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Obituary: Sir Charles Wilson

As Principal of the University College, Charles Wilson was responsible for guiding the University to full University status and the award of the Royal Charter in 1957. As the first Vice-Chancellor, he initiated the period of rapid growth which followed from Charter status.

With the death of Sir Charles Wilson on Saturday, November 9, the University marks the passing of the last of its founding fathers. For it was the work of Sir Charles, his colleagues on the Charter Committee of the University, and the senior members of the University staff which has resulted in the present University. The years intervening since the bestowal of its founding charter have seen many changes in its structure of governance, its range of activities, and indeed in the extent to which it might develop. But essentially the vision which he and they gave it has remained at its heart.

Sir Charles was born on May 16 in 1909 and educated in Glasgow, graduating from its University with a first class honours degree in Modern Languages and Economics. He went on to the London School of Economics as lecturer in Political Science before going on to Corpus Christi College Oxford as Fellow and Tutor in Modern History. He quickly developed a taste for the study of institutions: as he remarked in his valedictory address to the University, 'a coral insect engaged in studying other coral insects, I found myself looking at the coral reef and seeing the atolls of the archipelago.'

Leicester Evening Mail photo of group at President's Reception
President's Reception at Beaumont Hall, October 1, 1956: Left to right: Lady Mayoress Mrs Halkyard, Lord Mayor Alderman Halkyard, Lord Adrian and Lady Adrian, Mrs Wilson, and Principal of University College Leicester, Charles Wilson

He was always open to inspect new horizons; it was this which had, during his Oxford years, taken him as Visiting Professor to Ohio State University and made him receptive to the challenge of becoming Principal of what was then University College Leicester. He came to Leicester in 1952, and within a year plans were being formulated for an application for it to become a University in its own right. In December 1954 he announced that a decision had been made to petition in 1956 for such status, and in March 1957 the Queen approved the granting of the charter.

Charles Wilson was appointed the first Vice-Chancellor of this new University, and he presided over a period of remarkable expansion. New buildings, new degrees, and many new members of staff marked the next four years, and the University expanded to heights which would have been inconceivable five years earlier. When it applied for its Charter it had 800 students and over 100 members of staff. Within a few years its academic leaders were even envisaging that the undergraduate enrolment might go up to over 2,500 students with a range of staff and facilities to match. Much of this was the result of Charles Wilson's vision as well as the opportunities afforded for such expansion by the support of the University Grants Committee. portrait of Sir Charles Wilson by Albert Morrocco
Portrait of Sir Charles Wilson by Albert Morrocco

At the same time Charles Wilson's expertise was not confined to the University of Leicester. The Public Orator when presenting him for an honorary degree drew attention to his work on the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, of which indeed he was to be the first of a series of Chairmen who had either served earlier as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester or who combined the two posts at the same time. He was also called on to give advice to a range of universities both in the United Kingdom and overseas and, even though an Oxford man, advised the University of Cambridge on some of its internal constitutional relationships.

While happy at Leicester and with the relationships he had established here it was not really surprising that, when Glasgow University should have sought for a successor to Sir Hector Hetherington, its much-loved Principal, and turned to him as a possible candidate, he should have accepted the opportunity of going back to his alma mater. He had earlier been given an honorary degree by Glasgow University and so this was in many ways an opportunity for him to return home.

The University of Leicester accepted this desire and said farewell to him with an honorary degree. In his Oration on this occasion Professor Bruce Millar, the Public Orator, paid tribute to the way in which Charles Wilson had participated fully in the life of the University and of the City at large. He had served as lay canon in the Cathedral as well playing a part on the Education Committees of City and Council alike. Many commented upon the ways in which as a chairman of committees he was able to handle his colleagues and associates in a quiet but very firm manner, usually managing to get the result he had wanted. But what many members of the University particularly recalled was his immense friendliness and his enormous capacity for remembering people and circumstances. Members of staff appointed in the early spring would be recognised and greeted by name when they first reappeared in the late autumn, and he and his wife, Jessie, will always be remembered for their enormous work of building up a feeling of 'communitas' amongst the enlarging academic body. This feeling was largely reciprocated, so that in many ways forty years after his departure, the University of Leicester still reflects much of his own vision and represents in a way a monument to him. He is commemorated in the name of the University's main social and catering building.

Both during and after his time at Leicester he had established his international reputation in matters of University administration and organisation. In addition to his work on the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, of which he was Chairman between 1964 and 1967, and which brought him a well-deserved knighthood, he was twice Chairman of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, from 1966 to 1967 and from 1972 to 1974. A wide range of new and would-be universities in the United Kingdom and overseas put him on their planning committees or asked him to advise them on their future plans.

He retired from Glasgow in 1976 and spent his succeeding years in fishing, gardening and rejoicing in his wife and family.

Emeritus Professor Aubrey Newman
December 2002  

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Last updated: 4 December 2002 17:00
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