Preserving the Memory of Swansea University

The 8th August 2019 marks 3 years since I began work as an Assistant Archivist at the Richard Burton Archives, embarking on a project to catalogue and develop the University’s archive collections in preparation for the University’s centenary in 2020, and beyond.  

In 1920 the University College of Swansea opened its doors to 90 students, comprising 81 males and 9 females.  In the 100 years that follow, the University College, or what we now know as Swansea University, has seen significant change and development.  Evidence of those changes are documented in the University archive collections, cared for and managed at the Richard Burton Archives at Swansea University.

University archive collections in the Archives stacks, 2019. © Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University

The University collections consist of, but are not restricted to, official minute books and departmental records, photographs, Student Union newspapers, architectural plans, correspondence, press cuttings and personal papers of former staff and students; it spans over 300 metres and covers a number of academic departments, professional services and the student body.  The collections also include a variety of formats such as paper, audio cassette, film, photograph, textile and born-digital material.  The archive collections are unique, and are not found anywhere else in the world.

Why are these records important I hear you ask?  It’s just a bunch of old stuff isn’t it?

No, definitely not!

The University Archives are a treasure trove of information, forming a corporate memory that documents the aims, objectives, and achievements of the University.  This information can be used to improve strategy and decision-making, explore organisational culture, and learn from past mistakes.  The archive collections also offer a unique glimpse into the people and events, which have helped shape the University into what it is today. 

By cataloguing the collections, I am able to provide more efficient access to unique research and teaching opportunities.  As part of his research for his book on the history of Swansea University, Post-doctoral Fellow Dr Sam Blaxland has used the archive collections extensively.  Sam is also conducting a large-scale oral history project entitled Voices of Swansea University, 1920-2020, and recording and capturing the memories and experiences of individuals who have studied and/or worked at Swansea University.

In this clip, former Engineering student John Lomax, and former Secretary in the Department of Botany, Diana Lomax, discuss food at the University’s Refectory in the 1950s. (John and Diana Lomax interviewed by Sam Blaxland. Voices of Swansea University, 2017. © Swansea University.)

At present, Sam has recorded over 107 hours of recorded interviews, which have been added to the oral history collections at the Archives to be preserved and made accessible for future teaching and research opportunities.

The University Archives have also been researched by PhD students Karmen Thomas and Jay Rees, for their respective studentships ‘Swansea Science: The First 100 Years’ and ‘A Century of Student Life: Town and Gown in Swansea 1920 – 1990’.  Jay’s work concentrates on the history of student life at Swansea University, and the Archives hold a number of collections relating to this subject, including Student Union minutes, photographs, dance cards, and a vast collection of student newspapers.  The student newspaper collection dates from 1920 to 2018, and is an insight into all aspects of student life, such as student experiences and attitudes towards the university, war, protest, gender, fashion, relationships and the surrounding community. 
The student newspaper collection has recently been digitised with optical character recognition (OCR).  This aids accessibility enormously with over 18500 pages now word searchable and available to access in digital format in the Archives reading room. 

Selection of Student Union newspapers, 2019. © Archives & Records Council Wales (ARCW)/Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University

The University archive collections form an indispensable record and offer so much to different types of researcher.  To name just a few, the Archives have received enquiries about the University collections from family historians, geographers, scientists, architectural historians, broadcasters, journalists and authors. The University archive material has been used in student dissertations, publications and Channel 4 documentaries.

The University archive collections also include over 1000 photographs, all depicting scenes from University life.  A particular favourite of mine is this image of staff of the University College of Swansea, standing outside Singleton Abbey. The photograph brings to life those early days of the University, and puts faces to the many names that I have come across in the University Minutes, correspondence files and departmental records. 

photograph of staff, University College of Swansea, c.1920. Courtesy of the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University. [1]

The photographic collections enable us to witness the development of the University campus – from the 1930s and 40s, when the University comprised of just Singleton Abbey, the 1937 library and a few demountable type buildings, to today’s vast sites of the Singleton and Bay campuses. Click here to see the University College of Swansea in the 1920s.

This project includes the collation of details about copyright, enabling greater use of material to enhance marketing opportunities and promote key moments in the University’s history.  The archive collections also provide information for the Departments of Governance and Compliance at the University.  Cataloguing the collections enable more efficient responses to Freedom of Information requests, and the Archives are home to over 750 volumes of University Minutes, all documenting the thousands of decisions made by the University over the last century.

Swansea University students have been working on the University archive collections as part of student placements with Go Wales, Swansea Employability Academy (SEA), and the Heritage module in the College of Arts and Humanities.  These students have been involved with listing archive material, repackaging, digitisation of photographs and creating oral history summaries.  It’s been fantastic to introduce our students to these fascinating collections, and see them develop new skills, widen their student experience and contribute to the centenary.

photograph of Kira Hinderks creating oral history summaries as part of the SEA student placement, 2017. © Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University

The University archive collections are growing with great pace; over 50 new deposits of University related material have been deposited to the Archives in the last 3 years thus enhancing our existing collections.  The online catalogue is available, and is being continually updated with newly catalogued material. 

By preserving and providing access to the University archive collections, the Richard Burton Archives provide exciting opportunities for teaching, learning and research for the centenary and beyond.

Please contact for further information about the University collections. 

Emily Hewitt
Assistant Archivist, University Collections and Oral History
Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University

[1] front row L to R: Professor F Bacon (Engineering), Professor A.E.Heath (Philosophy), Professor E.Evans (Physics), Professor E Hughes (History), Professor J.E.Coates (Chemistry), Dr F.A.Mockeridge (Biology), Professor D.Emrys Evans (Classics), Professor W.D.Thomas (English), Professor A.R.Richardson (Mathematics), Professor H.Lewis (Welsh), Professor F.A.Cavenagh (Education).
middle row L to R: Dr L.Hinkel (Chemistry), Dr A.Norbury (Metallurgy). Dr.A.Fordham (English), Mr.W.Morris Jones (Physics), Miss Ethel Martin (Warden, Beck Hall), Miss G.Jones (Metallurgy), Miss I.M.Westcott (English), Miss Nesta Jones (History), Miss O.Busby (Librarian), Dr C.A.Edwards (Metallurgy), Dr T.Frankin Sibley (Principal), Mr Edwin Drew (Registrar), Miss D Bliss (Library Assistant), Miss D Williams (Geology), Miss J.Hilton (Biology), Miss E.Pool (French), Miss E.Matthews (German), unknown, Dr A.Truman (Geology), Dr A.Hanson (Medical Officer), Mr E.Ayling (Chemistry)
back row L to R: Mr S.Lewis (Welsh), Mr.E.Keeping (Mathematics & Physics), M T.K.Rees (Biology), Mr R.Issacs (Electrical Engineering), Mr J.Arrowsmith (Metallurgy), Dr L.B.Pfeil (Metallurgy), Mr J.Selwyn Caswell (Engineering), Mr H.Hill (Classics), Dr P. Dienes (Mathematics), Mr P.S.Thomas (Extra-Mural), Mr Alan Stuart (Geology), Mr I.Jones (Education), Mr T.Taig (English), Mr G.M.A.Grube (Classics), Mr.J.A.V.Butler (Classics), Mr L.Wright (Physics), Mr R.Wilson (Mathematics)


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