History of University College London

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University College's main building in the late 1820s, with its classical portico and dome

University College London (UCL) was founded on 11 February 1826,[1] under the name London University, as a secular alternative to the strictly religious universities of Oxford and Cambridge. It was founded from the beginning as a university, not a college or institute. However its founders encountered strong opposition from the Church of England, among others, which prevented them from securing the Royal Charter that was necessary for the award of degrees, and it was not until 1836, when the latter-day University of London was established, that the college was legally recognised and granted the power to award degrees of the University of London.

Early years[edit]

The UCL Main Building, just off Gower Street is the centre of the UCL campus


Whether or not UCL is actually the third oldest university in England is questionable. Other higher education institutions in England have institutional ancestry preceding their formation as "universities": for example what is now the University of Nottingham can trace some elements back to 1798. However, Nottingham only received its Royal Charter (conferring university status) in 1948, making it much younger as a university. Conversely, King's College London (KCL) was founded after UCL, but received its Royal Charter before UCL, so arguably KCL is older. The situation is further confounded by the fact that technically neither UCL nor KCL are universities in their own right (though they are de facto), but constituent colleges of the University of London. It is a fact, however, that UCL was an early member of a rapid expansion of university institutions in the UK, which also included Durham University (founded by Act of Parliament in 1832).


The proposal for foundation of what became UCL arose from an open letter, published in The Times in February 1825, from the poet Thomas Campbell to the MP and follower of Jeremy Bentham, Henry Brougham. Campbell had visited the university at Bonn in today's Germany, which (unlike Oxbridge at that time) allowed religious toleration. Brougham was a supporter of spreading education and a founder (in 1826) of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.[2] Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, a leader of London's Jewish community, convinced Brougham and Campbell to work together on the proposed 'London University'. They were supported by representatives of a number of religious, philosophical and political groups, including Roman Catholics, Baptists, Utilitarians, and abolitionists. Others represented included James Mill and the Congregationalist benefactor Thomas Wilson. The College formally came into existence on 11 February 1826 as 'The University of London', and was unique in Great Britain in being completely secular: in fact no minister of religion was allowed to sit on the College Council.[3] Thomas Arnold was to refer to it as "that Godless institution in Gower Street".[4]

The Council appointed in 1827 as Warden Leonard Horner, the founder of what is now Heriot-Watt University, but after internal disagreements he left in 1831.[5] During this period however the College founded University College School (1830). In 1833 the foundation stone was laid for the hospital which had always been planned in association with the College, then known as the 'North London Hospital', but today University College Hospital.

The University College was founded based on practices at the University of Edinburgh and other Scottish universities.[6] "The strongest, single, intellectual influence was that of Edinburgh, and, from the example of the Scottish Universities, London drew many of its most distinctive features. The extended range of the subjects of university study, the lecture system, the non-residence of students, their admission to single courses, the absence of religious tests, the dependence of the professors upon fees and the democratic character of the institutions, were all deliberate imitations of Scottish practice"[7]

The Council sought to arrange a formal incorporation of the 'University of London'. However they found formidable opposition from the start in Parliament, from the Church of England, from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and from the medical profession.[8] Opposition also came from abroad; Count Metternich instructed his ambassador to Britain in 1825 to 'tell His Majesty of my absolute conviction that the implementation of this plan would bring about England's ruin'. Macaulay however predicted 'that it is destined to a long, a glorious and a beneficent existence'.[9] Only in 1836 was a Whig government (which included two members of the College Council, Lord Lansdowne and Lord John Russell) able to arrange a Royal Charter which would permit the awarding of university degrees. By this time, however, King's College, London had also been founded; thus a new institution with the name of 'University of London' was set up to cover both, and the former 'University of London' took its present name, University College London.[10]

Jeremy Bentham and UCL[edit]

A fictional painting of Jeremy Bentham overseeing the construction of UCL in the Flaxman gallery inside the 'main library'

The philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), advocate of Utilitarianism, is often credited with being one of the founders of the original 'University of London'. This is not the case, although the myth of his direct participation has been perpetuated in a mural by Henry Tonks, in the dome above the Flaxman gallery (named after artist John Flaxman in the UCL Main Building). This shows William Wilkins, the architect of the main building, submitting the plans to Bentham for his approval while the portico is under construction in the background. The scene is however apocryphal. Bentham was eighty years of age when the new University opened its doors in 1828, and took no formal part in the direct campaign to bring it into being.[11]

Although Bentham played no direct part in the establishment of UCL, he can still be considered as its spiritual father. Many of the founders held him in high esteem, and their project embodied many of his ideas on education and society. Jeremy Bentham was a strong advocate for making higher education more widely available, and is often linked with the University's early adoption of a policy of making all courses available to people regardless of sex, religion or political beliefs. When the College's Upper Refectory was refurbished in 2003, it was renamed the Jeremy Bentham Room (sometimes abbreviated JBR) in tribute.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, on display in the cloisters of the UCL Main Building

Bentham's body is on public display at UCL in a wooden cabinet, at the end of the South Cloisters of the UCL Main Building; he had directed in his will that he wanted his body to be preserved as a lasting memorial to the university.[12] This 'Auto-Icon' has become famous. Unfortunately, when it came to his head, the preservation process went disastrously wrong and left it badly disfigured. A wax head was made to replace it; the actual head is now kept in the college vaults. [n 1]

Construction of the Main Building[edit]

In 1827, a year after the founding of UCL, construction of the Main Building began on the site of the proposed Carmarthen Square (at the time wasteland, used occasionally for duelling or dumping). Eight acres of ground were purchased for £30,000 by Goldsmid and other benefactors.[14] The Octagon Building is a term used for the whole of the Main Building, but more appropriately for a central part of it. At the centerpiece of the building is an ornate dome, which is visible throughout the immediate area. The Octagon was designed by the Architect William Wilkins, who also designed the National Gallery. The original plans by Wilkins called for a U shaped enclosure around the Quad (square). These plans however were stymied for want of funding, and work on the main building was not completed until the 20th century, (after the building itself had suffered damage during World War II). The Main Building was finally finished in 1985, 158 years after the foundations were laid, with a formal opening ceremony by Queen Elizabeth II.[15]


UCL was the first higher education institution in England to accept students of any race or religious or political belief.[16] It was also possibly the first to accept women on equal terms with men (in 1878). [n 2][16]

UCL was a pioneer in teaching many topics at university level, establishing the first British professorships in, amongst other subjects, chemistry (1828), English (1828, Rev. Thomas Dale), German 1828, Ludwig von Mühlenfels), Italian (1828, Sir Antonio Panizzi), geography (1833), French (1834, P. F. Merlet), zoology (1874, Sir Ray Lankester), Egyptology (1892), and electrical engineering (1885, Sir Ambrose Fleming).[16][17]

The Slade School of Fine Art was founded at the College in 1871 following a bequest from Felix Slade.

UCL was the first in England to establish a students' union.[16] in 1893[18] However men and women had separate unions until 1945.[15]

20th century[edit]

In 1907 the University of London was reconstituted and many of the colleges, including UCL, lost their separate legal existence. This necessitated the separation of University College Hospital and University College School as separate institutions (which they remain). A new charter restored UCL's independence in 1977' (although it was not able to award degrees in its own right until 2005).

Further pioneering professorships established in the 20th century included phonetics (1921, Daniel Jones), chemical engineering (1923), psychology (1928, Charles Spearman), and papyrology (1950, Sir Eric Gardner Turner).

In 1906, Sir Gregory Foster, who had been Secretary of the College, was appointed to the new post of Provost of UCL, which he occupied until 1929.

In 1973, UCL became the first international link to the ARPANET, the precursor of today's internet, sending the world's first electronic mail, or e-mail, in the same year. UCL was also one of the first universities in the world to conduct space research. It is the driving force of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, managed by UCL's Department of Space and Climate Physics.

In 1986 the Institute of Archaeology became a department of UCL, and in 1999 the School of Slavonic and East European Studies also joined the College.

In 1988 UCL merged with the Institute of Laryngology & Otology, the Institute of Orthopaedics, the Institute of Urology & Nephrology and Middlesex Hospital Medical School. In 1994 the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust was established. UCL merged with the College of Speech Sciences and the Institute of Ophthalmology in 1995, the School of Podiatry in 1996 and the Institute of Neurology in 1997. In August 1998 the medical school at UCL joined with the Royal Free Hospital Medical School to create the Royal Free and University College Medical School, renamed in October 2008 to the UCL Medical School. In 1999 the Eastman Dental Institute joined the Medical School, which, resulting from the incorporation of these major postgraduate medical institutes, has made UCL one of the world's leading centres for biomedical research.

19 Nobel Laureates of the 20th century were based at UCL:[19] 1904 Chemistry: Sir William Ramsay • 1913 Literature: Rabindranath Tagore • 1915 Physics: Sir William Henry Bragg • 1921 Chemistry: Frederick Soddy • 1922 Physiology or Medicine: Archibald Vivian Hill • 1928 Physics: Owen Willans Richardson • 1929 Physiology or Medicine: Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins • 1936 Physiology or Medicine: Sir Henry Hallett Dale • 1944 Chemistry: Otto Hahn • 1947 Chemistry: Sir Robert Robinson • 1955 Chemistry: Vincent du Vigneaud • 1959 Chemistry: Jaroslav Heyrovský • 1960 Physiology or Medicine: Peter Brian Medawar • 1962 Physiology or Medicine: Francis Harry Compton Crick • 1963 Physiology or Medicine: Andrew Fielding Huxley • 1970 Physiology or Medicine: Bernard Katz • 1970 Physiology or Medicine: Ulf Svante von Euler • 1988 Physiology or Medicine: Sir James W. Black • 1991 Physiology or Medicine: Bert Sakmann

21st Century[edit]

In October 2002, a plan to merge UCL with Imperial College London was announced by both institutions. The merger was widely seen as a de facto takeover of UCL by Imperial College and was opposed by both staff and UCL Union, the students' union. After a vigorous campaign, which included a website organised by students which brought back Jeremy Bentham to defend the College, the merger was called off.

On 1 August 2003, Professor Malcolm Grant took the role of President and Provost (the principal of UCL), taking over from Sir Derek Roberts, who had been called out of retirement as a caretaker provost for the college, and had supported the plan for the failed merger. Shortly after Grant's inauguration, UCL began the 'Campaign for UCL' initiative, in 2004. It aimed to raise £300m from alumni and friends. This kind of explicit campaigning is traditionally unusual for UK universities, and is similar to US university funding. UCL had a financial endowment in the top ten among UK universities at £81m, according to the Sutton Trust (2002). Grant has also aimed to enhance UCL's global links, declaring UCL London's "Global University". Significant interactions with France's École Normale Supérieure, Columbia University, Caltech, New York University, University of Texas, Villanova University and universities in Osaka have developed during the first few years of his tenure as provost.

UCL's strengths in biomedicine will be significantly augmented with the move of the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) from Mill Hill to UCL as preferred partner which was announced in 2006. Founded in 1913 and the Medical Research Council's first and largest laboratory, its scientists have garnered five Nobel prizes. NIMR today employs over 700 scientists and has an annual budget of £27 million. Construction of the new premises, the Francis Crick Institute, commenced in 2011; King's College London and Imperial College also became partners of the Institute.[20]

The UCL Ear Institute was established, with the support of a grant from the Wellcome Foundation, on 1 January 2005.

UCL applied to the Privy Council for the power to award degrees in its own right. This was granted in September 2005, and the first degrees were awarded in 2008.

Notes and References[edit]

  1. ^ It is often claimed that King's College London students stole the head and played football with it. Although the head was indeed stolen, the football story is a myth.[13] Other myths associated with Bentham and the College include that the box containing his remains is wheeled into senior college meetings, and that he is then listed in minutes as 'present but not voting'; or that he has a vote on the College council, but only when the vote is split, and that he always votes in favour of the motion.
  2. ^ The University of Bristol also makes this claim — as both were admitting students to University of London degrees at the time, it is possible that this was a simultaneous action.
  1. ^ Americanized Encyclopædia Britannica 10. 1890. p. 6100. Retrieved 2011-02-09. 
  2. ^ Harte (2004), 27
  3. ^ Harte (2004), 29-32
  4. ^ Crilly, Tony; Crilly, A J (2006). Arthur Cayley: Mathematician Laureate of the Victorian Age. JHU Press. p. 18. ISBN 0-8018-8011-4. 
  5. ^ Harte (2004) 62-3
  6. ^ Turner, A. Logan (1937). Story of a Great Hospital: The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh 1729-1929. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd. p. 360. 
  7. ^ Bellot, H. Hale (1929). University College, London 1826-1926. London: University of London Press. 
  8. ^ Harte (2004), 34
  9. ^ cited in Harte (2004), 26
  10. ^ Harte (2004), 80-1
  11. ^ Jeremy Bentham and UCL
  12. ^ UCL Bentham Project
  13. ^ http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/right-column/ucl-views/bentham
  14. ^ Harte (2004), 39
  15. ^ a b Landmarks
  16. ^ a b c d Interesting Facts
  17. ^ Harte (2004)
  18. ^ Harte (2004), 152
  19. ^ UCL website, Nobel Prizewinners
  20. ^ NIMRC website, retrieved 24 March 2012

Sources and further reading[edit]

  • Harte, Negley and John North (2004). The World of UCL 1828-2004 by Negley Harte and John North. London: UCL ISBN 1-84472-025-X
  • The World of UCL Union 1893-1993 (1994) by James Bates and Carol Ibbetson.
  • The Godless Students of Gower Street (1968) by David Taylor.
  • The Admission of Women to University College London, a Centenary Lecture (1979) by Negley Harte.

External links[edit]