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!