Generation UCL: 200 Years of Student Life in London
25 September 2023 - 8 December 2024
Octagon Gallery

Exhibition graphic featuring a collage of archive student images in blue and lime green. Overlaid in white is the text 'Generation UCL: 200 Years of Student Life in London, FREE EXHIBITION, 25 Sep 2023 - 8 Dec 2024, Octagon Gallery' and the UCL logo.

The 'Generation UCL: 200 Years of Student Life in London' exhibition is a look at two centuries of student life at UCL and in London, mounted in the run-up to UCL’s bicentenary celebrations in 2026. It also marks 130 years since the formation of what became Students’ Union UCL, now one of the largest student-led organisations in the world.

The exhibition in the Octagon Gallery sees students as foundational to the story of UCL and places them at the heart of UCL’s 200-year history. It was curated by Georgina Brewis and Sam Blaxland together with Leah Johnston and Colin Penman from UCL Special Collections.

On display are items from UCL Special Collections, Students' Union UCL and UCL Museums. Many of the objects included have never been displayed before. They include a collection built up over many years by alumnus Mark Curtin and donated to Students' Union UCL in 2023. Others are from recent UCL Special Collections acquisitions or have been loaned by alumni. We have included several items from the archives of the Institute of Education and the School of Eastern European and Slavonic Studies, which later became part of UCL.

The exhibition includes stories from students past and present, recalling their time at UCL, showcasing part of a wider oral history project gathering alumni memories. Also featured is archive footage of the university collated in the video Student Life Through the Eyes of UCL Film and TV Society, available to watch below.

YouTube Widget Placeholderhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROiikbyCJ3E


This exhibition is part of Generation UCL, an ongoing research and engagement project exploring UCL’s history through the eyes of its students. Research undertaken as part of Generation UCL draws on records of UCL and its merged institutions, student associations, alumni biographies and memoirs, and interviews that form an important new collection of oral histories at UCL.

Find out more about the research and contributors behind the exhibition below.

Project Context: Generation UCL Research Project

Generation UCL: 200 Years of Student Life in London is a research and engagement project that explores two centuries of UCL student life, turning institutional history upside down to suggest that the first students should be seen as the real ‘founders’ of UCL.

Funded by a Provost’s Award, the project is a partnership between academics based at IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society, Students’ Union UCL and the Office of the Vice-President (Advancement). Generation UCL is led by Professor Georgina Brewis (IOE) and John Dubber (Students’ Union UCL). Dr Sam Blaxland, Lecturer in Education (IOE), leads on the oral history element of the project, and the team works closely with student researchers and interns.

This exhibition is the first major project output. We are writing an open access book to be published by UCL Press in 2026. We have also been awarded a Student Success grant to diversify and revise the UCL Walking Tour.  

You can read blog posts by staff and students involved in the project here: https://studentsunionucl.org/generation-ucl

Generation UCL: Voices of UCL

The Generation UCL project marks the first time UCL has undertaken a major oral history project with alumni, and we are in the process of creating a unique and significant record of student life in London.

After an invitation was circulated to alumni in early 2022, we received over 250 expressions of interest. To date we have conducted, recorded and transcribed over 70 interviews. Eventually these will be deposited with UCL Special Collections as an important resource for researchers in the future. An interview with our oldest respondent, 102-year-old artist Diana Armfield, was written up for UCL alumni magazine Portico.

For the exhibition, we have curated a selection of short clips from these interviews as well as voicing up some written extracts from the 1840s, 1880s and early 1900s. You can listen to these excerpts via the Generation UCL playlist on SoundCloud.

We are still in the process of interviewing alumni around the world, from a range of ages, backgrounds, and levels of study. To express interest in taking part in an oral history interview, please enter your details via the online form at the link below. Whilst we cannot interview everyone who expresses an interest in the project, we will try and get back to you with more information as soon as possible. Fill out the interest form on this page.

Voices of UCL - Audio and Transcripts

Toni Griffiths, English student from the mid-1960s, describes her duties as Woman Vice President of the Students’ Union in that period.

Listen to Toni on UCL's SoundCloud

Duration: 1 minute 5 seconds 

I was in this position between ‘65 and ‘66. And it was a complete eye-opener. And I found myself doing all sorts of things that I had never imagined, nor contemplated before. Sort of running things, writing things, making speeches. Making speeches at dinners. Giving toasts. Holding receptions for the glorious Presidents of other university student unions and so on! And running and organising my own Ball, which was then called the ‘Women’s at Home’. And that was a Ball for women finalists and their partners. And I had to organise a revue for that, or at least make sure that one was going to happen. And some sort of recital, and there was a dinner. All sorts of things. 

Jim Onyemenam, Laws student, late 2010s, describes why he became a Students’ Union Sabbatical officer and what the role involved.

Listen to Jim on UCL's SoundCloud

Duration: 1 minute 28 seconds 

I applied to be a SAB because it would keep me in the country longer, which will allow me naturalise – that was it! That was my entire reason for applying. In the two weeks that I got to do the campaign, I learnt, by the way, actually like, I’m campaigning for some very important things. Two weeks is way too short to actually be emotionally invested in any of these campaigns but then, I could objectively see the importance in building my own manifesto. I built my manifesto around things that I thought were objectively very important things like PGTA stipends being made monthly as opposed to termly, things like increasing the amount of childcare support...of support being provided for parents and students with... or, students with caring responsibilities of younger dependants and so I ran to be a SAB. If I’m being honest, the main reason to want to be a SAB, I stay in the country a bit longer, let’s get naturalised in the UK. I then start as a SAB, and I am genuinely sure that it will be the best job I’ve ever had. Right now, it’s the best job I’ve ever had in my life, and I reckon,‘til I die, I’d constantly say that. No two days are the same. But I don’t think there’s any job that anyone could ever have that is, on the one hand, designed to fit their specific skill set. They almost define, they almost define what the job needs of them. It’s very reflexive in that way.

Peter Mitchell, Chemistry student, mid-1960s to early 1970s, discusses his dual identity as both a UCL and University of London student. 

Listen to Peter on UCL's SoundCloud

Duration: 1 minute

Sam: In terms of your identity as a student, were you a UCL student or a University of London student? 
Peter: Very much UCL, I mean, we used to... probably still do; you’d carry two Students’ Union cards. One was the UCL Student Union card, and one was the University of London. There’s an interesting story at the time. I used to commute. Well, in those days...I mean, these days, I don’t think you even buy season tickets but, you used to buy a season ticket so you had... you could come and go as you please on the train. And the University of London...I don’t think they ever really thought this one through, but the University of London Students’ Union card was a green card, about that big, which was exactly the same as a British rail season ticket card and if you went to King’s Cross, it always had a red cross across the middle, I think it was to identify you were going via King’s Cross, and a lot of students discovered the fact that if they got the ULU students card out and put a red cross on it, they could just wave it around… I think that’s the only thing that I ever used to do that was controversial.

Jamie Gardiner, PhD student in Applied Mathematics, discusses setting up GaySoc in the early 1970s. 

Listen to Jamie on UCL's SoundCloud

Duration: 1 minute 7 seconds 

The sort of typist, receptionist, Joan, was there and I looked in through the little window, like a ticket box sort of window and I said hello, I’m wondering how you set up a club, a society. Oh she said, you fill in this form and so we chatted a little bit about the form and she said what’s the name or what’s the society for and I said gay students, I don’t remember precisely what I said but anyway I definitely said it’s a gay society, or words to that effect. Oh she said, OK. And we continued chatting about filling in the form and having felt heart in mouth at actually saying the word ‘gay’ out like that, it was: good, well this is OK, this is easy. And so, I filled in the form and all of the Student Union societies were something Soc, so we were GaySoc … I have no recollection of any negative feedback, it’s a bit bizarre to say that isn’t it? 

Edward Fry was excluded from Oxford and Cambridge because of his Quaker religion but enrolled at UCL in 1848 at the age of 21. 

This extract is taken from a memoir compiled posthumously by Fry’s daughter. Agnes Fry, Memoir of Right Honourable Sir Edward Fry, CBE 1827-1918 (Oxford: OUP, 1921). Voiced by Mark Freeman.

Listen to Edward's story on UCL's SoundCloud

Duration: 1 minute 3 seconds 

In the end I made up my mind, with my parents’ full consent, to assume the Bar as my profession and to go to University College, London, for a year at least, to improve my general education. This last part of the plan was what really made me like the whole thing. For, for years, I had set longing eyes on a university education, and as Oxford and Cambridge were practically closed to me, I gladly accepted the prospect of London. I took the Law because it gave me a justification for asking to go to college; for indeed for the study of the law I entertained no predilection. I was plunged into an entirely new circle: of students at University College I knew none at first; I was somewhat older than the most of the entering students, and at first I felt very sad and lonely. Again, the first effect of the attendance at the classes was somewhat disheartening.

Mary A. Adamson describes the segregation of men and women on the campus in the 1880s.

This extract comes from a written testimony Adamson submitted in response to a request during UCL’s centenary commemorations. Mary A. Adamson, ‘University College and Women Science Students, 1884-1886’, 1926, College Archive, UCL Special Collections. Voiced by Morgan Cambs.

Listen to Mary's story on UCL's SoundCloud

Duration: 1 minute 33 seconds 

We were highly amused – I was not indignant but I was certainly a little contemptuous, that we should be subjected to a segregation which we did not undergo in any other public place. We were shy, quiet, earnest students. It was a chilly segregation. . . The only other room we entered in the College was a vast, semi-dark cloakroom stretching under the Portico and entered from the open air. It had hat pegs all round and some big, bare tables and a nondescript female was seated permanently by the fireplace. Quite a number of women students frequented it, largely Slade students who were all very lively and friendly with one another and the fireside woman. I think this must have been the only room available to women and that they had not then access to the dining room, for they used to take snacks of food in it and occasionally a seedy waiter would hasten in with a covered plate of food, dab it on a table and a beat a hasty retreat.

M. T. Z. Tyau (Diao Minqian 刁敏謙), Law student, describes arriving in London as an international student from China in 1909.

This extract is from Tyau’s account of his London years. M. T. Z. Tyau, London through Chinese Eyes (London: Swarthmore Press, 1920). Voiced by Yitao Qian.

Listen to Tyau's story on UCL's SoundCloud

Duration: 1 minute 20 seconds 

In those happy days, London loomed up in the narrow compass of my mental horizon as the city that possessed everything which human vanities could crave for – honour, fame, wealth and what not – with the ease, as we say in Chinese, of turning the palm of one’s hand. To be able to visit it would be the height of human happiness, to be privileged to live therein, for even just a few days would be to dwell in an earthly Paradise. . .But I was soon disillusioned. As a matter of fact, London or Paris or Berlin is no more a fairy palace than is either Peking or Canton. Each is just as prosaic and unfairylike as the other. No doubt I felt genuinely disappointed that the city of my adoption was nothing like the city of my dreams, but my respect for it increased none the less with the lapse of years. In fact, before I finally bade it a long farewell, I had also come to regard it as the ‘dear old London town’.

Alwyn Davies, Chemistry student from the 1940s, discusses the impact of the Second World War on students at UCL.

Listen to Alwyn on UCL's SoundCloud

Duration: 1 minute 19 seconds 

The Physics Department right next to the Chemistry had a direct hit. Chemistry got damaged a lot but it had been unoccupied for, pretty well unoccupied, for the war and was in a dreadful condition and the first thing that all the research students did was to clear it up. We did a two-year degree compressed from the three years so it was pretty hard going but people appreciated they had a privilege in getting two years deferment of military service.

Apart from work there wasn’t much to do. I mean we had lectures every day at nine o’clock including Saturdays then maybe a couple of more lectures in Chemistry or Maths, German and French we also did and Physics and when you weren’t in lectures you expect to be in the lab. So nine to five every day was occupied. Saturday afternoon was free. The only club running was the Athletics Club. We used sometimes to go out to Shenley and get involved in sport but there were so few people it wasn’t very competitive.

Lyn Stone, Linguistics student in the early 1990s, remembers the dance music scene in London.

Listen to Lyn on UCL's SoundCloud

Duration: 46 seconds 

So very, very fortunate to have been in London when the club scene broke, you know. When everybody started getting into that. I was just really lucky to be there, what a great scene that was. That, you know, they called it the Summer of Love and all that sort of thing. And I was right there in the middle of it. So Kiss FM started to take off from being a pirate station to actually sort of being a legitimate radio station. So everyone was playing Kiss. And I went, I did the indie-dance crossover. I basically went from punk and indie straight, you know, right into getting into deep house and clubbing sometimes three or four nights a week because we were just right there, you know, in the middle of it all.

Further Reading and Resources

Reading list


On the history of UCL and its students

James Bates and Carol Ibbetson, The World of UCL Union, 1893 – 1993 (UCL Union, 1994).

Hugh Hale Bellot, University College London, 1826–1926 (London: University of London Press, 1929).

Sam Blaxland, Students’ Union UCL: A Short History (2023)

Negley Harte, John North and Georgina Brewis, The World of UCL (UCL Press, 2018).

David Taylor, The Godless Students of Gower Street (London: University College London, 1968).


On the history of universities and the University of London

Robert Anderson, British Universities: Past and Present (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006).

Sheldon Rothblatt, ‘London: A Metropolitan University?’, in Bender (ed.), The University and the City: From Medieval Origins to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

William Whyte, Redbrick: A Social and Architectural History of Britain’s Civic Universities (Oxford, 2015). 


On student culture

Georgina Brewis, Sarah Hellawell and Daniel Laqua,Rebuilding the Universities after the Great War: Ex-Service Students, Scholarships and the Reconstruction of Student Life in England’, History, vol. 105 (2020): 82106.

Georgina Brewis, A Social History of Student Volunteering: Britain and Beyond, 1880-1980 (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Jodi Burkett (ed.), Students in Twentieth-Century Britain and Ireland (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Carol Dyhouse, Students: A Gendered History (London: Routledge, 2005).

Jane Hamlett, ‘Nicely Feminine, Yet Learned’: Student Rooms at Royal Holloway and the Oxford and Cambridge Colleges in Late NineteenthCentury Britain’, Women's History Review 15, no. 1 (2006): 137161.


On student activism and campaigning

Jodi Burkett, 'The National Union of Students and transnational solidarity, 1958–1968', European Review of History (2014): 539555.

Caroline Hoefferle, British Student Activism in the Long Sixties (London: Routledge, 2013).

David Malcolm, ‘A Curious Courage: The Origin of Gay Rights Campaigning in the National Union of Students’, History of Education 47, 1 (2018): 7386.

Lieve Gevers and Louis Vos, 'Student Movements', in A History of the University in Europe: Universities in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (1800–1945), Vol. 3, edited by Walter Rüegg, 269363 (Cambridge: CUP, 2004).

Daniel Laqua, ‘Activism in the “students’ League of Nations”: international student politics and the Confédération Internationale des Étudiants, 1919–1939’, English Historical Review, 132, no. 556 (2017): 605637.


On international students and the legacies of empire

Hakim Adi, West Africans in Britain 1900-1960: Nationalism, Pan-Africanism and Communism (Lawrence Wishart, 1998).

M. Matera, Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015).

S. Mullen, ‘British universities and transatlantic slavery: the University of Glasgow case’, History Workshop Journal 91, no. 9 (2021): 210233.  

Sumita Mukherjee, Nationalism, Education, and Migrant Identities: the England-returned (New York & Abingdon: Routledge, 2009)

Sumita Mukherjee, ‘Mobility, race and the politicisation of Indian students in Britain before the Second World War, History of Education 51, no. 4 (2022): 56077.

Hilary Perraton, A History of Foreign Students in Britain (London: Palgrave, 2014).

T. Pietsch, Empire of Scholars: Universities, Networks and the British Academic World, 1850-1939 (Manchester University Press, 2015).


Primary sources

UCL’s institutional archive dates from foundation in 1826, and covers most of UCL’s departments and activities. It includes records of UCL’s foundation, including the original Charter of 1836, minutes and correspondence, and records of students and staff. The catalogue is on UCL Archives, and a number of resources have been digitised and are available to read online on the History of UCL Digital Collections webpage.

The Institute Archive comprises the records of the IOE from its creation in 1902 to the present day. Browse the IOE Archive via their webpage.

The UCL SSEES Library holds over 200 archive collections, including its own records with student publications. Read more about the UCL SSEES Library Archive Collection on their webpage.

Project Contributors

We thank the following for permission to reproduce artwork:

Becca Human is a director and artist. In 2019 Students’ Union UCL commissioned an artwork to celebrate Black History Month, which we have reproduced. Find out more via Becca's website.

Guy Smallman is a freelance photojournalist who captured the protests against Eugenics outside the Provost’s office in 2018. See more of his work on his website.

Senate House Library

Victoria and Albert Musuem

Getty Images


The curators would further like to thank:

Mark Curtin, for collecting and donating many of the items on display.

Daniel Rogger, for donating his collection of Iraq War memorabilia.

Peter Mitchell, for loaning his scarf.

Lalith Wijedoru, for loaning his sabbatical officer t-shirt.

UCL Film and TV Society, for supplying historic film footage and David Parfitt for editing.

Morgan Cambs, Mark Freeman and Yitao Qian for voicing written extracts.

All the alumni interviewed for the project.

Arthur Carey and Georgia Cherry from Polytechnic for design work.

Sarah Okpokam, Samantha Manton, Helen Carney, Camilla Allibone and Kat Nilsson (UCL Museums and Cultural Programmes) together with Tobias Lumb and Matt Johnson (By the North Star) for overseeing the project.

Katerina Alexandropoulou, John Dubber, Mary McHarg, Faris Suleiman and Guy Stepney from Students’ Union UCL.

Robert Winckworth, Kathryn Hannan, Jessica Womack and Gillian Long from UCL Special Collections.

Emilia Kingham, Graeme McArthur, Esther Cox, Angela Warren-Thomas, Ash & Harper, Audley Campbell, and Puck Studios for conservation and installation.

Tannis Davidson and Hannah Cornish (Grant Museum of Zoology), Liz Eastlake (UCL Science Collections), Andrea Frederickson and Lucy Waitt (UCL Art Museum), Sarah Dwyer and Nacho Faccin (OBLL).

Mary Hinkley and Teresa Baker of UCL Educational Media.

UCL Art Museum   

UCL Grant Museum of Zoology 

UCL Special Collections: UCL’s institutional archive dates from its foundation in 1826.

The Institute Archive comprises the records of the IOE from its creation in 1902 to the present day.  

The UCL SSEES Library holds over 200 archive collections, including its own records with student publications.


If you are a former UCL student and would be interested in contributing to this oral history archive, please register your interest via this form.

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