Lost & Found: The Story of the UCWI “Letters Patent”

Good day Everyone! The University Archives is all packed and ready to move. Unfortunately, our new repository is not quite ready for us. Nevertheless, our work continues although our reference services are still on hold.  In this entry we chronicle the efforts of the Archives staff in helping to establish the University Museum. 

In recent months, the UWI Archives has been part of a hunt to locate some of the unacknowledged treasures that mark the university’s founding.

The push factor has been an initiative to establish a small museum in the UWI’s new Regional Headquarters, being completed across Hermitage Road from the Mona Campus’ Queen’s Gate entrance. The pilot exhibition is on the Origins of the UWI.

When the Museum Consultant came calling, we could confirm that the University’s Mona Campus Main Library had the 1962 Charter establishing UWI as an independent, degree-granting institution; while the Archives had the 1972 Charter which amended the university’s organizational structure – most notably dividing the position of Vice Chancellor from that of any of the Campus Principals. But where was the original 1948 document that enabled the then University College of the West Indies (UCWI) to start its work? On the face of it the answer was easy. The original charter was at the bottom of the Atlantic, lost when the aircraft Star Ariel went down in the Bermuda Triangle in 1949. Once a document had been passed over the Great Seal in London, it could not pass that way again, so there had been no replacement. But minutes and books of the period referred to Letters Patent, issued to provide a legal basis of operation.

A search was launched for the ‘Letters Patent’ – though no one had any recollection of having seen them or of what they looked like. After all, the UCWI became The UWI more than six decades ago. Finally, after multiple queries, a determined searcher unearthed from a fireproof safe, a prosaic brown envelope containing a slim foolscap document, printed on both sides of parchment paper, bound in green ribbon and carrying the seal of King George VI.

The importance of the document at the time was recognized by the first Principal, Thomas Taylor, who said that the technical difficulties that it posed had only been overcome through the intervention of the first Chancellor, Princess Alice of Athlone.

Today, the location of the UWI’s first truly official document is a seal of partnership between entities committed to establishing the UWI Museum that will shine light on the university’s history as well as the development of the region to which it is committed.

The “Letters Patent”: UWI’s first truly official document


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