The History of Higher Education in Bloomsbury and Westminster

Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Institute of Education, University of London

King's College London

London School of Economics

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Royal Holloway, University of London

School of Oriental and African Studies

Senate House Library, University of London

University College London

University of Westminster


Before the 1820s there was no university in London. Londoners who did study, for example in Oxford or Cambridge, had to be quite rich and also members of the Anglican Church. The founding of King's College in 1829 was part of a movement that wished both to address this unfairness for Londoners and to modernise teaching. Industrial leaders, bankers and educationalists alike believed England was losing out to countries like Germany because our science teaching was poor or out of date. King's recruited from the sons of a growing metropolitan middle class. Its promoters combined a practical syllabus covering law, modern languages, engineering and the natural sciences, with a commitment to maintaining the principles of the established Church. This was in contrast to King's rival, University College in Bloomsbury, which grew out of the same movement but was resolutely secular. The Prime Minister at the time, the Duke of Wellington, a key supporter of King's College, even fought a duel on Battersea Fields over the issue!

Rag Duel

Cartoon by Thomas Jones, 'King's College to Wit', depicting the Duke of Wellington's duel, 1829


Kings College, 1833

Newspaper depicting King's main
building, 1833.

Body snatchers

Body snatchers tried to sell corpses
to King's anatomy classes, 1831

One of the College's early strengths was the teaching of chemistry and physics. Lecturers notably included Sir Charles Wheatstone, the inventor of the telegraph and stereoscope, and the physicist James Clerk Maxwell who developed the electromagnetic theory, science that paved the way for the television viewing of today. More recently, in the 1950s, King's teams led by Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin carried out the crucial X-ray diffraction experiments of DNA that helped decode the secret of life and which are the basis for a global medical and biotechnology industry.
The College also pioneered studies such as the very first university degree course via evening classes, which began in 1848 (Thomas Hardy was one prominent student), cutting edge classes in oriental languages (these later formed the nucleus of the School of Oriental and African Studies), or the very first university photography course. A commercial training division known as the Strand School, prepared students for Civil Service entrance exams and women for employment in the Post Office. A boy's school, King's College School, was located in the basement of King's until the 1890s when it moved to Wimbledon and became independent.

Prince Albert and Wheatstone's telegraph, 1843

Prince Albert visited King's in 1843 to witness a demonstration of Wheatstone's telegraph.

Drawing by Fougasse

Drawing by the propaganda artist, Fougasse, for a King's College Engineering Society dinner, 1941.

King's in Bloomsbury and Westminster

Work on building King's College began in 1829 on a narrow strip of land in the Strand adjacent to Somerset House and overlooking the river Thames. The property had variously been a timber yard, a royal residence and even the site of one of the earliest herb gardens in England. The College was situated behind a frontage of older buildings and accessible via a discreet archway and a river gate that allowed bodies used in anatomical dissections to be delivered at night without disturbance.

The neighbourhood was a noisy clutter of theatres, taverns, shops and the disease-ridden slums of Holborn and Covent Garden. Campaigning writers such as Charles Dickens and Robert Southey drew the public's attention to an area that arguably endured the worst poverty in London. The College authorities were particularly concerned about the effect of numerous thieves and prostitutes on the welfare and morals of its students. With the poor in mind, in 1840 the College opened a hospital in Portugal Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, then close to London's meat and vegetable markets. It was here that Joseph Lister crucially rolled out his use of antiseptics in medicine, while its public health and bacteriological laboratories were among the first of their kind in the country. King's College Hospital outgrew its premises and relocated to Denmark Hill in 1913, shortly after the slum clearances of the early 1900s that witnessed the building of Kingsway.


Nurses during a post-War royal visit to King's College Hospital.

Professor Maurice Wilkins

Professor Maurice Wilkins, who played a key role in the discovery of the DNA helix.

The College has over time merged with a number of other historic institutions including Queen Elizabeth and Chelsea Colleges, and more recently, the Medical Schools of Guy's and St Thomas's Hospitals. St Thomas's can trace its origins back to the 12th century while Guy's was founded in the 18th century; famous students and staff have included Florence Nightingale and the poet John Keats.

For more information on the history of King's College, to browse catalogues or to visit our online exhibitions, and on how to access the College's Archives, see the King's College Archive website

Drug control centre

Drug Control Centre, King's College, 2004, testing athletes for banned substances. Copyright: Action Images.


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