BBK Magazine 41

200th Anniversary Edition

200 Years of Birkbeck

A Brief History of Birkbeck and its Origins

Birkbeck, as it is known today, has been through many phases of evolution and reinvention across its rich 200-year history. Starting life as the London Mechanics Institute (LMI) in 1823, the College was founded at a time when London was the largest city in the world, the capital of a sprawling British empire, and a place where working men and women were mostly illiterate. Proposing to educate working people was radical. Many feared that it would disrupt social norms, give people ambitions beyond their status and “sow the seeds of evil in our society.” It was therefore bold, when on the evening of 11 November 1823, thousands flocked to the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand to hear Dr George Birkbeck extoll that “now is the time for the universal blessings of knowledge.”

“Now is the time for the universal benefits of the blessings of knowledge”

Yet George Birkbeck was not the College’s sole founder. Five men played a vital role in establishing the original LMI: patent agent and editor Joseph Clinton Robertson, journalist and economist Thomas Hodgskin, tailor and professional radical Francis Place, prominent Whig politician Henry Brougham, and physician and philanthropist George Birkbeck. The founders were all complex characters, with their own interest and, for some, their own controversies.

In 1830, ‘The Birkbeck’, as it was commonly known, took another radical step in admitting women to attend classes. While female students were initially forbidden from using the College’s front entrance and could not become full members until 1896, it was nevertheless an extremely progressive step and put Birkbeck among the first institutions in the UK to provide access to higher education for women.

It was George Armitage-Smith who solidified the College’s future, transforming it from the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution into Birkbeck College, University of London. As the Principal, he reorganised the College and transformed a fragmented list of classes into coherent, discipline-focused university courses. Armitage-Smith successfully fought for Birkbeck’s admission into the University of London in 1920, with his powerful message that “the evening student has more stamina and greater capability of work … [Birkbeck students] represent not the average nor the many but are the chosen few.”

George Armitage-Smith, Principal (1896-1918); Birkbeck, University of London

In the 20th century, Birkbeck became a hub for pioneering and radical thinkers. It oversaw the creation of the first academic department in the UK, and possibly worldwide, devoted to teaching and research related to computing. Renowned computer scientists Andrew and Kathleen Booth developed some of the earliest digital computers while managing the department. World-leading scientists such as J.D. Bernal, Rosalind Franklin and David Bohm, along with Nobel Prize winners Aaron Klug and Roger Penrose, carried out transformative research at Birkbeck in an environment that championed a culture of collaboration, curiosity, and egalitarianism.

However, there were still many challenges to overcome. Between 1986 and 2008 a series of government changes cut deeply against Birkbeck’s core support for part-time learners and adult education. Changes to university funding for part-time students put Birkbeck at risk. The College grappled with meeting changing requirements and shifting student demographics, but ultimately emerged stronger as it entered the millennium.

March 2020 and the COVID-19 outbreak instigated another major shift for Birkbeck. Prior to the pandemic, only a few classes had any online components but within thirteen days of restrictions being in place, everything had been transferred online. Thanks to the support of the Birkbeck community, financial and pastoral assistance was increased to help students continue with their studies, at a time when many were made extremely vulnerable by the socio-economic impact of the pandemic. While student satisfaction dropped across the country, 80% of students at Birkbeck felt satisfied with their academic experience during the pandemic, compared to 56% nationally.

Now, as the College enters its 200th year, it continues to adapt. Birkbeck is committed to addressing the challenges of a shifting higher education landscape and a post-pandemic economy while continuing meet the changing needs of the communities it serves. The College is investing in developing courses, advancing online provision and improving learning facilities. It remains committed to maintaining its academic breadth and excellence to ensure students from all backgrounds can learn from leading academics conducting world-class research. Now stepping into Birkbeck’s third century, the College, with the support of its community, is proud to deliver on a 200-year-old mission to provide access to education for all.