Aberystwyth’s Old College is the site of the original University of Aberystwyth which was founded in 1872, and became the first established university in the whole of Wales.
When looking at the building from the sea front (which at the time of building was only cliffs, until the coming of the promenade in the mid 1880′s) it is easy to see that a number of arcitechts have added their own styles to the building over time.
The original section of the building, known as Castle House was built as a hotel in the 1860′s, was designed by John Nash, under the orders of land owner Uvedale Price. Price had envisioned that Castle House would become a hotel, which would provide accomodation to the influx of middle class Victorian tourists who began to arrive with the advent of the railways.
However, during the construction of Castle House, Price and his company ran out of money and decided to put the building up for sale for around 12% of the building costs to that date. For the knock down sum of £10,000 the partially completed building was sold to the newly formed, and rather cash strapped University of Aberystwyth.
Despite the modern view of universities being publicly funded, with large budgets for buildings and facilities this was not the case at the time. In fact, the majority of the funding provided for the newly formed university had come from public donations. Even in 1885 when a large section of the college burnt down, and government policy favoured the colleges in Bangor and Cardiff, the University of Aberystwyth was able to survive through the determination of its board members.
The further developments of the old college were undertaken by the University of Aberystwyth in conjunction with architect John Pollard Seddon, who was also chief architect of Castle House. The eccentric gothic stylings of the building are attributed to Seddon. However, his original design sketches from 1871 show an even more elabourate set of designs which were thankfully never quite seen through.
By the mid 1880′s Aberystwyth University had managed to gather enough money together to fund the extension of the old college building. However, with plans barely on the drawing board a fire took out large swathes of the north wing of the old college, and also killed three local fire fighters in the process as it raged on for almost two days in July 1885.
After the fire there was much debate about the future plans for the university building. On the one side, some said that the old building should be replaced with a completely new building put in its place. On the other side, many believed that the way forward was to adapt the original building to suit the needs of the University of Aberystwyth. Needless to say, a large portion of the argument revolved around the issue of funding the build, to which Seddon was once again appointed chief architect.
Using a grant obtained in 1884, along with further public donations Seddon designed and built a new science block which can be seen on the south of the building, looking much more modern than the other sections of the building.
Looking towards the old college from the sea front, the science block is on the far right of the building, and the middle section is the original Castle House designed by Nash. In between these two is a less well known piece of the building, which was designed by Ferguson in the 1890s (whom we will come across later). Walking infront of the building from left to right, it becomes less and less ‘eccentric’ the further you move along the promenade.
However, the south side of the building does have one architectural gem in the forom of the mural, which was designed by Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (a former pupil of Seddon) for the south tower of the Old College, which can be viewed from the south promenade and Aberystwyth castle grounds. Despite first appearances, the mural itself lacks any religious connotation what so ever, and merely represents the view of the Aberystwyth University board at the time that the development of science is what makes advances in technology possible, which still stands true today.
In fact, if you look closely at the mural, you will notice that the white haired king in the centre appears to be thinking, whilst the figures to both sides of him are handing over a train and a boat, which are said to be representative of the technological developments at the time the mural was created.
After the fire of 1885, much of the buildings north side had been gutted. Whilst development work was carried out on the north side of the building, including the repair of the fire damaged exterior, it was predominantly the interior of the Aberystwyth Old College north wing that was refurbished. This included the main meeting place within the university, with its ornate and very intricate roof which was designed and built by Charles Ferguson. By this point, Seddon had been relieved of his duties after his plans were deemed to be much more expensive than he had originally stated. The universities board of directors saw Seddon and his plans as a risk which could use up the remaining Aberystwyth University funds.
Ironically, Seddon despised Ferguson’s style of architecture, which can be seen in stark contrast to his own. However, it was his ability to control costs that attracted the university to him. Yet it can be said that the difference is styles only adds to the quirkiness of this much loved Aberystwyth University building, which really is the masterpiece of Aberystwyth as a town. One thing I will say about Charles Ferguson however is that he was not as straight lined and uniform as his contributions suggest. To see what I mean, just take a look at his section of the building on the south side and draw your own conclusions…..
Nowadays Old College is now used primarily as an administrative centre, although the Education and Welsh departments are still based here, with other departments such as drama also utilising some rooms. One of the smaller Aberystwyth University libraries is also located in the North of the building.