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


Polytechnic Institution, 1838

Press report of the opening of The Polytechnic Institution, 1 September 1838.

Britain's first Polytechnic opened on 6th August 1838 at 309 Regent Street in London. Sir George Cayley, landowner and gentleman scientist, was the first Chairman, and over the coming decades, the Institution made a major contribution to the development of technical and scientific education.


The Great Hall of The Polytechnic was a place of "abominable smells and of the odd explosion" as demonstrations of new technologies - including the diving bell - were made to the public. Early visitors included Prince Albert, under whose patronage the name changed in 1841 to the Royal Polytechnic Institution. Professor Pepper, who became a director in the early 1850s, is best remembered for the popular illusion 'Pepper's Ghost', but he also established a series of evening classes in educational and trade subjects. The Polytechnic organised an educational programme around the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the combination of education and entertainment captured the Victorian imagination.

Exhibition Hall of Royal Polytechnic Institution

The Exhibition Hall of the Royal Polytechnic Institution c1850, from a contemporary hand coloured lantern slide.

Facade of Polytechnic building

Façade of The Polytechnic building at 309 Regent Street in May 1935 celebrating the Royal Jubilee.

Quintin Hogg acquired the building at 309 Regent Street in 1881. His vision of The Polytechnic which reopened the following year, was to educate "mind, body and spirit". He expanded the established role in science to encompass arts and humanities in a full social mission. As a result, the Regent Street Poly developed an international reputation and became a model for technical education across London. The building at 309 Regent Street was rebuilt in 1910-1912 to reflect the needs of a growing institution whose student members exceeded 15,000.
The Polytechnic was a club open to those who neither studied nor taught there. With its public lectures and performances and a strong commitment to sport, it reached out into the life of London. When the Olympic Games came to London in 1908, the Poly clubs organised the opening and closing ceremonies and many Poly athletes became World, Olympic and National champions in their fields. By 1929, there were 5,000 members participating in the wide range of sports and social clubs. With everything from rambling to amateur dramatics, The Polytechnic achieved a real community identity which continued in the popular memory of the people of London right through the 1950s and 1960s.

Athletes in the Polytechnic gymnasium

Athletes in The Polytechnic gymnasium, 1899.

Cinematography course for armed special forces
During the Second World War, The Polytechnic provided cinematography courses for the armed special forces.
The Royal Polytechnic Institution became the world centre for spectacular magic lantern shows. Henry Langdon Childe joined the staff in 1838. Amongst his major technical advances, Childe pioneered the illumination of lanterns by limelight rather than oil, enabling the projectionist to come out from behind the screen and project images from the back of the hall. Following the early success of illustrated lectures, a new specially equipped theatre was built on the south side of The Polytechnic building in 1848 which could seat 1,000 people and usually held two shows each day. Programmes included scientific lectures, travel shows and "news reels" showing current events sequences. It was this reputation which led to the choice by their manager Félicien Trewey of The Polytechnic as the venue for the first presentation in Britain of the cinématograph by the Lumière Brothers on 20 February 1896. When the show moved to Leicester Square 16 days later, The Polytechnic electrician, Matt Raymond, went with them and the movies were born.

The name Polytechnic was originally chosen for his institution by Sir George Cayley to reflect the growing movement in scientific exhibition and education across Europe. An international perspective has therefore informed the history of the institution from its earliest times. In 1888 a party of boys from the Polytechnic Secondary School founded by Quintin Hogg toured Belgium and Switzerland in order that they could see the mountains they were learning about in geography lessons. In 1893 Robert Mitchell bought chalets by Lake Lucerne which were to become the most famous centre for the Polytechnic Touring Association. The first escorted tour by air to Switzerland was arranged by the Polytechnic Touring Association on May 14th 1932. The Touring Association became a substantial business and in the 1960s the firm of Henry Lunn Ltd took it over to form Lunn Poly, one of the country's leading travel retailers.
Polytechnic chalets, Switzerland
The Polytechnic chalets at Seeburg, Lucerne, Switzerland, c1900.

The Polytechnic was formally rededicated as the University of Westminster on 1 December 1992. Through its educational philosophy and range of courses, its multicultural community and extensive partnerships, the University of Westminster educates for professional life. For more information about the institution and its archives, please see the University of Westminster Archive Pages.

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