Sir Nathan Bodington (1848-1911)
Scholar and University Administrator

Sir Nathan Bodington (1848-1911)Every day the 95 bus runs through Headingley, packed with students on their way to Bodington Hall at Lawnswood. The Hall was named after the first Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds, Sir Nathan Bodington, who presided over the birth and critical early years of the University at the start of the twentieth century, when new ‘red-brick’ universities were being established in the great industrial cities, marking a massive expansion in higher education.

Nathan Bodington was a distinguished Greek scholar, a former Oxford Fellow, but not trapped in an ivory tower. Born in 1848 near Birmingham where he went to school, he won a scholarship to Oxford, and after graduation went on to teach in schools in Manchester and London before returning to Oxford in 1875. This was a time of passionate debate over the need for reform of the university system to meet the challenges of booming industrialisation and population growth. Only four universities existed in England – Oxford and Cambridge, with their traditional religious and classical bias, and London and Durham, both recently created – and of these only London had no religious barriers to entry and taught the physical sciences. Liberal and reformist, Nathan Bodington saw the need for a radically new approach, focussed on the large industrial cities.

In 1881 he became the first Professor of Classics at the new Mason College in Birmingham. Only a year later he was invited, aged 35, to be the first Principal of the Yorkshire College in Leeds, and he accepted – the pay was poor but the prospects exciting. The College had been established by subscription in 1874 (as the College of Science) to meet local demand for scientific and technological education. Since then it had expanded, widened its teaching to include arts, and acquired land and new buildings (the core of the present campus}. The aim was to win university status by joining the new federated Victoria University established in 1880, together with Owens College, Manchester, and University College, Liverpool. A strong leader was needed to achieve this and to put the College on a sound financial footing. In Nathan Bodington the College found an able and dedicated Principal who over the next 28 years guided it through challenging times.

In 1887, under his leadership, the College joined the Victoria University as planned. In some ways it set a standard. From the beginning it was non-denominational and open to both sexes. It pioneered new areas of study linked to local industry (Textiles, Colour Chemistry, Leather Manufacture, Engineering), as well as developing teaching in more traditional subjects. But in 1901 the College was left isolated when Manchester and Liverpool decided to apply for charters as independent universities. Nathan Bodington had hopes of establishing a federated university for Yorkshire, but when Sheffield decided to apply for its own charter it was clear that Leeds had to follow suit. This took courage and determination, but the necessary £100,000 was raised, and the new University of Leeds was born on 25 April 1904, with Nathan Bodington as its first Vice Chancellor.

Much of Nathan Bodington’s life centred on his work, but he had wide cultural interests, in literature, architecture, photography, travel. He lived for many years in Shire Oak Road, Headingley, with his widowed mother and sister. Then, in 1907, when he was almost 60, his life changed completely. Travelling in Spain, he met the daughter of Sir John Barran, the former MP and Lord Mayor of Leeds, and within a few months they married. The following year all his hard work was recognised: the University’s splendid new science buildings were opened by King Edward VII, and he received a knighthood.
But his new-found happiness was brief. In 1911, after a sudden illness, he died aged only 63, still in post. In that year, the University which he had helped to create had 1163 students. Today it has 30,000.

Eveleigh Bradford
April 2010