History of the OSA
By 1892, the University College of Wales Aberystwyth had grown to about 350 students, of which about 150 were women. There was a growing number of “former students” and in 1880, The Aberystwyth College Club had been founded at Oxford. Its members included Tom Ellis , later M.P. for the County, and Thomas Francis Roberts who became principal at Aberystwyth in 1891. The Aber Spirit was already evident.
Informal gatherings of old students returning to Aberystwyth easily joined in with the social life of the current students. In February 1892 a letter was sent by past students still living in Aberystwyth to about 850 former students inviting them to a Reunion on St David’s Day. Looking at the Register Entries for the signatories of this letter, we can see that most of them were from Aberystwyth, or within 30 miles, so their offer to help arranging accommodation for other students is understandable. However one came from Ystalafera and one from Trecastle. It’s also interesting to see the description of their Fathers’ jobs recorded in the registers, which included Farmers, Grocers and Bootmakers, as well as a Timber Merchant, Master Mariner, Police Sergeant, Butcher, Brewer and the County Coroner. The invitation was well received ,and a dinner attended by some 300 current and former students, staff and members of Governing Bodies , took place on St David’s Day 1892, at which there were many toasts and speeches, and entertainment in the Examination Hall.
The next day, the former students assembled again, and agreed to establish a formal Association. They appointed Tom Ellis as President, a post he held until his early death at 40 in 1899. Principal T.F.Roberts was appointed a Vice President. The OSA later commissioned the portrait of T F Roberts shown earlier for the College. He died in 1919 at the age of only 57.
The Association’s first stated objective was to wipe off the College Debt on the buildings, of some £8000. That would equate to nearly £1million today. The Association’s aims were to be a voluntary body independent of the University, to promote the welfare of the College and to enable old students to keep in touch. They also agreed to an Annual Reunion. Those aims remain unchanged in principle today, and the Annual OSA Reunion in June 2019 took place in conjunction with centenary celebrations for Interpol and the Welsh Plant Breeding Station (now IBERS) . The reunion for 2020 was scheduled to celebrate 50 years of the Department of Computer Sciences, and 100 years of Distance Learning but due to Covid 19 celebrations had to be postponed.
There were understandably no formal OSA Reunions during the First World War, and the one held in 1919 was specifically to commemorate those who fell.
For the University’s Jubilee celebration in 1922 the OSA launched an appeal for a Students’ Union, which included justification in these words: -
“…Many old students have for a long time felt that they would like to make a contribution – at once personal and corporate – not as a payment, but as an admission of the debt they owe to “Aber”. The War has quickened many memories, solemn and joyous, of hours in the “Quad” and on the “Prom”. In few non-residential colleges do students pass a life of so intense a comradeship, and the Easter Reunions testify to its depth and permanence… The main function of a Union is the education of students by students, and that education is not the less effective because it is carried on unconsciously and mingles learning with delight. It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the importance of the part played by the Union at Oxford and Cambridge, at Glasgow and Edinburgh. In their debating halls, many men who afterwards became leaders of their generation in politics and letters first sharpened their wits in public; in the club rooms they smoked and played together, smoothing out angularities and learning toleration. Those most familiar with our Welsh colleges cannot but regret that our students have, so far, been deprived of these great training grounds in citizenship and humanity…
…. This building will contain a central hall, providing full facilities for meetings, debates, concerts, and for the production of plays. There will also be reading rooms, writing rooms, a smoking room and a dining room. Part of the Union will be reserved for men, part for women, and part will be common to both. ..The Union should contain personal memorials of its two Principals. While it commemorates the founders, of the College, it would, we believe, serve also as the best memorial of the Old Students who have laid down their lives for their country. We believe that were they with us, they would welcome this effort to give coming generations of students more ample opportunities for friendship and recreation than they themselves enjoyed”.
The Assembly Rooms in Laura Place were purchased as a Students’ Union in 1922 and memorials, with others relevant to the OSA were eventually positioned in the Old College Quad. The Students’ Union was formally conveyed to the College in 1936. The new Students’ Union opened at Penglais in 1970.
The University celebrated its 60th Anniversary in 1932, and the “Aber Spirit” was analysed and explained by Professor Edward Edwards in his response to toasts at a celebration dinner. He said “I think one reason for it is the close intellectual communion which exists between the students and members of the staff. …Aberystwyth is a small town,..So, when the students come here they form a society of their own. Then they have their evening meetings, their football field… their “Consti” ; Pen Dinas; and their beautiful promenade – where they “Kick the bar”… And they have their “Quad” … If we mix all these things together, we get the pure “Aber Spirit”.
In 1934 a letter was circulated to establish an Aberystwyth Branch of the OSA, inviting potential members to bring along a “wife or husband – if any – “ and a contribution of sixpence each to cover expenses for coffee and biscuits”. This branch still meets regularly for coffee and arranges activities during the year, as well as currently supporting the transcription of early registers project at weekly meetings.
In 1935 the OSA was invited to nominate two members to participate in the College and Students’ Joint Committee which was responsible for running the Students’ Union, the Athletic Fields and the Medical Scheme. This was an innovative step by the University, and acknowledged the OSA’s ongoing interest in the wellbeing of students.
The big debate in the early 1930s centred around the need for funds to expand the college onto land made available on Penglais Hill in 1929, by Dr Joseph Davies Bryan, a former President of the OSA. There was a reluctance to leave the “College By the Sea” at that time, and fundraising initiatives for the New Buildings struggled. However in 1935 Lord Davies offered to match fund up to £10,000 (nearly £710,000 in value today) if the OSA could achieve donations within the following ten years. By 1944, in a substantial achievement considering that the majority of students in posts between the wars were not best paid, and the second World War intervened, the matching funding target was reached by the OSA. Again the Aber Spirit of strong loyalty and obligation to the College came to the fore.
With the opening of Pantycelyn as the first purpose built men’s hall of residence on Penglais in 1951, the move from the College by the Sea to the College on the Hill was well under way. The OSA’s attempts at fund raising were not as successful as they had been in the past. In 1958 a specific appeal was made for a new gymnasium and sports hall, and about half the costs of the new centre opened in 1964 eventually came from the OSA. To try and encourage further interest in supporting the new campus, the OSA Reunion for 1964 was held on Penglais, and accommodation in Pantycelyn offered to the attendees. Pantycelyn became a Welsh Hall in 1974, and after extensive refurbishment, reopened in September 2020.
Members of the OSA contributed to the cost of the “interim” College Chapel inaugurated in 1970. The original brochure celebrating the opening of the Chapel says that “The College’s development plan for Penglais includes a permanent College Chapel, the building of which, it is hoped, will not be long delayed”. However no other building appeared, and the Chapel is now a Faith room, which featured on an episode of Songs of Praise from Aberystwyth in 2019. In August 1971 the Great Hall and new Students’’ Union was officially opened. The Pro Chancellor, Lord Morris of Borth y Gest had this to say: - “Those who have not had the privilege of being at this college cannot have failed to observe that its alumni possess and have inherited a very special blend of loyalties which , while defying precise analysis, can be comprehended under the description of the Aber Sprit. It hovers as a sort of guardian angel, cherishing the honour of the college and ready to rout any assailant…In some University towns there can be a risk of conflict or antagonism between Town and Gown. .. Aberystwyth has been proud to have the College and the College has drawn strength from being a part of the Aberystwyth Scene. The mutual involvement has been for mutual benefit and has inspired mutual pride”.
At the same ceremony, the Principal, Sir Goronwy H. Daniel, made reference to the fact that “The College also had the problem of financing the bell in the campanile… We are greatly indebted to the Old Students’ Association for a gift of £900 to pay the costs of this bell. Their contribution is another example of the strong links that bind our old students to the College.”
One key member of the OSA in more recent times was Emrys Wynn Jones. He had been the Registrar of the University of Aberystwyth as well as a former student, and was responsible for establishing the Archive of the Association, and for the excellent arrangement of making it available via the National Library. He wrote the 1992 history of the OSA, “Fair may your future be” (a quote from the Aberystwyth College Song written in 1895) .
Celebrations for the Centenary of the OSA took place in 1992 with various dinners and dances. An Exhibition on “100 years of student life!” compiled by Dr and Mrs W J Anthony Jones was opened by the President of the College. A concert was held in the Great Hall on 25th March featuring a first performance of “In Arcadia” by composer and former student William Mathias. In a letter written after the event he wrote “Music, Old Friends, and Aber on a windy day – what more could one want?... Certainly “Arcadia “now has a life of its own – though it will always be associated with Aberystwyth. An OSA Centenary Appeal was launched, and in due course funds from this enabled the opening of a new Language Laboratory in 1998.
The Alumni Magazine Prom was launched in 1992, when the University’s Development and Alumni Relations Office (DARO) came into being. The OSA appreciates the close relationship that it has with this office, and the support that its staff give to the OSA. We now work closely together on new initiatives, communications with members, and our usual events such as the Annual Reunion, the National Eisteddfod and the Royal Welsh Show. There are still active OSA Branches in Aberystwyth, Cardiff, London, Bangor and North Wales, and Malaysia.
Recently donations to the Old College Project have been promised from around the OSA and generous fundraising for student scholarships and bursaries and other initiatives still takes place. The OSA now has about 9500 paid up Life Members as its core membership, but all alumni since 2017 have been enrolled as Associate Members to receive alerts about events if required. We believe there are now about 93,000 surviving Old Students, so that’s a lot of Aber Spirit still around.