The Old College

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The Old College was the original home of the university in Aberystwyth, opened in 1872 and the first university in Wales (grand total: 26 students; the first female students arrived in 1883). The Penglais campus on the hill (with important outliers at Llanbadarn) is now, with the expansion of the university in the second half of the twentieth century, the main site for teaching. Old College is now largely used for administration, although two major departments, Welsh and Education, still reside there.

In a period of building expansion with the coming of the railway line during the 1860s, it had originally been built as a hotel, but the company went bust before completion and offered it to the recently established university committee. It was a bargain; about £80,000 had already been spent on the building works, and the university got it (though incomplete) for £10,000. But it was still a struggle to get the university up and running. Much of the early funding came from public subscriptions within Wales (it’s clear that getting any aid at all from governments was an extremely difficult task until the mid-1880s), and many of those were very small sums, the “pennies from the people of Wales” as authors (rather sentimentally) put it. But perhaps that had advantages; as a result, they regarded it as their college and were prepared to fight for its survival at the most desperate time after the fire of 1885, and when official policy (and money) would have ignored Aberystwyth in favour of colleges at Cardiff and Bangor.

The site overall is a rather odd ‘dagger’ shape. And I didn’t tell you something about the photo I posted last week: this is simply the rear view, although it’s probably the one in most frequent use. (An excuse to show another photo of it, anyway.)

old college rear view

Pictures of the front of the building, on the seaward side, don’t just confirm its spectacular Gothic barminess; they also highlight the variety of the whole. That’s partly because more than one architect was involved and the construction (because of all the financial difficulties) took place over several decades. The main architect was John Pollard Seddon (although he too was building on an earlier site, that of the late eighteenth-century Castle House, which was designed by John Nash under the direction of its decidedly eccentric owner, Uvedale Price).

castle house
The original Castle House (the site is right at the centre of the Old College)

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front view north wing
A front view of one of the oldest parts of the existing building, the north wing designed by Seddon (damn lamp posts!)

Seddon’s eclectic approach was influenced by various sources including classical and medieval Gothic, Pugin, Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. And if you think the building as it exists is outrageous, you should see the way Seddon imagined it developing in a sketch of 1871.

Seddon's drawing

By the mid 1880s, the university had raised enough money (including a hard-won grant from the Treasury of £2,500 in 1884) to consider realising some of those plans. The work of drawing up new plans had barely begun when a fire that began during the night of 8/9 July 1885 gutted all the north end of the building, and took the lives of three fire-fighters with it.

After much wrangling (mostly to do with costs) over whether to build anew or to rebuild and adapt the original, Seddon was appointed again. A new science block, much more clean-cut in design than the surviving original building, was built.

front view
Seddon’s 1880s science block (the south wing) is on the right, presently covered in scaffolding, I’m afraid; the centre block is from the 1890s, designed by Ferguson; to the left is Seddon’s original 1860s work (north wing)

But if this part of the building is perhaps less mind-boggling than much of the rest, it does have one outstanding feature: the mural on the southernmost tower, designed by C F A Voysey. (Unfortunately, the scaffolding means that this is the best picture I could get.)

mural

This is no conventional religious triptych. The central figure represents scientific knowledge; the figures to each side are offering him, respectively, a locomotive and a ship (part sail-, part steam-powered). The message is that “applied science must genuflect to pure science”; “free untrammelled enquiry”, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, is what makes technological progress possible. (Governments please take note.)

On the north side of the building, the new work was interior rather than exterior. This was when the quadrangle, the subsequent social hub of the college (for many years strictly sex-segregated!) was built. Originally, the quad was open to the elements; the ornamental roof was built in the 1890s.

quadrangle

But by then Seddon had been sacked. As many had feared, his work had proved much more expensive than he originally estimated (so what changes in the world of architecture?), almost exhausting the college’s funds. (The roof was built to his plans, but by a local firm.) Other finishing touches were added during the 1890s, now under the direction of a new architect, Charles J Ferguson. Ferguson, though, is more associated with the development of a rather different form of Victorian ‘Gothic’ (and one that Seddon hated), the ‘Queen Anne’ style, modelled on Tudor and seventeenth-century buildings. Ferguson was not, unlike Seddon, a lover of “sinuous curves”; and he was a far more pragmatic man when it came to costs. The central block, with its imposing front view, is his.

Yet a closer look at that seemingly square, regular section of the building quickly reveals some puzzling irregularities. Why so many different window styles? And his input, though very different from and less endearing than Seddon’s style, simply contributed to the vibrant diversity of the building. With the opening of Ferguson’s central section in 1898, the architectural evolution of ‘the College by the sea’ was virtually complete. And we love it just the way it is.

The black-and-white images (and several quotes) have been lifted from J Roger Webster, Old College Aberystwyth: the evolution of a High Victorian building (Cardiff, 1995). If I get any complaints about copyright I will, of course, remove them…

A few links:
Aberystwyth to 1900