You are warmly invited to this year’s Treasures Of The Written Word on Tuesday 6 June, 12 to 4.30pm, in the Roberts Building Foyer. The event is open to all, and booking is not required: just drop in.
This annual event is a chance to see some of the treasures held in the library’s Special Collections, Archives and Records, and to talk to the staff who work with them. This year we’ll also have students and volunteers talking about their Connected Curriculum projects with the collections, and our popular conservation demonstrations. See below for the full programme.
Highlights will include a letter by Beethoven, George Orwell’s notes for his novel 1984, miniature children’s books from the 1700s, one of the first printed anatomy text books with pop-up diagram from the C16th, illuminated Mediaeval manuscripts in Hebrew and Latin, some of the earliest European music notation to survive, model furniture belonging to archives on the history of school education, documents on the history of UCL itself, radical design from rare C20th magazines, newly discovered Bentham manuscripts describing a dramatic prisoners’ escape, and selections from the fascinating Huguenot Library.
You’ll also be able during the first session to ask our students to look up your favourite words in early dictionaries, or find out whether your favourite area of London was anything more than fields in our C18th London maps. In the second session you can have a go at transcribing Jeremy Bentham’s handwriting, or at other times during the event hear how digitising rare materials can aid research.
12 – 1.30pm
Rare printed books
Mediaeval manuscript fragments
Institute of Education rare books
History of UCL
Digitising rare materials
1.30 – 3pm
Educating children – archives from the Institute of Education
On 9 February, I delivered a UCL Lunch Hour Lecture entitled ‘The youth of our middling rich’: how egalitarian were UCL’s founders? It was a reflection on research I have been carrying out over the past year on UCL’s much-touted radical and egalitarian credentials, particularly the claim that is often made that it was the first English university to admit students ‘regardless of race, class, religion or gender’.
It’s easy to forget that, in 1825, no university had been founded in the British Isles in over 200 years, and there were only two universities in England, where – at least if you wanted to take a degree – you had to be a member of the Church of England. This created a problem for the growing portion of England’s population that didn’t belong to the established church, such as Jews, Catholics and dissenting Protestants. These people could go abroad, if they had the money. There were academies for dissenters in England – but they weren’t universities. Or there were Scotland’s five universities, which had no religious tests for students, and that’s the path many took, including many of UCL’s founders.
The man who deserves the credit for changing this was the poet Thomas Campbell who, impressed by the liberal education on offer at the recently-founded universities in Bonn and Berlin, wrote to The Times in February 1825:
The plan which I suggest is a great London University. Not a place for lecturing to people of both sexes (except as an appendage to the establishment), but for effectively and multifariously teaching, examining, exercising, and rewarding with honours in the liberal arts and sciences, the youth of our middling rich people, between the age of 15 or 16 and 20, or later if you please. By the middling rich I mean all between mechanics and the enormously rich…
This got the ball rolling remarkably quickly: a preliminary meeting was held in April, and the first prospectus appeared in July. The land for the building was purchased in September, a Council elected in December, and on 11 February 1826 our first foundation document, the Deed of Settlement,
was signed. The foundation stone was laid in April 1827, and the first students arrived in October 1828. That Deed of Settlement says the object of the university is:
The advancement and promotion of Literature and Science, by affording young Men … adequate opportunities for obtaining Literary and Scientific Education at a moderate expence.
It was to be a joint-stock company, selling shares for £100 each to Proprietors, who would elect the Council at an annual general meeting. The professors would be paid a ‘modest’ salary for three years only, as they had to support themselves directly from the students’ fees – a precarious system that lasted decades.
And students would not live on the premises, which meant fees really could be set at a comparatively modest level, giving access to university education to the sons of the new middle classes. This occasioned the kind of mockery that appeared in John Bull magazine, where it was claimed:
Each Dustman shall speak, both in Latin and Greek,
And Tinkers beat Bishops in knowledge –
If the opulent tribe will consent to subscribe
To build up a new Cockney College.
What doesn’t appear in the curriculum, an area which Campbell deliberately avoided in his letter, is religion, which brings us back to the treasured notion of a supposed principled opposition at UCL to the teaching or promotion of theology. In fact many, possibly most, of the founders were men of faith, such as the Catholic Duke of Norfolk, and the Baptist minister Francis Augustus Cox. They were anxious to provide some kind of religious teaching in the new institution, and planned to have professors of theology.
However, ultimately it proved impossible both to keep to the principle that there would be no religious tests or barriers, and to teach theology to the satisfaction of the different religious groups involved. Instead, the spiritual and moral welfare of the young men who didn’t live at home were to be overseen by boarding-house keepers with ‘satisfactory religious habits and morals’ who, among other things, would ensure their charges attended public worship regularly: in other words, it was a last ditch compromise, designed to keep everyone on board.
So, to go back to the title of the lecture – how egalitarian were our founders? Well, if we measure UCL against the criteria I mentioned, that it was ‘the first English university … to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender’, we would have to say:
On race: no university in Britain discriminated explicitly against students on grounds of race, and we know that some non-white students did study at our universities before UCL was even thought of.
On class: there were certainly no barriers in terms of class, except in the sense that you needed the money to pay, and UCL was much cheaper. But you could say the same about Oxford and Cambridge – there were no actual class barriers: if you were Anglican, and could pay, you could come, and some students did have very humble origins.
On religion – in this context, UCL represented a revolution, making a university education available to those who were not members of the Church of England. But this was partly because the men who founded this institution cared deeply about faith and the religious and moral well-being of its students.
On gender – this is really part of a different story, but the answer would probably be: ‘it’s complicated’. UCL was the first to admit women to degrees (fifty years after it opened) but actually not on equal terms for a further forty years.
In these ‘post-factual’ times, I think we need to be careful about UCL’s myths (and what better way to do that than resort to our own amazing archives). The new university didn’t ‘open up’ education to everyone from the outset, and we do ourselves a disservice if we buy too much into the ‘godless’, ‘Cockney university’ image, because that would overlook the fact that this was hostile propaganda on the part of a threatened establishment. The truth is richer and more interesting: UCL did make university education affordable and available to a much more representative cross-section of society, largely the new middle classes who had been, for the reasons I’ve discussed, excluded from it. And it did it in new and ground-breaking ways.
We are currently digitising the Council minutes and student registers, which will enable us to do so much more, and faster. I’m particularly interested in mapping the origins and subsequent careers of our earliest students, and automating the transcription of the earliest minutes and correspondence. So this lecture was a great opportunity to share some of my findings, but there is a fascinating story still to be told, and we’ve so far barely scratched the surface. UCL’s 200th birthday in 2026 is fast approaching – watch this space for further developments!
With the brand new South Junction Reading Room just opened, a team from Special Collections, Archives and Records were able to put on a display of captivating rare and unique items for UCL’s Graduate Open Day on November 23rd.
Current and future students – as well as interested staff – heard our librarians and archivists talk about a diverse range of materials from our collections, across many fields of study:
Image from UCL Special Collections, S R Johnston Lavis Folio 1776 H1
Geologists and geographers alike were entranced by the superb illustrations of Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei, showing Vesuvius erupting. This book is also featured in our own publication, Treasures from UCL; more illustrations from the Campi Phlegraei can be found in Digital Collections.
Not above aiming to impress, our archivists showed off a folio from the manuscript draft of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species
Nazlin Bhimani, Research Support and Special Collections Librarian for UCL Institute of Education, writes about the two tiny books she chose to display:
“The Baines Collection consists of 200 books dating from the 1700s to 1920. This is a collection of children’s books that originally belonged to the Baines Family (many of them have inscriptions providing names of family members to whom the books belonged) and were given in 1955 to the Ministry of Education. The collection was eventually donated to the IOE in 1992.
These two tiny books (volumes 4 and 5) I chose (Baines 104) were both published around the 1780s and belong to a series of work published in ten volumes entitled The Lilliputian Library or Gulliver’s Museum. The success of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels early in the century led to publishers to draw on this popularity by associating subsequent children’s publications on Gulliver and Lilliput. The Lilliputian Library or Gulliver’s Museum is an example of one such publication that uses this marketing ploy.
The frontispiece confirms that when first published the complete series cost five British shillings and each volume six pence for the following reason:
“…[it is ]but for the convenience of those little Masters and Misses, whole finances may not admit of expending to capital a sum at once, they may be supplied with one or more volumes, weekly or monthly, till the whole work is completed, at Six-pence each.”
The small size (the books fit in the palm of my hand!) appealed to children who could more easily hold the books in their hands. We often think of miniaturisation as something that is a modern concept with computer devices getting smaller and smaller but in the 18th century, this was a growing phenomenon most evidenced in the trend towards designing dolls houses with smaller and smaller and more intricately designed furniture including book shelves and tiny books that sat on the shelves.”
For more about these miniature marvels, check out Nazlin’s original post at Newsam News.