Bangor History: The University

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In examining the history of Bangor, it is impossible to ignore Bangor University. Even more so for one of its students, writing in one of its studios, on one of its computers, with its logo sewn on to the side of his jacket – all of which I am, and it is. So it’s no surprise that I won’t be ignoring the university, and in fact I’ll be starting with it. To this end, I spoke with Huw Price, the Professor of Welsh History at Bangor, to learn more.

How did the university in Bangor originate?
There was a college founded in Aberystwyth back in 1872, and then, about a decade later, a government report said there should be one university college in North Wales and one in South Wales. In short, by 1883 it was agreed that the university college in North Wales would be in Bangor; a number of different towns competed for the honour. That year, the college in South Wales was founded, which was at Cardiff, so that’s the origins of Cardiff University. Bangor was founded the following year, in 1884. It was called the University College of North Wales, giving an idea of its remit, and at that time it didn’t have the right to give degrees. The early students could only take degrees in the University of London.

When it started, it was very small, the college at Bangor. There were 58 students, it was founded in the Penrhyn Arms; it was based there, which was a hotel. There’s still a bit of it left on the way out of Bangor on the right, just by the turning into Port Penrhyn as you’re going up towards the A5. There were five professors. There was a very young Principal, as the Vice-Chancellor was called then, called Harry Reichel. I think he was 27 years old; he had a brilliant career in Oxford, and was appointed from a number of people who tried. So it was a very small beginning; very different to today. The fees were ten pounds a year for students, which was the equivalent of about £800 now, but still, that’s less than 10% of the awful fees students have to pay today.
So that’s how it started, and gradually more staff were recruited. It was part of the University of Wales from 1893 – that meant that students could take their degrees through that institution. The big thing they wanted to do really early on was to have bigger premises, which led to founding the building we’re now in today, which was referred to as the New Buildings then, the Top College of the university now. They were opened in July 1911 by King George V, who came along the day after the investiture of his son Edward as Prince of Wales in Caernarfon castle.

By the Second World War, there were 550 or so students, but still pretty small in the early days. Today there are around 10 000 students, and the growth in numbers really took off in the 1970s as part of a much bigger expansion of higher education throughout Britain.
The early decades up through the Second World War into the 1960s, early 70s, were very different. In my office, where we’re speaking, there’s a portrait of John Edward Lloyd, who was Professor of History, but also Registrar, the chief administrative official in the university, from 1892 to about 1920. He was originally appointed to take on that job, and then also was Professor of History, and did pioneering work on the history of medieval Wales. That shows how, in those early days, people had to multitask. Reichel, the first Principal, was the first Professor of History and the Professor of English, as well as running the whole place! Obviously, as it grew, roles became more specialised.

From the start, there was a determination to do both arts and sciences and that’s obviously continued. Another thing about the foundation you will often hear, is how many of the local quarrymen and farmers, working people, gave small sums to contribute to the founding of the university. These were very numerous, and showed a commitment, a feeling that they wanted to have a university college in their part of Wales. There are photographs of a procession, on the day when the college was officially opened in 1884, led by a brass band from Bethesda and a quarry workers’ march through Bangor, with banners and everything. So it was quite a big celebration. And then you see the first students and staff outside this hotel, and there’s a banner above the entrance which says ‘Knowledge is Power;’ all very exciting. And indeed, a high proportion of students in the early decades came from working class families. That was quite unusual. It was remarked upon by someone who did a report on universities in the early 20th century. That’s another characteristic.
I think up until, probably until the 1960s, the majority of the students came from Wales, and certainly, before the Second World War, about 90% would have come from Wales. Not all from North Wales, but the majority. And as it happens, one of the ones that came from South Wales was a maternal grandfather of mine, who I came across in the college magazine when I was writing a book on the historian J. Lloyd, the former registrar.

Do we know why Bangor was chosen out of the other towns in the area?
That’s difficult to say; I think they probably had effective lobbying! Caernarfon, as a historic town, the county town, clearly hoped to have it. And I think some like Wrexham, in North-East Wales, tried. There was some support from some powerful interests in North Wales, but I’m not entirely sure. There is a short history of the university by the former Registrar, David Roberts, and one could find out in there.

There was a lot of debate, but I think a committee decided in the end. It may have been partly the rail connections; Bangor was a very major rail terminus. If you go to the station now it looks quite small, but there used to be more platforms and everything. That might have helped. The fact that it’s near the quarrying districts. Economic and social reasons.

How do you think the presence of the university changed Bangor?

Obviously it’s been an important source of employment, especially as it has grown. A lot of the academics may come from elsewhere, but in terms of administrative staff, porters, cleaners, people working in catering, there’s a whole group of staff. It’s like the hospital, Ysbyty Gwynedd, or the BBC to some extent; it’s been an important institution that’s provided employment. I think it’s probably helped to give [Bangor] greater status and prominence as a place.

I think it’s probably, on the whole, been a positive thing. Some people might argue it has been an anglicising influence, especially since the expansion in the 70s onwards; that’s the other side of the coin. Obviously, by now, it’s quite an international centre with a lot of international students here, like yourself, and people from China, or Bahrain, or other parts of the Middle East, or wherever. It has, in a sense, made Bangor more cosmopolitan, and I guess there have been knock-on effects even in terms of what foods are sold in local shops. It certainly has had an impact. And again, in terms of the town: accommodation. To start with, there weren’t really halls of residence, and people just had to find lodgings. Even now, students often rent houses, so that’s a big business. There are the private halls of residence as well; I think there’s too much capacity by now in halls of residence in Bangor. So, economically again, that’s been important. And by now, with 10,000 students, that has an effect on the economy just in terms of spending on food and drink and whatever else. So yeah, as a major institution, it has an impact in a number of ways.

How much influence does the university have over Bangor now?
I don’t get the sense, but that may just be because I live in an ivory tower, that there’s a great conflict of town and gown which you sometimes get. A lot of people living in Bangor don’t have much interaction with the university. There clearly is influence other than what I’ve just talked about, in terms of jobs and things. There are public events, lectures, and obviously now Bangor, through getting EU and other funding, has opened Pontio, part of which is meant to be an Arts centre. Clearly that is important for the local community. The museum in Bangor: the collection is actually the university’s, and the old part of the library now is where the museum used to be, originally. So, in terms of providing facilities, it’s definitely had an influence.

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Sinclair Davis

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