Bentham Project


Bentham and UCL

Bentham is often credited with being one of the founders of the University of London, the forerunner of today's University College London.

This is not, in fact, true. Bentham was eighty years of age when the new University opened its doors in 1828, and took no part in the campaign to bring it into being.

Henry Tonk's mural of Bentham as the 'founder of UCL'- ©UCL Creative Media Services

However, the myth of his participation has been perpetuated in a mural by Henry Tonks (1862–1937), in the dome above the Flaxman gallery in the main UCL library. It shows William Wilkins (1778–1839), the architect of the main building, submitting the plans to Bentham for his approval while the portico is under construction in the background. Needless to say, it is pure fantasy.

Yet, although Bentham played no direct part in the establishment of UCL, he still deserves to be considered as its spiritual father. Many of the founders, particularly James Mill (1773–1836) and Henry Brougham (1778–1868), held him in high esteem, and their project embodied many of his ideas on education and society.

He strongly believed that education should be made more widely available, and not only to those who were wealthy and members of the established church, as was the case at the traditional universities, Oxford and Cambridge.

As the first English University to open its doors to all, regardless of race, creed, or political belief (provided they could afford reasonable fees!), UCL went a long way to fulfilling Bentham's vision of what a University should be. He took a great interest in the new institution, and was instrumental in securing the appointment of his pupil John Austin (1790–1859) as the first Professor of Jurisprudence at UCL in 1829.

Thus it was only right that UCL should provide a home both for Bentham's voluminous manuscripts, now in the library, and for his other tangible memorial, his famous (or perhaps notorious) Auto-Icon.

Read more about the myths surrounding Bentham and UCL, or watch a video by the Bentham Project on Bentham's connection to the university.