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The birth of Bangor's university

Penrhyn Arms Hotel
Penrhyn Arms, the hotel which became the university's first home

The story of Bangor University's creation is rather a romantic one, but also one of struggle and sacrifice as registrar Dr David Roberts explains.

Bangor University (originally called the University College of North Wales) was founded in the late 19th century, following an upsurge in popular support for the idea of a university in north Wales.

Wales was far behind England, Scotland and Ireland when it came to having universities established. But after much campaigning, a government report by Lord Aberdare in 1881 recommended that there should be one university in south Wales and one in the north.

This was a major breakthrough, but it was by no means certain that the north Wales one would be located in Bangor.

In the early 1880s, there was effectively a beauty contest between 13 towns in North Wales, all of whom competed for the honour of hosting the university.

Rhyl, Denbigh, Porthmadog, Conwy Wrexham, Welshpool, as well as Bangor, were among the contenders.

For a poor man to give his one pound or his five pounds out of his daily earnings means to deny himself something. That is real sacrifice
AJ Mundella, education minister

In 1883, Bangor was chosen, and a key reason for the decision was the strength of the idealism and commitment shown by local working people - quarrymen, farmers, tradesmen - many of whom donated money they could barely afford to the public appeal to support the creation of a university.

The university's first home was in the Penrhyn Arms Hotel near the harbour in Bangor. Only the portico now remains.

At the opening on 18 October 1884, AJ Mundella, the government minister for education, summarised the feelings of many regarding the foundation of the university:

"I consider the act of those quarrymen of Penrhyn. It's a noble thing for men sitting round this table to give their hundreds and their thousands, but for a poor man to give his one pound or his five pounds out of his daily earnings means to deny himself something. That is real sacrifice."

A surprising number of women came to study from the very beginning, some of them the daughters of prominent local families; others the children of working men and women.

Kate Roberts, the leading Welsh writer of her generation, graduated from Bangor just before the first world war, while the first female forestry graduate anywhere in the world - Mary Sutherland - also graduated from Bangor during World War I.

There were 58 students when it opened, with professors in English, history, Greek, mathematics, physics, philosophy and chemistry. And as student numbers grew, other subjects developed, including Welsh, agriculture, education and forestry.

The opening of the impressive Main University Building in 1911 represented a major development.

Safe haven

During World War II, hundreds of very valuable paintings from the National Gallery in London were stored in the Prichard-Jones Hall. Bangor University was clearly seen as a safe haven, and it was all done in great secrecy.

Students and staff from University College London were also evacuated here during the war, and they fitted in so well for the five years they were here that some stayed on and became long-serving members of staff.

The post-war period was initially one of rebuilding, and then significant growth. At the end of the war, there were just 500 students at Bangor, but by 1970 there were 2,500.

A major building programme accompanied the growth - and this is the period when the Ffriddoedd site and several new halls of residence, such as Plas Gwyn and Neuadd Emrys Evans were built.

There are 11,000 students now and most of the 1960s halls have been knocked down to make way for new ones; students want to be self-catering with en suite bedrooms and internet access these days.

Everest expedition

Many come to Bangor because of its location, and at various times in the university's history there have been close links between the institution and Snowdonia.

The third principal, Charles Evans, had been deputy leader of Edmund Hillary's Everest expedition in 1953, and came within hours of being the first man to reach the summit. He and the team had trained in Snowdonia before the expedition.

Charles Evans was appointed to Bangor in 1958 and for the next 26 years presided over considerable expansion, but also became involved in conflict over the status of the Welsh language in the university.

In the beginning, degrees were issued by the University of London, but Bangor began to offer degrees of the University of Wales when the latter was created in 1893.

But in 2007, the university was given powers to issue its own degrees and was granted independent university status. From 2009, its 125th anniversary year, the university will begin phasing in the award of Bangor University degrees - a major step in its long and illustrious history.

Bangor University 1884 - 2009 by Dr David Roberts, is available in Welsh and English from 31 October 2009.




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