, ‘Scientific Education and Welsh Industries’ in The Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cwymrodorion, session 1916-17 (London: issued by society, 1918) p. 198-207.

[13] Griffiths (1918), p. 198-207.

[14] Harold, H. C. Carpenter, The Policies involved in the Organisation of Scientific Research by the State (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1931), p. 18.

[15] University of Wales Archives, reference no: S4 / 1, University Senate Meetings (1894)

[16] University of Wales Archives, reference no: S4 / 1

[17] Swansea University Library Pamphlets, reference code: W/ LD – W/ LF1145, Report to the Treasury of the Committee on the University of Wales and the Welsh University Colleges (London: HMSO, 1909) pp. xiv-xviii.

[18] Michael Sanderson, The Universities and British Industry 1850-1970 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972) pp. 122-27.

[19] W. G. V. Balchin, Swansea and its Region (Swansea: University of Swansea, 1971), pp. 247-53.

[20] J. Gwynne Williams, The University of Wales 1839-1939, Volume 2 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1997) pp. 80-1.

[21] Williams (1997), pp. 80-1.

[22] Sanderson (1972), pp.122-27.

[23] Sanderson (1972), pp. 134-35.

[24] Salmon Pamphlet Collection (129), The Future of Education-What Shall it be? (Cardiff: Western Mail Ltd., 1917), p. 53.

[25] S.B. Chrimes, ‘Part One Government, Administration and Finance’ in University College Cardiff. A Centenary History 1883-1938 ed. by S. B. Chrimes (unpublished) p. 53.

[26] Salmon Collection Pamphlets (129), E. H. Griffiths, Industry, Science and Education (Cardiff: Roberts & Co., 1917), p. 62.

[27] Sanderson (1972), pp.134-35.

[28] Gareth Elwyn Jones, ‘Policy-Making in Welsh Education: A Historical Perspective, 1889-1988’ in Education Policy-Making in Wales, eds. Richard Daugherty et al (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000), p. 55.

[29]Tamson Pietsch, Empire of Scholars. Universities, Networks and the British Academic World 1850-1939 (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 133-34.

[30] Modern Records Centre, Warwick University, reference no. S125a / 23a, Memorandum of the South Wales Siemens Steel Association, p.3.

[31] Patrick Nuttgens, ‘Technology and the University’, in Universities, Society, and the Future, ed. by Nicholas Phillipson (Edinburgh University Press, 1983), pp. 182-83.

[32] Eric Ashby and Mary Anderson, Portrait of Haldane at Work on Education (Hamden, Conn: Archon Books, 1974), p. 124.

[33] Sanderson (1972), pp. 131-2.

[34] Royal Commission on University Education in Wales (1918), p. 27.

[35] Royal Commission on University Education.

[36] RBA, Proofs of Evidence, pp. 8-15.

[37] RBA, Proofs of Evidence, pp. 8-15.

[38] Swansea University Library Pamphlets, Box no: T170-TA399, reference no: T175 Mon, Mond, Sir Alfred, The Application of Science to Industry (Swansea: Ernest Davies & Co., 1923), pp. 1-3.

[39] Mond (1923), pp. 1-3.

[40] Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University, reference no: LAC / 4 / 3, Ashburnham Tinplate Company, Directors Meetings Minute Book (30 September 1920), p. 165.

[41] RBA / LAC / 4 / 3, p. 165.

[42] RBA, reference no: UNI / SU / AS / 2 / 1 / 27, Universities of the British Empire, p. 9.

[43] RBA / UNI / SU / AS / 2 / 1 / 27, p.9.

[44] RBA, reference no: LAC / 4 / 3, Finance Committee (10 June 1920).

[45] RBA, reference no: UNI / SU / AS / 2 / 1 / 68, List of Subscribers (1925)

[46] RBA / UNI / SU / AS / 2 / 1 / 68.

[47] RBA, Swansea University, Annual Reports 1929-1932 (1932), p. 73.

Image References

[i1] Aerial View of Singleton Abbey, Institute of Metals Swansea Autumn Meeting Souvenir Brochure(c.1922), Richard Burton Archives, reference no: 664

[i6] Map of Tinplate Works in Swansea Region, Daily Mail (05 December 1908)

[i7] Photograph of the front terrace of Singleton Abbey with view of laboratories, UCS Postcard Book, (c.1920s), reference no: 739a

[i7] Plan of UCS Metallurgical Department, Institute of Metals Swansea Autumn Meeting Souvenir Brochure (c.1922), Richard Burton Archives, reference no: 664

[i8] Photograph of Honours Laboratory, Physics Department, Singleton Abbey, UCS Postcard Book, (c.1920s), reference no: 664.