Foundation of The London Mechanics' Institute
On the evening of 11 November 1823, around 2000 people flocked to the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand in London to hear Dr George Birkbeck speak on the importance of educating the working people of London. Supporters present at the event included Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher and originator of Utilitarianism, Sir John Hobhouse, a Radical M, and Henry Brougham, a liberal MP, anti-slavery campaigner and educational reformer. Following this initial meeting, the London Mechanics’ Institute was formally created at the same location on 2 December 1823, with the stated aim of educating 'Mechanics', as working men were called at the time. In 1866 The Institute changed its name to the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, which was shortened to Birkbeck College in 1907.
The Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand, London - the birthplace of Birkbeck College
George Birkbeck, founder of Birkbeck College. He was a doctor, academic, philanthropist and pioneer in adult education. When he died in 1841, his horse drawn funeral cortège attracted thousands of mourners.
This foundation of the London Mechanics' Institute meant that, for the first time, ordinary working men could learn about science, art and economics – a concept so controversial that Dr Birkbeck was accused of 'scattering the seeds of evil'. Some people feared that educating working men could lead to a revolution. Undeterred, Dr Birkbeck called his supporters to action: 'Now is the time for the universal benefits of the blessings of knowledge.' Many donors were convinced by the important mission and enough money was raised to open the Institute and push forward a radical new vision. This page from the 1824 Student Register shows the names and trades of some of the first working men to study at the Institute. In 1830, The London Mechanics' Institute took a further radical step by becoming one of the first colleges to admit women as students. From the start, students were represented on the Institute's governing body - a tradition which continues today.
In 1825 the London Mechanics' Institute moved into its own premises in Southampton Buildings, Chancery Lane. Working men sat on its governing Committee and students voted at its general meetings.
The Breams Building, 1884-1952
In 1884 a generous donation from Francis Ravenscroft, of the robe-making firm Ede and Ravenscroft, helped pay for the move to the Breams Building, on Fetter Lane, which would be home to Birkbeck for the next 67 years. During this time Birkbeck cemented its unique position in higher education, providing part-time teaching for students in full-time employment. In 1920, Birkbeck became a constituent college of the federal University of London.
The Breams Building, Fetter Lane, photographed in around 1885
Art Studio at the Breams Building
The Birkbeck College Theatre at the Breams Building
The Library at the Breams Building
From 1858, Birkbeck students were allowed to sit University of London degrees. Birkbeck soon became first choice for Londoners who wanted a university education but could not afford to study full time. The famous socialist economist Sidney Webb described Birkbeck as delivering "the kind of evening instruction for the intelligent workman that is unique to the world. No other city has anything equal to it". In the early years, both morning and evening classes were offered, but daytime teaching was phased out in 1925.
Art class at the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institute in 1913
Zoology laboratory, c. 1920s-1940s
A science class in the 1930s
An evening Chemistry lecture in the 1940s. Birkbeck's students were nicknamed "Night Owls", reflecting the owl and candles on the College coat of arms. The College motto is "Study by night".
The Student Common Room in 1943. In 1945 Birkbeck awarded its first PhD and MA to post-graduate students.
Research has always been an important at Birkbeck. Here, Dr Kingston (left) and Professor David Thomas Gwynne-Vaughan of the Botany Department work on their 1910 book, 'The Fossil Osmundaceae'.
Birkbeck Students' Union was created in 1904. This photograph shows the Officers of the Student Union Council for the 1909/10 session.
The start of the mile run at students' sports day in 1913
Tug-of-war at students' sports day in 1913
Birkbeck College Rugby Football Team, 1925
Birkbeck College Netball Team, 1925
The Birkbeck Players
During the first half of the 20th century, Birkbeck had a flourishing amateur dramatic society. The students' theatrical and operatic productions were of a high standard and received reviews in national newspapers. The productions were staged in the College Theatre at the Breams Building.
Edward II, December 1921
The Mikado, March 1928
HMS Pinafore, March 1931
The audience at a production of The Pirates of Penzance, with several cast members in the balcony
First World War
One in four of the staff and students who enlisted during The Great War were killed in the conflict. This photograph shows Lord Haldane, President of Birkbeck College from 1919-1928, unveiling the Roll of Honour. During the war the College introduced lectures on military subjects to support the war effort, and offered free education to Belgian refugees. Women students increasingly sought training in medical, dental and pharmaceutical subjects. In 1917, Birkbeck's first woman professor, Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, was appointed Chief Controller of the British Army's Auxiliary Corps. Lieutenant Commander Milner-Barry, a lecturer in German, worked on detecting spy plots, illegal immigrants and contraband.
College Centenary, 1923
In 1923, Birkbeck celebrated the Centenary of its foundation. It marked the occasion with a programme of events including orations by eminent speakers, public lectures and entertainments, and a History of the College was published.
Stanley Baldwin, who served three terms as British Prime Minister during the 1920s-1930s, gave the Centenary Foundation Oration in the College Theatre
He was then carried out into the street by students for a parade
The Students' Union held a Centenary dinner at a restaurant in London
King George V wrote to the College to congratulate it on its achievements in its first 100 years
Second World War
Birkbeck was the only university in central London to stay open during Second World War, despite ferocious bombing in the Blitz. The Master of the College declared that it was Birkbeck's duty to "irrigate the intellectual desert of London" during the conflict. Many classes were held during the day instead of the evening, to avoid problems with the blackout. The College also organised lunch time extramural lectures for the public.
This map shows bomb damage to the area around Birkbeck during the war
During the air raid of 10th-11th May 1941, the Birkbeck Library in Greystoke Place was destroyed. Other College buildings were also damaged, both in 1941 and 1944.
Students continued to study in the open air. The College also rented temporary accommodation in nearby Field House.
By 1946 temporary prefabricated classrooms had been built in a bomb crater on on the blitzed site beside the Breams Building
After the war, students from Birkbeck turned an empty house in Kingston Hill into a home for young Hungarian refugees. Click the link above to watch a video about it.
Malet Street, 1952 - present
In 1952 Birkbeck moved to a new building in Malet Street, Bloomsbury, which was officially opened by the late Queen Mother. The new building is in the heart of London University, next to Senate House, which is the University's administrative centre. The additional space at Malet Street allowed the Birkbeck to expand. New academic departments included Computer Science (1957) and Occupational Psychology (1961), both of which were the first of their kind in the United Kingdom.
Construction of the Malet Street building began in 1947
And was completed by 1952
The Malet Street building was officially opened by the late Queen Mother on 28 April 1953
A newly equipped Chemistry laboratory at Malet Street in 1952
Botany Research Laboratory in the early 1970s
Library reading room in the 1970s
Staff in the Council Room at Malet Street, 1972/73
Students in the College Bar in the 1970s
150th Anniversary, 1973
Birkbeck College celebrated its 150th Anniversary in 1973. In July of that year it held an Open Day and Garden Party at the main building in Malet Street.
A student demonstrating a spark chamber
And an early electron microscope
The Computer Science Department
The Centenary Open Day event was attended by Margaret Thatcher, the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, who went on to become Prime Minister
And Birkbeck staff enjoyed a Garden Party
Notable Birkbeck students include social reformer and co-founder of the LSE, Sidney Webb, future playwrite Arthur Wing Pinero, and Annie Besant, whose involvement with atheists and birth controllers so alarmed the College Governors that they tried to avoid publishing her exam results. A host of famous literary and political figures gave lectures at the College, including Oscar Wilde and Millicent Fawcett. Poet TS Eliot taught English at Birkbeck for a short time in 1915. Notable staff include Nikolaus Pevsner, architectural historian and critic, who became Birkbeck's first Professor of History of Art in 1959, historian Eric Hobsbawn, who joined the College as a lecturer in 1947, and Rosalind Franklin, 'The Dark Lady of DNA', who worked as a Research Fellow at Birkbeck alongside Aaron Klug in the 1950s.
Ramsay MacDonald was a student at Birkbeck from 1886-1887, forging a lifelong passion for the arts. He went on to become the first Labour Prime Minister of Britain in 1923. Read his letter about Birkbeck above.
Birth control campaigner Marie Stopes (centre), was a student at Birkbeck from 1900-1902. She took zoology night classes at Birkbeck while she studied at University College London during the day. This enabled her to complete a first class degree in two years.
Helen Gwynne-Vaughan was a prominent British botanist and Birkbeck's first female Professor. She also had a distinguished military career in both World Wars, for which she was made a Dame of the British Empire.
C.E.M Joad was Head of Philosophy and Psychology at Birkbeck from 1930-1953. He was known for his appearances on The Brains Trust, a popular BBC Radio wartime discussion show. Watch a video about him.
J D Bernal was Professor of Physics and Crystallography at Birkbeck from 1937-1968. His intellectual force resonated beyond the world of science and he was widely known as "Sage".
Andrew Booth developed some of Britain's first 'big computers' at Birkbeck. He invented the Booth Multiplier and pioneered rotating memories and machine language translation. Watch a video about him.
Today, Birkbeck graduates follow in the footsteps of radical thinkers, social reformers, ground-breaking scientists, and even a Prime Minister. Birkbeck, University of London, continues to pursue the central mission of its founders and is still London's only specialist provider of part-time evening higher education. It is also a world-class research institution. Birkbeck will celebrate its Bicentenary in 2023.
Exhibit curated by Victoria Rea.
All images are taken from the Birkbeck College Archive.
With thanks to Ede and Ravenscroft for financial support on the archive project.