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


The University of London was founded in 1836 and was empowered to grant degrees on behalf of University College (UCL) and King's College, London, which had both been founded in the previous decade. The University is therefore the third oldest in England and has had a long and distinguished history, The University's administration was initially housed in Somerset House on the Strand. Somerset House was built in the 1770s to accommodate the Royal Society, the Royal Academy and the Society of Antiquaries. The University's offices, which had been vacated when the Royal Academy moved out, were on the first floor. In 1853, the University was forced to leave Somerset House when the Registrar-General's department was re-housed in what had been the University's premises there. After two years in temporary accommodation in Marlborough House, the University moved to Burlington House in Piccadilly. Burlington House had been converted to provide rooms for the Royal Society and other scholarly bodies. By this time, the government had approved thirty institutions to certify students as eligible for University of London degrees along with students at University College and King's College.


Somerset House

Somerset House

Seventeen years later, in 1870, the University moved again as Burlington House had proved to be too small for its requirements. A new building at Burlington Gardens was duly constructed in between 1867-70. The architect was Sir James Pennethorne but the building want through various designs as Parliament had the final say in approving the plans. The first classical design was designed to please the Russell ministry. The short-lived Conservative government, which took power in 1866, was keener on a design which was more gothic in character. After building began in 1867, a third design was produced, which included a façade modelled on the front of Burlington House. Burlington Gardens, which is equidistant between Piccadilly and Green Park tube stations, is now owned by the Royal Academy of Arts.

By the 1890s there was considerable pressure on space in Burlington Gardens. An attempt to build an extra storey in 1890 failed and the Treasury refused to grant the University more money to expand its accommodation. A letter from the Treasury to the University in 1889 stated that "any increase of its already heavy obligation to the State would be much depreciated." The Imperial Institute in Kensington had been opened by Queen Victoria in 1893. The government rescued the Imperial Institute from financial difficulties in 1898 and offered the University accommodation in the building. It offered much the University more space than Burlington Gardens: 20,400 square feet at Burlington Gardens compared unfavourably with the 94,793 square feet afforded by the Imperial Institute. By the year that it moved into the Imperial Institute, 1900, the University had developed into a complex federal structure. Its colleges included UCL, King's, Royal Holloway, Bedford, the London School of Economics, and the Central Technical College.

It took only a few years for the University outgrow the Imperial Institute. Many administrative staff worked in offices divided from each other by wooden partitions put up in the corridors of the building. The Haldane Commission was set up in 1909 to examine the structure of the University. Two years later the Commission declared in its interim report that the University's accommodation at the Imperial Institute was inadequate and furthermore that the University needed to be in a more central position in London vis a vis its constituent colleges:

"its remoteness has occasioned much inconvenience and loss of time to those who are concerned with the working of the University, and has exercised a harmful effect on its development".

Construction of Senate House

Construction of Senate House

The University's move to Bloomsbury was a tortuous process. In 1921 the government bought eleven acres of land there from the Duke of Bedford. Powerful forces within the University were opposed to a move, however, and in 1926 the Duke of Bedford bought back the land. The election of William Beveridge to the post of Vice-Chancellor of the University in June 1926 was highly significant in that Beveridge supported a move to Bloomsbury. Beveridge persuaded the Rockefeller Foundation to donate £400,000 to the University and the original site was acquired in 1927.

Charles Holden was chosen as the architect to build Senate House. The foundation stone was laid by George V in 1933 and the Senate House was opened in 1936. Though the tower was envisaged as being the tallest building in London at the time, financial restrictions and the outbreak of war resulted in Senate House being much smaller that Holden had envisaged in his original plans. During the Second World War, Senate House became the headquarters of the Ministry of Information whilst the University administration moved out temporarily to Royal Holloway College and then to Richmond College. Today, the University has a student population of 125,000 in addition to the 34,000 students who are studying by distance learning on the University's External Programme,

Construction of Senate House

Construction of Senate House

Senate House Library holds the archives of the University of London, and also over 1,100 separate collections of archives and manuscripts. Collection-level descriptions for these archives are held on the AIM25 website. Further details are available from Senate House Library's own site, which includes a database of archival and manuscript holdings.

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