ON THE ROAD: Roots of that Royal Charter!

by Suzanne Francis-Brown, UWI Museum Curator

One of my bucket list items this past few weeks was tracking early documents relating to the UWI’s lost Charter – the first Royal Charter, granted in 1949 and lost in a plane crash en route to the founding Mona campus in Jamaica. Some of those documents are on deposit at the UK National Archives, and they include ¬†explanations of why a Royal Charter was considered the best option as the nascent university developed its governance and administrative structures.

The UCWI eventually applied for the Charter in the second half of 1948, the same time it was taking in its first students – 33 young men and women from across the Caribbean, studying in the founding Faculty of Medicine. But the arguments in favour were set out a year earlier in a letter from G.F. Seel of the Colonial Office to Sir Eric Leadbitter of the UK’s Privy Council.

One key point to note is that this was an unusual grant and one that took some persuasion on the part of the Colonial Office which acted as sponsor and which stressed just how important they considered this grant to be.

UCWI Charter record within Patent Rp;;s at UK National Archives
UCWI Charter record within Patent Rolls at UK National Archives

“On every ground we feel obliged to support the proposition that a Royal Charter should be sought…”

So three main grounds for support were put forward:

#1 – “The provision for higher education in the West Indies is a corner-stone of the Secretary of State’s economic and social development in that region.” The Colonial Office noted that while the British government was providing the capital expenditure for the new university college, the colonial governments in the West Indies would be expected to carry the recurrent expenses. Therefore, “the more we can signalise the high status the College has in our own minds, the readier they will be the shoulder their obligations.”

#2 – The Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (ICTA), already operating in Trinidad and destined for eventual incorporation with the UCWI, already had a Royal Charter; “and it is essential that the University College should not be looked upon as of lesser status.”

#3 – “To found the college by Ordinance of the local legislatures would be most cumbersome, even if practicable, since it will function (amongst other ways, through extra-mutual studies) in ten different Colonies.”

(On The Road is a special series by the UWI Museum Curator who has been on three month’s Study Leave, with activities including the collection of outstanding research material relating to artifacts of the UWI)


  1. This was careful thinking by the colonial authorities, including the need for the governments to take the institution very seriously, and the difficulty of trying to make individual arrangements with the 10 colonies independently. I did not realize the ICTA Royal Charter was a part of the consideration too. Always appreciate these tidbits of history. Thank you, Suzanne!


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