Birkbeck, University of London

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Photograph of a lady in the Birkbeck library
Photograph of Big Ben and a London bus
Photograph of two scientists
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06 October 2006 
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The History of Birkbeck
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George BirkbeckSince 1823, Birkbeck has forged its own path in higher education, reaching out to people traditionally excluded by other universities. Today, Birkbeck is one of the UK’s leading centres of excellence in teaching and research.

This brief history traces Birkbeck’s evolution from its first meeting on the Strand to the completion of the current £18.5 million campus consolidation project.

Click here to find out what happened in the:

1800's
1900's
2000 - present day

   
   
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1776

Founder George Birkbeck born in Settle, Yorkshire.

 

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1800 George Birkbeck joins the Andersonian Institute in Glasgow – over 500 people attend his first lecture on the ‘mechanical arts’.
   
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2 December 1823 Around 2000 people flocked to the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand to witness Dr George Birkbeck and his supporters launch London’s first ever Mechanics’ Institution dedicated to the education of working people.
   
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1825 The Institution moves to the Southampton Buildings, Chancery Lane.
   
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1830 The first women students are admitted to the Institution.
   
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1841 Dr George Birkbeck dies. His horse-drawn funeral cortège attracts thousands of mourners.
   
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1858 The ratification of the University of London’s Charter means that any student can sit degree examinations. The Institution soon emerges as the main provider of university education for people who cannot afford to study full-time.
   
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1866 The Mechanics’ Institution changes its name to the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution.
   
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1868

Birkbeck buildingMembership is now up to 3000, including a significant number of students studying for University of London degrees.

Notable students include the co-founder of the LSE, Sidney Webb, future playwright, Arthur Wing Pinero, and Annie Besant, whose involvement with atheists and birth controllers so alarmed the Institution’s Governors that they tried to avoid publishing her exam results.

   
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1884

A generous donation from Francis Ravenscroft, of the robe-Ramsay MacDonaldmaking firm Ede and Ravenscroft, helps pay for the move to the Breams Building, on Fetter Lane.

Ramsay MacDonald enrolls, forging a lifelong passion for the arts. He goes on to lead the Labour party to their first election victory in 1923.

   
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1885 The Prince of Wales officially opens the Breams Building, which would be home to Birkbeck for the next 65 years.
   
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1892 Millicent Fawcett lectures on the problems of poverty.
   
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1896 Dr George Armitage-Smith begins a distinguished term of leadership, serving as Principal from 1896 until 1918.
 

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1904 Birkbeck’s first official Students’ Union is formed. Sidney Webb describes Birkbeck as delivering ‘the kind of evening instruction for the intelligent workman that is unique in the world. No other city has anything to equal it’.
   
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1907 Birkbeck College street lightThe Institution changes its name to Birkbeck College.
   
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1913 Lord Haldane recommends that Birkbeck be made a constituent college of the University of London.
   
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1914-1919 Senate HouseDuring the Great War lectures are introduced on military subjects. One in four of the staff and students who enlist are killed during the conflict.

Birkbeck offers free education to Belgian refugees. Increasingly women students seek training in medical, dental and pharmaceutical subjects.
   
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1915 TS Eliot plaqueTS Eliot teaches English at Birkbeck.
   
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1917 Birkbeck’s first woman professor, Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, is appointed Chief Controller of the British Army’s Women’s Auxiliary Corps. Lieutenant Commander Milner-Barry, a lecturer in German, works on detecting spy plots, illegal immigrants and contraband.
   
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1918 Principal Dr George Senter guides Birkbeck successfully into its new role in the University of London, continuing his leadership until 1939.
   
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1920 Birkbeck becomes a School of the University of London dedicated to the teaching of evening and part-time students. Both past and present students are represented on the governing body.
   
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1922 Old photo of studentsHelen Gwynne-Vaughan is made a Dame of the British Empire.
   
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1925 Daytime classes phased out.
   
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1926 The College receives the Royal Charter.
   
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1930 Cyril (CEM) Joad becomes Head of Philosophy. Through the BBC’s ‘Brains Trust’ radio broadcasts he successfully brings philosophy to the general public.
   
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1937 J D Bernal, Professor of PhysicsJD Bernal joins Birkbeck as Professor of Physics. The 1950 founding father of Birkbeck’s Crystallography department, Bernal would become known as the ‘world’s wisest man’ during the Second World War. His intellectual force resonated beyond the world of science through his works for peace as President of the World Peace Council (1958– 1965).
   
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1940 The Battle of Britain delays the start of term by two weeks.
   
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1941 Birkbeck is the only university in London to stay open during the Blitz. Despite ferocious bombings and a direct hit on the library, classes continue.
   
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1942 Nikolaus Pevsner becomes one of the College firefighters. A German émigré, he travelled the length and breadth of England creating a unique record of the country’s most significant buildings and monuments. He published his classic, Outline of European Architecture, in 1942. Pevsner became Birkbeck’s first Professor of History of Art in 1959.
   
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1947 Eric HobsbawmEric Hobsbawm CH, joins the College as a lecturer in 1947. He has been Emeritus Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of London since 1982.
   
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1950 Britain’s third computer is developed at Birkbeck by Professor Donald Booth, who later founds the College’s computer science department, to help research in Bernal’s Crystallography lab.

Pablo Picasso attends a party in Bernal’s flat above the lab. The meeting results in the only mural drawn by Picasso in the UK. The Bernal Picasso is now on public view in the Clore Management Centre.
   
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1952 Malet Street road signBirkbeck moves to Malet Street, which is officially opened by the
late Queen Mother.
   
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1953 Rosalind FranklinRosalind Franklin – widely thought to have been deprived of the Nobel Prize for the solution of the most potent problem of the
twentieth century, the structure of DNA – works on virus structures at Birkbeck alongside Aaron Klug.
   
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1964 Bernal’s biomolecular research laboratory is granted departmental status.
   
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1966 Stain glass window -  theme IndustrySir Eric (later Lord) Ashby recommends that Birkbeck continues to provide education for mature students in full-time mployment.
The Ashby Report also recommends the teaching of social sciences and greater provision for postgraduate students. Today, over half of all Birkbeck students are postgraduate.
   
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1971 JD Bernal dies.

Birkbeck obtains buildings on Gresse Street to accommodate Geography, Geology and the new Social Sciences departments.

The Department of Economics is established in response to the Ashby Report.
   
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1972 The Departments of Applied Linguistics and Politics and Sociology are formed.
   
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1987 The Hayhoe Report recommends major restructuring. Birkbeck acts upon the recommendation, and departments are grouped into seven resource centres (later reduced to five) allowing more effective use of resources.
   
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1988 The University of London’s Department of Extra-Mural Studies joins Birkbeck, becoming the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies and later the Faculty of Continuing Education.
   
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1991 Student presenting at podiumThe Master, Baroness Tessa Blackstone, launches the Birkbeck Appeal to supplement funding and provide for the expansion of College activities. The Birkbeck Appeal raises over £8 million from companies, trusts and foundations and contributes to the formation of the Departments of Law, and Management and Business Studies.
   
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1993 The new Charter provides Birkbeck with up-to-date powers but remains true to its original purpose ‘to provide for persons who are engaged in earning their livelihood during the daytime’.
   
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1997 Smiling student in the libraryThe Secretary of State for Education and Employment opens the new Clore Management Centre. Funded by a grant from the Clore Foundation, it provides purpose built teaching and research facilities for the School of Management and Organizational Psychology.
   
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1998 The ‘Bernal Picasso’ returns to Birkbeck for the 175th anniversary celebrations thanks to the generosity of the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Birkbeck appoints five new Anniversary Chairs.

Birkbeck laboratorySpanish student Spencer Chipperfield becomes the youngest Briton to conquer Everest.

Birkbeck and the Institute of Education establish the first ever research centre funded by the DfEE examining the wider benefits of learning.
   
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1999 The resource centres are replaced with the current four faculties – Arts, Science, Social Science and Continuing Education.
 

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2001 Over 91 per cent of academic staff have papers reviewed in the Research Assessment Exercise – the highest rate for any multi-faculty institution in London and the fifth highest in the UK.

Over 85 per cent of Birkbeck research is ranked as being of international importance.

Biology receives top marks in the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) subject review. The Department is now ranked alongside Oxford, University College London, Kent and Sunderland for the quality of its teaching in organismal biosciences.

Work begins on the £18.5 million campus consolidation project at Malet Street. Birkbeck’s Faculty of Continuing Education celebrates 125 years of university adult education in London.
   
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2003 University Challenge teamBirkbeck’s team is crowned University Challenge champions.

The major refurbishment of Birkbeck’s Gordon Square Buildings is completed.

Three Schools in the Faculty of Arts – History, Classics and Archaeology, Spanish and English and Humanities – are eligible for the proposed new 6* ranking for their outstanding research.
   
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April 2003 The Master, Professor David Latchman, marks the completion to roof phase of the campus consolidation project with a milestone ceremony.
   
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November 2003 New Birkbeck extensionThe Chancellor of the University of London, HRH The Princess Royal opens the redeveloped Malet Street building, consolidating Birkbeck’s position as the country’s leading provider of face-to-face part-time higher education. Moreover, the College continues to prove that it is possible to recruit students from under-represented groups, maintain high academic standards and deliver world-class research.

Around one in four students come from an ethnic minority; 14 per cent of all first degree students have no formal qualifications on entry and over 90 per cent of all Birkbeck students are aged 25 or over.

In addition to 1000 continuing education certificate and diploma courses, undergraduate and foundation degree programmes, Birkbeck currently offer over 90 postgraduate programmes and research opportunities.
   

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