50th Anniversary: Sir James Gracie Q&A

50 Aston Greats - JJ Gracie

Dr JJ Gracie

James Johnstone Gracie was the father of Aston University’s sandwich course (now placement year). His first contact with Aston was in 1946, when he was invited by Sir Wilfred Martineau to join the Technical College Sub-committee of the Education Committee of Birmingham. A senior member of the General Electric Company, Gracie was elected Chairman of the Governing Body of Birmingham’s Central Technical College (the forerunner of Aston University) in 1951. 

He held office as Chairman until 1959 and gave outstanding service to the College during a period of great change. This included the construction of new premises at Gosta Green, opened by HM the Queen in 1955, and the Technical College’s transition to C.A.T. [College of Advanced Technology] status in 1956. This is an edited version of an interview conducted by Aston University’s Academic Registrar, George Arkieson, on June 25th 1970. 

Could you tell me something about the College when you first knew it in 1946?

Well, of course, as a member of the Sub-committee we were interested in all the technical colleges in Birmingham, of which Suffolk Street was the principal one at that time. The Principal was James Wilson, and the Assistant Principal was M.R. Gavin, and it was a much smaller institution altogether than it became later on. It was confined to the one building in Suffolk Street, and it produced people with Higher National and Ordinary National qualifications. They had just recently begun awarding A.T.C.s - the Associateship of the Technical College of Birmingham. That was its status at the time.

Were most of the students part-time?

I would say yes - a great proportion of the students were part-time and mostly evening. My own factory, the G.E.C. Engineering Works at Witton, provided day-time release students, some 40 or 50 I think, who used to have a day off and go to the College once a week. I was very interested in developing technical education for our apprentices.

Didn’t you play a leading part in the development of sandwich courses?

[James] Wilson, the Principal, and I always worked very closely together, we got on extremely well, and we both had the same sort of ideas about technical education. It appeared to me for a long time that this day-release system was inadequate; that boys wanted more than one day a week if they were going to accumulate enough knowledge to get up to something like degree standard. They were limited to the Ordinary National and Higher National Certificate levels, and I could see no reason why some of them, who were just as bright as any average university undergraduate, shouldn’t have the opportunity of getting to degree standard. So we had thought about this for some time, and we agreed between ourselves, that if we could work out a similar scheme where the Technical College education could alternate with a similar period in the factory, it would probably provide the necessary result. It all came to a head over a very informal meeting, in fact it was a luncheon party at the Queens Hotel; I said to Wilson that if he would supply six-month courses, alternating between factory courses, that I would supply him with 40 students. He agreed, the pact was made, and the thing started on that basis.

The growth and development of the Gosta Green site must have taken place during your period. Are you one of those who regard the Main Building as more functional than aesthetic?

Very much so, yes [laughs].

It was of course a pre-war plan, was it not, that people had to pick up and get on with after the war?

It was originally designed, I think, in 1938, then there was a war. It was picked up again, and by that time, of course, ideas about the College, and of architecture, had undergone some changes, and by the time we were halfway through the first part of the building, the schemes had already been developed for extending it. And then of course further extensions took place - it must be an architect’s nightmare I think.

Did you sigh for the good old days of Suffolk Street?

I wouldn’t say that - no, Suffolk Street was absolutely chaotic. By the time we had left it, and moved to Gosta Green, it was almost impossible to work in it. The roofs of the buildings were chock-a-block and, in fact, we were occupying a dozen or more sites all over the city. It was high time they were all brought into one campus. 

Looking back over this period of significant development for the College, what do you take greatest pleasure in?

Oh, I think undoubtedly being fortunate enough to see my objectives realised. They were clear-cut objectives - to get the College up to university standard. I don’t mean I did this - I saw it happen - and I was fortunate in being Chairman of the Governing Body, right up to the time when it did happen. Of course the College owes an enormous amount to people like Sir Peter Venables, and others who did so much terrific work in this direction. But the objectives that were set by James Wilson and myself, very largely, were achieved. The apprentices in industry can now become university graduates. The Technical College is now a university, and the fact that those two objectives were achieved, just about at the end of my tenure of office - those are the things that have given me the greatest satisfaction of all.