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Institutional Archives

Access and learning for all: University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire in the 1880s (Part 1)

28 May 2015
Photograph of the old college on Newport Road

Old college building on Newport Road

“Nerth gwlad ei gwybodaeth – A nation’s strength is in its learning”

In 1882 the first draft of proposals for the planned University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire set out that the College should provide the following forms of education:-

  • students taking a degree at any of the degree awarding Universities in the UK[2]
  • technical instruction that would be of use in professional or commercial life
  • Higher Education in general for non-students; education for education’s sake
  • teacher training for primary and secondary levels, both men and women
  • the education of women, who would be educated equally to – and alongside – their male counterparts

Education provision in Wales in the nineteenth century had been heavily criticised in a number of official reports, starting with the infamous “Blue Books” of 1847. In the following decades it was recognised that the standard of teaching was restricted by the limited education of teachers and the consensus was that this needed to change. Many of those who wished to see an improvement believed that Colleges or Universities would achieve better teaching and a rise in the general standards of education by being based in Wales.

The aims of the founders of the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire were, therefore, to encourage university attendance among the people of South Wales (although all were welcome – the first year’s intake included students from Italy and Brisbane) and to raise educational standards in general. They were eager to offer the same courses with the same lecturers via the medium of evening classes in order to reach working people. Indeed, during the first couple of decades there were far more students attending evening classes in Cardiff, Merthyr, Aberdare and other local towns than there were full-time “day students”[3]. Training teachers was seen as a vital part of the University’s role, supporting the hope that more highly qualified teachers would lead to a better education for children in Wales.

The early minutes of the College make evident the Council’s determination to extend access to education to as many people as possible. Lewis Williams, an early member of Council and Chair of the Cardiff School Board, described the College as being “not for the culture of the few but the many” while the Reverend Roberts, another prominent supporter, added “it was hoped that a great number of poor lads and poor young women would qualify themselves to enter the College”. The founders discussed with great energy the possibility of setting up a scholarship fund paid for by a small weekly contribution from “working men” to provide for working class students. In August 1883 they stated that their fees were about one third those of other colleges and their intention was to offer 100 scholarships over the first two years. The scholarships were to last for up to five years: the first two years covered the preparation of the student for a University education if they were not at the educational standard required.


The College also worked closely with neighbouring local authorities to provide technical instruction that would be of use in professional or commercial life. Mining and engineering were regarded as vital subjects and the hope was expressed that better education would lead to fewer mine disasters and deaths. Courses for mine managers, who had spent at least five years underground, were offered by the College with this aim in mind. It is notable in the minutes that there was great concern with local industries and the role of the College in supporting them. The founding members regarded the College as part of the community with a responsibility to support and develop that community through the improvement of education provision.

Another area of vocational teaching was provided by the Training School for Cookery and the Domestic Arts. Courses on cookery, household management and dressmaking were offered throughout the area and eventually a permanent home was found for the School in Llandaff. Girls were trained in professional skills that allowed them to find employment as cooks or housekeepers, and many went on to become teachers of domestic arts in primary and secondary schools throughout the country.


More next week on the place of women in the early years.


This article is based on minutes and correspondence held in Cardiff University Institutional Archives, as well as contemporary newspapers articles.


[1] “Nerth gwlad ei gwybodaeth – A nation’s strength is in its learning” is the message engraved above the main entrance to Main Building.

[2] At this time colleges did not have degree awarding powers. They could educate their students but only a limited number of Universities could actually award degrees. Therefore, students had to sit the selected University’s exams.

[3] In 1883/1884 there were 393 men and 283 women attending evening classes; by 1907/8 there were 415 men and 336 women attending day and evening classes.