Stories of Aberystwyth
The Old College; A School of Change
In the days since its conception as a movement in 1852, and the eventual opening of its doors in 1872, the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, has fought its way through adversity on all fronts. It was only after years of campaigning that the University had enough funds to survive(and even then it was forced to be largely self-supporting) and without the purchase of the Castle Hotel, later known as the Old College, for the knock down price of £10,000 in 1867, it’s difficult to imagine how it would have been able to continue. In 1885 the same Old College, left unfinished since being bought due to a lack of funding, roofless in places and with resident jackdaws and doves, suffered a devastating fire that destroyed much of the northern part of the building.
A chapter in The College by the Sea[i] (reprinted from the “U.C.W Magazine” which would later become The Dragon) describes how “townsmen quickly arrived in considerable numbers. With pails, pans and various extemporizations for water-carrying, they stumbled up the spiral staircase under uncertain candle-light, and when the smoke in the corridor had cleared away, carried them along it and discharged them into the burning room”(Morgan p.47). The townspeople and University staff fought the fire valiantly through the night and the next day. Three men were lost to the flames and three others were seriously burned. The cause of the fire remains unknown, but the chapter in The College by the Sea paints a rather compelling picture of “an unextinguished match thrown into a waste-box and falling on brown paper or some slowly-combustible substance, a smouldering for several hours, and finally actual fire”(Morgan p.47).
Following the tragedy, despite a sense of loss for both the men that perished and the beloved building itself, the University fought on: “The calamity of the fire did not daunt those at the head of affairs. On the very next day there was talk of rebuilding the College” (Morgan p.40).
The destruction of the greater part of the Old College became something of a blessing in disguise. Following the disaster the Government increased their grant to the University to £4,000, putting it on equal footing with Bangor and Cardiff. It also allowed the building to be altered, when rebuilt, into a structure more fitting for its purpose and, with the installation of a new Central Block in 1898, the Old College was officially complete. The newly rebuilt college, still a remarkable feat of architecture, was now fully outfitted for University use, and even had a dairy in the cellar, where students were taught “the useful art of buttermaking”(Morgan p.43).
Now, with most University lectures on Penglais campus, there are plans to, once again, restructure the Old College into something more useful to the community.
[i] Morgan, Iwan, The College by the Sea, (Aberystwyth: Students' Representative Council in collaboration with the College Council) 1928
The Dragon; Aberystwyth Editorials during the Great War
In 1914 at Aberystwyth, as in other Universities throughout the country, men were called to change their pens for Lee-Enfields and ship out to fight the Great War.
In 2013, an archive was launched at http://cymru1914.org containing digitised Welsh literary artefacts from the time of the First World War, in keeping with the centenary. Within these archives is a collection of editions of the now defunct student magazine, The Dragon. These editions, most notably, the editorials, paint an interesting and enlightening picture of how the students both away and in Aber coped with the War.
In the November 1914 edition, the editor (or editors; it appears that there was an editorial committee of which one J.W Haime was, in 1914, the chairman) makes an effort to encourage readers and keep their spirits up:
“Nevertheless we feel that it is the duty of every one of us to maintain a cheerful courage and to fail in nothing of the zest and enthusiasm which is the very soul of our College life. Though our ‘great task of happiness’ is somewhat harder than usual we must not falter in it, but pursue it with even greater vigour than in normal times.”
We can only assume that this ‘great task of happiness’ is education, and the editor’s efforts to inspire its pursuit are admirable. A few months later, in the February 1915 edition, the editorial takes a slightly more sombre tone:
“We who are left have tried to make things go in the usual way, and not without a measure of success. But when the streets and fields and Coll. itself are full of khaki, and gowns are rarely seen, and the lights on Prom. are darkened, then we know that while the war lasts, things cannot be quite as they used to be.”
This image of the prom, cast in shadow, is really rather sobering, and provides a stark contrast to the newly rebuilt seafront that we’ve come to know, flooded with light at all hours.
Elsewhere, in the December 1914 edition, is included an article titled “From the front”. The following is an extract of correspondence from an alumnus of the University; Lieut. C. O. Davies, which was included in the article:
“Our men have had a terrific time of it lately, and have stuck it very well. We all have had to rough it very much and you would be greatly surprised if you were to see us all now. We have to sleep where-ever we can – in all sorts of places. We live on rations like the men – bully beef, biscuits, tea, jam, and cheese form our diet for all meals. What would we give for a good English dinner! Of course, we haven’t seen any hard work yet, so cannot grumble.”
It seems as though, in the earlier days, our alumni in the trenches were able to cope with their conditions. Getting by seemed to be a matter of just carrying on and joking about the situation in a stoic, British way. As the war continued, however, this seemed to change.
In a section in the February 1916 edition titled “Philosophy of the Trenches”, a letter from an unnamed “Old Aberystwythian” is featured. Despite initial reassurances that things aren’t too bad, the soldier goes on to explain the need for resilience, and why his philosophy has, finally, turned to fatalism:
“Out here it is one of these alternatives: the development of a practical stoicism or a nervous breakdown.” And later: “I find that the refuge of the soldier out here is often fatalism, and the fatalist is often a notably sturdy warrior.”
These extracts provide a real insight into the ways in which Aber students coped with the difficult world they’d been thrust into. It seems a shame that The Dragon is no longer in operation; it would have been interesting to see if a modern editor could write such engaging editorials with such an emphasis on rallying the student body.
When the war was over, the next editorial (November 1918) paid an appropriate tribute to the fallen:
“The College has suffered very heavily from the war: large numbers of our men left to join the Forces, and not a few have fallen. The memory of their courage and self-sacrifice is a treasure we shall forever cherish”.