Frank Gilbertson (1873 – 1929): Founder of Swansea University - Part II
A Leap of Faith in a Better Future
by Dr D. Hugh Jones, Swansea University Medical School
Part I of this biography dealt with Frank’s family, community and business activities mostly prior to the First World War. In Part II we see how this formative background enabled him to succeed in leading the efforts to found the University.
Frank’s political activities did not extend beyond becoming a JP and following his father as a Glamorgan County Councillor (1898 – 1912). In this role he took a particular interest in promoting wider access to publicly-funded education at all levels [1, p. 32]. In 1920 he advocated for “whole-time general education to 16 years of age, with every subsequent opportunity for attending voluntary continuation and particularly voluntary technical classes. . . .if everyone is to have the opportunity of making the best of his life.” [2, p. 5]. Frank was more than 50 years ahead of his time – the school leaving age was not raised to 16 until 1972. Many trades union leaders and industrial entrepreneurs had struggled to educate themselves, so supporting increased educational opportunity was an area where they could easily find common ground. Without holding elected office himself, Frank fostered this cross-party cooperation from 1916 onwards to get the University established.
It was said [3, p. 62] that at Pontardawe there were three political parties: Liberals, Labour and Gilbertsonians. When he declined a request from the Conservatives to stand as their candidate in the parliamentary election of 1918, he was reported to be “more interested in the welfare of the community generally than he is in party politics” [1, p. 30]. He declined an offer of honours – probably a knighthood – for his contribution to the war effort [1, p. 29]. Perhaps, in that raw atmosphere of collective grief, he did not want any recognition to be for supplying artillery shell steel when war memorials everywhere were being built to carry so many names [4, pp. 40 – 47] [5, p. 119].
By 1916 Molly (Mary) Gilbertson had fallen in love with Hugh Vivian (1884 - 1956). He was born in Oporto, Portugal where his father William was a mining engineer . Hugh was a cousin (albeit rather distant) of Lord Swansea. He was sent to school at Uppingham and University in Germany at Hannover and Freiburg, where he gained First Class degrees in both Mechanical Engineering and Metallurgy . He was Technical Manager of Vivian and Sons Ltd. from 1909 until joining the Army Service Corps in 1914. When they married in 1917 , she was 19 and he was 33. They could not set up home together during the war, so Mary stayed at Glynteg and Hugh went there when on army leave. For Frank, Hugh was the ideal son-in-law, sharing his interest in technical matters and practically involved in the metallurgical business of Vivian and Sons Ltd. Furthermore, just when Frank was taking a leading role from 1916 onwards in the establishment of the University, his daughter’s marriage into the wider Vivian family brought him closer to Swansea’s copper dynasty and significant landowners.
Hugh was descended from the “Bishopston branch” of the Vivian family, not from the wealthier “Singleton branch” . John Henry Vivian FRS (1785 – 1855) had built his neo-Tudor style Singleton Abbey [10, p. 3] on the vast profits of the copper trade [11, p. 32]. His very capable eldest son, Henry Hussey Vivian (1821 – 94), had developed and diversified the firm, and was raised to the barony in 1893 as the first Lord Swansea. After his time, the copper business went into serious decline and his sons, the second and third Lords, Ernest Ambrose Vivian (1848 – 1922) and Odo Richard Vivian (1875 – 1934) took little interest in the family firm or its locality. However, their first cousin, Admiral Algernon Walker-Heneage-Vivian of Clyne Castle (1871 – 1952), took a great interest after his retirement from active naval service in 1920 [12, p. 49]. Ernest, Odo, Algernon and Hugh shared the same Cornish great-great-grandfather (Rev. Thomas Vivian of Truro) pre-dating the family’s involvement with the copper trade and Swansea [11, p. 65]. When Hugh returned from military service in 1918 he became Assistant General Manager, later Managing Director, of Vivian and Sons Ltd.  whilst Algernon became a fellow Director and eventually Chairman of the Board [12, p. 51]. Like Frank, the Admiral had no sons [12, p. 54]. He got on well with Hugh and valued the Vivian connection despite the distance of their direct relationship, ensuring these branches of the family stuck together socially.
In 1918, there was an addition to the family: Frank and Isabel’s first grandchild Anthony Vivian was born at Glynteg. This happy event and Hugh’s homecoming as the Great War ended coincided with Frank’s gift to his daughter of the house in which she had grown up . He and Isabel moved from Glynteg to enjoy the sea air at Llwyn-y-Mor, Langland which he had bought from his late mother-in-law’s relative, Arthur Eden .
The inadequacy of technical and scientific higher education in Britain had prompted the Vivians to send their sons to German universities [11, p. 59]. In 1916, the year of the Somme, anxiety about the consequences of technological inferiority contributed to a revival of interest in establishing a university college in Swansea. The efforts of earlier decades had come to little, as in 1882 Cardiff had won the bid to house the new University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire [15, p. 55]. Two veterans of that struggle against Cardiff were self-made industrialists, John Jones Jenkins (1835 – 1915) in tinplate and Richard (Dick) Martin (1843 – 1922) in zinc, who both pleaded for more scientifically-educated staff. After badgering his fellow town councillors on the education committee, Dick Martin had succeeded in setting up an independent Swansea Technical College before his retirement in 1910. This soon outgrew its accommodation with some students taking external B.Sc. degrees of London University [15, p. 64].
Mid-way through the Great War, a new opportunity arose with the appointment of the Royal Commission on University Education in Wales, chaired by Lord Haldane. A former Liberal MP, he had recently served as Lord Chancellor in the Asquith government. Moreover, he was passionate about furthering technological higher education along German lines, having been the unifier of the South Kensington science colleges to form the Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1907 [15, p. 2]. In April 1916, Haldane assembled a distinguished panel of academics with a range of university interests from science to humanities [15, p. 71] to pursue his aim of widening educational opportunity.
To prepare for the challenge of making representations to the Haldane Commission, Dick Martin’s successors on the education committee persuaded Swansea Corporation to establish a new sub-committee with wide powers as a governing body for the Technical College. Two-thirds of its members were industrialists and others supportive toward the establishment of a civic university. Frank Gilbertson was co-opted, initially to advise on developing metallurgy, but soon became “the acknowledged leader of the movement to create a university college in Swansea” [15, p. 65].
The immediate priority was made clear by the Commission on a brief informal visit in June 1916: credible proposals depended on financial planning, with an endowment fund to meet the salaries of the high calibre academic staff required. The Mayor, David Davies (1862 – 1932), was also editor/proprietor of The South Wales Daily Post and launched a fundraising campaign which eventually reached nearly £70,000 – double the sum suggested by the Haldane Commissioners. The bulk of this was secured by Frank, who won immediate pledges of support from the metallocracy: £10,000 each from the South Wales Siemens Steel Association, the Welsh Plate and Sheet Manufacturers’ Association and from Baldwins Ltd; £5,000 from the Briton Ferry Steel Co. plus £2,500 personally from its chairman; £2,500 from the Mond Nickel Co. (the first and largest nickel works in the world at Clydach) with an equal personal gift from Sir Alfred Mond (1868 – 1930). Other firms, including Vivian and Sons, made donations of £2,000. The Dillwyn-Llewelyn family of Penllergare and Dulcie Vivian (1839 – 1921) were among those who now also honoured personal pledges made to the first Swansea campaigners four decades earlier [15, p. 67]. Frank’s own company donated generously: by 1920 W. Gilbertson & Co. had committed to giving £5,000 p.a. for five years and further “capital sums from time to time” [1, p. 32]. In addition to these donations, there was growing confidence that “the manufacturers were going to make a success of the College” [15, p. 66] to secure Swansea’s technological future after the war ended.
The Royal Commissioners returned for formal interviews of the Swansea representatives in December 1916 and indicated that they would like to see provision for humanities as well as sciences and technology. When the Final Report of the Haldane Commission was published in March 1918, it gave strong support to Swansea’s plans for full university status as a constituent college of the University of Wales, provided they included a faculty of arts so that “the whole man should be developed by the stimulating presence of the University atmosphere” [15, p. 73].
A way forward was needed which would retain the confidence (and money) of the industrialists whilst also meeting Haldane’s stipulations, which were essential to securing the necessary Royal Charter from the Privy Council. By the autumn of 1918, the technical college sub-committee had been given greater autonomy from the Swansea Corporation with Frank taking control and chairing a steering committee for formation of the university college. Frank was now in a unique commanding position as an industry spokesman, well-connected but ostensibly above town hall politics: a trusted helmsman to keep the new ship off the rocks. His “happy urbanity of temperament” [1, p. 29] and conciliatory skills overlaid a strong determination to move his collaborators onward with key decision making, aided by his “fixer” T. J. Rees (1875 – 1957), the Director of Education [15, p. 75]. They had to cope with advice from a special advisory committee appointed by the Board of Education, the Privy Council and the University of Wales; draft a charter and statutes; appoint a Principal; and tackle the difficult issue of inadequate accommodation on the Mount Pleasant (technical college) and Town Hill (training college) sites [15, p. 76]. In April 1919, the University of Wales made a positive recommendation to the Privy Council, which in July approved that the technical college could be admitted to constituent membership of the University [15, p. 79].
Just at this time a great opportunity arose which changed the whole course of events, resulting in the embryonic university college developing as a new separate entity, independent of the Swansea Technical College. In the summer of 1919, the finest location in Swansea – the coastal parkland domain of its dominant dynasty – came on the market. Ernest Ambrose Vivian put the 254 acre Singleton estate up for sale because he wanted the cash: the fourth generation of that dynasty were living off their inheritance as the halcyon days of Copperopolis became a faded memory [11, p. 59]. Had the second Lord Swansea been generous enough to donate just an eastern portion of his land including Singleton Abbey, this would have greatly eased the accommodation problem for Frank and his “inner cabinet” of promoters. However, Lord Swansea chose to put his own interests before those of town and emergent gown.
The Swansea Corporation now seized their chance – but initially for the town, not for academia – and paid out £90,000. Much argument took place in the Guildhall over municipal uses for the land whilst Alderman Ivor Gwynne (1867 – 1934), chairman of the education committee, made pleas for a university site [15, p. 80]. He was secretary of the Tin and Sheet Millmens’ Association [15, p. 64] and a key player in Frank’s team. By September 1919, Ivor Gwynne had obtained council support for a university site on part of the Singleton land [15, p. 80]. This vague understanding was enough for Frank to move forward with plans to start the first student term in October 1920, but the accommodation issue would flare up again soon.
A priority in the autumn of 1919 was appointing a Principal of sufficient calibre to bring credibility to the new institution within the University of Wales and beyond. With the help of Sir Alfred Mond (Liberal MP for Swansea West), the Privy Council were persuaded to allow Frank’s sub-committee to make the appointment and they took informal soundings from Lord Haldane and others [15, p. 81]. Haldane suggested Dr. Thomas Franklin Sibly (1884 – 1948) who had recently been Professor of Geology and Dean of Science at Cardiff, but had moved to Newcastle in 1918 when he had been passed over for the top job at Cardiff. Sibly was an inspired choice as an all-round academic with a reputation for research, teaching, administration and university politics. As an expert on the mineral resources of South Wales he held immediate appeal for Frank and his “inner cabinet” and they unanimously appointed him at a salary of £1,500 in January 1920 – one of their most important decisions [15, p. 83]. Sibly immediately gathered together a nucleus of young energetic staff: five chairs in metallurgy, chemistry, physics, mathematics and engineering; lectureships in geology and history; and a registrar.
Metallurgy was to be developed as a particular speciality “of the first rank alike in teaching and research”. Dr. Charles Edwards (1882 – 1960) was attracted from Manchester by a salary of £1,250 (£450 more than the other chairs) to the great satisfaction of Frank and his industrial donors [15, p. 84]. Frank anticipated the involvement of graduates in industry [2, pp. 6, 9]. Early in 1920 he declared, “The start and growth of university education at Swansea will afford the manufacturers and business men of this district the opportunity that is needed to take a deeper and ever-growing interest in the work of education; I believe they welcome it, and will fix a high standard as the goal of the common effort” [2, p. 10].
By the summer of 1920 Frank had all the essential elements in place for the formal establishment of the University College of Swansea with its first students arriving that autumn. Pledges of funding by industry had been followed by the agreement of the University of Wales and the Haldane Commission, enabling the Privy Council to approve a Royal Charter. There was at least a promise of sorts from the Swansea Corporation that the Singleton estate could provide accommodation. Some key members of staff had been appointed - first among them the most able and politically astute Principal Sibly, who got on very well with Frank. Now the great news that Swansea really would have a proper University could be proclaimed – at last!
On 19th July 1920, under a beautiful canopy amid the trees on a glorious summer day, Frank began the foundation ceremony by presenting to the King a welcome scroll with his and Sibly’s signatures [16, p. 92] . For a moment the present practical problems and the disappointments of four decades of struggle could be forgotten as everyone was invited to share in a vision “of high ideals and lofty purpose” [16, p. 92]. The foundation ceremony was a necessary public demonstration of commitment, requiring a leap of faith in a better future after the carnage of the Great War. There was an earnest desire to do something for the collective good, to atone for the lives and opportunities lost and to safeguard a peace after the rawness of war. Where exactly the new university college would be permanently sited was not yet agreed – making the laying of the foundation stone a purely notional and symbolic act. The proceedings took place to the north of Singleton Abbey on the Archery Lawn [10, p. 9], which never became part of the university campus. However, once the laying of the stone was witnessed by this great assembly of dignitaries and the Royal Charter accepted from the King, there was no going back – whatever the difficulties, wherever any building might eventually be going. Frank had helped to bring diverse people (and funds) together, and with calculated brinkmanship under a veneer of flattery [16, p. 92], he had lead them to this ornate daїs to push them over a threshold of dedication.
With hindsight we can see that they did it just in time: after an inflated post-war boom – steel [1, p. 30] and tinplate [17, p. 141] prices peaked in June 1920 – came the slump through 1921 and beyond. The University College of Swansea had been founded just on the crest of a wave of optimism before a tide of economic depression swept in. If the Royal Charter had not been secured in 1920, it might have been too late to continue as confidence ebbed away. Would they have kept their nerve if there had been a delay of a year or two? Would all the funding pledges then have been honoured? It is hard to imagine a more inauspicious economic climate for the foundation of a new university than during the 15 years after 1921 [15, p. 105]. The promised “land fit for heroes” was not delivered, reconstruction programmes were shelved and many ex-servicemen and others suffered as unemployment increased. Later in the 1920s W. Gilbertson & Co. Ltd. had accumulated a crippling debt of £250,000 with little more than Frank’s reputation as security [18, p. 5].
At the time of sale in 1919, Singleton Abbey and grounds were in a very poor state. A fire in 1896 had destroyed the north wing and, although this was partly rebuilt, the house had not been occupied for about 20 years. In December 1920, the Corporation spent £10,000 on basic repairs and alterations [11, p. 62] after agreeing a nominal rent – but only on a temporary basis [15, p. 94]. Overcrowding in shared facilities at Mount Pleasant reached a crisis and space was needed to begin humanities courses and to erect new science laboratories at Singleton. Sibly and Frank pressed for a permanent resolution. After a long and bitter period of dispute, Singleton Abbey and 34 acres (valued at £40,000) were eventually conveyed to the university in 1923. Swansea Corporation also wrote off a loan of £50,000 for construction of “temporary” science buildings [15, p. 94]. By 1923, their total contribution of £100,000, however slowly and reluctantly (sometimes grudgingly) given, was comparable to donations from companies. Haldane’s definition [15, p. 3] of a truly civic university – supported by its local community – had been met, the fruits of economic activity gathered via the ratepayers as well as directly from industry.
The first decade was very difficult but staff and student numbers grew steadily, with fees income supplemented by regular donations from industry despite the acute recession. The University Grants Committee was also comparatively favourable to Swansea [15, pp. 97 – 105]. In 1926, Franklin Sibly moved to the University of London and the Vice-Principal and Professor of Metallurgy, Charles Edwards, became the second Principal [15, pp. 109 – 111].
The strain of the war years had left Frank with a weakened heart [19, p. 560]. However, he did not reduce his roles as a community and industrial leader, even as trading relationships deteriorated and competition sharpened. Frank became President of the South Wales Siemens Steel Association from 1918 along with serving on other trade boards and committees in an increasingly stressful period. In 1922 Viscount Churchill, Chairman of the Great Western Railway, personally invited him to become a Director  at a critical time before railway company grouping in 1923. Frank also continued to serve on many committees of the newly disestablished Church in Wales concerned with governance and finance at national and diocesan levels [1, p. 365].
From 1921 onwards the prosperity of W. Gilbertson & Co. was gradually destroyed by the severe recession [1, p. 30]. A highly paternalistic local management acutely felt the great responsibility of providing a livelihood to support most of the families in Pontardawe and the pressure was making Frank ill. In March 1925, he wrote to his steelworks manager “I have been very little at business for a long time, but I have been aware of the difficulties that face us. In the present state of trade it seems to me really to be doubtful if we can go on making steel. At any rate the time has come for very drastic measures” [1, pp. 31, 183].
Frank relinquished the University Presidency due to exhaustion in 1925. However, after a respite he recovered and resumed this responsibility following the sudden death of his successor, the tinplate manufacturer Henry Folland (1877 - 1926) [15, p. 108]. This was just at the time that Principal Sibly was leaving and Frank’s return to Singleton in 1926 must have been very welcome when the President continued to fulfil an important fundraising and executive role. In this he was supported by his old ally Ivor Gwynne as Vice-President.
Against Medical Advice
Frank maintained an active working life against medical advice. The 1926 General Strike had little effect on W. Gilbertson & Co. due to relatively good industrial relations in the steel industry  and Frank’s lack of regard for the coal owners [19, p. 560]. In 1928 he led a delegation to the USA to investigate new continuous wide strip mill processes which would revolutionise the steel and tinplate industry in the coming decades of company takeovers [1, p. 32].
Health concerns may have prompted Frank and Isabel to move house in 1918 from Pontardawe to Langland, as his brothers Cecil and Charles took on more of his immediate responsibilities in the works. After moving to Llwyn-y-Mor, they bought up surrounding Langland properties in 1921 . Part of the Thomas’ estate around Bishopston had been settled on Isabel at her marriage to Frank, and they had consolidated these holdings in 1917 by purchasing adjoining land from her brother . Frank gave a large plot of land at Bishopston for his daughter Mary and her husband Hugh to build Chantry Acre . They moved there from Glynteg in 1928 and, after ten years at Llwyn-y-mor, Frank and Isabel also moved to Bishopston . However, Frank would have little time to enjoy his new house, Paradise Meadow (now called Ocean Meadow), so near to the home of his young grandsons, Anthony and Michael.
In June 1929, Frank and Isabel went on a leisure trip by car and train across Europe to Romania. This was not the first time they had been there: just before the Great War, the Gilbertson brothers had become partners in forming the Roumanian (sic) Sheet and Galvanizing Co. Ltd. at Galatz (Galati) on the Danube [1, p. 28]. Although they had relinquished most of their Romanian business interests in 1924 [1, p. 148], Frank still had contacts there and was a welcome visitor. However, this final continental tour became a great strain. From Budapest on 12th June 1929, Frank wrote presciently to his sister-in-law, expressing anxiety for his own health and that of industry:
“It is dreadfully sad for people who are still young in spirit to get old physically and Isabel and I both think we shall not attempt holidays quite so far off again. The 3 weeks in Roumania made rather a nightmare!...I was far from well and very weak and my throat still very sore...We had to go pretty fast or the Engine stopped , because of the bad petrol, and over the bad roads it was dreadful. We broke a spring...It is wonderful what 12 hours in the open air will do and we both slept and indeed my throat was better next morning...While waiting for dinner I went over the Works and met to mutual satisfaction a Workman from Llanelly...I went out to see about Passport, get money changed, and buy more Hydrogen Peroxide (as throat gargle) at the chemist...We have been dogged with bad luck this time, and realize more than ever that nothing matters except health in the world. We shall come back with greatly increased knowledge of how the world lives and how lucky we are in England (sic), even if it is rather artificial and temporary in a way, and due solely to the coal we have. Millions of people in Europe never see anything except their fields from generation to generation and work from sunrise to sundown. The standard of living is very low and the workmen at Nadrag, skilled men doing exactly the same work as the Sheet Rollers at Pontardawe make 3/- a day as compared with 30/-... As far as I can judge, particularly after my time in Roumania and Hungary, all of us Manufacturers are likely to become very poor, and England generally be gradually impoverished...Every country in the world is determined to make for themselves those manufactured articles we used to or still supply them with.” .
Frank’s bad throat was the start of a diphtheria infection. Diphtheria was a very serious disease in the 1920s before toxoid vaccination, effective antitoxin or antibiotic therapies, and a weak heart increased the risk of complications in Frank’s case . He returned from the gruelling continental tour to Paradise Meadow, Bishopston, and died suddenly there on 8th October 1929. His final letter was to an official of the Great Western Railway: “I am so much better that I hoped to have attended this week’s Board, but my Doctors advise me not to, as the weather has turned so cold – I have had many weary months in bed.” His daughter annotated: “Papa died at 10-30 the night this letter was written and left unfinished. Even on his last day alive he was active and busy helping others.” .
Isabel received condolences from the great and the good for “the loss of one who in his day and generation played a great role in the industrial and educational life of Wales” . All the national and local newspapers published adulatory obituaries and some carried accounts of the funeral. A public service, which filled All Saints Church, Pontardawe, was held simultaneously with the private family committal at Bishopston. It was a simple funeral with mourners walking behind the coffin borne on a gambo (farm dray) and the bearers were his tenant farmers . Charles Edwards, one of Frank’s first appointments to the University staff and now Principal, paid tribute: “He guided us through our most difficult days…” .
A fortnight after Frank was buried, the Wall Street Crash began followed by the Great Depression. W. Gilbertson & Co. Ltd. owed their bank a quarter of a million pounds [18, p. 5] – more money than the total spent on setting up the University – and poor trading conditions made a take-over inevitable. In 1933 Richard Thomas & Co. acquired the entire share capital, with Cecil and Charles continuing as local directors [1, p. 414].
Charles, acting on behalf of the Gilbertson family, donated Cwmdu in 1935 as a public open space on condition that the Parish Council never allowed any development or disposal of the land . Where the unemployed of Pontardawe swam [31, p. 119] during the Great Depression is now a nature reserve. Charles was the last Gilbertson to leave Pontardawe in 1950 [31, p. 59]. During the late 1950s the works were gradually run down and had closed completely by 1963 [4, p. 24] [31, p. 38].
In 1942, Frank’s grandson Anthony Vivian was killed in action off Malta while serving with the RAF and is commemorated by a stained glass window in Pennard Church. Isabel and Mary donated 351 acres of land around Pennard Cliffs, Pwlldu Bay and Bishopston Valley to the National Trust in 1954 . Hugh Vivian was Vice-President of the University College of Swansea from 1950 to 1956. Following the death of Admiral Walker-Heneage-Vivian in 1952, Clyne Castle was acquired as a University hall of residence and renamed Neuadd Gilbertson to honour Frank [12, p. 57]. It was sold in 2003, so that now there is no building bearing the name of “the man who, more than any other, had been instrumental in founding a University College in Swansea in 1920” [12, p. 57].
For their invaluable assistance I am indebted to: the staff of the West Glamorgan Archive Service, the Richard Burton Archives and the Library at Swansea University; Nick Mays, Archivist, Times Newspapers Ltd. Archive, News UK & Ireland Ltd. I thank Caradog Jones, Clive Reed, Geraint Roberts and Bill Bentley for helpful suggestions.
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