By Angela Withers
In the 1370s, King Edward III (‘the leopard’) gave the land known as ‘Blemunds fee’ to the monks of the London Charterhouse. They left the land alone, renting it out to small holders. Blemunds fee, later to become Bloomsbury, remained as rabbit warrens and grazing patches.
With the dissolution of the monasteries (1536-1541), the Church’s land was stolen by the king and given to the gentry. The monks of London resisted this expropriation of their lands. Enclosure happened nonetheless: the prior of the Charterhouse was hung, drawn and quartered at the gallows in Marylebone, and the rest of the monks were thrown into Newgate prison. Thomas Wriothesley, Chancellor to Henry VIII, ambassador to Brussells and general state bureaucrat, was given the lands of the London Charterhouse, and made Earl of Southampton in 1547, as a reward for his services.
At the same time Lord John Russell was similarly made Duke of Bedford in 1551, and the lands of Woburn (a small Saxon village just off the M1) were gifted to him by Henry VIII. John was also given the Benedictine Abbey of Tavistock in Devon (along with its surrounding villages and lands), and the gardens of the Convent of Westminster Abbey (Covent Garden). With this acquisition, the Bedford estates became substantial.
During the 17th century, in Britain, the fervour for religious dissent spilt over into outright rebellion against the King. The establishment of the English Commonwealth brought the Protestants into a new political framework. Things calmed down upon the King’s return. In 1669 Bloomsbury (still mainly rabbit warrens) passed over to a family whose colonial wealth turned it from a rural commons into pleasure gardens. The daughter of the Earl of Southampton married William Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford. They knocked down the Russell family mansion on the Strand (which overlooked the estates in Covent Garden) and moved everything to Bloomsbury, laying out Southampton Row to connect the stretches of the estate.
The 4th Duke married the daughter of the Earl of Gower, Tory MP, in 1737 (more marriages, more street names). Gower and Russell became politically and financially powerful Whigs (Liberals), and exercised huge sway during the imperialist wars, which secured for the British state the land which is now the Eastern half of Canada and the United States, the Caribbean and Senegal. The boost in the economy of slaves, gold and sugar was headed up from the mahogany tables of the Bloomsbury estates. And with colonialism came the British Museum.
Whilst the revolutionary war waged in America, Bedford Square became a set-piece of classical residences for the gentry. And as the British state colonised the tip of Africa, the London Institute was founded by a group of protestant ‘dissenters’, aspirational and patronising bankers, merchants and colonialists. Not long after the Institute’s establishment, a group of Liberals decided to take this idea one step further: in the creation of a University which would not only educate but also award degrees to non-Anglican men; somewhere which wasn’t Oxford or Cambridge, yet still maintained the royal monopoly.
In 1823 the banker George Birkbeck founded a school for the education of working men, and in 1826 James Mill and others established UCL. In 1836 the University of London was created and given another Royal Charter to grant degrees to the students of both UCL and Kings College London, UCL’s newly established Anglican rival. Meanwhile, John Russell, Duke of Bedford, became the Prime Minister.
The ailing and unpopular King George IV, in financial strain, no longer wanted to pay for the upkeep of the grand collection of manuscripts and early printed books amassed by his predecessors, and donated the volumes to the British Museum, in the process creating the King’s Library.
In the 1850s (as Karl Marx scribbled away in this new library) industrialisation and empire soared. Colonial universities were created in Australia and India through the University of London’s external program; this was concurrent with the establishment of the first Bachelor of Science degrees. They disposed of the core classical education, and opened the way for the biomedical supremacy of UCL.
The copper mines near the town of Tavistock brought in millions of pounds, and Gower Street and then Bedford Way were laid down, until the whole area was a complex of blocks and squares. From the mines to the classical squares, the ordering of science and Empire interwove between the British state, capital and the colonies, making up the tapestry of the new university. It was also at this time that cables were passed under the Thames, new networks of electricity and power criss-crossing the city.
Power shifted away from the gentry and to the new capitalist class in the 1867 Reform Act, and a parliamentary representative for the University of London was created. In the 1870s, this delight in bourgeois freedoms extended to women in Bloomsbury and those throughout the other cities of Britain, and the college of extra-mural studies was founded in 1876. Women were finally brought into UCL on equal terms with men in 1878. Early for universities; a bit late for humanity as a whole!
Edward Holden MP, expressed in 1902:
“University competition between states is as potent as competition in building battleships, and it is on that ground that our university conditions become of the highest possible national concern.”
The Russell family continued (amid the profits from sexual subjugation in Covent Garden, and the toils of labourers in heavy industry) to reshape their lands in the parish of St Pancras until the end of the century. But the family influence ended in 1911 due to death duties. The bureaucrats were standing by, ready.
Sidney Webb MP, at the close of the 19th century, founded both the London School of Economics and the socialist Fabian Society. A part-time student at Birkbeck and then at Kings College London before becoming a barrister, Webb married into money and concentrated on his political career. In 1929 he became Secretary of State for the Colonies under the first Labour government. Webb ensured that the University of London became a teaching as well as an examining university. Unsure about the Russian revolution, but an ardent fan of Stalin, he saw centralisation and bureaucracy as the gifts of the Labour parliamentarians, as much as a move towards egalitarianism. The concept of precarity and hierarchy within the university was not alien to him. Here’s Webb in 1902:
“We must abandon the simple ideal of equality, identity or uniformity among professors, whether of tenure or salary, attainments or duties, time-table or holidays. The principal professors, on whom mainly we must depend for research, should, of course, have life tenure, high salaries and abundant leisure, whilst the bulk of the university teachers required by so extensive an undergraduate population as that of London will necessarily be engaged for short terms, earn only modest salaries, and work at times and seasons convenient to those whom they serve.”
Welcome to zero-hour contract land. Richard Haldane’s influence stretched even further. After WW1, the Government decided, based on his advice, to find a permanent location for the University of London, near to the British Museum. It just needed the Duke of Bedford’s assent. In 1926, while millions of British workers went on strike, Bedford pulled out of the deal. The man who eventually secured Bloomsbury for the University was William Beveridge, then Director of the LSE, and future architect of National Insurance. In 1927 he returned from a trip in America with a cheque for £400k from John D. Rockerfeller, oil magnate and richest man in the world. In 1911, while the Duke of Bedford had been surrendering much of his estates, the biggest company in the world, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil company, had been broken up under US anti-monopoly laws. Two of the subsidiaries were Exxon and Mobil, and another progenitor was a massive charitable endowment policy.
With the profit of oil and railroads under its belt, the first task for the University was the construction of Senate House. Between 1931 and 1937, Senate House was under the reigns of a young architect called Charles Holden, who described himself as an anarchist-communist. A Quaker and a student of arts and crafts socialists, Holden hoped Senate House would reflect ‘the beauty in the soul of man in the industrial age.’ He revelled in the poetry of Walt Whitman and wanted the building covered with sculptures by the avant-garde Jacob Epstein. He thought of Senate House as a building without style: a timeless functionary for its 900,000 books. As war broke out, the study of Africa wass added to Oriental studies, and spies were trained in SOAS’s new buildings.
Whilst capitalist powers combusted each others’ cities, the new Senate House building was turned over to the Ministry for Information. Being the second tallest building in London the roof was used as an observation point. But the post-war recession meant that Holden’s designs for Torrington Place had to be curtailed; there wasn’t the money available to enclose all four sides in grand modernist stone-work. Instead, the brick and steel buildings were erected around the central strip of Torrington Place to house ULU, Birkbeck and the Warburg Insitute.
Nonetheless, while Atlee’s Labour government began to implement Beveridge’s 1944 report on creating full employment and secure national insurance (bringing with it a full and free state administered education system) compulsory purchasing powers brought in by the state after WW2 were used to force more land away from the clutch of the Bedfords in favour of the University, making a total of 35 acres of prime educational real estate between the Euston Road and the British Museum.
The 1940s brought more specialist institutions: Advanced Legal studies, Commonwealth studies, new places for the expanding civil service to train. The University MPs were abolished in the astutely named ‘Representation of People Act’. The Robbins Report went further in its battle of people vs university: everyone, it boldly states, should have a free education. UCL acquired a Space Science Laboratory in 1966 and the new Collegiate Theatre raised its curtains as the student revolts swept through Europe and London in 1968, as barricades burnt for the sake of the Robbins Report’s principles.
In the 1970s, the lands of Woburn Abbey were converted into a safari park by the 13th Duke of Bedford, showing off the rare animals picked up in dilettante travels of his ancestors. While the beasts are caged and tamed, UCL gets hooked up to the first version of the Internet, the US military ARPANET, run through a Norwegian satellite.
As Thatcher comes to power, another figure of hate and vitriol is created: the University of London Vice-Chancellor. Industry is crushed, anti-union legislation increased, and a new layer of precarious agency workers formed. Balfour Beatty – one of the largest construction companies in the world, formed out of, whose money can be traced back to building submarine cables under the Thames in the 1850s, and importing bitumen – is to become the employer of over 300 precarious workers at Senate House.
In 1994 the University eats up the smaller specialist institutes into the Schools of Advanced Studies; at the same time a group of elite university chiefs meet at the Russell Hotel and form the Russell Group, a cartel of fee-fixing and polytechnic quashing. The war between the universities reaches a peak in the new millennium, as Imperial attempts (and fails) to takeover UCL; in 2006 Imperial splits from the University of London, and awards its own degrees. UCL gains that ability a couple of years later, leaving the University of London to stand as an exiled partner in a long forgotten dream. Senate House starts to rot from the basement up.