Aberystwyth Law School History

In preparation: a history of the Aberystwyth Law School, 1901-2016, by Christopher Harding, Richard Ireland and John Williams.

The Aberystwyth Law School, established in 1901, is one of the oldest university Law Schools in Britain and the oldest in Wales. Set up as the Department of Law in the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth it evolved eventually into the Department of Law and Criminology of Aberystwyth University, but for a period of more than 100 years sustained a continuity in its role and mission and indeed a distinctive internal culture and outlook. An element in this was no doubt the particular geographical and cultural location of Aberystwyth, a relatively small and remote town and community which has punched above its weight in intellectual and educational terms to emerge by the end of the twentieth century as an unsuspected cosmopolitan and international enclave on the rural west coast of Wales. Such a place with a strong sense of own community in effect provided a distinctive but also supportive environment for a university department, which began with a clear idea of its mission, to take that forward through the changing circumstances of the outside world during the course of the twentieth century.

To have an interesting and significant history is partly a factor of the amount of time, and in the case of Aberystwyth Law School there is a period of over 100 years to look back on now and to talk about. In the context of contemporary university law schools, that is a relatively long period. Most law schools in Britain (and there are now more than one hundred) date back no further than the middle of the twentieth century or even much more recently. Until later in the 1960s Aberystwyth Law Department stood alone in Wales. In that way, the place had a head start in having an earlier lion’s share of experience. But that historical happenstance then fed its longer term identity and experience, allowing it to exploit its own sense of tradition and critical mass of individual personalities.

In that way a historical account of the Aberystwyth Law School is interesting as a subject in its own right – the place, persons and events in themselves. But it also provides the opportunity for a wider and deeper investigation of essential context, in particular the development of legal education in Britain through the twentieth century, and similarly of higher education and the university system during that time, and also of law and politics in Wales, since a number of staff and alumni became active in te practical fields of both. An historical study thus provides the trigger for some critical reflection and analysis concerning those aspects of social, political and cultural history. Numerous events and individuals over a long period of time can be referred to in order to flesh out a discussion of wider themes. There are many colourful and engaging personalities to be recalled, some of whom achieved a strong public profile, for instance as lawyers, politicians, academics or artists, some of whom attained positions of influence and power, in Britain and the wider world. It is interesting to reflect on the formative impact of their earlier experience in Aberystwyth in such cases.

The plan therefore is to combine an historical narrative of a particular place and its people and events with a broader analysis of both change and continuity in that sector of higher education.  In the early years of the twenty first century university legal education has become a very different matter from what it was at the start of the twentieth century. An assessment of that process of change is important in itself, and the long experience of the Aberystwyth Law School provides a rich fund of material for such an exercise.