Radical Beginnings, Inspiring Traditions

The first 150 years of Birkbeck, University of London, 1823-1973

By Birkbeck, University of London

Announcement of the first public meeting to found the London Mechanics' Institute (November 1823) by Birkbeck, University of LondonBirkbeck, University of London

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, Unknown, 1820s, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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The Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand, London - the birthplace of Birkbeck College

George Birkbeck, founder of Birkbeck College, Samuel Lane (1780-1859), c. 1825, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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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.

London Mechanics' Institute Student Register (1824-1826) by Birkbeck, University of LondonBirkbeck, University of London

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.

The London Mechanics' Institute, Unknown, c. 1851, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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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.

Students outside Birkbeck College (c. 1943)Birkbeck, University of London

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 Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, Breams Building, Birkbeck, University of London, c. 1884, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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The Breams Building, Fetter Lane, photographed in around 1885

Art Studio at the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, Birkbeck, University of London, Early 20th century, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Art Studio at the Breams Building

Birkbeck College Theatre, Birkbeck, University of London, c. 1920s, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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The Birkbeck College Theatre at the Breams Building

The Library at Birkbeck College, Birkbeck, University of London, 1923, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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The Library at the Breams Building

Birkbeck Institution Magazine (1 October 1892) by Birkbeck, University of LondonBirkbeck, University of London

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 Studio, Breams Building, Birkbeck, University of London, April 1913, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Art class at the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institute in 1913

Zoology laboratory at Birkbeck College, Birkbeck, University of London, c. 1920s-1940s, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Zoology laboratory, c. 1920s-1940s

Science Class at Birkbeck College, Birkbeck, University of London, 1930s, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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A science class in the 1930s

Chemistry Lecture at Birkbeck College, 1940s-1950s, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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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".

Students in the Common Room at Birkbeck College, c. 1943, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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The Student Common Room in 1943. In 1945 Birkbeck awarded its first PhD and MA to post-graduate students.

Botany staff at Birkbeck College, Birkbeck, University of London, 1907-1909, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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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 College Student Union Council, Birkbeck, University of London, October 1909, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Birkbeck Students' Union was created in 1904. This photograph shows the Officers of the Student Union Council for the 1909/10 session.

Birkbeck College Sports Day, Birkbeck, University of London, 1913, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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The start of the mile run at students' sports day in 1913

Birkbeck College Sports Day, Birkbeck, University of London, 1913, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Tug-of-war at students' sports day in 1913

Birkbeck College Rugby Team, Birkbeck, University of London, 1 October 1925, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Birkbeck College Rugby Football Team, 1925

Birkbeck College Netball Team, Birkbeck, University of London, 1925, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Birkbeck College Netball Team, 1925

Birkbeck College Operatic Society (c. March 1924) by Birkbeck, University of LondonBirkbeck, University of London

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.

The Birkbeck College Literary Society, Birkbeck, University of London, December 1921, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Edward II, December 1921

Birkbeck College Operatic Society, Birkbeck, University of London, March 1928, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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The Mikado, March 1928

Birkbeck College Operatic Society, Birkbeck, University of London, March 1931, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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HMS Pinafore, March 1931

Audience at Birkbeck College Theatre, Birkbeck, University of London, c. March 1924, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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The audience at a production of The Pirates of Penzance, with several cast members in the balcony

First World War Memorial at Birkbeck College (December 1921) by Birkbeck, University of LondonBirkbeck, University of London

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.

Birkbeck College Centenary Broadcast Message (2 December 1923) by Birkbeck, University of LondonBirkbeck, University of London

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 at Birkbeck College, Birkbeck, University of London, 20 March 1924, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Stanley Baldwin, who served three terms as British Prime Minister during the 1920s-1930s, gave the Centenary Foundation Oration in the College Theatre

Centenary celebrations at Birkbeck College, Birkbeck, University of London, 20 March 1924, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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He was then carried out into the street by students for a parade

Birkbeck College Students' Union Centenary Dinner, Birkbeck, University of London, 1 December 1923, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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The Students' Union held a Centenary dinner at a restaurant in London

Letter from King George V to Birkbeck College, King George V (1865-1936), 31 March 1924, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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King George V wrote to the College to congratulate it on its achievements in its first 100 years

Temporary Classrooms at Birkbeck College during the Second World War (1946)Birkbeck, University of London

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.

Map of Bomb Damage around Birkbeck College in the Second World War (1945)Birkbeck, University of London

This map shows bomb damage to the area around Birkbeck during the war

Bomb damage at Birkbeck College Library during The Blitz, May 1941, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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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.

Bomb damage at Birkbeck College Library during The Blitz, May 1941, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Students continued to study in the open air. The College also rented temporary accommodation in nearby Field House.

Temporary Classrooms at Birkbeck College during the Second World War, 1946, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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By 1946 temporary prefabricated classrooms had been built in a bomb crater on on the blitzed site beside the Breams Building

Students outside Birkbeck College, c. 1943, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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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.

Birkbeck College and Senate House, Malet Street (1952)Birkbeck, University of London

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.

Constuction of Birkbeck College Malet Street Building, 1947, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Construction of the Malet Street building began in 1947

Constuction of Birkbeck College Malet Street Building, 1951-1952, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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And was completed by 1952

Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother at the opening of the Birkbeck College Malet Street building, 28 April 1953, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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The Malet Street building was officially opened by the late Queen Mother on 28 April 1953

Chemistry laboratory at Birkbeck College, October 1951, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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A newly equipped Chemistry laboratory at Malet Street in 1952

Botany Research Laboratory at Birkbeck College, 1973, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Botany Research Laboratory in the early 1970s

Birkbeck College Library, 1970s, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Library reading room in the 1970s

Committee of Heads of Departments of Birkbeck College, 1972-1973, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Staff in the Council Room at Malet Street, 1972/73

Student Bar at Birkbeck College, c. 1970, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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Students in the College Bar in the 1970s

Birkbeck College 150th Anniversary Open Day (14 July 1973)Birkbeck, University of London

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.

Birkbeck College 150th Anniversary Open Day, 14 July 1973, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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A student demonstrating a spark chamber

Birkbeck College 150th Anniversary Open Day, 14 July 1973, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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And an early electron microscope

Birkbeck College 150th Anniversary Open Day, 14 July 1973, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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The Computer Science Department

Baroness Margaret Thatcher at Birkbeck College, 14 July 1973, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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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

Birkbeck College 150th Anniversary Open Day, 14 July 1973, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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And Birkbeck staff enjoyed a Garden Party

Chemistry Class at Birkbeck College (c. 1943)Birkbeck, University of London

Famous Birkbeckians

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.

Letter from Ramsay McDonald to Birkbeck College, Birkbeck, University of London, 31 October 1935, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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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.

The Botanical Section of the 1910 British Association for the Advancement of Science Meeting, Unknown, September 1910, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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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.

Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, Philip Alexius de László (1869–1937), c. 1910, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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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.

Professor Cyril Joad, Head of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, J. M. Clark, 1947, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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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, late 1950s, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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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".

Birkbeck College 150th Anniversary Open Day, 14 July 1973, From the collection of: Birkbeck, University of London
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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.

Birkbeck, University of London (2006)Birkbeck, University of London

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.

Credits: Story

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.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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