Author Archives: Katrinah Best

Lillian Penson – scholar and university administrator

To commemorate the College’s bicentenary in 2023, we’re showcasing 200 ‘Birkbeck Effects’ which capture the incredible stories of our vibrant and diverse community, highlighting their achievements and impact on the world. 

Lillian Penson

The University of London’s first PhD recipient of any gender, Lillian Penson went on to forge a stellar career in higher education that smashed gender stereotypes, being the first female professor of history and first female university vice-chancellor in the UK. She spoke eloquently on the need to offer university education for “virtually all comers” with no restriction based on religion, race or sex.

Born in Islington in 1896, Penson was a brilliant student of history at “The Birkbeck”. After a stint at the wartime Ministry of National Service and in the war trade intelligence department, Penson returned to her studies and completed her PhD. Only one-fifth of history PhD students were female at the time. She was a lecturer at Birkbeck for nine years until she left for a Chair in Modern History at Bedford College for Women.

Her leadership responsibilities in education expanded from managing the history department at Bedford College to the top position of Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, the first woman in that post. She was appointed a DBE in 1951.


Isaac Rosenberg – artist and poet

To commemorate the College’s bicentenary in 2023, we’re showcasing 200 ‘Birkbeck Effects’ which capture the incredible stories of our vibrant and diverse community, highlighting their achievements and impact on the world. 

Isaac Rosenberg

Isaac is heralded as one of the greatest of the war poets, reflecting on the horrors of conflict through art and poetry. As an art student at Birkbeck, Isaac won the College’s Mason Prize; though his art career was brought to an abrupt ending when he was killed at the age of twenty-seven while serving in the First World War.

From the trenches on 28 March 1918, just four days before his death, he reflected that “during our little interlude of rest from the line I managed to do a bit of sketching – somebody had colours – and they werent [sic] so bad. I don’t think I have forgotten my art after all.”

Isaac left school at the age of fourteen years but went on to study at Birkbeck in the evenings. Today, he is known for his posthumously published war poems. In one, entitled Dead Man’s Dump, Rosenberg describes, “The wheels lurched over sprawling dead…their bones crunched. They lie there huddled, friend and foemen…Man born of man and born of woman, And shells go crying over them, From night till night and now.”

In the foreword to these poems, fellow English war poet and soldier, Siegfried Sassoon noted how Rosenberg’s poems encapsulated the “hateful and repellent, unforgettable and inescapable” realities of life in the frontlines.


George Birkbeck – physician, philanthropist, founder of the London Mechanics Institute

To commemorate the College’s bicentenary in 2023, we’re showcasing 200 ‘Birkbeck Effects’ which capture the incredible stories of our vibrant and diverse community, highlighting their achievements and impact on the world. 

Born into a Quaker family in North Yorkshire, George trained as a doctor at Edinburgh and founded the London Mechanics Institute in 1823, when thousands gathered on the Strand to hear his ground-breaking speech on “the universal blessings of knowledge.”

His interest in the education of working men started when he wanted a particular machine to be made for his classes in natural philosophy and chemistry which he taught at the Anderson Institution, Glasgow in 1799. At the institution, he started a course of lectures on science, to which artisans were admitted for a low fee.

A pioneer in adult education, George had been struck by the ignorance of the basics of engineering and by the hunger for knowledge from workmen at a workshop visit and promptly opened his classes to mechanics, offering classes on Saturday evenings.

The success of the London institution led to the establishment of similar vocational training schools all over Britain, some of which developed into technical colleges.


Helen Gwynne-Vaughan – dame and botanist 

To commemorate the College’s bicentenary in 2023, we’re showcasing 200 ‘Birkbeck Effects’ which capture the incredible stories of our vibrant and diverse community, highlighting their achievements and impact on the world. 

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan

Helen was Birkbeck’s first female professor and a prominent English botanist. In 1909 she became Head of the Botany Department at Birkbeck and gained her professorship in 1921.

She became the first woman to wear the insignia of a Military Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1918 and was transferred to become Commandant of the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) later that year. In 1919, Helen was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Helen’s professionalism helped to change male attitudes towards women in the armed forces and she would go on to play a pivotal role in forming the Emergency Services, an organisation established to train female officers. Helen was appointed Director of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women’s branch of the British Army in 1938 and held the position until her retirement from military service in 1941.

She is commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at Flat 93, Bedford Court Mansions in Bloomsbury – her London home for almost 50 years.


Leon Wright and Tyson Holmes-Lewis – co-founders of Mentivity 

To commemorate the College’s bicentenary in 2023, we’re showcasing 200 ‘Birkbeck Effects’ which capture the incredible stories of our vibrant and diverse community, highlighting their achievements and impact on the world. 

Leon Wright and Tyson Holmes-Lewis

Leon and Tyson, who both graduated in 2020, co-founded inspirational mentoring and alternative education organisation, Mentivity, in 2016 alongside Tyson’s brother Sayce. Mentivity provides one-to-one and group mentoring for young people to encourage those who might not otherwise consider applying to university gain the knowledge and confidence to do so.

The idea for Mentivity came from their personal experiences of education and youth clubs and, in particular, one mentor who was instrumental in raising their aspirations. Leon was the first in his family to graduate from university, gaining a BSc in Social Sciences, and also had a mentor at Birkbeck who helped him juggle his studies alongside his family and other commitments.

Tyson, who graduated with a BA in Psychology for Education, is one of seven siblings, whose mum kept photos of all her children’s graduations in the living room. Their efforts were recognised when Mentivity was awarded National Mentoring Organisation of the Year in 2019.


Sanjib Bhakta – professor of molecular microbiology and biochemistry

To commemorate the College’s bicentenary in 2023, we’re showcasing 200 ‘Birkbeck Effects’ which capture the incredible stories of our vibrant and diverse community, highlighting their achievements and impact on the world. 

Professor Sanjib Bhakta

Professor Sanjib Bhakta’s world-leading research into tuberculosis, which kills around 1.4 million people a year across the world, is revolutionising the treatment of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (TB). Sanjib’s passion for research arose from his childhood in India, where he saw the effects of debilitating bacterial diseases such as tuberculosis and leprosy.

He has published numerous articles on tackling infectious bacterial diseases and received numerous awards for his work, including the Microbiology Society Outreach Prize. As Assistant Dean (Strategic) Internationalisation and Partnership, Sanjib has also made a huge contribution to Birkbeck’s international student community.


Jo Yarker and Rachel Lewis – occupational psychologists and co-founders of Affinity Health at Work 

To commemorate the College’s bicentenary in 2023, we’re showcasing 200 ‘Birkbeck Effects’ which capture the incredible stories of our vibrant and diverse community, highlighting their achievements and impact on the world. 

Jo Yarker and Rachel Lewis

Occupational psychologists and Birkbeck job-sharers, Dr Jo Yarker and Dr Rachel Lewis lead ground-breaking research into the most effective ways in which to support people to maintain their health and wellbeing and to thrive at work, and particularly those in difficult, stressful or challenging roles or situations.

Their research and work helps organisations and individuals work together so that employees lead productive, healthy working lives. Together they chair the Work, Health and Wellbeing Research Consortium, a collaboration between researchers and employer organisations, national institutions and interested individuals who support research in workplace health and wellbeing.

At Birkbeck, Jo and Rachel have developed the innovative Professional Doctorate in Occupational Psychology and MRes in Professional Practice in Occupational Psychology to engage practitioners in evidence-based practice and supervise practice-led research across the field, as well as helping to provide support to staff who worked through the Covid-19 pandemic.


Mark Robinson, criminal barrister

To commemorate the College’s bicentenary, we’re sharing incredible stories from our vibrant and diverse community, highlighting their achievements and impact on the world. Capturing inspirational people, transformational stories and excellent research, 200 Birkbeck Effects have been contributed by our Birkbeck community and selected to feature on our website, across social media and on campus.

Mark Robinson


Mark’s work, life story, and support for youth justice charities and gang prevention programmes, help to inspire those facing the same challenges he once did and prove that a career in law is accessible to people from all walks of life.

After being raised in care in East London and getting in trouble with the police during his childhood, Mark left school with no GCSEs or A-Levels before embarking on a successful 20-year career as a dance DJ and music producer, which included presenting a show on BBC Radio1 Xtra.

Mark left the music industry in 2012 wanting more from life, before being falsely accused of assault. Forced to represent himself in court when his barrister couldn’t do so because the previous case he was working on overran, Mark’s experience sparked his interest in law and drew him to Birkbeck. He was called to the Bar just 18 months after graduating.


Birkbeck’s First Christmas

Jerry White, Emeritus Professor in Modern London History, takes us on a trip down Christmas memory lane, reflecting on the College’s inception nearly two hundred years ago and considering how Christmas in 1823 might have looked.

Crown and Anchor Tavern

There probably wasn’t much talk of Christmas when the London Mechanics’ Institution was founded at a famous meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, Strand, on 2 December 1823. Unlike today, when Christmas shopping and advertising begins around mid-November if not before, Christmas preparations then only began in mid-December: ‘The note of preparation is now sounding through all the different places of public Amusement, to gratify the visitors to London during the festive time of Christmas,’ the Morning Post told its readers on 19 December, and little seems to have been done up to that point. The weather didn’t help this year, with much of December unseasonably warm and humid till just a day or two before the festival, with a marked ‘mildness of weather in and about London; so mild, indeed is the season, that the writer, on Sunday [the 21st], saw, in a private garden at Hammersmith, a wall-flower in blossom, out in the open grounds….’[1]

A festive marketplace

But once the great day approached then all minds were turned to how Christmas might be celebrated: ‘Probably there is no country where Christmas is more enjoyed by the community than in Great Britain’, patriotic newspapers claimed.[2] The real opening announcement of Christmas to Londoners had come a few days before with the first of two Monday ‘Great Christmas Markets’ at Smithfield, where the country’s cattle farmers paraded their best beasts for sale, knocked down to the butchers of Smithfield, Leadenhall, Newgate and Whitechapel. The markets were packed tight with cattle and sheep, driven on the hoof for weeks before; the animals had their last stop for grazing and rest in the fields of Islington to get them to market in peak condition. Once sold at Smithfield, though, ‘the crowded state of the market’ presented ‘an unusual difficulty in getting the Beast out; their heads are battered by two or three drovers at a time, and their eyes in numerous instances knocked out; and this from sheer necessity….’[3]

Beef was, indeed, the favourite food for Christmas dinner, with turkey (driven in flocks from Norfolk), geese, hams (from Yorkshire, Westmorland, even Westphalia) and mutton (for poorer families especially) also in much demand. So much roast meat could pose a problem to some. ‘There is no period probably when persons sympathize with those who have lost their grinders, more than at Christmas, when stews and wishy washy messes are excluded from the festive board, and the loss of teeth is felt as the greatest misery and affliction.’ Boiled plum pudding, though, could be enjoyed by all, the toothless included, and was a Christmas necessity. Great care was essential in getting it just right: ‘If the plum-pudding, from being too rich, should crumble or break, the misfortune never fails of agonizing and fretting the worthy hostess – all the eyes of the company are instantly and most unkindly directed towards her, as if darting reproach, to add to her embarrassment, and aggravate the calamity.’[4] Wine with dinner for the middle classes was followed by madeira, sherry and ‘good old Port’ after the pudding; in poorer households, beer or porter would have to suffice and the whole dinner might have to be taken to the baker’s shop for roasting in the bread oven, though a plum pudding could be boiled in the copper or in a pan on the range. But probably all homes could enjoy some after-dinner games: ‘hunt the slipper’ a great favourite, and ‘snap-dragon’ in richer families, which involved the unlikely pleasure of snatching almonds or sultanas and raisins from a shallow bowl of burning brandy. In all houses, churches and shop windows Christmas decorations seem to have relied mainly on branches of evergreen, especially holly, and candles, though no doubt the theatres and places of public resort were able to put on a bigger display. Mistletoe seemed a little out of fashion in 1823, no longer said to be hanging from drawing-room ceilings but ‘sent down stairs’ to the kitchen ‘for the benefit of rubicund cooks and rosy house-maids.’[5]

Christmas presents were no doubt personal and varied, just as now. Diaries and ‘illuminated pocketbooks’ were much in demand if the advertisers were to be believed, like ‘Friendship’s Offering; or, The Annual Remembrancer: a Christmas Present and New Year’s Gift for the Year 1824’, at a whacking 12 shillings. Dancing at Christmas was all the rage and many advertisements were directed at helping people look their best: Mrs Bell, of 52 St James’s Street, offered  a ‘variety of novel and beautiful millinery, Head Dresses of almost every description, Ball and Evening Dresses’, as well as her ‘Patent Corsets, unrivalled and universally admired’; W. Rowe, at the Magasin de Nouveautes, 72 Oxford Street, offered an ‘assortment of Trinkets’, ‘just received from Paris’ and ‘adapted for Christmas present,’ like bead purses, red mohair bracelets, bone fans plain and painted, ornamental combs and much else; ‘Rowland’s Macassar Oil’ guaranteed ‘a beautiful arrangement of the Human Hair,’ for ‘the Youth of both Sexes … “To dance on the light fantastic toe”’; and music publishers offered fresh arrangements for solo piano and duets as Christmas presents, like Boosey & Co’s new editions of Rossini and Mozart operas, ‘with Italian words’. And there were Christmas foods on offer as presents, some exotic and reflecting London’s reach as the centre of world trade, like ‘Muscatels, in boxes; new Jordan Almonds … Spanish Grapes, very fine Normandy Pippins in baskets, Guimaraen or Portugal Plums, fine New Smyrna Figs in small drums,’ and much more from Hickson & Co’s Foreign Fruit Warehouse at 72 Welbeck Street.[6]

Dancing and riotous behaviour

Dancing could be everywhere, not just in the homes of the middle classes and above, and could no doubt spill into the streets, which were at their liveliest at Christmas. Perhaps this was the cause of ‘an unusual number of dissolute women brought before the [Bow Street] Magistrates yesterday morning from the watch-houses, charged with riotous behaviour in the public streets on the preceding night [the 23rd]. They pleaded the season in their defence. They had only indulged in a little Christmas festivity. The Magistrates told them that no season could justify drunken riots in the streets; and sent two of the most obstreperous among them to spend their holydays [sic] in Tothill-fields Bridewell – Mary Baskerville for one month, and Ann Davis for fourteen days.’[7] The streets had other dangers too. For a day or two before the 25th, apprentices, artisans of one kind or another and shop assistants would go house-to-house soliciting pennies and sixpences for their ‘Christmas boxes’. This year the ‘housekeepers in and around the metropolis are cautioned against a set of men who go about in the assumed character of Bow-street Patrol, soliciting Christmas Boxes. It is proper that it should be known such persons are impostors, and that the Bow-street Patrol are strictly prohibited from soliciting Christmas Boxes and are liable to be dismissed their situation if it be known that they do so.’[8]

Christmas boxes were one indication that charity was then as now one of the defining characteristics of Christmas, publicly lauded in the press and from the pulpit. Charity sermons were preached everywhere, with particular sections of the deserving poor in view, or for the benefit of charitable institutions like the Magdalen Hospital for ‘rescuing fallen women’, or the Asylum for Female Orphans, both in south London. There was an unusual Christmas tradition in a fast-growing part of west London where every year ‘according to annual custom, a large quantity of bread and cheese was distributed at Paddington Church amongst the poor by tickets; the assemblage was immense: until within these last three years the custom was to throw it in baskets full [sic] cut into square pieces from the belfry of the Church amongst the crowd, but owing to the confusion and many accidents occasioned by the scramble, that custom was abolished and the present mode substituted in its stead.’ This was paid for by an endowment from ‘two old maiden sisters (paupers), who travelling to London to claim an estate, in which they afterwards succeeded, and being much distressed were first relieved at Paddington on that day.’[9] The sisters were luckier than some in London that Christmas of 1823. At Marlborough Street Police Court on Christmas Eve, an ‘elderly woman, who stated that she had scarcely tasted food for the two last days’ told the magistrates that the St Pancras relieving officer had denied her relief until her case went before the guardians of the poor, who would now only meet after Christmas. The magistrate ordered that she be given temporary relief, presumably in the workhouse, until the committee should meet.[10]

christmas scene from 19th century

Pantomimes and Christmas cheer

Of all the pleasures of Christmas 1823 it was the London theatres who offered the richest dose of Christmas cheer. Pantomimes then began on Boxing Day and ran into the early New Year. Very few opened in the run-up to Christmas, in contrast to today’s extended festival, now often beginning at the start of December. But on Boxing Day the theatres – even the grand Theatre Royal, Drury Lane – let their hair down. This year there were Harlequin and the Flying Chest (Drury Lane), Harlequin and the House that Jack Built (Covent Garden) where the action travelled from the London parks to the Tuileries in Paris and back again, Fox and Geese, or Harlequin the White King of Chess (Surrey Theatre, Blackfriars Road), Harlequin’s Christmas-box, or the London Apprentices (Olympic Theatre, Wych Street, Strand), and Doctor Faustus and the Black Demon, or Harlequin and the Seven Fairies of the Grotto (Adelphi, Strand). At the last, all did not go according to plan. Despite ‘some pretty scenery’ and ‘a lively Clown and Columbine’, the pantomime ‘tried the patience of the audience severely through a number of scenes, throughout the whole of which there were not three clever tricks, and those that were attempted were for the most part bungled…. Good humour, however, which had more than once … begun to give way, was completely revived by the introduction of a panoramic view of the British fleet under Lord Exmouth bombarding the town of Algiers, which … was warmly applauded.’[11] The patriotic fervour of a London theatre audience was a sight to behold long before ‘Jingoism’ was ever invented.

By the time the London Mechanics’ Institution opened its first premises at Southampton Buildings, Holborn, late in 1824, this first Birkbeck Christmas was just a faint memory. Among those founders at the Crown and Anchor that December, who would have thought that another 200 Christmases would be celebrated with Birkbeck still providing adult education in London that is second to none?

London Mechanics Institute

[1] Morning Herald, 23 December 1823

[2] Morning Advertiser, 25 December 1823

[3] Cobbett’s Weekly Register, 20 December 1823

[4] Morning Advertiser, 25 December 1823

[5] Sunday Times, 28 December 1823

[6] Morning Post, 22 December 1823 (capitalisation simplified) and Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 22 December 1823 (macassar oil)

[7] Morning Herald, 24 December 1823

[8] Morning Post, 25 December 1823. The Bow Street Patrol were a small force of police run by the Bow Street magistrates, before the formation of the blue-uniformed Metropolitan Police in 1829.

[9] New Times, 23 December 1823

[10] Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 25 December 1823

[11] The Times, 27 December 1823


Birkbeck’s largest cohort of international students treated to a welcome reception

international students seated in a hall

Students from dozens of countries around the world were treated to a welcome reception at Birkbeck’s main campus earlier this month. The event offered the new students, who are part of Birkbeck’s largest cohort of international students, an excellent opportunity to meet and interact with their peers and other members of the College community.

The reception also gave the students an opportunity to hear from the organising team for the College’s One World Festival- a programme of free events which celebrate Birkbeck’s diverse, international culture- and the programme of extracurricular activities planned for the 2022/23 academic year. Colleagues from Academic Schools and Central Services were also on hand to warmly welcome the new international students.

students in lecture theatre

Pro Vice-Chancellor (International), Professor Kevin Ibeh said, “The reception offered an excellent informal occasion to welcome international students who have joined the College’s global family as we count down to the kick-off of our long-awaited bicentenary celebrations. I heartily congratulate these new students on their admission to Birkbeck and would like to assure them of our collective commitment to availing them of excellent learning experience and great memories.”

Another highlight of the Welcome reception was an informative presentation on culture shock led by Counselling Service Manager, Aura Rico. This session shared practical tips on how international students might best navigate cultural challenges and opportunities associated with their new international environment.

Many of the attendees commented on the “best part of the event”- an interactive networking session which closed the day.

A video of welcome remarks by Professor Ibeh and other Birkbeck staff can be viewed here.