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Bloomsbury Project

Bloomsbury and the Bloomsbury Project

Bloomsbury People

What is the Bloomsbury Project?

The Leverhulme-funded UCL Bloomsbury Project was established to investigate 19th-century Bloomsbury’s development from swampy rubbish-dump to centre of intellectual life

Led by Professor Rosemary Ashton, with Dr Deborah Colville as Researcher, the Project has traced the origins, Bloomsbury locations, and reforming significance of hundreds of progressive and innovative institutions

Many of the extensive archival resources relating to these institutions have also been identified and examined by the Project, and Bloomsbury’s developing streets and squares have been mapped and described

This website is a gateway to the information gathered and edited by Project members during the Project’s lifetime, 1 October 2007–30 April 2011, with the co-operation of Bloomsbury’s institutions, societies, and local residents

Edward Spencer Beesly (1831–1915)

a summary of his Bloomsbury connections

He was the son of an Anglican clergyman and studied from 1849 to 1854 at Oxford, where he came under the influence of his tutor, Richard Congreve, the leading English disciple of the Positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte

He taught at Marlborough College until 1859, when he succeeded William Benjamin Carpenter as Principal of University Hall, which had been built in Gordon Square in 1849 as a Hall of Residence for students of University College London

In 1860 he was appointed Professor of History at University College London

Beesly became well known both as a Positivist (a believer in the “religion of humanity”), and as a supporter of workers’ rights, and the efforts of trades unions to uphold and improve those rights

In 1870 he joined Congreve’s Positivist group at the newly opened Positivist School in Chapel Street, where the quasi-religious ceremonies of the “Religion of Humanity” were held

His unorthodox religious and political beliefs brought him into conflict with the Council of University Hall, mainly Unitarians who organised dissenting worship among the students of the Hall, but who appointed Beesly both because of his academic excellence and also because he was an Anglican who “appears to have, for some time, desired a position of greater intellectual and religious freedom than are consistent with holding office in an Ecclesiastical Foundation [such as Marlborough College]” (University Hall Minutes, 26 May 1859, vol. V, MS 12.86, Dr Williams’s Library)

At first, however, Beesly was a popular choice as Principal, as he was active in keeping up numbers of resident students and worked hard to get a racquets court built for them in the face of difficulties with the agents for the Duke of Bedford, who quoted the strict terms of the lease about buildings and their use on Bedford land (University Hall Minute Book, 1860-1864, vol. V, MS 12.86, Dr Williams’s Library)

In June 1862, the Annual Report of the Hall announced that for the first time since the opening of the institution in 1849 all the student rooms were taken: there were 27 resident students and 2 non-resident students on the books (University Hall Minute Book, 26 June 1862, vol. V, MS 12.86, Dr Williams’s Library)

Beesly’s speech at a trade union meeting in Exeter Hall on 2 July 1867 in support of some Sheffield protests where violence had taken place got him into trouble with the Council of both University Hall and University College

At University College, Sir Francis Goldsmid, son of Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, one of the chief founders of the University in 1826, moved on 23 July 1867 that Beesly be removed from his Chair, as his speeches showed that he was “unfit to be intrusted with the instruction of young men in History”, but the motion was defeated by twelve votes to three (UCL Council Minutes, 23 July 1867, vol. VI, UCL Records Office)

Meanwhile at University Hall motions to unseat him were discussed at several meetings between July and December 1867, when it was finally accepted on a close vote that Beesly was “equally entitled with all others to enjoy that principle mentioned in the first clause of the Constitution of the Hall, ‘the great principle of unlimited religious liberty, and the right of private judgment’ ” on all matters of opinion (University Hall Minute Books, July–December 1867, vol. V, MS 12.86, Dr Williams’s Library)

Though a number of supporters of the Hall resigned as a result of Beesly’s non-removal, and though he was dubbed ‘Dr Beastly’ by Punch, he carried on in both his jobs (H. Hale Bellot, University College London 1826–1926, 1929)

By October 1880 the number of students at University Hall had dropped to only seven, and the Hall was facing financial collapse

Beesly offered to resign at the end of the session, but was asked to stay on for a further year, as the Hall Council hoped that Manchester New College students might fill the rooms in the following session (University Hall Minute Book, 20 October 1880, 12 March 1881, vol. VI, MS 12.87, Dr Williams’s Library)

In June 1882 the University Hall Society dissolved itself, handing over the building to Manchester New College, and Beesly left the Hall (University Hall Minute Book, 7 June 1882, vol. VII, MS 12.88, Dr Williams’s Library)

He continued in his Professorship at University College until 1893

For more general biographical information about Edward Spencer Beesly, see his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

This page last modified 7 April, 2011 by Deborah Colville


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