UCL News


UCL Library Services researches UCL's historical role in opening up education

28 April 2016

UCL Library Services has started putting to the test UCL's claim to be the first English university to admit students regardless of race, religion, class and gender.

Quad It's a claim which is often made, but has rarely been closely examined.

For the first time, we are taking a systematic look at UCL's archives, which are held by the Records Office, to find the evidence, focusing initially on the ten years from 1828, when we opened our doors to students. As UCL did not award degrees to women until 1878, we will first examine where 'foreign' and minority ethnic students came from, and, we hope, learn something about their experience.

Some of our early findings include:

  • Selim Franklin.  A Jew born in Liverpool, he came to UCL in 1828, part of the very first intake.  He migrated to California in 1849 where he became a successful property developer, then moved to Victoria, British Columbia in 1858, where he was elected to the Provincial Legislature.  He was also a chess master.
  • Omer, Effendi. One of a group of three students sent by Ibrahim Pasha from Egypt, he came to UCL in 1830 and was later a diplomat of the Ottoman Empire.
  • Moses Roper.  Born in North Carolina, his father was his owner, his mother a slave.  After escaping in 1834, he came to England and registered at UCL in 1839.  His book A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery, is one of the earliest American slave narratives.
  • Soorjo Coomar Chuckerbutty. The youngest of a group of four Indian students who studied medicine at UCL from 1845, he won the gold medal in Comparative Anatomy, was made a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1848, and was the first Indian professor of Medicine at the Calcutta Medical College in 1867.
  • Sir Samuel Lewis.  From Sierra Leone, he studied law at UCL from 1866, was called to the bar in 1871, and became chief justice of Sierra Leone in 1886.  He was the first African to be knighted.

UCL appears to be ahead of both Oxford (1873) and Cambridge (1849) in admitting minority ethnic students. This was recognised in the 1860s with a donation of £3000 from Cama & Co., the first Indian merchant company to establish an office in London, acknowledging UCL's provision to Indian students of 'a College education without interference with the religious creed inherited from their ancestors'. This is positive, but we will be exploring the nature of the welcome such students received, and how UCL was influenced by its contemporaries farther afield, for example in continental Europe, Scotland and North America.

We are now working towards a larger research proposal to validate UCL's claims, using digital tools such as statistical analysis and mapping software. The proposal is being carefully aligned with UCL Geography's World of UCL project, which is looking at the diversity of UCL students 1828-1948. We have delivered a research methods workshop at the Department of Information Studies, centred on UCL's archives, with World of UCL's PI, Dr Caroline Bressey, and will make initial results available in autumn 2016.