Aber's Philanthropic Heritage

‌Dr Susan Davies is currently researching the history of Philanthropy at Aberystwyth University, unearthing the wealth of support toward accessing education. The story of our beginnings is as important today as ever; in the face of ever increasing challenges to our sector we must encourage our supporters to uphold their institution in any way they can.

‌‌‌‌‌‌When telling the story of philanthropy at Aberystwyth University – which is within sight of its 150th anniversary – it is important to appreciate the motivation and context of each gift. Some might argue that a list of names, dates and gifts is sufficient, rather like a memorial tablet, but that would obscure the reason behind the particular gifts, their real value to our university, and how the donors have been instrumental in shaping the experience of our alumni. Indeed, when the wider context is understood, public generosity to the University at Aberystwyth over time becomes truly inspirational and immeasurable, making a critical difference to the institution and its students. 

The origins lie in the social and religious history of Wales in the mid-19th century and a growing awareness that Wales lacked opportunities for education which were more readily available elsewhere, both in endowed schools and university colleges. At the same time, the predominantly nonconformist population, which supported important denominational academies, was excluded from higher education institutions which required a religious declaration in line with the Established Church. The concept of a non-sectarian university college – a principle that was unique in university development at this time – merged in the mid-1800s amid highly articulate debate, especially in the flourishing Welsh and English press, which reflected the nonconformist self-improvement ethos.  What followed is a tale of individual and national endeavour by and on behalf of the people of Wales, supported by personal and community giving which ranged from small sums, such as two shillings and six pence from members of communities and congregations, to hundreds of pounds from prosperous supporters and even thousands from the few ‘who could’, all committed to establishing a University College for Wales.

Benefaction has been crucial to Aber at all stages from the 1860s to the present, and has flowed in different forms for different purposes with heart-warming generosity.  Each example merits a full story, but a few example will serve to illustrate the benefits received and put to excellent use.

The earliest gifts supported the purchase in 1867 of the incomplete Castle Hotel on the sea front at Aberystwyth, its adaptation and preparation for opening the College in 1872 its running costs, because no government grant was received before the later 1880s.  The need for cash was overwhelming and it came from generosity at all levels.

Contributions in time, effort and advocacy were equally generous, much of which involved travel, administration, fundraising and writing for the press at a time when rapid communication was unknown and travel was heavily dependent on the new railway network. Key figures were Welshmen based outside Wales in commerce and industry, the law, education, politics, and leading nonconformist roles, and almost all fulfilled this work in addition to their professional commitments. Particular centres of support were – not surprisingly – London, Liverpool and Manchester.

The need for collections and donations continued, especially after fire devastated the north wing in 1885 and for completing the building and equipping the library in the 1890s.  Welsh expatriates gave generously, remembering their homeland: an Australian provided the handsome timber roof for the Quad, and support from the US and Canada equipped the library in Old College.

Gifts of land on Penglais were crucial for development space from the early 1900s.  The first came from Stuart, Baron Rendel, then the College President, who purchased 14 acres in 1897 for £2,000 (*c. £230,000); part of this land provided the site for the National Library when it was founded in 1907.  In 1929 Joseph Davies Bryan bought the land above the Library up to and including Brynamlwg (c.100 acres) for almost £15,000 (*c. £850,000) and gave it to UCW, thus securing the whole of today’s Penglais Campus.  In 1946, around 200 acres on the north side of Penglais Hill, including Penglais Mansion, were acquired by UCW for £34,000 (*c. £1.2 million), the cost being covered by David Alban Davies.

A different and very significant benefaction by the OSA followed fundraising to mark the College’s forthcoming Jubilee in 1922. Having raised more than £5,000 (*c. £218,000), the OSA announced in September 1921 that it would buy and equip the Assembly Rooms for use as a Students’ Union as a joint Memorial to the Founders of the College and to students who had fallen during the War (WW1). Formally opened in October 1923 by the Prince of Wales, Chancellor of the University, this is only one part of the OSA’s distinguished history as benefactors. 

The most significant endowments and benefactions made by one family, the Davies family of Llandinam and later Gregynog, began in the mid-1800s and extended over a century, involving David Davies, his son Edward, and Edward’s children David, Gwendoline and Margaret. This family’s role in College offices and benefaction is truly extraordinary: in 1903, they funded the building of new Chemistry Laboratories named after Edward Davies, and they continued with major donations and endowments thereafter. Their commitment to educational, cultural and social benefit enabled this University to establish chairs, develop initiatives and pioneer disciplines

Of course, other important benefactions include scholarships (starting with the South Wales Commercial Travellers Association in the 1870s) which have grown throughout the University’s history, also donations of items, including ‘special collections’ of museum objects, artworks, rare books and archives to enrich scholarship.

Each of these gifts has originated in the personal desire of the donor/s to give to our university, thus enriching its heritage for all who wish to study here. It is already a very long story, and long may it continue for the benefit of new generations of our alumni! 

*calculated using the Bank of England’s online ‘Inflation Calculator’ which extends to 2014.


Dr Susan Davies