Reading, a city dreaming of spires

May 3, 1996

Higher education has expanded enormously in the past few years, but it was not always so easy. Ged Martin catalogues some centuries-old attempts to found British universities.

Britain and Ireland now have over 100 universities - but there might have been many more. In the six centuries before 1832, when Durham became England's first official provincial university, there were at least 18 schemes for lost campuses, some of which actually sputtered into life.

We can discount stories of monastic universities that flourished in Dark Ages Ireland. There is no truth in the tale that Alfred the Great planned Oxford on the model of the University of Lismore in County Waterford. Nor did Oxford begin as a branch campus of the University of Cricklade, founded by Brute the Trojan, to remedy his ignorance.

Oxford began sometime before 1200. In 1209, many students fled Oxford after battles with townsfolk. Most headed for Cambridge, thus giving England a second medieval university. Perhaps there was a proto-university at Cambridge that drew them to the Fens. Other refugees headed for Reading, but few will be surprised by their discovery that Reading was no place for a university.

In 1261, there was a further scholarly migration, from Cambridge to Northampton. Henry III's government briefly recognised the new university and then attempted to disperse it. However, in 1263, crisis almost engulfed Oxford, as the King tried to shut down that nuisance as well. Fleeing Oxford students reinforced the University of Northampton.

Then civil war broke out between king and barons and in 1264 the royal army besieged Northampton. Students fought for the barons, led by Simon de Montfort, but his name carried no academic clout. Henry III won, and in revenge he put an end to the University of Northampton.

In 1334, north-country students were driven out of Oxford after pitched battles with southerners, and briefly established a university at Stamford. The whole of Brasenose moved, even taking the famous brass door-knocker which gave the college its name. Seventeen academics, all renegade northerners, kept the university going for several years despite government orders to disperse. Oxford saw Stamford as a real threat, and for the next 500 years forced its graduates to promise never to teach there. Brasenose did not recover its doorknocker until 1890.

Another civil war, between Charles I and Parliament, produced a crop of 17th-century schemes. There was talk of a university in London, where Sir Walter Raleigh had wanted to start one in Queen Elizabeth's time. Campuses were proposed for Bristol, Exeter, Norwich, Shrewsbury, Ludlow and Cornwall. Manchester asked for a university in 1641, "many ripe and hopeful wits being utterly lost for want of education". York tried in 1641 and 1647. Most of these proposals were Puritan schemes: students at Bristol and Norwich were even threatened with manual labour.

However, the royalist Earl of Derby toyed with a dismally modern scheme for a cut-price university on the Isle of Man, to bolster the island's sluggish economy by attracting overseas students. Derby's plan was cut short, as indeed was Derby, who was beheaded in 1651.

Only one 17th-century scheme got beyond the starting blocks. Durham campaigned for a university and in 1657 secured the backing of Oliver Cromwell to turn the cathedral into a college. Philip Hunton, an Oxford graduate and fervent republican, was appointed provost, and there were to be four professors, ten fellows and 36 students.

The new college promptly asked for full degree-granting powers and in April 1659 was on the verge of acquiring university status. However, the University of Durham ran foul of the Oxbridge monopoly, and the restoration of Charles II the next year put an end to the college altogether.

York made another attempt in 1825. Miffed by the rise of industrial Leeds and Bradford, York argued that a university would restore "its proper rank in the national account".

Although Scotland had five universities by 1600, there were to be four lost campuses north of the Tweed. Scotland's oldest university was founded by the Archbishop of St Andrews in 1411. It did not take long to grasp that a north-facing coastal town at the back of Fife was a daft place to seek wisdom.

In 1426, King James I tried to move St Andrews to Perth, a more central location and his intended royal capital. However, the pope, when asked for his support, did not wish to offend the archbishop, and the wind-chilled university stayed put.

Meanwhile, another Scottish university came and went. In 1597, the Scottish parliament chartered a college in Fraserburgh. Fraserburgh also faced the North Pole, and it was 100 miles closer, but Sir Alexander Fraser was keen to have his university. Parliament gave him and his heirs sole power to hire and fire staff. The first principal, Charles Ferme, was appointed in 1600. Five years later, Ferme was arrested for backing the wrong party in Scotland's turbulent ecclesiastical politics. A principal on a treason charge seems to have been fatal to the fledgling University of Fraserburgh.

When Ferme died in 1617, no successor was appointed, although its buildings remained for long after. Nobody is sure when Fraserburgh formally expired but its closure made the front page of The THES in September 1988, which must be regarded as conclusive.

Scotland's next close encounter with tertiary education was the product of a feud beyond the grave. John Anderson was one of those larger than life academic characters. He taught at Glasgow University for almost 40 years, in areas as varied as oriental languages and experimental sciences, and fought with pretty well everyone.

Anderson died in 1796, bequeathing his small estate for the foundation of a new university (which would be open to women). Its 36 professors must not be "permitted, as in some other Colleges, to be Drones or Triflers, Drunkards or negligent''.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to hire 36 professors out of Pounds 1,500, so the trustees embarked on an institution for adult education. Indeed, its second principal, George Birkbeck, moved on to found something similar in London.

In 1828, the name of the institution was changed to Anderson's University of Glasgow, but it did not acquire formal university status. Later "the Andersonian" went through various mergers and name-changes, finally emerging in 1964 as Strathclyde University.

The University of Dumfries did not founder for lack of cash. Dr James Crichton came home from India in 1808 with a fortune acquired - so his widow insisted - "solely by the great blessing of God upon his honest industry". Crichton left Pounds 100,000 to be spent on any good cause "that his dear wife thought proper". It seems that Elizabeth Crichton wanted to found a university but was unable to secure a royal charter. Instead, she was persuaded to spend her fortune on "a model home for the treatment of the insane".

In 1787, the Irish government announced that the country was to have a second university, a rival to Trinity College Dublin. The University of Armagh would be aimed at Ulster's Presbyterians - who, in 1795, uncompromisingly demanded a university all of their own, at Cookstown in County Tyrone.

Meanwhile, Armagh's Protestant Archbishop Robinson had died in 1794, leaving Pounds 5000 to revive the university project. There was a catch: the bequest would lapse if the University of Armagh had not started within five years. Armagh was on the drawing board in 1798 when Ireland was swept by rebellion, in which Presbyterians took a prominent part.

The uprisings cast doubt on Robinson's belief that a university in Armagh would "soften down the minds" of Presbyterian militants. Bent on forcing Ireland into a union with Britain, the government in London preferred to encourage "the better order" of West Britons to study at Oxbridge, leaving the troublesome Presbyterians to broaden their minds in Scotland.

Armagh was still lobbying for a university in 1845, when all three denominations united to plead the city's case against upstart Belfast in the race to benefit from Sir Robert Peel's programme to found colleges in Ireland. Along with Derry, Limerick and tiny Tuam, Armagh lost once again, and had to wait until the 1990s before it acquired a branch campus.

Llandewi Brefi is the saddest lost university of them all. There had been talk of a Welsh university in Cromwell's time but nothing happened until Bishop Burgess decided to found a college to train clergy soon after he arrived at St David's in 1803. It took almost 20 years to raise the necessary funds.

The location, however, was fixed. In 1806, Burgess chose Llanddewi Brefi, sacred for its associations with St David himself. Llanddewi Brefi had some advantages. It was very handy for Tregaron. Unfortunately, it was a touch remote from the rest of Planet Earth.

In 1820, seduced by the offer of free land, Burgess suddenly switched the location to Lampeter, a positively metropolitan centre ten miles away, where it was argued that a college would "tend to civilise'' the inhabitants.

Offended by the slur that they were beyond redemption, the people of Llandewi Brefi objected that they had raised Pounds 414 and 17 shillings for the project.

Some of the lost groves of academe eventually bore fruit. Durham, Manchester, York - even Reading - all rose to university status. Northampton got a modern college in consolation for a monkish cloister. Sadly, other projects led nowhere. Only a medieval gateway in Stamford and a street name in Fraserburgh recall those institutions which never made it to the CVCP.

Ged Martin is director of the Centre of Canadian Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

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