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University Hall

Also known as


It was opened in a purpose-built building on the west side of Gordon Square in 1849 as a hall of residence for students of University College London

Although never known by any other name, according to its draft constitution several other names had been considered: they were Queen’s Hall, Victoria Hall, Milton Hall, Russell Hall, Baxter Hall, and Chillingworth Hall

The founders were Dissenters, mainly Unitarians, who held a meeting in July 1844 after the passing of the Dissenters’ Chapels Act, which granted Unitarians legal rights over their chapels and endowments

The plan was to celebrate the Act by establishing “some permanent memorial, educational or otherwise, to perpetuate in the most useful form the great principle of unlimited religious liberty” (Report of the Religious Liberty Memorial Committee, July 1844, University Hall Minute Book, vol. I, MS 12.82, Dr Williams’s Library)

The Committee agreed that this could best be achieved “by endeavouring to ensure to the youth of the Non-Subscribing Dissenters, a full participation in the educational advantages of University College London, together with that general theological knowledge, which is equally beneficial to both laymen and divines” (Report of the Religious Liberty Memorial Committee, July 1844, University Hall Minute Book, vol. I, MS 12.82, Dr Williams’s Library)

“At the present time, the majority of Non-Subscribing Dissenters in the large towns and country districts of this country are reluctant to avail themselves of the establishment of University College, on account of the want of a suitable place of academical residence for their sons in the Metropolis” (Report of the Religious Liberty Memorial Committee, July 1844, University Hall Minute Book, vol. I, MS 12.82, Dr Williams’s Library)

A number of members of the committee, including Thomas Thornely MP, Henry Crabb Robinson, and James Heywood, were members of the Council of University College London, which had been opened in 1828 on the principle of religious liberty, and which had neither a department of theology nor a chapel for worship

The idea for the new residential hall was twofold: to supply the want of accommodation and thus boost the disappointing numbers attending University College by attracting students from outside London, and to fill the teaching gap by offering theological lectures to students in addition to their studies at University College

As one of the most prominent members of both institutions, the elderly lawyer Henry Crabb Robinson, noted in his diaries, the two purposes did not always fit well together, especially as some of the founders of University Hall were intent on creating a residential dissenting training college if the staff and students at Manchester New College, the leading training college for dissenting ministers in the country, could be persuaded to move to London and take up residence in University Hall alongside the lay students of University College (Diary of Henry Crabb Robinson, 11 January 1852, MS Dr Williams’s Library)

At a meeting on 28 July 1846, Henry Crabb Robinson reported that £10,000 would be required to build a suitable hall; the money was to come from subscriptions from founders, individual Dissenters, and dissenting congregations throughout the country (University Hall Minute Book, vol. I, MS 12.82, Dr Williams’s Library)

By December 1846 a suitable site had been found at the back of University College’s land, owned by the Duke of Bedford but leased to the speculative builder Thomas Cubitt, who had already built houses on the south and north sides of Gordon Square, as well as the neighbouring Tavistock Square

An arrangement was made with the Duke of Bedford’s agent that the Hall would pay £3,000 to take the land leasehold, with the option to purchase it outright within ten years (First Annual Report, 20 July 1848, MS 12.90, Dr Williams’s Library)

The Professor of Architecture at University College, Thomas Donaldson, was engaged to design the building (University Hall Minute Book, 1 December 1846, vol. I, MS 12.82, Dr Williams’s Library)

Donaldson’s design was for a residence for thirty students, with library and lecture hall, and a live-in Principal; at the back, on the ground which bordered the playground of University College School, there was space for two wings to be built if and when there was sufficient money and sufficient demand for places

Donaldson’s plans for University Hall

Donaldson’s plans for University Hall, showing possible future additions (By kind permission of Dr Williams’s Library)

The style, in contrast to the neo-classical grandeur of University College, was Tudor Gothic, which was felt to be more in keeping with the idea of a university residence (architectural plans and reports of the Building Committee, January 1848, MS 12.90, Dr Williams’s Library)

The Dissenting newspaper, the Inquirer, approved of the design as being “of college-like aspect”, adding that “it is no small thing to have a Hall which shall not be mistaken for a club-house” (Inquirer, 12 February 1848, copy in University Hall miscellaneous papers, MS 12.90, Dr Williams’s Library)

In February 1848 the Professor of Latin at University College London, Francis William Newman, was appointed Principal; the University Hall committee approved of his scholarship and his encouragement of “the unbiassed exercise of individual judgment in matters of Religion” (Council meeting, 2 February 1848, University Hall Minute Book, vol. I, MS 12.82, Dr Williams’s Library)

Though not a Unitarian, Newman had rejected Anglicanism for a non-denominational theism; in his speech at the laying of the foundation stone at the back of the building on 20 July 1848 he went further than many of the founders would have wished in declaring the Hall’s openness to all creeds

Speaking of the connection between University College and University Hall, Newman declared that “each holds its doors open not only to Christians of every name, but to Jew and Mahommedan, to Parsee and Hindoo. There is no exclusion in either, and no prying into anyone’s creed” (University Hall, London: Addresses delivered on the Occasion of Laying the Foundation Stone, July 20th, 1848, MS 12.90, Dr Williams’s Library)

Although in due course some students from India and Turkey registered at University Hall, during its first years it was mainly populated with the sons, nephews, and friends of the founders (Register of Students of University Hall 16 October 1849–March 1882, MS 12.93, Dr Williams’s Library)

While the Hall was still being built, Newman resigned as Principal; he wrote to the Council in November 1848, objecting to the part of the building plans relating to the accommodation for him and his wife, and a delegation from the Hall Council could not persuade him to change his mind (Council meetings, 7 and 14 November 1848, University Hall Minute Book, vol. II, MS 12.83, Dr Williams’s Library)

In January 1849 Arthur Hugh Clough was appointed to replace Newman; aged thirty, he had just begun to publish poetry and had recently resigned his Fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford, through doubts about the 39 Articles of the Church of England, to which he was obliged to subscribe as a condition of his Fellowship

Clough was to be paid £150 per annum for two years, “exclusive of any fees to be derived from private tuition or from public lectures” (Council meeting, 8 February 1849, University Hall Minute Book, vol. II, MS 12.83, Dr Williams’s Library)

The Hall opened on 16 October 1848 with only nine students; by November the number was eleven, less than half the number anticipated

In November 1849 Richard Holt Hutton, son of a Unitarian minister and a recent graduate of University College London (and before that of University College School), was appointed Vice-Principal; he gave classes in mathematics and took daily prayers, since Clough declined to do so (Council meetings, 8 and 23 November 1849, University Hall Minute Book, vol. II, MS 12.83, Dr Williams’s Library)

The Hall struggled to attract students, probably because it was too closely associated in people’s minds with Unitarianism (Diary of Henry Crabb Robinson, 1 June 1850, MS Dr Williams’s Library); as it relied entirely on subscriptions and fees for survival, it was in perpetual financial difficulties

Clough was unhappy among this “set of mercantile Unitarians”; he upset the founders by making no effort to increase students, and resigned at the end of 1851 (letter to Tom Arnold, 16 May 1851, The Correspondence of Arthur Hugh Clough, ed. Frederick L. Mulhauser, 1957)

Clough’s replacement was his Vice-Principal, Richard Holt Hutton, a non-controversial appointment because he combined the Unitarianism desired by most of the founders with a name for brilliant scholarship, like Newman and Clough; unfortunately for the Hall, he fell seriously ill almost immediately with a lung complaint and was ordered abroad by his doctors, so that yet another Principal had to be appointed for the session 1852–1853 (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

This was William Benjamin Carpenter, son of the well-known Bristol Unitarian minister, Dr Lant Carpenter, and Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at University College London; he remained as Principal until 1859, when he resigned to concentrate on his post as Registrar at the University of London (H. Hale Bellot, University College London 1826–1926, 1929)

Negotiations with Manchester New College dragged on until 1853, when the two institutions finally agreed to work together in Gordon Square; they took joint financial and administrative management of the Hall, but kept separate arrangements for the teaching of the University College students and the Manchester New College trainees (University Hall Minute Books 1844–1882, MSS 12.82–12.89, Dr Williams’s Library)

In June 1855 it was finally decided that instead of purchasing the freehold, the Hall would take the option of a 1000-year lease at a peppercorn rent (University Hall Minute Book, 11 and 13 May 1848, vol. I, 12.82; Annual Report, 28 June 1855, Minute Book, vol. IV, MS 12.85, Dr Williams’s Library)

Student record

Student record from the 1850s: the record for Tom Booth, elder brother of social investigator Charles Booth, who attended University College and lived in University Hall from 1855–1856 (By kind permission of Dr Williams’s Library)

Carpenter was succeeded as Principal in 1859 by Edward Spencer Beesly, an assistant master at Marlborough School and from 1860 Professor of History at University College London

Under Beesly, student numbers grew; the Hall’s Annual Report in June 1862 announced that during the past two terms the Hall had been completely full, “a circumstance which has never hitherto happened since the opening of the Institution” (Annual Report, University Hall Minute Book, 26 June 1862, vol. V, MS 12.86, Dr Williams’s Library)

In 1867 some members of the Hall Council sought to remove Beesly from his post because of his outspoken speeches and articles in support of striking Sheffield trade unionists, but he and his supporters quoted the Hall’s constitution on the right to freedom of opinion and he stayed in place (Council meetings, July–December 1867, University Hall Minute Book, vol. V, MS 12.86, Dr Williams’s Library)

By the early 1880s the financial position of University Hall was dire; in October 1880 only seven students were in residence (Council meeting, 20 October 1880, University Hall Minute Book, vol. VI, MS 12.87, Dr Williams’s Library)

The only way of saving the Hall was for Manchester New College, bolstered by its endowments, to take it over completely

The Society of University Hall dissolved itself, Beesly resigned, and the property was transferred to Manchester New College, whose Trustees were to be free, if in future they wished to sell the Hall, “ to accept any offer by or on behalf of University College London or other educational Institution which the Trustees may consider reasonable although such offer may not be of the amount which might be realised by public sale” (Council meeting, 14 December 1881, University Hall Minute Book, vol. VII, MS 12.88, Dr Williams’s Library)

The Trustees of Manchester New College approached Henry Morley, Professor of English Language and Literature at University College London, to be the new Principal, since, though it was now run by Manchester New College, the Hall continued to take UCL students as well as trainee ministers (Henry Solly, The Life of Henry Morley, 1898)

Under Morley, who was a popular Lecturer at University College, numbers in University Hall rose once more; the Dean was H. Forster Morley, his son (article by Henry Morley, UC Gazette, vol. I, 11 July 1887)

In 1884 a detached building was erected in the grounds at the back of the Hall to take nine students of the fifty-four who were now in residence (‘Report as to University Hall’, read to University College Council, 4 May 1889, College Correspondence AM/C/234, UCL Special Collections)

For a time in the 1880s, apparently, demand exceeded the number of places available; in 1887, 53 students were living in, with more in rooms in Torrington Square (article by Henry Morley, UC Gazette, vol. I, 11 July 1887)

However, the Hall was soon making a loss again; in session 1886–1887 the numbers fell off, and by 1889 Manchester New College had decided to sell University Hall and move to Oxford (‘Report as to University Hall’, read to University College Council, 4 May 1889, College Correspondence AM/C/234, UCL Special Collections)

Morley persuaded University College Council to offer £10,000 for the building, in the hope that it could become exclusively a Hall of Residence for UCL students, without the Unitarian and Manchester New College connections (‘Report as to University Hall’, read to University College Council, 4 May 1889, College Correspondence AM/C/234, UCL Special Collections)

To his bitter disappointment, the Trustees of Manchester New College refused the offer of £10,000, selling the building instead to Dr Williams’s Library, a long-established library of dissenting works collected by the leading nonconformist minister of his day, Dr Daniel Williams, who had died in 1716 (Henry Solly, The Life of Henry Morley, 1898)

From 1890 the University Hall building therefore became the home of Dr Williams’s Library, a valuable resource for scholars of dissenting history

From 1891–1897 it also housed the lectures founded by Mary Ward, which later became the Passmore Edwards Settlement

Manchester New College became Harris Manchester College, Oxford

What was reforming about it?

It was the first Hall of Residence built to accommodate students of University College London

It shared University College’s founding principles of being open to students of all faiths and none, though in practice its daily routine included Unitarian prayers

It offered lectures in theology, but on a non-compulsory basis

Where in Bloomsbury

It was at 14–15 Gordon Square, purpose-built in 1848–1849; Pevsner described the building as “domestic battlemented neo-Jacobean on a ridiculous scale, though with a certain ungainly charm” (Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London Buildings North, rev. edn, ed. Bridget Cherry, 1998)

The land was on the west side of Gordon Square, adjoining University College London land, but on the Duke of Bedford’s Bloomsbury estate and so subject to strict regulations, including not opening its doors for public worship (University Hall Constitution, July 1847, MS 12.90, Dr Williams’s Library)

All the Principals of University Hall held Professorships at University College London for all or part of the time they were resident in University Hall

University Hall shared several Committee and Council members with University College from the beginning, notably Henry Crabb Robinson, who gave an anonymous donation of £1,000 in 1860 towards building a racquets court for the use of students of both institutions; the court was built in 1864 (University College Gazette, vol. I, 22 October 1886, UCL Special Collections)

In the 1880s the Hall was briefly oversubscribed and some of its students lived in rooms in nearby Torrington Square

Website of current institution

It no longer exists

Manchester New College became Harris Manchester College, Oxford, at www.hmc.ox.ac.uk (opens in new window)


Former University Hall building, Gordon Square

Books about it

None found


Its archives are held on the site it once occupied, 14–15 Gordon Square, now home to Dr Williams’s Library, Gordon Square

These contain 8 volumes of University Hall Minute Books dating from 1844–1882 (MSS 12.82-12.89, where 12.89 is the index volume to the first seven volumes), and 4 volumes of miscellaneous papers relating to University Hall 1844–1882, including a register of members, a register of students, and the housekeeper’s cash books (MSS 12.90-12.93)

Material relating to Manchester New College is in the archives of Harris Manchester College, Oxford

This page last modified 13 April, 2011 by Deborah Colville


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