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Bloomsbury Institutions


University College London (UCL)

Also known as London University/University of London/“Cockney College”


It was founded in 1826 as a limited company which became London’s first university

It was known as the University of London until 1836, when it took the title University College London

A few months later, in 1837, its hospital, known as the North London Hospital since its opening in 1834, was also renamed, becoming University College Hospital

The first public reference came in an open letter in The Times on 9 February 1825 from the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell to the well–known Whig lawyer and politician Henry Brougham

Campbell proposed that London, the only great metropolis without a university, should build one as a matter of national pride: “The liberal arts and sciences” would be taught there

The new institution would offer higher education to middle–class families living in London who could not afford to send their sons to Oxford or Cambridge

The students would live at home, thus saving their parents money and also, crucially, freeing the University from any obligation to attend to the young men’s religious needs

“It is no matter of party–politics, or of church–and–state disputation,” wrote Campbell (The Times, 9 February 1825)

The new University would be open to students of all faiths and none, in contrast to Oxford and Cambridge, which required subscription to the 39 Articles of the Church of England

It would take as its models the Scottish universities (Campbell being a graduate of Glasgow University and Brougham of Edinburgh University), the recently founded University of Virginia, with which Campbell had some connection, and the German universities of Bonn and Berlin, which Campbell visited in 1820 and 1825 respectively (H. Hale Bellot, University College London 1826–1926, 1929)

The founders were men of liberal and radical political views; a number were reforming lawyers and MPs who were already active in the agitation for the removal of Catholic disabilities which came about in 1829, and the extension of the franchise and the abolition of rotten boroughs effected by the Reform Act of 1832

Some, like Dr George Birkbeck and Brougham, had recently succeeded in establishing Mechanics’ Institutions for the education of working men in these times before universal schooling

Another prominent founder was James Mill, friend and disciple of the celebrated legal reformer and Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham who, though nearly eighty and not an active founder, was indisputably the spiritual father of the venture

Bentham still “haunts” the establishment; his mummified body, dressed in his clothes, sits in a glass cabinet in the main building of the University

A number of Nonconformists, keen to have a university which would accept dissenting students, joined the group; one of them, the Baptist minister Francis Augustus Cox, became the first Librarian of the University

There were liberal Anglicans like the anti–slavery campaigner Zachary Macaulay; the Roman Catholic interest was represented by the Duke of Norfolk, and the Jewish interest by the financier and philanthropist Isaac Lyon Goldsmid

Plans for the new University were noticed in the press, and thanks to Brougham’s influence, The Times was largely welcoming

The Tory press, however, was scathing about everything: the marshy land on which the new institution was being built, the design of the building itself, the financing of the venture by public subscription (likened in articles and cartoons to the selling of shares in a business), the politics of the founders, the non-Anglican nature of its principles, which were frequently interpreted as anti-Church and even anti–religion, the new-fangled subjects which were to be taught (including the science of the hot topic of the day, the steam engine), the breaking up of the monopoly on English higher education of Oxford and Cambridge, and the imputed desire (explicitly denied by Campbell’s original letter to The Times) to educate the sons of butchers and bakers beyond their social station

This negative response was intimately connected to traditionalists’ anxieties about impending political reform (finally pushed through by Lord Grey’s Whig administration, which in 1830 succeeded the Duke of Wellington’s Conservative government) and nervousness born of the financial crash of 1826, and the fear of the new in the form of the railway system, then in its infancy and, like the new university, seeking investment through share selling

Examples of early public opposition to the University of London included articles, cartoons, and satirical poems

There was an article in the ultra-Tory newspaper John Bull, sneering at “this magnificent national establishment” and its “learned and liberal committee”, with its proposals “to instruct butchers in geometry, and tallow-chandlers in Hebrew” (John Bull, 14 February 1825)

Robert Cruikshank’s cartoon, ‘The Political Toy–Man’, was published in July 1825, and showed Brougham in his lawyer’s wig and gown hawking shares round Lincoln’s Inn (M. Dorothy George, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, vol. X, 1952; reproduced in Negley Harte and John North, The World of UCL 1828–1990, 1991)

A poem, ‘The Cockney University’, was published in John Bull:

Come bustle, my neighbours, give over your labours,
Leave digging and delving, and churning:
New lights are preparing to set you a staring,
And fill all your noddles with learning.
Each Dustman shall speak, both in Latin and Greek,
And Tinkers beat Bishops in knowledge –
If the opulent tribe will consent to subscribe
To build up a new Cockney College
(John Bull, 10 July 1825)

Another poem, by Winthrop Mackworth Praed, ‘A Discourse delivered by a College Tutor at a Supper-Party’, was published in the Morning Chronicle:

Ye Dons and ye doctors, ye Provosts and Proctors,
Who are paid to monopolize knowledge,
Come make opposition by voice and petition
To the radical infidel College
(Morning Chronicle, 19 July 1825)

And another poem in John Bull christened the new University “Stinkomalee” because of the stagnant ponds and cesspits characterising the purchased plot of land:

“The fiat is issued”, says REASON to FAME,
“My College in Gower-street at length has a name,
Go trumpet it forth both by land and by sea,
My College is christen’d, Ma’am, ’tis STINKOMALEE!”
(John Bull, 26 December 1825)

Undeterred, the Council proceeded with its plans; three of the wealthiest members of the first Council of the new university – Goldsmid, Benjamin Shaw MP, and John Smith of the banking firm Smith, Payne, and Smith – had paid £30,000 for nearly eight acres of as yet undeveloped land at the top of Gower Street, on the part then known as Upper Gower Street and Gower Street North, just south of the New Road and east of Carmarthen Street – which would later be renamed after the University

The Duke of Bedford’s Bloomsbury estate, the largest estate in Bloomsbury, bordered the site to the south and east

The plot was kept until enough shares had been sold to employ an architect and builder; by the end of 1826 1,300 shares had been sold, and building began (Negley Harte and John North, The World of UCL 1828–1990, 1991)

A neo–classical design by the architect William Wilkins, who had already designed buildings for Downing College, Cambridge, and would go on to design the National Gallery, was chosen for the University

The firm of Thomas Cubitt, which was developing many of the streets and squares on the Duke of Bedford’s Bloomsbury estate at this time, sent in a building estimate of £125,600; but Henry Lee and Sons won the contract, having put in the lowest tender of £107,767 (Council Minutes, vol. I, 1825–1829, 19 September 1826, UCL Records Office)

Money was tight, and at first only the main building with its Corinthian portico and dome was built; two wings included in Wilkins’s plans were not built until several decades later

The foundation stone was laid by the Duke of Sussex, the sixth son of the late George III and the only member of the royal family with intellectual and reforming interests, at a ceremony on 30 April 1827

The Times reported the event on the following day, noting that at the dinner which followed a toast was drunk to the Royal Society, which was represented at the ceremony and on the first Council of the university by no fewer than ten Fellows

These were Henry Brougham; Isaac Lyon Goldsmid; Zachary Macaulay; Viscount Dudley and Ward (sworn in as Foreign Secretary in George Canning’s ministry on the very day of the stone–laying at Gower Street); the Duke of Norfolk; the Whig reformer the Marquess of Lansdowne; William Tooke, the reforming MP and solicitor of Bedford Row; the medical reformer Henry Warburton; the Scottish radical MP Joseph Hume; and the Whig politician John Whishaw

Glasses were also raised to the City of London, a supporter of the new University, represented here by Alderman Venables; to the universities of Scotland and Ireland (but not the two existing and hostile universities of England); to Birkbeck’s London Mechanics’ Institution; and to the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, founded, like the University itself, in 1826, and by many of the same people, most notably Brougham (The Times, 1 May 1827)

Though the building was not quite finished, the new University opened to students in October 1828, with classes in traditional subjects like Greek, Latin, and Mathematics, but also in subjects not hitherto taught, such as modern languages and literatures: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, Hindustani, and a group of Oriental Languages (Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit) which were taught by the young German scholar Frederick Rosen

Other novel courses were Natural Philosophy and Astronomy – given by the exotic Rev. Dionysius Lardner – Chemistry, Botany, Political Economy, Jurisprudence, English Law, and a number of medical courses, including the new subject of Medical Jurisprudence, which was taught by the unfortunate John Gordon Smith, one of the many Scots who occupied the first Chairs in the University, especially those in medical subjects

From the beginning it was the intention to include a teaching hospital, but it was not until 1834 that enough money had been raised to build the North London Hospital (later University College Hospital) on the University-owned plot across Gower Street from Wilkins’s building

In the first instance the University made do with a Dispensary, which it opened at 4 George Street, just north of Euston Road

At the new University, fees were low – £28 10s for the first year studying junior classes in Latin, Greek, and mathematics

Pupils were to be aged fifteen or over, and a four–year course was envisaged for non–medical students

Medicine was to be studied in its various branches at the University, with ward practice to be arranged at the nearby Middlesex Hospital until the University’s own teaching hospital could be built

Degrees were not at first awarded, because of government, church, and royal opposition to granting a charter to the new institution

By contrast, London’s second university, King’s College London, which opened in October 1831, had a charter from the start

In the summer months before the opening of the “godless college” on Gower Street, meetings were already being advertised for the setting up of its rival Church-and-State institution

At a session in the Freemasons’ Tavern on 21 June 1828, chaired by the Duke of Wellington, this new college under the royal patronage of George IV was proposed; it would follow its Bloomsbury rival in the “liberal and enlarged course of education to be pursued” but, unlike the latter, would teach “religious and moral instruction” and would have at its heart an Anglican chapel

In contrast to the liberals and radicals who formed the Council of the University of London (and who bought shares out of their own pockets), the governors of King’s College included, ex officio, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of York, the Lord Chief Justice, the Home Secretary, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Dean of St Paul’s, the Dean of Westminster, and the Lord Mayor of London (King’s College, London, 11 May 1830, A15 Kin, UCL Special Collections; The Times, 31 May 1828; 26 June 1828; 15 September 1828; 31 August 1829)

Despite the rivalry, the two institutions agreed to co-operate in 1836, when a charter was signed by William IV creating an examining and degree-awarding body, to be called the University of London, of which both King’s College London and the original University on Gower Street were to be constituent colleges

The Gower Street concern, which had fought against the odds to bring university education to London, now ceded its title and in 1836 took the name by which it is still known: University College London

A few months later, in 1837, its hospital, known as the North London Hospital since its opening in 1834, was also renamed, becoming University College Hospital

It was originally intended not to be residential, but in 1849 University Hall was opened as its first purpose-built Hall of Residence

A committee of former students advising the founders of the Hall stressed the importance of offering students something better than boarding in private houses or living in lodgings, in order to ‘prevent University College being considered as a mere assemblage of Lecture Rooms’ (‘Educational Institution. Copy of a Communication from Former Students of University College’, 1 March 1847, University Hall MS 12.90, Dr Williams’s Library)

UCL continues to be a world-class university (ranked in the top 25 universities in the world in 2010) located in the centre of Bloomsbury

What was reforming about it?

It was the first university in England to offer education to men without insisting on membership of the Church of England; it had no religious tests of any kind

It did not teach theology, but it offered some scientific and medical subjects and many modern languages not taught elsewhere

In 1878 it became the first British university to admit women on the same terms as men

Where in Bloomsbury

Its first buildings were built on the site of the proposed Carmarthen Square

It expanded into Gower Street and later into other surrounding streets

Website of current institution

www.ucl.ac.uk (opens in new window)

Books about it

H. Hale Bellot, University College London, 1826–1926 (1929)

Negley Harte, The University of London, 1836–1986 (1986)

Negley Harte and John North, The World of UCL, 1828–2004 (2004)


Its archives are held on site; details are available at www.ucl.ac.uk/Library/special-coll/collarch.shtml (opens in new window)

Some administrative records are also held by the Records Office of the University; no details of these are available online, and most are closed for 30 years (80 years if they relate to staff and students)

This page last modified 26 June, 2012 by Deborah Colville


Bloomsbury Project - University College London - Gower Street - London - WC1E 6BT - Telephone: +44 (0)20 7679 3134 - Copyright © 1999-2005 UCL

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