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Object 28: Chem.Labs

Object No. 28, 'Chem. Labs', is an unusual photograph that shows an oddly truncated version of the L-shaped building that will be familiar to OBs. Known over the years as the Chem. Labs, the Art Block, the Sixth Form Centre, or Reception, its fascinating story embodies the story of Science at Christ College. 

During the C19, and with only a few exceptions, the teaching of Science was still limited in most schools. Indeed, it was often seen as hostile to a traditional Classical education. Writing about his time at Christ College, JAP Price (Day Boy 1864-1871) categorically states, “There was no teaching of science and no laboratory existed”. JAP Price left school as an Exhibitioner to Queen’s College, Oxford where he studied Medicine, which is a reminder that lack of formal science teaching was not a barrier to entry to Medicine at the time.

With an eye to broadening the curriculum and with the support of the Governing Body, the newly appointed Headmaster, Revd Daniel Lewis Lloyd (Head 1879-1890), appointed several new Masters. One of them was FTS Houghton (Master 1879-1881) from St John’s College, Cambridge, who became the first Science Master at Christ College. Though it is not known where Science teaching took place, the appointment was certainly a sign of modernisation.   

Daniel Lewis Lloyd was a man with a vision. Though himself a Classical Scholar held in high regard, he ensured that a purpose-built science laboratory and classroom (now the Middle School Hub at the top of the Library stairs opposite the Library) was included in the plans for the Big School building, opened in July 1881. It was one of the earliest examples of a purpose-built laboratory in England and Wales.

Reflecting the limited number of boys taking Science at the time, the Laboratory could accommodate only half a dozen pupils. It did not, however, limit the ambitions of those who took the Sciences. Though certainly outnumbered by those taking the traditional Classics route, honours and scholarships to the Universities awarded in the later C19 include a significant number who went on to study Medicine or what was then known as Natural Sciences. 

By the early 1900s, the facilities that had been so new and modern in 1881 were woefully inadequate and a new laboratory building was planned. Percy Morton (Master 1885-1909), the Science Master, earnestly pressed his former pupils for donations for the construction “of two new laboratories and a lecture room”.  

Percy Morton’s trust in the support of Old Breconians was not misplaced. Funds raised as a result his personal requests enabled the construction of the first phase of the Chemical Laboratory, opened in September 1906 by the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Walter Vaughan Morgan of Glasbury.  

Speaking to boys, parents and guests at Speech Day, Principal E. H. Griffiths of the University College Cardiff, emphasised the requirement for laboratories for experimental work. He declared that “the study of science was an essential part of school life, and not, as some regarded it, an interloper, antagonistic to the ancient and classic sides. A thorough scientific education could not be given through books alone; experimental work was absolutely necessary in the study of natural science, and his only regret was that the present laboratory was designed for chemistry alone. However, he hoped that the School would soon take measures to remove from itself the reproach of providing for only one part of the subject.”

A photograph of pupils undertaking such work in the new lab was included in the 1908 Prospectus. The heavy wooden benches and the worryingly arrayed bottles of chemicals are old-fashioned to modern eyes, but they would have been state-of-the-art at the time and a sign that Christ College was not stuck in its past.

Not included in the same prospectus was evidence that completion of the Chemical Laboratory building was on hold. Indeed, the war years and the Depression made it difficult to raise further funding. Though funds for the first phase were found within a year, it took another 30 years to complete the building, with the line of ‘keyed’ bricks evident in Object No. 28 a constant reminder that completion was much needed. 

Photo. The completed Chemical Laboratories. Christ College Archive.

It was only in 1935 that sufficient funds were raised to provide a Physical (Physics) laboratory, a dark room and a lecture room, together with “a large storeroom, which could, if required, be used for Biology”. (Biology had no dedicated teaching space until 1965, when the Cartwright building was opened.) As many Old Breconians will know, Chemistry continued to be taught in the largely unchanged L-shaped building until the Queen’s Building was opened in 1991.

Just twenty years after the completion of the Chemical Laboratories, Physics gained a new home in the form of the Isitt Physics Laboratories, opened in 1955 and visible at the left edge of the photograph. At its heart were laboratories in which experimental work was a prominent feature in Physics lessons. Those who knew the Isitt labs will recall shelves stacked with apparatus, cables and measuring instruments, and that many of them seemed to feature in Physics lessons in one way or another.  

The Isitt Laboratories were demolished to make way for the Hubert Jones Science Centre. Opened in 2008, the modern labs accommodate the Physics and Biology Departments. ‘Hands-on’ learning remains at the heart of science lessons at Christ College, continuing a tradition that goes back more than a century on the school site.   

The eventual completion of the Chemical Laboratories building in 1935 was possible only as a result of a very large donation made by Colonel J J Jones of Cefn-coed-y-cymmer. Colonel Jones was a generous benefactor to local causes, including to Christ College. The Old Breconian Association had commissioned a portrait of him by way of thanking him for his munificent benefactions. It was unveiled on Prize Day 1933, when it was said that Colonel Jones had done “much to set the School on a firm economic basis” and that the portrait was a sign of appreciation for his “magnificent donation”.

The portrait was recently restored and has been rehung in its place in the large Dining Hall. Though it predates Colonel Jones’ donation to the completion of the Laboratories, it nonetheless has an important link to the building we know today as Reception and which features in Object No. 28, the Chem. Labs.



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