An image of the Women’s Hockey team in 1910 from Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives
Women’s Hockey team in 1910 (Ref. Cap & Gown, Vol. VII)

Today, Cardiff University offers its students as many sports clubs as they can shake a (hockey) stick at. But was this always the case? We look at Special Collections and Archives’ university collections to understand how sports became an integral part of student life.

Universities in the UK have been competing together since the formation of the Inter-Varsity Athletic Board of England and Wales in 1919. It had nine founding members: Aberystwyth, Bangor, Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, and Sheffield. (Western Daily Press, 15 Mar 1919, p. 6)

Now known as British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS), it is the national governing body for higher education sport in the UK.

However, competition between Welsh universities spans back into the nineteenth century.

Inter-college sport in Wales

The first inter-college competition between Aberystwyth, Bangor and Cardiff was in 1892 and was held at Aberystwyth. The events were 440 yards race, high jump, and 100 yards race. The latter two were “open to students of the three colleges of Wales, and any amateur within a radius of 30 miles from Aberystwyth.” (Magazine of University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, Jun 1892, Ref. 102/8)

This annual competition developed into Inter-College Week, in which sports matches, dances and the Inter-College Eisteddfod were held.

We have four Inter-College Week programmes previously owned by Iorweth John, from each of his years as a student. This annual sporting event between the constituent colleges of the University of Wales must have been a significant part of his student experience, as he had other attendees sign them and kept them as souvenirs.

Sports fixtures of the 1934 Inter-College Week included rugby, football, cross-country running, hockey, and netball (Ref. G4/9)

Cardiff’s early students fundraised for a gymnasium

Cardiff has not always had sports facilities available for its students to use. When it was established in 1883, the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (predecessor to Cardiff University) did not have any outdoor playing fields or indoor spaces for students to exercise.

It was the students themselves who were the driving force behind the College’s first purpose-built sports facility.

In 1886, the students appealed to the Senate for a gymnasium. On the Senate’s suggestion, they formed a student committee and began raising funds. Through subscriptions made by students and donations from a public appeal, they raised the entire cost of building and equipping the gymnasium. “Estimated at £250” (South Wales Echo, 3 March 1887, p. 2), this is the equivalent of around £20,000 today.

The gymnasium was completed in Oct 1888 – a wooden building located near the College’s main building at the time on Newport Road. It had a vaulting horse, horizontal and parallel bars, and a bridge ladder. The students could also practise Indian clubs, an exercise that involved swinging wooden juggling clubs in certain patterns to target specific muscles and improve strength.

The gymnasium was “very well patronised both by male and female students” (Ref. UCSWM Magazine, Dec 1889) and evening classes were arranged for the students of Cardiff’s Technical School.

Women and men in sports

Our collections show that women have been involved in sports throughout Cardiff University’s past. 

From its founding, the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire was resolute that women should benefit from “all the advantages of education equally with men” (Western Mail, 2 October 1883, p. 3), and sport was no exception.

A Men’s Swimming Club was established in 1898, shortly followed by one for women. The College made an agreement with the Guildford Crescent Baths so the students could use the public swimming pool. This pool was squeezed in between the Bute Dock feeder canal and the Taff Vale Railway line – luckily by that time it was no longer open-air!

An image of the water Polo team in 1912-13 from Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives
Water Polo team in 1912-13 (Ref. Cap & Gown, Vol. XI)

The Lawn Tennis Club quickly became one of the most popular sports in the College when it was formed in 1893. Part of its appeal may have been that it was the only club where women and men could play together. 

An image of a group of tennis players
Tennis was the only mixed sports club in 1899
(Ref. UCC/MISC/P/159/18)

Sports clothing

There is sportswear owned by former students preserved in Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives. Ties, rugby shirts, scarves, and caps emblazoned with the crests of its predecessor institutions evoke feelings of the many hard-fought matches won and lost by Cardiff’s students.

This woollen sports blazer belonged to student Francis Kelvin Beese and was donated by his family. It is embroidered with abbreviations of the Lawn Tennis Club and the Rugby Football Club. We have a photograph of Francis wearing the blazer during a tennis match in 1924, pictured centre.

Sport has become a mainstay of university life, and the extensive number of sports teams and modern facilities Cardiff University has today have developed from humble beginnings. The material held in Special Collections and Archives reveals that Cardiff’s students have been embracing their competitive spirit for over 130 years.

Anna Sharrard, Senior Archives and Records Assistant
Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University

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