Birkbeck’s Archive

Archives Hub feature for October 2020

Birkbeck was founded as the London Mechanics’ Institute on the evening of the 11th November 1823, when approximately 2,000 people listened to Dr George Birkbeck speak on the importance of education for working Londoners at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand.  Supporters there that evening included Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher and originator of Utilitarianism, Sir John Hobhouse, a Radical MP who held several important government posts across his career, and Henry Brougham, a liberal MP, anti-slavery campaigner and educational reformer.

George Birkbeck, founder of Birkbeck painted by Samuel Lane circa 1825, Birkbeck Image Collection.

Birkbeck has been transforming lives by helping people access higher education for nearly 200 years. This year, 2020, we celebrate our 100th anniversary of our membership of the University of London. When Birkbeck joined the University of London, it was on the condition that it should continue to provide evening teaching, and this remains our central mission.

The Library at Breams Building, Chancery Lane, Birkbeck Image Collection.
The Library at Breams Building, Chancery Lane, Birkbeck Image Collection.

As we move toward our 200th anniversary in 2023, part of the Birkbeck archive was rediscovered in an offsite storage facility. This has proved to be a rich source, not only providing insights not into our institutional history but also stories of both staff and students allowing us glimpses into their lives. We now find ourselves in the position of having two sections of the archive, each telling our story from different perspectives.

One section of the archive is held in the main Birkbeck building and is comprised of records pertaining to the history of Birkbeck from an organisational context, including minutes of various committees, published student journals and newsletters, annual reports, calendars, early student registers and staff information. 

Birkbeck College, Courses of Study front cover. Birkbeck Image Collection.
Birkbeck College, Courses of Study front cover. Birkbeck Image Collection.

The second section is held offsite and is made up of a range of material including; war correspondence, departmental papers, estates documents, all of which demonstrate Birkbeck’s unique aim and how that aim has held strong through changing political, economic and cultural times.

To date one Birkbeck academic, Professor Joanna Bourke, has explored this material, along with two of her PhD students. They have found it to be an excellent source for their research. One of the themes that runs through the archive is around trends in education such as educational policies and practices. This includes charting the life cycle of different academic disciplines as well as documenting different approaches to teaching and the broader aspects student life.

Art class at the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, Breams Buildings, circa 1915, Birkbeck, University of London. Birkbeck Image Collection.

Like many university archives, we have records of notable Birkbeckians who worked or studied with Birkbeck. We can now develop more of a picture of the lives of people such as; JD Bernal (Crystallography), Eric Hobsbawm (History), Nikolaus Pevsner (History of Art), Helen Gwynne-Vaughan (Botany). We can also learn more about those who were less well-known who studied here and made an impact like the playwright Arthur Wing Pinero and socialist, women’s rights activist Annie Besant. The library is creating an online timeline to highlight the life and work of various Birkbeck academics as part of the celebrations in the lead up to our 200th anniversary.

Helen Gwynne Vaughan in her Botany Laboratory with students circa 1923, Birkbeck, University of London. Birkbeck Image Collection.

In terms offering different perspectives, this part of the archive also holds accounts of the wider Birkbeck community, beyond the academic staff and students, those members of staff working in catering and hospitality roles, administrative staff, laboratory technicians. This provides an opportunity to explore social history through those lived experiences documented through various formats, such as letters and photographs.

It’s an exciting time at Birkbeck as we continue to uphold the ethos and pursue the central mission of providing access to education for all. Birkbeck is still London’s only specialist provider of part-time evening higher education as well as being a world-class research institution. The archive will continue to tell the story of Birkbeck as an institution as well as all those who work, study and research here. You can follow Birkbeck’s journey to its 200th anniversary.

Main Birkbeck Building, Birkbeck Image Collection.

Emma Illingworth
Subject Librarian for Science (Biological, Earth & Planetary, Psychological)
Library Services, Birkbeck, University of London

Related

Browse all Birkbeck Library Archives and Special Collections, University of London descriptions available to date on the Archives Hub.

All images copyright Birkbeck Library Archives and Special Collections, University of London. Reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders.

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