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


In 1825 a group of distinguished like-minded individuals started a campaign to set up the first University of London, chief amongst them two Scotsmen- Thomas Campbell, the poet, and Henry, later Lord, Brougham, a lawyer and politician with progressive views. Before this time no university education provision of any kind existed in the country’s capital for the growing middle classes, and the only universities in England at that time, Oxford and Cambridge, were restricted to members of the Church of England. The movement was inspired by the ideas of Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher of Utilitarianism. The painting shown here perpetuates the myth that Bentham had first-hand involvement in the founding of the University.

Wilkins and Bentham in Henry Tonk's unhistorical painting of the building of the college


An invitation to the foundation ceremony for the college on 30 April 1827
An eight-acre site was quickly acquired in Bloomsbury , just south of the Euston Road , to the north was Camden Town and as yet undeveloped countryside. It had previously served as an army drilling-ground, a duelling site, and a refuse dump. After a public advertisement the new 24-member Council adopted the building design submitted by William Wilkins, who later designed the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square . Building work began, and it was three years later when the now familiar Portico and Dome were completed. The new University of London (now UCL) was formally founded on 11th February 1826 and the first academic year began in 1828, by which time 24 professorial chairs had been established, many in subjects that had not previously been taught in English universities, such as modern foreign languages and English language and literature. Law was taught systematically for the first time, and new teaching practices, based on those of Scotland and Germany rather than Oxbridge, were introduced. Students of all beliefs and backgrounds were allowed entry, but on principle no religious subjects were taught, which brought the new University under attack from the Church as `The Godless Institution of Gower Street', and from the Tory press, who dubbed it `The Cockney College'.
In its first 50 years UCL went from strength to strength and the period is remarkable in its history for a number of achievements and milestones. In 1837 University College Hospital was founded just across the road from the Wilkins building and in the 1840s the first purpose-built teaching laboratory for Chemistry in the country was built, named after George Birkbeck. The surgeon Robert Liston performed the first ever operation under anaesthetic in Europe in December 1846, and the period 1863 to 1868 saw the arrival of the first Japanese students to be taught in the West, several of whom went on to become leading figures in their own country. The first series of “lectures for ladies” was given in 1869, albeit outside the College premises. Later that year women were allowed to attend classes within the College in the Physics and Chemistry labs (but only by using separate entrance doors!) and in 1871 the first mixed classes for men and women were held. In the same year Sir Edward Poynter was appointed the first Slade Professor of Fine Art, starting a long line of distinguished artist-professors to hold the chair. By 1878 women were admitted for the first time as full degree students to the Faculties of Arts and Laws.
The Birlbeck Laboratory shortly after its opening in 1846

A view of UCL from Gower Street in 1880 The end of the 19th century and beginning of the twentieth century was also a period of expansion and notable landmarks. In 1890 Ambrose Fleming invented the thermionic valve, which paved the way for radiotelegraphy and marked the birth of modern electronics.The first Union Society was formed in 1893 (but for male students only), followed in 1897 by the Women’s Union Society, the two not finally merging until the middle of the twentieth century. The years before the first world war were a period of vigorous building activity, aided by numerous benefactors- in this period a new Chemistry building went up on Gower Place, and the frontage on Gower Street was built to accommodate the new School of Architecture.

The great age of student rags spanned the period between the two world wars, and during its heyday there were some great battles with the students of King’s, the target being their lion mascot- weapons including flour, water sprays, mud and furniture vans. Annual bonfires were a great institution too, until in 1952 they were banned.
UCL Cricket Club First XI in 1906


IThe Centenary of the College was celebrated in some style in June 1927, inaugurated by the visit of King George V and Queen Mary, and included, inevitably a new Appeal for funds. There was a lot to celebrate, after 100 years of successful existence, despite being surrounded by continual adversity. G.K. Chesterton, a former student, was reported to have claimed “It was at the Slade School that I discovered that I should never be an artist; it was at the lectures of Professor A.E.Housman that I discovered that I should never be a scholar; and it was at the lectures of Professor W.P. Ker that I discovered that I should never be a literary man” He went on to claim that the Centenary was in fact that of the opening of the new world.

Centenary edition of the College magazine, June 1927





The Second World War did more damage to UCL than to any other British university or college. In September 1940 and April 1941 the main college sustained serious damage in air-raids, destroying whole buildings, notably the Great Hall and the Physics Laboratory, and causing fire damage to the main Library. Pictures in the College archives show the dramatic effect the air-raids had on the whole of the main UCL site. The restoration of the site was a long slow process, and despite ambitious reconstruction plans, including a grand entrance gate on Gower Street, the last of the concrete huts put up as a temporary measure in 1945 have only just been taken down! Academic activities did however resume rapidly and the post-war period was one of great resurgence and expansion continuing up to the present day.
Wartime bomb damage to UCL, viewed from the south east


Today’s UCL is a thriving multi-site, multi-faculty university. Of the many notable figures who have crossed the threshold either as a student or staff member, those that stand out include Sir Flinders Petrie, the father of archaeology, Sir Norman Collie, who took the first X-ray in Britain to be used for clinical purposes, Sir William Ramsay, the discover of the rare gases, Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer, Mahatma Gandhi, A. E .Housman, Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, Hugh Gaitskell, Michael Ventris, who de-coded the Linear B texts, Sir Peter Medawar, Sir William Coldstream and many more. In 1977 a new Royal Charter restored the College’s legal independence from the University of London, and in 1985 the Gower Street entrance to the front quad was finally completed, finishing a building whose first stone was laid 158 years before.


For further information see the UCL Special Collections website.

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