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John Bull vs. Stinkomalee: the early days of UCL

By Ruth Howells, on 20 February 2012

In 1825, a group of men that included Whigs, reformers and lawyers came together to found a university in London aimed at those excluded from the two established English universities Oxford and Cambridge – where teachers and students were required to be subscribing Anglicans.

To mark the anniversary of UCL’s foundation on 11 Feb 1826 – when it went by its original name the University of London – this lunch hour lecture by Professor Rosemary Ashton (UCL English Language & Literature) looked at the opposition to the new university among Tory politicians and journalists, especially in the ultra-Tory newspaper John Bull.

The new university was designed to have “all the leading advantages of the two great universities” and “no barrier to the education of any sect”. The intention was to exclude theological teaching from the curriculum and have no form of religious test for entrance.

The media ‘against’

John Bull took against the idea with vitriol and had a longstanding campaign to ridicule those behind it. Sweeping, exaggerated warnings of threat to church and state were driven by a fear of working-class revolution in the vein of the French model.

The paper found a number of ways to imply that the institution was disreputable. The curriculum was mocked and a joke prospectus dubbed the university the “Cockney College”, instructing “butchers in geometry”.

The fact that it was to be built on former wasteland was a very big stick to beat it with and led to the nickname “Stinkomalee”. John Bull also poked fun at the funding model, in which people were approached by the founders to buy shares – the implication being that this was dodgy.

The founders were all too aware of the kinds of accusations which would be thrown at them. Henry Brougham, who became the university’s “prime mover”, was one of the most talked about and caricatured people in society at that time – appearing in almost every edition of the satirical magazine Punch.

The media ‘for’

In contrast to John Bull, The Times was broadly supportive. The paper carried reports of early meetings of the founders and said that the “metropolitan university” would remove the “ignominy” of London having no university of its own.

A big advantage of studying medicine at the university was positioned as access to London’s teaching hospitals – something Oxford and Cambridge didn’t have to the same extent.

The first intake of students to the University of London began in October 1828. Despite the progressive ethos, it was still only men at this point, with women joining in 1878. The institution was the first to admit women on the same terms as men.

The Scottish model

Interestingly, the university was aimed at people in London and positioned as cheaper to attend than Oxford and Cambridge, as students could stay at home whilst studying. There was a suggestion that young men would be less likely to be led astray by drinking and gambling if that were the case.

This model was very much in line with the Scottish higher education system, where institutions like Edinburgh and Glasgow tended to cater for young men living at home.

Indeed, Professor Ashton observed that the university was “stuffed with Scots” in the early years. Some of the founders were Scottish themselves and others had studied in Scottish institutions because they were outside the church. The new University of Virginia, established by British colonialists in the US, was also a model.

In August 1828, The Times reported that the building was nearing completion, although there was not enough money to build the wings until the 1870s. William Wilkins’ neoclassical design, seen as “pagan architecture”, was in part responsible for yet another nickname: the “godless institution of Gower St.”

Today’s university

I found the parallels with the snobbery and fear still associated with ‘newer universities’ almost 200 years later extremely interesting, as well as in terms of the social mobility and access arguments still raging in higher education today.

An audience member asked an interesting question about the bones found last year under the quad (subject of an upcoming exhibition), and what John Bull might have made of them. Professor Ashton said that, as the paper had been keen to paint medical students as grave robbers, it would have been right up their street.

Image: “The London University” as drawn by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd and published in 1827/28 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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