Leah Johnston, Cataloguing Archivist (Records), explores documents in the College Archives relating to the history of UCL’s Wilkins Building
We are fast approaching UCL’s bicentenary in 2026 and much of its almost 200-year history is recorded within the documents, plans, drawings, photographs, and ephemera of UCL’s College Archive. The archive spans the period from its establishment in 1824, to the present day, and covers everything from founding deeds to student magazines, along with Council minutes, student registers and files, correspondence, and publications about the university.
As UCL Record’s Cataloguing Archivist, it is currently my job to catalogue some of the many collections we hold. I have recently begun work on the College Correspondence, which covers a variety of matters relating to the early administration of the university between 1825-1890. Although most of this collection has already been processed there are still around 200 letters left to be documented. The collection is often used by UCL’s Records’ team to answer enquiries about the early history of the university so it is important that we know what each letter relates to and where it can be found within the 164 boxes in which they are all stored.
While working on a folder of correspondence from 1827 I came across several letters from the architect, Sir William Wilkins who designed UCL’s Wilkins Building. In 1826 he entered a competition set by the Council to submit a design for the emerging university’s main building. Architects submitted their designs in March 1826 and after much deliberation Wilkins’ design was chosen. As noted by Dr Amy Spencer in her lecture ‘The beginnings of UCL in Bloomsbury: some parallels with UCL East’, this was mainly due to the fact that it offered the largest square-footage for the lowest estimate.
UCLCA/CORR/3076: Letter from William Wilkins to the Council, dated 17 February 1827, requesting that they delay setting the first stone.
In this letter dated 17 February 1827, Wilkins requests that the ceremony of the setting of the first stone be postponed for another month. It seems that due to a hard frost at the time Wilkins believed it would be nearly impossible to break ground and he urged the Council to reconsider the intended date.
Other collections within the College Archive include drawings, plans and photographs of the Wilkins building from its inception in 1826 until the present day, allowing us to trace its history through the decades.
College Collection I 16C: West Front of the University of London, 1828
This print shows how the building would have looked upon its opening in October 1828. Although Wilkins’ estimate was relatively low the university struggled to secure the required funds and as a result the two wings of the building were unable to be built. It wouldn’t be for another 158 years until the building’s quadrangle was completed in 1985, an occasion marked by a visit of Queen Elizabeth II.
The Queen is pictured during a visit to UCL in 1985 to mark the official completion of the Main Quad.
College Collection X 65: William Monk’s etching of the Wilkins’ Building Portico (c.1900-1920)
Over the years the building has become a well-known landmark of the Bloomsbury area and has been reproduced in drawings, paintings, and later photographs. This print is a copy of an etching by the Victorian artist William Monk and shows the distinctive 10 column Portico some time at the start of the 20th century.
In contrast this image taken by UCL Media Services team in November 2008 shows the same aspect portrayed in Monk’s engraving. Although the images are almost a century apart the Wilkins Building has remained almost unchanged.
Colin Penman, Head of UCL Records, writes about the internal documents that sheds light on the history of LGBTQI+ student life at UCL.
In March 1972, Jamie Gardiner, a PhD student in the UCL Department of Mathematics, now a lawyer and human rights activist in Australia, founded the Homophile Society, or Gaysoc at UCL. As far as we know, this was the first gaysoc to be founded in a UK university and affiliated to its student union.
This Thursday, 17 June, Dr Luciano Rila, who – appropriately – teaches in the Mathematics department, will give a talk on Zoom, ‘Gaysocs: a brief and incomplete history’ partly based on the registration file that is preserved in the College archive to help tell that story.
I don’t want to cover the same ground as Luciano, but thought it might still be interesting to share a few images from that file, and why we have these records (and why we don’t have others).
Regarded as an object, the file is as dull as every other UCL administrative file of its time. It’s one of many others recording the registration of affiliated societies, the kinds of societies that students have always liked to form: political and social, serious and frivolous. But this file is a bit different. The title of this piece comes from a letter written by Dick Bishop, Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, to the College Secretary, Arthur Tattersall, demanding to know ‘Who decreed that it is in the general interest that the College should be identified with sexual predilections in this way?’
UCLCA, Secretary 180/155 fol. 6
And J.T. Aitken, Professor of Anatomy, was ‘disturbed … I cannot understand why people should be allowed to make a parade of their aberration’. Tattersall shared these concerns, and involved the Dean of Students, Professor Eric Brown, who wrote to the President of the Union, Pete Johns, about the ‘risk of offending individuals in the College’. Fortunately, Johns declared his absolute opposition to suppressing Gaysoc, suggesting that the authorities should surely be more concerned about those societies that were based around socialism and anarchism, which are dedicated to ‘overturn[ing] the whole fabric of society itself’.
UCLCA, Secretary 180/155 fol. 15
As I’ve said, we have records of a lot of these societies, because there happened to be an established process for authorising them, which meant the central bureaucracy kept files meticulously, with reference numbers, information about who has consulted them, everything properly attached, and every page numbered. They are usually very slim files, containing only one or two pages, just recording the foundation, subscription, office-holders and so on. The Gaysoc file, on the other hand, contains a whopping 22 pages, and it’s not hard to see why: nobody cared much about the Northerners’ Society or the Brewing Society, but some members of UCL were definitely alarmed by the ‘Homophile Society’.
In other words, it’s only where there’s been some kind of trouble that there’s a bit more information. And this is how an institutional archive like the College archive tends to work. We have a lot of registers, minutes of Council and other administrative bodies, staff and student personal files and so on, because that’s our main function. But there are other aspects of life at UCL that, in the past, we were never required to preserve, the unofficial side that would tell us more about how life was actually lived. The Gaysoc file happens to contain a Freshers’ Week programme for 1972, which I think is unique in this series of files:
UCLCA, Secretary 180/155 fol. 7
It was originally preserved as evidence of ‘concern’ about ‘homosex’, but now it can tell other stories, about gay social life at this time, about links with the Gay Liberation Front and Campaign for Homosexual Equality. We are lucky to have in the College archive other material that tells these unofficial stories of staff and student life at UCL: rag mags, periodicals, campaign literature, photographs. But these have come to us in a really unsystematic way, sometimes without any context. For example, we don’t know why we have a copy of this wonderful poster by Alan Wakeman, published by Gay Sweatshop:
COLLEGE COLLECTION C9
or this terrifying account of gay-bashing, in a 1976 leaflet:
COLLEGE COLLECTION C9
We’ve recognised that this has implications about representation in the archive, that doing only ‘top-down’ collecting silences important voices and stories. We have a rich collection in the College archive, but will certainly be doing more ‘ground-up’ collecting to ensure those voices can be preserved and heard for the future.
To learn more about UCL Records, check out their main page. To book a ticket for ‘Gaysocs: a brief and incomplete history’ please visit their Eventbrite page.
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.
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.
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!