The Old College: a fascinating building with a fascinating history.
When construction work first began back in the middle of the 19th century, it was destined for life as a grand hotel on the Aberystwyth seafront. But as local author Elgan Philip Davies explains, those early plans for the building took an unexpected turn.
The Old College was originally intended as a grand railway hotel, the Castle Hotel. It was built around Castle House designed in the 1790s by John Nash for Sir Uvedale Price. Railway entrepreneur Thomas Savin bought Castle House in 1864 and commissioned the architect J.P. Seddon to transform it into a hotel, the first of a number that he intended to build along Cardigan Bay as part of the travel and tourism boom of the nineteenth century. But Savin was hit badly by the Stock Exchange panic of 1865, and his venture failed.
In 1867 the building was bought for £10,000 by the University Committee as the first home of the University of Wales, and Seddon was asked to complete as much of the building as finances allowed. The college opened on 16 October 1872 with three teaching staff and 26 students.
By 1884 the number had grown to over 100 and the first female student had been admitted. The college was growing, but during the night of 9 July 1885 a canister of oxygen exploded in the chemistry laboratory in the roof of the north wing of the building. Only Castle House and the south wing, both of which Seddon had intended to replace, survived the fire. Many thought that this would be the end of the college at Aberystwyth but the people of Wales rallied around the young institution, and a combination of small individual donations, a fundraising campaign and insurance money, enabled the college to retain Seddon to restore the building. This was when the Quad was created, the Old Hall completed, and the Library built above it. It also gave Seddon an opportunity to rebuild the south wing as a science block and to place C.F. Voysey’s triptych mosaic acknowledging pure learning around the tower at its end. In 1896 Castle House was replaced by a four-storey central block designed by C.J. Ferguson, who also designed Alexandra Hall. On the King Street side of the building the round tower match Seddon’s design, while the straight lines on the seaward side are in contrast, but complement, the original curves and bows.
As the first University College in Wales, the Old College became the home of pioneering teaching and research, of many departments of their kinds in Wales and the UK and of opportunities for students to be taught in Welsh. As a prominent building, Old College was crucial to ‘town gown ‘relationships and a place where students, staff and the community could meet to share knowledge, welcome visitors and enjoy activities such as public lectures, musical performances and choirs and clubs.
Our vision to transform the building took shape in 2014 when our remaining academic departments moved from the Old College to the University’s purpose-built campus overlooking the town of Aberystwyth. A joint University and Welsh Government feasibility study that year evidenced the strategic need for major new University and community town facilities and a unique opportunity to deliver these through the transformation of the Old College into a mixed-use facility that would also catalyse social and economic regeneration in a disadvantaged region of the UK.
Written by Elgan Philip Davies