Hugh Owen was a great benefactor to education in Wales in the nineteenth century. Born in Llangeinwen, Anglesey in 1804, at the age of 24 he went to work in London as a solicitor’s clerk, subsequently moving to the position of clerk to the Poor Law Commission, and ultimately becoming chief clerk to the Local Government Board. He therefore held an influential position and was close to the heart of government in Whitehall.
He was also active with the work of the British and Foreign School Society in Wales and the Cambrian Educational Society (both nonconformist associations). In 1847, following the publication of the Blue Books, he enthusiastically supported the opening of more British schools in Wales. One of the first such schools was Ysgol y Garth in Bangor. As the number of such schools increased, Hugh Owen saw the need for colleges to train teachers in Wales, and he was one of the leaders of the campaigns for the establishment of the Bangor Normal College in 1858, a similar college in Swansea, and the Aberystwyth university college in 1875.
One of Hugh Owen’s last benefactions, and the one associated with this lecture, was the establishment in 1880 of the North Wales Scholarship Association, a fund to provide financial assistance for children from north Wales to attend secondary schools. Hugh Owen was knighted in August 1881, but died in October of the same year, aged 77.
The Scholarship Association was short-lived, lasting only fourteen years. By 1894, following the Education Act of 1889, the new county councils had begun to establish secondary schools (County Schools), the first of them in Caernarfon – a school that now bears the name Ysgol Syr Hugh Owen. The county councils could also offer scholarships, so the Association ceased to exist, and the fund was transferred to the care of the University College of North Wales – now Bangor University. The income from the fund at that time was £4 per year. This small sum was used as an annual prize at the college. In order to qualify to compete for it, candidates needed to have spent some time as pupil-teachers at an elementary school, and then received teacher training (typically, at the Bangor Normal College), before embarking on a degree course at Bangor. To cap it all, they were required to write an essay (in English, of course) on a demanding topic concerned with education.
By subjecting the prize to such stringent conditions, the number of potential candidates soon dwindled, and the fund remained dormant for many years until it was discovered that its value had increased to about ten thousand pounds. In the year 2000, the university Council agreed that the interest on the fund could be used to hold an educational lecture on a subject that would attract a wide audience, and which would be an apt tribute to the work of Sir Hugh Owen.
The Sir Hugh Owen Memorial Lecture is delivered on alternate years.