The Swansea-Mannheim city partnership and German impressions of Swansea University over the years

In an earlier blogpost I sketched the history of the city partnership between Swansea and Mannheim (Baden-Württemberg, Germany), from its establishment in the 1950s. That blog focused in particular on the creation of a monument to the partnership, a miniature replica of the German city’s main landmark, which was erected in Swansea in 1985. Since writing that blog, I have travelled to Germany, and I was able to consult documents about the partnership in the city archives of Mannheim, the Marchivum. That archive preserves a bewildering array of material about the relations between the two cities going back to the 1950s. With this abundance of material at hand, I have begun work on a full-length article on the history and significance of the partnership for the two cities.

In the course of my research in Mannheim I encountered several reports in the local press concerning Swansea University (or, as it was known until the 90s, University College, Swansea). These afford a revealing insight into how the university was seen through German eyes over this period.

Most of the references to the university are rather brief in nature, but extend back to the very start of the partnership between Swansea and Mannheim. In 1955, the editor of the Mannheimer Morgen newspaper travelled to Swansea after hearing reports that the Welsh town had been proposed to become a partner of his home city. He wrote a report of his impressions of Swansea. He noted that ‘A branch of the University of Wales, which is divided between four cities (the other three are in Cardiff, Aberystwyth and Bangor) is based here, surrounded by a splendid park.’[1] In July 1962, a group of 25 girls from Mannheim spent 12 days in Swansea. During their stay, they made day trips to destinations including Tenby and St Fagan’s, near Cardiff. They also spent one day at the university. A contemporary report affirms that ‘Full of pride…the hosts showed [the guests from Mannheim] their modern university, which stands in a large park next to the sea.’[2]

In 1984, one Margaret Crockett, who was originally from Bracknell, but who had studied at Swansea, spent time in Mannheim on a work placement at the city archives. The report describes her as a ‘young historian’ (junge Historikerin), which suggests she likely had studied history at Swansea. During her time in Germany, Crockett wrote a piece about Swansea for the Mannheimer Morgen. Though she said very little about the university, she did articulate a phrase familiar to many who have come to study in Swansea, only to find themselves staying long after the end of their degrees; at one point she noted that Swansea was known as the ‘graveyard of ambition’ (der Friedhof der Ambition).[3] In 1991, the Mannheimer Morgen discussed the role of the university in the history of Swansea Museum, noting that it took over the administration of the building in the 1970s.[4]

By far the most detailed source on this matter that I have encountered relates to a visit of a delegation from University College, Swansea to Mannheim in May 1975. The purpose of their visit was to develop links with the Universität Mannheim, their counterpart institution in the partner city.[5] Though based to some degree upon earlier intuitions, Mannheim’s university had been founded in 1967, less than a decade earlier. 

The source in question is a report in the Mannheimer Morgen. According to it, at one meeting during the visit of the Swansea academics, one of the professors at Mannheim painted a picture of the Welsh campus:

‘Connoisseurs would become lyrical when they think about Swansea University. In terms of landscape, the University College of Swansea is one of the most well-situated universities in Great Britain. Impressive is the enclosed, modern campus, from which one can peer out over the coast and the sea, surrounded by the grounds of Singleton Park.’[6]

The report profiled University College, noting that it was founded in 1920, comprised of five academic faculties, and that in the Autumn semester of 1973 some 3,329 students studied there. The paper reported that of those 3,329 students, around a fifth were from Wales, with the majority coming from England. Beyond that, the report went, a few Scots could also be found on campus.

The Swansea delegation included the university’s principal –  or Rektor, as he was described, using the conventional German term – Prof. R. W. Steel, who engaged directly with his Mannheim counterpart, Prof. Eduard Gaugler. Other Swansea academics on the trip included Profs D.H Boormann, R.B. Gravenow, W.H. Greenleaf and C.J.L. Price. The visitors to Mannheim gave papers, and were shown various sights around the city. During a reception in the restaurant atop Mannheim’s imposing Fernmeldturm (TV tower), one of the Swansea academics, Professor H.M. Waidson, gave a speech, in which he affirmed that he and his colleagues had during their visit been particularly struck by the work to develop the Universität Mannheim, the city’s annual flower show (the Bundesgartenschau), its pedestrian zone, and the Fernmeldturm. The Mannheimer Morgen made a point of noting that Waidson delivered his remarks in German. Since interchanges between Swansea and Mannheim were usually conducted in English (with a translator on hand for German-speakers without English), visitors from Swansea able to speak German were generally few and far between. In other sources I have read so far, the presence of a German-speaker from Swansea in Mannheim was generally framed as an unexpected but pleasant surprise in Germany. Though the paper did not include this in its report, in this instance, Waidson’s linguistic proficiency ought not to have come as a surprise: he was the head of the department of German at Swansea.

Links between Swansea University and the Universität Mannheim continue to this day, in the form of partner agreements which permit students in one university to spend time at the other. Though of course curtailed in recent years due to the repercussions of the Covid19 pandemic, the framework remains in place to resume these exchanges in the coming years.

By Dr Simon John

Image: Swansea-Platz Mannheim by Immanuel Giel (Public Domain)

[1] ‘Ein Zweig der Universität von Wales, die auf vier Städte verteilt ist (die anderen drei sind in Cardiff, Aberystwyth and Bangor), arbeitet hier, geborgen in einem herrlichen Park.’ Mannheimer Morgen, 2 April 1955.

[2] ‘Voller Stolz zeigten die Gastgeberinnen…ihre moderne Universität, un einem Großen Park, am Meer gelegen.’ Mannheimer Morgen, 16 July 1962.

[3] Mannheimer Morgen, 19 December 1984.

[4] Mannheimer Morgen, 4 January 1991.

[5] Mannheimer Morgen, 16 May 1975.

[6] ‘Die Kenner werden lyrisch, wenn sie an die Universität Swansea denken: Lanschaftslich gehöre das Universitäts-College von Swansea zu den schönsten gelegen Universitäten in Großbritannien: eindrucksvoll sei das geschlossene, moderne Campusanlage, von der aus man die vorgelagerte Küste un das Meer überblicken könne, eingebettet in die Anlagen des Singelton Parks.’

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