X Close

UCL Special Collections

Home

Updates from one of the foremost university collections of manuscripts, archives and rare books in the UK

Menu

Young people against racism in 1980s London schools

By Erika Delbecque, on 9 January 2023

This post was written by Dr Shirin Hirsch, who was one of the 2022 UCL RIC Visiting Fellows.

Bengali lives are at risk whilst they are at Morpeth – we are punched, kicked and spat on. Enough is enough.

On a Monday morning in January 1986 one hundred Bengali students walked out of their secondary school in Bethnal Green, Tower Hamlets. That weekend they had drawn up a poster calling on all children to strike with them until their demands were met. In Oxford House just off Bethnal Green Road they set up an anti-racist alternative school. Three days later, the students returned to Morpeth with the school management agreeing to their demands. The strike was partially won. Young people, in taking action on their own behalf, had forced a change in the school.

Just over a decade later, I attended the same school. Bengali students were now a large part of the student intake and the school had new management. There were brief institutional histories given on dark days when fascists had attempted to organise and build their ranks inside the school. Then a new head teacher was brought in and it was said that he had transformed the school, later knighted for his efforts. But nowhere in these official histories were the actions of the students themselves remembered. Years later, when I stumbled upon a news report covering the strike, I was full of questions. Why did the students walk out of their school? Was the action connected to other strikes? What impact did the strike have on the school? And why had the students been forgotten for so long? I wanted to dig into the history of my old school, from a year before I was born, to try and find out more about where I was from and how young people had transformed their environment.

There are many challenges in researching the resistance of young people. For one thing, their lives are often remembered in words, documents or collections owned by adults. What is seen as ‘significant’ by older people might be different to young people’s views and experiences. Protests by young people are often against powerful institutions or people who can make decisions about what is and isn’t recorded. This was certainly the case in the Morpeth school strike, with the school management inviting ILEA press officers to the school to ensure the story was tightly controlled. Thames TV entered the school on the day the students returned from their strike but they were only able to interview selected staff and not students. That does not mean young people’s actions have been entirely erased. The local press did report on the Morpeth strike and documents from the strike were kept by a member of ILEA, which have since been donated to Tower Hamlets Archive.

1980s leaflet about the Campaign Against Racism in Schools

Rally against racism in schools. Papers of Ken Jones KJ/4/1, UCL Special Collections, IOE Library and Archives, London.

Morpeth was not the only school where young people were struggling against racism. For my UCL Special Collections fellowship here, I have been spending time with two collections: the Marina Foster (MF) and Ken Jones (KJ) papers. Marina Foster was a Black teacher who had left South Africa as a refugee in the 1960s and in London became an advisory teacher at the ILEA for many years, focusing on multi-ethnic education and tackling institutional racism. Ken Jones was from the 1970s until 1990 a teacher in London secondary schools and active in the politics of education and in issues of curriculum, pedagogy and trade unionism. Both collections illuminate the debates, policies and projects on multicultural and anti-racist education taking place in London schools. There are documents that show imaginative ways of creating an anti-racist classroom, with teacher organisations like Campaign against racism in education (CARE) All London Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARF) as well as documents from ILEA (Inner London Education Authority).

The collections also illuminate the serious racism that existed in London schools. Daneford school, nearby to Morpeth, in Tower Hamlets, was the most publicised example of this and there are a number of documents on this in UCL special collections. The Guardian reported in 1986 that three quarters of the students at Daneford were of Asian origin and there had been a spate of racist attacks inside the school. The school gates were plastered with National Front stickers and posters, and a 12 year old Bangladeshi student had been viscously attacked with a razor blade by four white students. Another time, twenty white young people at a football match ‘spilled over into the school’ shouting viscous racist abuse. One teacher, Norma Hundleby, told the press: ‘Boys were coming out of all the classrooms to join them. It was totally out of control.’ Kumar Murshid, Chairperson of Campaign against racism in schools (CARS) explained that only ‘the dedication of the anti-racist teachers and pupils who have organised themselves against these attacks’ had helped to ease the tensions at Daneford. The racism, alongside the resistance, would receive national attention following the arrest of Daneford teachers and a school student who were protesting outside the Tower Hamlets ILEA office over the refusal of ILEA to take serious action against racism at Daneford school.

The reports at both Daneford and Morpeth schools challenged a version of schooling which saw young people as passive objects, who should simply ‘do what they are told’. Sajid, 18 years old, summed up the feeling when he explained to the press in 1986:

If we can’t go to school peacefully and study in safety, then we have to fight back. We have as much right as any white kid to go to school.

Front cover of the first issue of Black Parents Special, 1985

Black Parents Special no 1 (1985). Papers of Marina Foster MF/8/39, UCL Special Collections, IOE Library and Archives, London.

The voices of young people are sometimes hard to hear within these collections, but that does not mean they are completely silenced. In the Marina Foster collection there is a ‘Black Youth Annual Penmanship Awards’ with records of Black children’s writings from 1981, with essays on ‘What is means to be Black and British’ and ‘Being without Employment in Britain today’. The winning essay questioned the very nature of the school system, the student directly asking ‘does it prepare me or help me tackle the blatant and insidious forms of racism that, I am afraid to say, I will invariably encounter?’ The frustration at the school system, as well as wider society, was powerfully expressed by many of these young Black authors.

Front cover of a publication by John Gus from the Black Parents Movement, entitled The Black Working Class Movement in Education and Schooling.

Gus, John (1986). The Black Working Class Movement in Education and Schooling. Papers of Marina Foster MF/8/63, UCL Special Collections, IOE Library and Archives, London.

The resistance at Morpeth secondary school in 1986 emerged out of this context and was not an isolated act. The Miners’ Strike had ended in March the previous year, a bitter defeat not just for the miners but for the whole of the labour movement. The year following the strike the numbers of days lost to strike action in Britain was at its lowest since 1967. However, school student strikes were not included in these figures. In April 1985 there was a national school student strike in response to the government’s attempts to make the Youth Training Scheme compulsorily for 16-17 year olds and to take unemployment benefits away from any young people refusing to participate. Alongside these strikes, the British government were openly attacking ‘hard left education authorities and extremist teachers’, as Thatcher put it. Parents were also resisting, and the Black Parents Movement, born in the 1970s, had begun to win serious changes in the schools. In 1981 and 1985 uprisings involving young people against the police had taken place in inner cities across England. Meanwhile teachers in 1985-6 entered disputes over cuts to schools and pay agreements. Gus John, a key activist and founder of the Black Parents Movement, in a speech he gave to teachers in 1986 which was later published as a pamphlet (M/8/63), explained:

The struggles waged by the black community outside of school and in relation to what was going on inside the school, gave school students the confidence to exercise their own power within the school. The school became for them the site of struggle against racism and against the treatment they were subjected to because of their class.

That relationship between students, community groups, teachers and wider political shifts is what I am interested in further exploring. This fellowship has given me the resources and time to piece together archival material and to explore these topics. I now hope to speak to some of the participants themselves. I am gradually trying to recover the resistance of young people against racism so as to remember and learn from their struggles.

Women of The Institute of Education

By utnvwom, on 15 January 2021

To start, I feel this post needs a disclaimer – there is no way I can cover all the inspiring women who have played important roles in the life of the Institute of Education. These are just snapshots, hopefully they will inspire people to look further and read more about these women. I have put them in order of date of birth, in an effort to equalise any hierarchy of perceived significance.

Explanation of abbreviations;

  • LDTC – London Day Training College, the name of the IOE on its founding in 1902
  • IOE – Institute of Education, the name adopted in 1932

Margaret Punnett (1867-1946)

Photograph of staff register page

Margaret Punnett’s staff registration page

As Mistress of Method and later Vice Principal at the LDTC, she was responsible for organising and overseeing the teaching of the women students, and had overall responsibility for the teaching of maths, to which scripture and psychology were later added. She lectured also on the Principles of Education.

For many years she carried the main burden of administration, and also took a personal interest in students and their welfare.  When she retired the responsibilities of her post were divided, perhaps demonstrating how much work Punnett carried. It is interesting to note that, at a time when women’s salaries were generally lower than those of men with the same level of responsibility her salary on appointment, and subsequently, often equalled that of her male colleagues’.

Clotilde Rosalie Regina Von Wyss (1871-1938)

Copy of von Wyss' article

Article by Clotilde von Wyss, IE/12/3/1

Clotilde von Wyss was a pioneer of educational broadcasting and film.  Her teaching at the LDTC was enriched by her introduction of collections of plants, an aquarium, artists’ materials and animal photographs. In an article Nature Study for Fidgety Children in the Londinian, the Student Union magazine (Summer 1909), von Wyss expressed her belief in practical manual work as an outlet for children’s natural energy; one example was the creation of gardens in boxes brought in and painted by the pupils. She offered two separate courses in biology at the LDTC, for specialists and non-specialists and, in the 1930s, a special voluntary course for the colonial group.  In addition to her work at the college she taught on a voluntary basis at Wormwood Scrubs prison. In retirement she acted as adviser to producers of a film on Wood Ants.

Susan (nee Fairhurst) Isaacs (1885-1948)

Susan Isaacs was an influential child psychologist, her primary interest being in child development. She had had a varied career before joining the Institute of Education, including several years as Head of an experimental school in Cambridge, and was an advocate of nursery education.

Photograph of Susan Isaacs

Susan Isaacs

At the Institute of Education she was the first Head of the new Department of Child Development. The Department grew rapidly, her work and reputation bringing prestige to the Institute. When the Institute was evacuated to Nottingham in 1939, and the department temporarily closed, Isaacs led the Cambridge Evacuation Survey.  Illness prevented her from returning as Head of Department when the Institute moved back to London in 1943 and she was succeeded by one of her earliest students, Dorothy Gardner.

Between 1929 and 1940 Isaacs, under the pseudonym Ursula Wise, was an “agony aunt” replying to readers’ problems in child care journals. She also had her own practice as a psychoanalyst, which she maintained while working at the Institute. Isaacs was awarded the CBE in 1948.

Grace Mary Wacey (1894-1987)

During her 38 years at the LDTC/IOE Grace Wacey saw it grow from a small college chiefly engaged in preparing students to teach in London schools, to a major academic institution with an international reputation.  The changes were reflected in the scope and responsibility of her own post: starting off as the only full time member of administrative staff, by the time of her retirement the complement was about 50, over which she, as Secretary, presided.

Photograph of Grace Wacey holding a book

Grace Wacey

Grace Wacey was remembered as an approachable, kindly yet firm administrator – so much so that in 1984 the IOE organised a party to celebrate her 90th birthday. In 1953 she was awarded the MBE in the Coronation Honours.

Margaret Gladys Calthrop (1886-?)

At the LDTC/IOE Margaret Calthrop taught French and German, lectured in methods of teaching Modern Languages and supervised student teachers’ school practice.  She was one of a number of subject tutors who sought to make learning her subject more interesting to children, incurring some opposition from those who wondered whether the essentials of grammar were receiving sufficient attention. Her demonstration lessons attracted a good deal of attention, one on a La Fontaine fable drawing applause from children and students.

In the mid-1930s she suffered health problems.  Restored to health she continued to work until she reached retirement age in 1952; she was then offered the possibility of remaining on for a time, but decided not to accept.

Margaret Helen Read (1889-1991)

Margaret Read joined the Colonial Department after five years engaged in missionary social work in India. She had carried out research in anthropology at LSE, and been awarded a doctorate.  She took charge of the department during the war years and became Head in 1945.

Photograph of Colonial Department class

Margaret Read, front row, centre. Class photograph 1946/7

She was a pioneer in applying social anthropology to issues in the developing world, with a particular interest being the nature of cultural change affecting families and individuals who, having for generations practised agriculture in villages, had become part of the industrial proletariat. She thought that education in colonial territories should not be simply in basic skills, but also in citizenship and social relations, taking account of cultural traditions, and she stressed the need for adequate histories of education in each territory, to provide an objective description of what had happened since the earliest European contacts.

Read was a member of, and advisor to, various governmental, and world-wide organisations. In 1948 she was awarded the CBE for work in connection with colonial education.

Marion Elaine Richardson (1892-1946)

As art mistress at Dudley High School Marion Richardson started to develop a child-centred approach to art education, encouraging pupils to use memory and visual imagination in creating art works. At the LDTC she established a specialist course for students training to teach art. She was one of several subject tutors who challenged the prevailing methods of teaching in schools. In addition to her work in schools and the LDTC, Marion Richardson taught classes in Winson Green and  Holloway prisons.

Her ideas about child centred art education gained international recognition, while her book Writing and Writing Patterns remained in use in schools for some 50 years. A London school, Senrab Street in Stepney, has been renamed Marion Richardson School in her memory.

Sophia Weitzman (1896-1965)

Weitzman had progressive ideas on methods of teaching history and on the contents of the school curriculum which, she felt, had traditionally been overly concerned with political and constitutional matters.  She believed in working from the realities of children’s lives, and saw the value of visits in arousing their interest in history. Weitzman also considered that school should no longer be a forcing house for knowledge, but should prepare children for social living, encouraging initiative and independence.

Her lectures to students on teaching methods spelled out ways in which historical content might be communicated through the medium of active interest, including modelling, drawing, talking, writing and acting of historical plays, historical excursions, films and radio talks.

Like many of her colleagues at the Institute, Weitzman was interested in the educational systems of other countries, and in her later years she devoted much time to work with students who studied Indian education.

Geraldine Susan Maud de Montmorency (1900-1993)

Geraldine de Montmorency’s appointment as the first Librarian of the LDTC was on a part time basis. Realising the restrictions of this, with the help of students from UCL’s School of Librarianship, she worked on cataloguing and on a classification scheme within the subjects. Additions to the stock came from donations of books and material, as well as purchases.

Over the years de Montmorency increased the number of days she spent at the Institute, in 1940 her post was made full time. Both before and after the second world war specialist collections were developed, e.g. in the fields of colonial education, child development, comparative education and English as a foreign language. Although the marriage bar had been lifted some years earlier, the expectation that women could not cope with working and managing home life prevailed, and de Montmorency retired her post at the IOE upon marriage in 1957. By the time Geraldine de Montmorency resigned her post, the Institute Library had grown massively, with a stock over 50,000 volumes, and had achieved an international reputation.

Dorothy Ellen Marion Gardner (1900-1972)

Dorothy Gardner trained as a Froebel teacher, then worked with young children in a variety of settings and as a trainer of teachers and nursery nurses before becoming a part time student on the new advanced Child Development course at the IOE, while lecturing at Bishop Otter College.  As a student she greatly admired Susan Isaacs, the first Head of the new Department of Child Development, and in due course succeeded her.

Gardner became head of the Department of Child Development in 1943. When teaching – which included a course on the needs of young children in war time – resumed in January 1944 it had to take place in the evenings because teachers were unable to get paid leave. In 1948 Gardner established a research centre at Coram Fields: one of its projects, conducted jointly with the Institute of Child Health, was a long term study of local children.

Gardner played an important part in shaping the development of child centred education.   A highly regarded community nursery centre in West London, catering for 100 children, bears her name.

A number of these women recount their experiences in the volume Studies and Impressions, 1902-1952 Harrison, A. S., and University of London.  [edited by A. S. Harrison … Et Al.]. London: Evans Brothers for the U of London Institute of Education, 1952. Print. https://ucl-new-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/f/5qfvbu/UCL_LMS_DS21167882720004761

Further biographical information has been collated from the Institute archives. Extended profiles of most of these women are available on request from the IOE archives ioe.arch-enquiries@ucl.ac.uk

If you have any ideas of who could be included in this list, and why they should be here, please add them in the comments.

Some historical sources on intelligence testing, eugenics and children with special education needs

By Nazlin Bhimani, on 24 August 2020

I have been studying key texts on the history of schooling during the interwar period as part of my research on teacher training in the interwar period. In this post, I highlight some sources from the late 19th century to the end of the period between the two wars that are relevant to the history of special education needs or, more precisely, the history of intelligence testing and eugenics and the exclusion of children with learning difficulties in state-funded schools. Many of the labels used to describe children with disabilities are offensive to us now and it is, therefore, important to consider the use of these within their historical context.

Sandlebridge Schools at Warford

Sandlebridge Schools at Warford

The history of education is replete with references to mental health issues in the legislative acts and books dating from the first half of the 19th century to the recent past. The first piece of legislation that dealt with the issue of provision “for the care, education and training of idiots and imbeciles” was the 1886 Idiot’s Act of Parliament. It was the first time that the UK government had differentiated between those with mental health problems (‘lunatics’) and those who had learning disabilities (‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’). In 1908, the first facility that included children with special needs, and differentiated between the ‘mentally subnormal’ and the ‘ mentally ill’, was Mary Dendy’s (1885-1933) Sandlebridge Colony in Great Warford, Cheshire. Dendy was a typical feminist educator who showed compassion and humanity but this was from the vantage of one who wanted to prevent the degradation of society.  She was an advocate of Francis Galton’s (1822-1911) eugenic theories and her address at the Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics in Manchester in 1902 confirms the similarities of her views with Francis Galton’s. Galton (who was the half-cousin of Charles Darwin) had published his book Hereditary Genius in 1862 and by the early years of the 20th century had begun to question the ‘civic worth’ of the ‘feeble-minded’. Dendy believed that the ‘feeble-minded should be segregated in order that their deformities were not perpetuated through marriage into future generations – forced sterilisation was actively promoted by the Eugenics Education Society which many eminent educationalists of the day belonged. In Dendy’s opinion, the ‘degenerate children’ were incapable of being educated in the normal schoolroom and these children should be sent to special residential homes where they would be taught a livelihood to make them useful members of society. Her views are expressed in the 1911 publication Schooling of the Feeble-minded Children.

The debates about eugenics, social responsibility, ethics, religion or the ‘biosocial’ (genetic dispositions) aspect of race continued during the early part of the 20th century and several reports were published by the Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded (set up in 1904) which culminated with the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. This Act ensured the institutionalisation of the “feeble-minded’ and “moral defectives” such that they were removed from the institutions established as part of the Poor Law – thus incorporating and advancing the ideas of the eugenicists. John and Samuel Wormald’s Guide to the Mental Deficiency Act, 1913: containing a legal and general exposition of the Act, with suggestions to the local authorities, managers and others for the organization and administration of the work dealing with the mentally defective  is held in the IOE’s special collections. The Wormalds, father and son, were active in the eugenics movement. John Wormald was a solicitor and for many years the Chairman of the Schools and the Special Schools, Boarding-out and Care Committees for the Mentally Defective in Leeds. The guide was written for those who are “actively concerned about the welfare of feeble-minded or defective persons”:

Imprisoned in our jails, confined in our Industrial Schools and maintained in the wards of our Workhouses are a large number of people who ought not to be there at all, and who are too often only injured by their present treatment, which is both costly and ineffective….The new powers of guardianship will be welcomed by those who are familiar with after care work in connection with these children. Very often such children will never need institutional treatment if these powers be wisely exercised but they will need the guiding and protecting hand whose continued presence the Act makes possible. … They will afford scope for the noblest exercise of the religious spirit, in training, tending and cheering lives, which at present are needlessly darkened, but which are capable of a real, though it may be a limited development; and are keenly sensitive to many simple joys of which they are now deprived (Wormald & Wormald, 1913, p. vii).

The above gives the impression of being quite caring but Wormald’s son Samuel, a member of the Eugenics Society, later became the notorious Executive Officer of the Mental Deficiency Meanwood Park unit in Leeds. He is remembered today for his often ruthless removal of more than 2,000 people (children, unmarried mothers and factory workers) considered to have a disability from society because he believed that “… by being allowed to repeat their type, the feebleminded are increasing the ranks of the degenerate and wastrel classes with disastrous consequences to the entire community”(Digital Archives of the Meanwood Park Hospital).

George E. Shuttleworth, a pioneer psychologist and Medical Examiner for the School Board in London, did much to promote an understanding of differences between the different types of children deemed to be ‘subnormal’. It was through his persistent efforts that provision was made for children with disabilities. He devised teaching methods and set up “special” schools for children considered to have ‘mental deficiencies’. His book, Mentally Deficient Children was the standard text on the subject and ran to five editions from 1895 to 1922. The British Medical Journal suggested that the book was so widely read that “there can be few psychiatrists throughout the civilised world to whom his name is not familiar”.

In the preface to his book, Shuttleworth explains the various terms used to describe these ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘backward’ children suffering from ‘retarded mental development’. Shuttleworth included in the 2nd edition of his book two additional chapters that give an account of an inquiry on the educational training of children with learning disabilities by a Committee under the Education Department of which he was a member. The School Board for London adopted the recommendations for practical measures proposed by the Committee as did several other school authorities. His advice was that the “mentally-feeble child is specially incapable of comprehending abstractions: all instructions, therefore, must be presented in a concrete form, which it can not only see, but when possible grasp in the hand as well as in the mind” (p. 100). Shuttleworth’s papers are held at the Wellcome Library.

Schooling children with special education needs were also considered by educationalists and psychologists on the Continent. In the early part of the 20th century, the French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857-1911) had been commissioned by his government to find a way to measure intelligence as a way to find out which children needed additional assistance. His theories, and those of his collaborator Dr Theodore Simon, are included in The Intelligence of the Feeble-minded which was translated into English and published in 1916. In this book, we get a glimpse of Binet’s discoveries which he acquired by observing children. Binet and Simon developed the Intelligence Quotients or IQ tests to determine the mental age and ratio of a child’s intelligence. These tests were also used to gauge the intelligence of the men recruited to fight in the First World War. Later in the mid-1920s, ratios for each group of ‘mental defectives’ were set out–idiots had an IQ of under 20, imbeciles were those with a mental ratio of between 20 and 40 and feeble-minded were those that had a ratio of up to 60–these were published in the British Journal of Psychology (July 1926, pp. 20-53).

Other relevant books in the Special Collections include the Feeblemindness in Children of School Age by C. Paget Lapage published in 1911. Lapage was a medical doctor at the Children’s Hospital in Manchester and a lecturer in School Hygiene at Manchester University. His book was aimed at school medical officers, teachers, and social workers who deal with feebleminded children. In Lapage’s view, effective methods of dealing with the feebleminded were of immense importance to the national welfare of the community as “feeblemindedness is an inherited taint handed on from generation to generation, and that every feebleminded person, who is a free and unrestrained agent, may, by becoming a parent, transmit and taint and so affect tens or hundreds of future generations” (p. viii).

The Education of Mentally Defective Children: Psychological observations and practical suggestions by Alice Descoeudres (translated from French into English by Ernest F. Row) was published in 1928. In the previous year, an amendment to the Mental Deficiency Act enabled those who had mental health problems through illness or accident to be included in the group that could be supported in specialist institutions. The book acknowledges the difficulties of working with ‘defective children’ stating that “WE have to contrive in a variety of ways to arouse their [these children’s] interest, to awaken and hold their attention, or develop their will power, to gain their confidence, and to strengthen their characters” (p. 7).

Image of Cyril Burt

Cyril Burt (1883-1971)

Lastly, no list on this subject would be complete without reference to the work of Cyril Burt who influenced the structure of the schooling system in the interwar years with his work on psychometrics or the science of measuring mental capabilities. Burt was the first part-time school educational psychologist to be appointed by the London County Council (LCC) in 1913. From 1924, he was a part-time lecturer at the London Day Training College (which became the Institute of Education in 1932) and in 1931 Burt was appointed to the Chair of the Psychology Department at UCL, taking over the position from Charles Spearman. Burt had been introduced to Galton’s work at an early age and developed mental testing in schools in 1909 whilst working as Lecturer in Psychology and Assistant Lecturer in Physiology at Liverpool University. This work continued whilst he was at the IOE and at UCL. His belief that the innate intelligence of children could be measured to judge their capabilities is demonstrated in the book  Mental and Scholastic Tests published in 1921. His initial report for the LCC on The Backward Child was published in 1923 but the most influential work was his The Young Delinquent (1925) which established the acceptance of psychometrics and its hegemony for pedagogy for the future decades.  Evidence of his thinking is presented in The Subnormal Mind which was published in 1935.

The above sources are examples that illustrate that eugenics was prevalent and permeated educational thinking in the early 20th century. The marginalisation of children continued in the interwar years (albeit in a less draconian manner) for if children did not fit the norm in terms of their mental or physical capabilities, they were segregated in the schools or excluded altogether.
If you would like to view any of the texts mentioned above, please contact the team at the IOE Library.

Books, buildings, and people: an exhibition on the making of UCL Library Services

By Helen Biggs, on 28 November 2019

How do you make a library? In our current exhibition in UCL’s Main Library, we suggest that all it takes is three basic ingredients: books; somewhere to keep the books; and people to read and look after the books. Nice and easy… right?

Of course, From Small Library Beginnings: A brief history of UCL Library Services very quickly shows us that it’s not that simple. Tracing UCL’s libraries back to the start of UCL itself, we find that a lack of funding meant that the planned Great Library was never built, and the very first library was named instead the Small Library – a diminutive start for a university library service that today supports over 40,000 students.

Buildings need to be built: it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re occasionally difficult to come by. But even at a university, people can be in short supply, too. Certainly, the library doesn’t seem to have ever lacked for users, and one never has to look far to see traces of past borrowers in the form of notes scribbled in the margins of textbooks*. However, staffing a library can be a different matter, and for some 40 years, until 1871, UCL dispensed with the role of Librarian entirely, employing only an assistant – sometimes. A lack of funding was once more to blame.

Page from 'De Situ Orbis', showing handwritten student notes along with the book's own text.

Evidence of library users. (Side note: please don’t write in your library books.) [GRAVES 4.i.26]

That only leaves books. Here, it seems, UCL has been more fortunate. From the beginning a large number of books were donated, bequeathed, gifted and even bought, so while they may not have had a home or been well looked after, they were at least available to be read…

…Until the London Blitz, anyway. The Second World War saw the most precious books and manuscripts in the library’s collections sent to the National Library of Wales for safekeeping. Of those left behind, an estimated 100,000 were lost or damaged when the university was hit during a 1940 air raid.

We’ve been careful to label the exhibition as a ‘brief’ history, and it would certainly be difficult to present a full narrative of the service’s 17 sites and almost 200 years of existence in just one display. But you’ll still find plenty of fascinating stories here: a library bell made from 17th Century parts; the student life of famed librarian S. R. Ranganathan; the rise and fall of school libraries, and the impact of this on information literacy at universities.

For more on these stories and the items that tell them, download the exhibition catalogue, which includes an introduction by Anne Welsh from UCL’s own Department of Information Studies.

From Small Library Beginnings runs until Friday, 13 December in UCL Main Library, and is open to the public on weekdays, 9.30am-5pm.

*Marginalia can be fascinating and tell us a great deal about a book’s use and its previous owners. That being said, please don’t write in your library books.

Three French hens

By Christopher J Fripp, on 5 December 2018

Not quite three French hens, but one French lesson, at the Open Air School in Regent’s Park, c1919. Schools like this were opened to promote better health in children – all lessons took place outdoors whatever the weather, to give students maximum exposure to fresh air.

IOE Archives, reference LFB/24