1836-2011: Celebrating 175 years of academic excellence

Gabrielle Lawson reports on the birth of the University of London and its iconic centrepiece, Senate House
Senate House, University of London, under construction
Charles Holden's iconic Grade II* listed building, Senate House, under construction
"The University has grown and evolved with the times and now comprises 18 prestigious Colleges and a range of central services"

Proposals to establish a University in London can be traced back to the sixteenth century. In the eighteenth century, Daniel Defoe provided particularly eloquent arguments for one in his Augusta Triumphans (1728).

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, London, long the largest capital city in the world, was the only capital city in Europe not to boast a university. Growing demand for one led to the foundation of University College London in 1826 and King’s College in 1829. Initially, the two organisations vied for the title of the University of London. In 1836, the University of London was established by government and ratified by Royal Charter. It is thus England’s third oldest University, following the ancient establishments of Oxford and Cambridge.

From its modest beginnings as an examining body, the University of London rapidly grew in influence. It was the first University in Britain to admit women and to introduce a range of new subjects into university education, especially laboratory science and modern languages.

In 1858, through the establishment of the University of London International Programmes, it extended its reach across the world. Students sat for University of London BA degrees in Mauritius in 1865, Gibraltar in 1866, and Canada in 1867. By 1899 students were taking the University’s exams in 18 Commonwealth countries. There were 30 overseas centres in 1919, and, following expansion in the 1920s to places as diverse as Jerusalem, Shanghai, Istanbul and Bangkok, 79 by 1937.

"In 1877, the University of London became the first university in Britain to admit women to degrees in all faculties"

Today, the University of London is Britain’s largest university, with 120,000 students in London alone. The University of London International Programmes now has over 50,000 students on more than 100 different programmes. The University has grown and evolved with the times and now comprises 18 prestigious Colleges and a range of central services.

A first for women

The notion of allowing women to graduate arose in 1858 and 1862, with the motion being narrowly rejected in both years. A step forward came in 1866, when it was agreed to introduce special examinations for women. In 1877, the University of London became the first university in Britain to admit women to degrees in all faculties. Sixty-eight women (of whom fifty eight passed) sat for the matriculation examination in 1879. Women first graduated from the University in 1880, when four female candidates passed the final BA examination.

A group of graduates wearing gowns and hats

The first woman to be awarded a doctorate was the Anglo-Irish mathematician and teacher Sophie Bryant (1850-1922), who became a Doctor of Science in physiology, logic and ethics in 1884. London’s decision to accept women had nationwide ramifications beyond the tertiary education system, with Frances Buss, Principal of the North London Collegiate School and a pioneer of women’s education, stating that it raised the standards and liberated the curriculum of many girls’ schools – an assertion cited in the Royal Commission Report for 1888/9.

A home for the University

The first 36 years of the University of London were somewhat nomadic. It began life at Somerset House, on the Strand, before lodging in temporary accommodation in Marlborough House, in Westminster (1853-1855), in Burlington House, Piccadilly (1855-1867) and a house in Savile Row (1867-1870). In 1870 it settled in its first purpose-built accommodation, a new building in nearby Burlington Gardens. In 1900 it moved again, this time to the Imperial Institute in South Kensington – accommodation which by 1907 the University described as ‘wholly inadequate’.

The University had rejected an opportunity of laying down roots in Bloomsbury as early as 1853. Between 1912 and 1927 controversy raged over whether or not to settle there. Under the impetus of Sir William Beveridge, newly elected as Vice-Chancellor, the Senate voted narrowly in February 1927 in favour of establishing itself in Bloomsbury. Charles Holden, best known hitherto for designing over 40 London underground stations, was chosen from a short-list of four architects to design Senate House. He planned an unmistakeably modern building, one which he intended to last for 500 years, and which has become iconic.

The first sod was cut in December 1932, King George V laid the foundation stone on 26 June 1933, and in 1936 the University was able to move in. After decades of wandering, in which it occupied five different buildings, the University of London finally had its first permanent home. The acquisition of additional property, such as the sites of SOAS and of Birkbeck College, contributed to make Bloomsbury a University quarter.

Senate House: A 20th Century masterpiece

Senate House, as Beveridge described it, was ‘something that could not have been built by any earlier generation than this, and can only be at home in London.’ From the tip of its 209-feet-high Tower, making it the tallest secular building in London upon completion, to its tile-clad basement, the building was the epitome of 1930s modernity.

"The building was the epitome of 1930s modernity"

As well as the University’s world-famous library, whose book stacks were located in the Tower, the building contained administrative offices and meeting rooms. In these, according to a contemporary source, ‘electric light, bell, and telephone positions can be varied without disfigurement’. It was the first large-scale building in the country to be heated by electricity, using an early form of storage heater. The offices were naturally ventilated, but an early form of air conditioning was installed in the main public rooms.

Senate house

After 70 years, during which time Senate House (pictured left) had been temporarily taken over by the war-time Ministry of Information, Holden’s Grade II* listed masterpiece was in need of attention.

The £55 million refurbishment, which began in 2006, was the largest programme of works undertaken by the University since Senate House opened. The works included providing the building with modern, upgraded and more cohesive office space, improved meeting and teaching facilities, and new and enhanced library resources.

The University’s work of overseeing examinations has evolved into the provision of a wide range of value-added activities and services to the 18 Colleges in the University and beyond, ranging from distance learning and research facilitation to career development advice and information technology solutions.

The refurbishment of Senate House has allowed the University to rationalise and improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the space it occupies. Whereas it originally housed approximately 165 staff, the building, along with the neighbouring Stewart House – built on the site originally intended for a grand Ceremonial Hall – now houses some 700.

The concentration of staff into these two main buildings has not only brought gains from physical proximity, but also has released outlying buildings for income-generating occupation by others. Holden’s 20th century masterpiece is now equipped for the next stage of the University’s evolution.

Five facts:

  • Senate House Library was bombed five times during the Second World War, twice seriously.
  • The building's use by the Ministry of Information during the Second World War inspired George Orwell's description of the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
  • One of the 1933 pennies – only six were minted in that year – is buried in Senate House, in a commemorative casket under the foundation stone laid by King George V.
  • Charles Holden, the architect of Senate House, used jazz syncopation to guide his design. Holden explained, when he talked about his design at the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1938, that he had been influenced by syncopation in jazz when he changed the rhythm of the windows on the top floor of Senate House so that, on the west and south elevations, they do not align with the windows on the floors below – syncopation.
  • Senate House still isn’t finished. Senate House, the tower, and North Block were part of a much larger scheme for a building which would have gone as far as Torrington Place, as we can see from one of the original models of the building. Nor was the enormous lecture theatre built: its site is now occupied by Stewart House, home of the International Programmes.


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